The Case for Moving in the fences at Safeco

This article first appeared in the July 2012 of The Grand Salami.

By Jon Wells

“I crushed both of them,” Justin Smoak said after a game earlier this year. “The first one, I hit well. The second one—that’s all I’ve got.”

Smoak wasn’t talking about the Mari­ners’ game on May 30th against Texas, at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, in which he slammed two homers amid a 21-8 romping of the AL West leaders; he was talking about a game against San Diego, at Safeco Field, in which two balls he crushed died on the warning track amid a 5-4 loss to the NL West cellar-dwellers.

162-GAME PACE OF 2012 MARINERS ON THE ROAD (GAMES THRU MID-JUNE)
Batter Avg. HR RBI
Kyle Seager .315 27 121
Michael Saunders .312 27 85
Jesus Montero .302 23 72
Jusitn Smoak .250 31 81
Dustin Ackley .264 18 72
Ichiro .274 13 45
Miguel Olivo .235 18 54

Safeco Field has long had a reputation as a pitchers’ park, but it’s obviously a deserved reputation. The statistics bear out that the ballpark depresses the offensive numbers of just about every player that plays there. And it’s time for a change.

The 2010 and 2011 Mariners had historically bad offenses, scoring two of the lowest run totals in baseball history. Thanks to the good work of General Manager Jack Zduriencik, this year’s team has a much improved offense, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the team’s run totals in their home games. On the road, through mid-June, the Mari­ners were hitting .257 as team, which would be right in the middle of the American League pack: eighth-best. Unfortunately, at Safe­co Field through mid-June, the Mariners were hitting just .193. As a team, when playing in their home ballpark, they’re looking up at Mario Mendoza.

The accompanying tables show the disparity in the home and road statistics for seven of this year’s Mariners. These numbers take each of the seven players’ stats through mid-June and translate them to a full 162-game season, both at Safeco and on the road.

Five of the seven players are 25 or young­er. Kyle Seager, Jesús Montero, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, and Dustin Ackley are a good core for the Mariners to build around and should team with Felix Hernan­dez and a young group of pitchers like Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker to bring a perennial contender back to Safeco Field.
But the development of these young hitters, maybe even their All-Star status, is being stalled by a home ballpark whose dimensions make it one of the toughest places in baseball to hit.

Does it get into the players’ heads? It must. When a young player hits a ball hard and far and all they have to show for their effort is a long out (and a lower batting average), it can’t do much for their confidence.

162-GAME PACE OF 2012 MARINERS AT HOME (GAMES THRU MID-JUNE)
Batter Avg. HR RBI
Kyle Seager .195 12 72
Michael Saunders .217 6 18
Jesus Montero .193 12 66
Jusitn Smoak .200 18 66
Dustin Ackley .218 0 24
Ichiro .253 6 66
Miguel Olivo .133 6 18

“You go up there and you try to put yourself in the best position to succeed,” Smoak told the media after that June 12th game against San Diego. “And you hit a ball like that and it goes nowhere.”

In that loss, no less than four balls hit by Seattle hitters were caught near the fences. All would have been home runs in just about any other ballpark in the Majors.

So what can the Mariners do short of using PEDs? Move in the fences. It’s an idea that’s time has come and is long overdue.

While Safeco has some of the largest dimensions in baseball, the cool climate in Seattle causes the ball to travel a shorter distance when hit than in any other Major League ballpark. A baseball typically will travel approximately 1.5% to 2% further for every ten degrees increase in temperature. Since not much can be done to change Seattle’s climate, the best way to make up for this problem is by moving the fences in 15 to 20 feet.

The reason why Safeco was designed as a pitchers’ park is because in the mid to late 1990s, pitchers were getting some of the biggest contracts in baseball and the Mari­ners had historically had a difficult time getting free agent pitchers to sign when the team played in the homer-happy Kingdome.

But times have changed. With the ster­oid era over, home runs are down all over baseball and it’s now harder to find a big bopper for the middle of the order than it is to find good pitching. Sluggers Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto all signed new contracts worth over $200 million in the last few months, while the contracts given to top-level pitchers has lagged far behind.

Since overpaying to lure Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson to Seattle before the 2005 season, the M’s have been unsuccessful at getting power hitters to come here and a big reason is because of how the ballpark is configured. All the losing the M’s have done the past decade makes it hard enough to get free agents to come to Seattle, but if the fences aren’t moved in, it’s unlikely that the team will have any success at getting a big bat to come here. No one wants to be the next Adrian Beltre, whose glory years were spent sending fly balls to the warning track at Safeco. The year before he signed with Seattle, he had a 1.017 OPS for the Dodgers; the year after he left, he had a .919 OPS in Boston. In his five years in Seattle? His best OPS was .802, in 2007, and overall it was a mediocre .759.

Nobody’s saying that the fences should be moved in 50 or 75 feet to make Safeco a bandbox like the new stadiums in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, but moving some of the dimensions in by 15 or 20 feet would make the ballpark a fair place for pitchers and hitters.

While opponents of moving the fences say that it won’t help the Mariners win more games because opposing hitters will also hit more home runs, Mariners pitcher Jason Vargas says he thinks it would help the team: “I think moving in the fences would benefit us a great deal because it would give our hitters more confidence and make them more comfortable at the plate.”

Several other teams have recognized the need to make adjustments to their parks’ dimensions. The Detroit Tigers and the New York Mets both moved their fences in in recent years and the San Diego Padres announced in April that they were seriously considering moving in the fences at pitcher-friendly Petco Park, where the Padres have scored the second-fewest runs in baseball this year. Padres CEO Tom Garfinkel said “I do believe it (Petco) is too extreme right now. A hitter should be rewarded if he crushes the ball. Baseball is a match between the pitcher and the hitter. We’ve seen a number of times here where the hitter wins that battle and gets nothing to show for it.” Garfinkel added, “The ballpark should play fair. If a team is down 4-0 they should feel there is some hope. It’s just too extreme.”

The ultimate goal for the Mariners should be about winning games and getting back to the postseason, a place Seattle hasn’t been in eleven years. Changing the dimensions of Safeco Field and making the park play fair will go a long way towards helping the team have more success.

It’ll also be a lot less boring.