Assessing the Blue Jays’ Fancy “New” Digs

Our oddball 2020 season has featured a lot of strange sights and next week, we’ll get another one, when the Toronto Blue Jays stage their home opener (or at least, their first home game not played in another major league team’s park) in another country. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shall we say mixed success the United States has had combating the spread of the virus, Canada refused to grant the exemptions needed for the Blue Jays to play their season in Toronto.

“Based on the best-available public health advice, we have concluded the cross-border travel required for MLB regular season play would not adequately protect Canadians’ health and safety,” Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship said Saturday in a statement. “As a result, Canada will not be issuing a National Interest Exemption for the MLB’s regular season at this time.”

Canada’s statement seemingly leaves open the possibility that the Blue Jays could come home for a theoretical postseason series if the environment is more favorable. But that would be a few months away, so Toronto’s next home game will be played — or at least is scheduled to be played — in upstate New York rather than the Queen City. And when I say upstate New York, I mean upstate New York; we’re leaving behind the pizza, bagels, and pastrami of the city for beef on weck, grape pies, steamed hams, Buffalo’s eponymous chicken wings, and Sahlen Field, which is usually home to Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate and this year will host the migratory Jays.

How does Sahlen Field play compared to major league parks, you ask? Aesthetically, it’s a mixed bag. As my colleague Jay Jaffe wrote when news of the Blue Jays’ plan broke in late July:

Sahlen Field is a 16,600-seat park that was built in 1988 and was already in use as the Blue Jays’ alternate training site for their non-roster players, who will now move to Rochester, home of the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. Originally known as Pilot Field, Sahlen Field was designed by HOK Sport (now Populous), which ushered in the retro-classic architecture that would soon become common among a wave of new ballparks — including Camden Yards itself, which opened in 1992 and which HOK was involved with as well. The park isn’t yet big-league ready, presenting what Shapiro called “infrastructure and player-facility challenges” to get up to major league standards. The lighting will have to be upgraded to comply with MLB standards for broadcasting purposes (it’s fine from the standpoint of player safety), while the clubhouse is too small for sufficient social distancing, so the team will have to set up players’ lockers in suites. The batting cages, bullpens, weight rooms, training rooms and other amenities will all need upgrades as well.

Of course, the most analytically-relevant question comes down to how the park will actually play. Without unusual park characteristics, altitude, or climate, Sahlen’s generally been fairly neutral in terms of park factors. The Buffalo Bisons play in the International League, which has generally been the more offensively “normal” of the Triple-A leagues. This contrasts with the Pacific Coast League, the offense-mad circuit with a plethora of stadiums at high elevations and with sky-high park factors.

Compared to other International League venues, Sahlen has been a mild pitchers’ park in recent years. ZiPS uses four-year park factors, slightly weighted toward the most recent season, in its calculations. With 100 being a neutral field and 110 being a park that increases a given statistic by 10%, my data has Buffalo’s park factors as 96 for runs, 100 for all hits, 95 for doubles, 96 for homers, and 95 for walks and strikeouts, with nearly even splits for lefties vs. righties.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as declaring those the park factors and calling it a day. It’s unlikely to be a terrible projection for the park effects in the majors, but it’s a bit lazy to not go further. Park factors only measure stadium effects relative to the rest of a league, making them a bit tricky to use for league-to-league comparisons. Imagine if the International League played all its games at Coors Field. The league’s teams would all be playing in a neutral park relative to each other, but Coors Field is a decidedly un-neutral park in terms of its playing environment!

In the past, when I’ve tried to take a guess at how completely new stadiums are going to play, I’ve applied a generalized model that uses park characteristics like distances, fence heights, altitude, and local meteorological data. At 404 feet at its deepest and 325 feet down the lines, Sahlen’s distances are fairly ordinary relative to major league parks, which average around 400 and 330 feet respectively. It is a bit asymmetrical, so it’s mildly surprising I get neutral left vs. right splits for hitters. Starting with the Google Maps satellite image of the stadium, I made a graphic showing the basics of the Sahlen layout:

From the park characteristics, my model guesses that in the majors, Sahlen would naturally have a 102 park factor for runs, 102 for all hits, 101 for doubles, 103 for home runs, and 99 for walks and strikeouts, with slightly more doubles and triples from left-handed batters. The only problem is that there are errors inherent in this kind of approach because parks are more than just those characteristics. Things like the hitters’ eye and the exact wind currents at the field can wreak havoc on these results. Prior to SunTrust Park’s debut, my model estimated that it would be a slight hitters’ venue, with a home run factor of 107 (111 for lefties vs. 103 for righties). In practice, while it does favor lefty sluggers slightly more than righties, it’s been a slight pitchers’ park in terms of home runs so far.

We haven’t had major league games at Sahlen (well, until now), but we do have a lot of players who have switched between teams and leagues. Undoing minor league translations and looking at every player who changed parks among Triple-A teams, and between Triple-A and the majors, we can get a rough idea of the league vs. league offense that comes down to different parks. Using players over the last decade, I got an estimate that International League parks decrease offense relative to major league parks by about 3%, while the Pacific Coast League parks increase offense by about 10% by themselves. In other words, if major league teams played for a year in PCL parks, we’d expect the league offense to go up by about 10%, assuming no other changes. With these estimates, I can then get an estimated park factor for each Triple-A stadium, should they be transplanted into the majors:

Estimated Triple-A Park Factors as Major League Parks
Team League R H 2B HR BB SO
Albuquerque Pacific Coast 130 113 122 134 98 93
Buffalo International 93 99 93 93 95 95
Charlotte International 117 107 98 164 104 102
Columbus International 102 98 105 130 103 98
Durham International 97 97 100 101 103 111
El Paso Pacific Coast 125 112 115 122 97 96
Fresno Pacific Coast 100 95 96 99 100 99
Gwinnett International 98 103 89 78 98 93
Indianapolis International 86 94 92 70 92 103
Iowa Pacific Coast 109 101 121 104 98 107
Las Vegas Pacific Coast 124 110 114 142 104 97
Lehigh Valley International 101 104 105 98 93 99
Louisville International 101 103 113 87 98 92
Memphis Pacific Coast 99 99 88 109 98 97
Nashville Pacific Coast 98 97 100 78 99 105
New Orleans Pacific Coast 99 95 89 116 92 106
Norfolk International 86 95 100 75 100 97
Oklahoma City Pacific Coast 112 104 107 106 103 100
Omaha Pacific Coast 108 103 102 125 101 105
Pawtucket International 91 90 90 113 103 105
Reno Pacific Coast 124 112 130 105 100 89
Rochester International 101 99 98 100 105 103
Round Rock Pacific Coast 96 95 98 104 101 105
Sacramento Pacific Coast 97 93 91 101 107 108
Salt Lake Pacific Coast 114 112 128 107 100 97
San Antonio Pacific Coast 98 98 109 82 101 103
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre International 106 102 94 106 106 96
Syracuse International 96 98 100 87 101 100
Tacoma Pacific Coast 96 92 88 102 105 108
Toledo International 91 97 101 76 104 110

Using this methodology, I get an estimate of Sahlen Field being a decent pitchers’ park, though not an extreme one. Compared to current parks, mathematically this comes closest to Busch Stadium (Cardinals), then Citi Field (Mets) and PNC Park (Pirates). Assuming that these results prove to be accurate — something we won’t really know given the small sample of half of a short season — that’s the kind of environment I’d expect to see for Blue Jay home games in 2020. It’s a different environment than Rogers, which is fairly neutral overall offensively, but a healthy park for homers.

This won’t be the first time that Buffalo has had a major league team. Previous Bisons franchises played in the National League from 1879-to-1885, the Players’ League in its only season (1890), and as one of the eight teams that made up the also-short-lived Federal League. But unless MLB expands to 128 teams, which strikes me as unlikely, we should embrace Buffalo’s temporary presence in the majors this year. Unlike the possibility of a permanent universal DH or a gulp 16-team playoff field or magical runners on second in extra-innings, this is something you absolutely won’t see again.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

“ 128 teams, which strikes me as unlikely”

What an utterly naive statement. You, my good sir have never negotiated with Rob Manfred! He is very likely to whip out this idea as a means of reducing travel and thereby saving us from future pandemic outbreaks!

Besides, think of the playoff revenue we will receive from a March madness 64 team bracket! $$$$$$

Alex Trebek
3 years ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

Also, I’m pretty sure Buffalo easily makes the cut for the first round of expansion to 64 teams.

3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Trebek

Indeed. Looking at metro areas, it’s at around #50 in the US — just behind OK City, Memphis, and New Orleans, but ahead of Tucson, Tulsa, and Honolulu. Of course an expansion to 64 would almost certainly include non-US cities like Montreal, Monterrey, and Mexico City (talk about park factors!) And quite a few “metro areas” are non-starters because of existing teams. I mean, they all are, really — Buffalo is in Toronto’s “territory” and Portland is in Seattle’s, etc — but some like the “Inland Empire” aka Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, which is something like the 14th largest metro (bigger than Detroit, San Diego, or Seattle), is never going to have an MLB team to call its own. So Buffalo really might even have an outside shot in an expansion to 48.

Ugh, can you imagine trying to schedule or even follow 162 games for 64 teams? More than 5,000 games per season? At least in that scenario allowing 16 teams to advance to the playoffs would make sense.

free-range turducken
3 years ago
Reply to  Joser

After this season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see 64 games for 162 teams! In which case Manfred would probably propose allowing 128 teams in the playoffs.