There are a couple of general time frames in the baseball calendar that are particularly difficult to write about in an analytical fashion – that May-June period when the season is young, and sample sizes are still small, and right about now. The postseason has recently ended, and hot stove season is imminent. I could simply write an article speculating about the destination of free agents and potential blockbuster trades, only for 95% of the contents to be blown to bits in a matter of days, or I could create a somewhat esoteric diversion. I choose the latter. It is said that a picture is worth 1000 words. How many, then, is a table of granular batted ball data worth?
Each year I calculate my own park factors utilizing granular batted ball data. Basically, I compare the actual results of each batted ball hit in each park to what each batted ball of that approximate exit speed and angle would have produced in a neutral environment. Give each actual and projected event a run value, and divide the actual average run value per 27 outs to the projected average run value per 27 outs, and voila, you have your park factors, adjusted for exit speed and angle.
Below is one relatively simple table within this body of work – the fly ball park factors for the LCF sector of the field. It is based upon one year’s worth of data. Since you are on the Fangraphs site, it stands to reason that you have an interest not only in baseball, but in the data behind the game. Data, standing alone, is quite limited in value. For it to truly be valuable, there must be practical applications that help explain nuances of the game that might be otherwise difficult to explain. I would submit that this one unassuming table can help tell many stories within the numbers, and within the game. Context is a word used quite often around here. This one simple piece of information can help define the context within which our game is played, within which some very expensive, influential decisions will be made in the coming days.
|LCF FLY BALL PARK FACTORS|
|TEAM||ACT AVG||ACT SLG||PRJ AVG||PRJ SLG||MULTIPLY|
The average MLB fly ball produced a .275 AVG-.703 SLG in 2014, but the average fly ball to the LCF sector of the field produced a bit less offense, at .245 AVG-.600 SLG. This one table sparks a number of potential areas for study, which I will narrow down to three for our purposes.
1 – CITI-FIELD – A CAVERNOUS PITCHERS’ PARK?
Ever since the Mets moved into Citi Field, the assumption has been that the park was very pitcher-friendly. After the 2011 season, the fences were brought in and lowered in multiple areas to address the issue. Seemingly still unhappy with the results, another round of fence-shortening is underway, this time limited to RCF and RF. What to make of the information in the above table, then?
Citi-Field has the 4th-highest LCF fly ball park factor for 2014, a whopping 166.9. If you simply go by the actual offensive output on fly balls to that sector, however, you don’t see a whole lot of damage taking the place. The actual .242 AVG-.611 SLG on fly balls hit to that area of Citi Field in 2014 is almost exactly equal to the MLB average. Once you take into account the actual authority of those fly balls, however, a much different picture emerges.
Applying MLB average production for the average speed/exit angle of the fly balls actually hit in Citi Field yields .202 AVG-.449 SLG, easily the lowest among the 30 MLB ballparks. This speaks very highly of the Mets’ pitching staff, but very poorly of their hitters. Here’s a brief example showing how relatively easy it is to do damage to LCF in Citi Field. In 2014, MLB hitters batted .143 AVG-.317 SLG on fly balls hit between 90-92.5 MPH to LCF. In Citi Field, they batted .278 AVG-.722 SLG on such fly balls. There were seven fly ball homers (out of only 68 fly balls) to LCF that left the bat at under 95 MPH in Citi Field. 10 MLB parks had zero such homers in 2014, and six more parks had one.
It would seemingly be very simple for the Mets to identify hitters, predominantly righties, capable of elevating the baseball at 95 MPH to the power alley to their pull side. The club has already done the hard part – accumulating a group of starting pitchers, like Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, Jacob deGrom, and the returning Matt Harvey, who are capable of preventing opposing righty hitters from doing so very often.
Instead, the Mets are once again bringing the fences to the relatively neutral RCF and RF sectors, which had fly ball park factors of 84.1 and 102.1, respectively, in 2014. And for those of you clamoring for multi-year data, the Mets’ LCF fly ball park factor for 2013 was 170.8, utilizing the same method. This is not a one-year phenomenon. When you get down to it, given the emergence of some of their young pitchers, the Mets just might have a surprisingly quick road to contention – get David Wright healthy, and lock in a couple of competent righty bats to join him. In this light, Monday’s two-year, $21M signing of Michael Cuddyer – which also costs the Mets the 15th overall pick in next June’s draft – makes just a little more sense, provided they can keep him physically intact.
2 – THE MARINERS, SAFECO FIELD AND RIGHTY POWER
Speaking of righty power and outfield fence adjustments, let’s take a moment to discuss the Mariners and Safeco Field. The club has publicly stated their need for righty middle-of-the-order bats, and has already been connected to the likes of Hanley Ramirez and switch-hitter Victor Martinez via the free agent rumor mill. The club made a massive outfield fence adjustment prior to the 2013 season, with the most drastic changes taking place in LCF and CF. The table above tells us that it is still incredibly difficult to do damage to the LCF sector in Safeco.
By a large margin, Safeco yielded the least amount of LCF fly ball damage among the 30 MLB ball parks, at .161 AVG-.367 SLG. Now a cynic might say that this might partially be due to the fact that the Mariner hitters make up the lion’s share of the sample. Looking at the projected production columns, however, tells a different story. Hitters made better than MLB average fly ball contact to LCF at Safeco in 2014, with projected production of .250 AVG-.642 SLG. Mariner hitters strike the ball a bit harder than you think.
Not only is it still very difficult to hit the ball out of this part of the yard at Safeco, the shortening of the fences has also made the gaps smaller, and has cut into the number of doubles hit to this area of the field. Safeco had a home run park factor of 50 and a doubles park factor of 73 to LCF in 2014. That would be the lowest LCF homer park factor in the game, and the 8th lowest doubles LCF park factor. Of the seven parks with a lower doubles factor, six had homer park factors above 100. They are small parks that give you the homer at the expense of the double. Only a truly extreme environment severely limits doubles and homers to the same sector of a park.
It is true that the Mariner lineup lists to the left and could use some righthanded counterweight. Enlisting pull-hitting fly ball guys to fill that void is an organizational strategy that has failed many times over. Going back to Richie Sexson, and most recently in the form of Corey Hart, there are plenty of examples of the wrong way to go about balancing the lineup.
There were exactly three 2014 Safeco LCF homers hit under 100 MPH in 2014. There were 21 such homers hit at Citi Field last season. That kind of puts it into perspective. Any righty power hitter the Mariners target needs to hit the ball at 100 MPH to his pull power alley as a matter of course. Hanley Ramirez hit exactly two such fly balls last season. New Met Cuddyer hit one, albeit in limited duty. They might be better served spending less money on the return of Michael Morse to Safeco, provided they take his gloves away at the Oregon border. Morse hits the ball HARD, and uses the opposite field well, a necessity for a righty hitter in Safeco.
3 – THE FENWAY EFFECT
The table above captures all of the majesty of the effect of the Green Monster in Fenway Park. That 277.1 LCF fly ball park factor sure is an eye-opener, and is the primary driver behind the park’s overall park factor. The run-inflating effect of Citi Field and run-deflating effect of Safeco Field to LCF are primarily driven by those parks’ respective impacts on home runs. With Fenway, it’s all about the doubles.
Fenway had below average overall singles, triples and homers park factors of 99, 67, and 98, respectively, to LCF in 2014. It had an overall LCF doubles park factor of 205. That is not a misprint. Once you drill the sample down to just the fly balls, it’s an even more extreme situation, with a 304 doubles park factor. There were 76 fly ball doubles hit to LCF at Fenway in 2014; based on MLB average production at various exit speed/angle levels, there “should have been” 25. No other park yielded more than 31 fly ball doubles to LCF in 2014, and no two MLB parks combined came closer than 15 doubles of Fenway’s total.
The thing about the vast majority of these doubles is…..they’re routine fly outs almost anywhere else. MLB hitters batted .071 AVG-.142 SLG on fly balls hit at 87.5-90 MPH to LCF in 2014. They batted .444 AVG-.917 SLG on such fly balls at Fenway last season. 36 such fly balls – and 15 doubles. That is simply staggering. At 12 other MLB parks – including Coors Field – hitters garnered exactly zero hits on such fly balls in 2014.
This is a big reason that the Red Sox historically have had high team batting averages and doubles totals. A declining Jonny Gomes? Perfect. A thoroughly adequate Cody Ross? Ditto. If Ryan Ludwick finds his way there as his career trails off, expect a revival. Fenway can make great hitters immortal, good hitters great, and Safeco Field Mike Carp into Fenway Park Mike Carp, provided they hit enough routine fly balls to LCF, of course. To put this all into a nutshell – fly balls to LCF at Safeco in 2014 were hit much harder than they were at Fenway. The actual production? .403 AVG-.870 SLG in Fenway, .161 AVG-.367 SLG in Safeco.
Putting together a major league baseball club, not to mention a minor league system, is tricky business. It goes way, way beyond the numbers. Still, within the reams and reams of bundles and terabytes of information, there are some truly actionable pieces of intelligence whose importance cannot be overstated. Above are just a few examples, from one humble table. Obviously, mistakes are going to be made by all clubs – they key is to minimize their frequency and impact. Good process doesn’t always lead to good results, but it does help carve out those few extra percentage points that can truly make an on-field difference.