Why play fair if you have edge?

October 3, 2012 

Less surprising than the news of modified Safeco Field dimensions in 2013 was the announcement’s timing.

After the regular season concludes this afternoon, there will be a 179-day lull – some might call it a respite – for Mariners fans. Why not save the announcement about moving in the fences for a rainy day in November?

Oh, well. Instead of pondering a playoff push Tuesday, general manager Jack Zduriencik was talking about the organization’s goal “to create an environment fair for both hitters and pitchers.”

Fairness is a noble ambition, but in baseball, the idea isn’t to establish a balance that neither favors pitchers nor penalizes them. The idea is to win. Building a team able to maximize its home-field quirks – a tradition that distinguishes baseball from most other sports – is a proven way to facilitate winning.

The long-anticipated plan to move the left-field power alley in by 12 feet seems to be popular. It will encourage free-agent sluggers to consider Safeco Field as something besides a place where flying things die, one theory goes. Mariners hitters, meanwhile, no longer will be intimidated by the sheer vastness of a pitcher-friendly park. On mornings of home games, they’ll wake up liberated, eager for batting practice.

And, hey, if nothing else, at least those dull 2-1 games figure to be more entertaining when the score is 6-5. Entertaining games could spike attendance.

I can’t dispute that over the past few years Seattle hitters, by any statistical metric, have been abysmal at Safeco Field. Their struggles became conspicuous this season because Seattle hitters were, well, not so abysmal away from Safeco Field.

Forgotten in the discussion over the disparity of the Mariners’ home-road hitting stats is the fact the team will finish with more victories at home than on the road, sustaining a pattern: Between 2000, their first full season at Safeco Field, and 2011, the Mariners’ average home record (44-37) was eight games better than their average road record (35-46).

Thanks to the psychological edge that comes with the chance for the last at-bat, it is not unusual for a baseball team to win more at home. But because of the marine air and seemingly unapproachable fences, the Mariners are in position to own an even more pronounced home-field advantage by stocking up on pitching and putting rangy athletes to work in the outfield.

They’ve yet to maximize this advantage, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have.

Readjusting the dimensions of Safeco Field into a “fair” park might help in the recruitment of free-agent hitters, and might placate fans restless for action. It might even spike attendance.

But it also mitigates Zduriencik’s potential to assemble a roster customized to compete 81 times a year in a ballpark that favors fly-ball pitchers and the outfielders with the speed to chase them. And keep this in mind: Every Mariners fly ball that turns into a home run over the new 8-foot left-field wall next season will be answered with a home run they give up.

Maybe my skepticism is misguided. Maybe Dustin Ackley, the .230 hitting second baseman once presumed to be a .280 hitting All-Star, will show up for the 2013 home opener, check out the shorter fences, and find the swing he lost in 2012. Maybe the enigma that is Justin Smoak will be so stoked from pummeling batting practice pitches into the seats that he’ll finally realize his untapped power.

Maybe Chone Figgins …


Anyway, Zduriencik knows his team better than I do. If he suspects the Mariners have developed a phobia about hitting in Safeco Field, and that an adjustment of the dimensions will help solve that phobia, I’ll give him the courtesy of waiting and seeing.

In the meantime, I’ll be following another postseason with the San Francisco Giants on stage. They play their home games in the only big league park that’s more oppressive for hitters than Safeco Field. Some of the fly balls the Giants hit are contained by the thick marine air off San Francisco Bay.

The Giants don’t seem to be bothered by any of this. They’re in the playoffs, with a shot at their second World Series title in three years.

You want to tweak the dimensions, Jack? Your call. You want to turn Safeco Field into a park where fans can dig the long ball once in a while? Go for it.

But there’s an even better way for a baseball team to cope with Pacific Ocean climate challenges.


john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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