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San Jose's park a Giant problem for hitters01/24/2008 10:00 AM ET
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
Welcome to Factor Fiction, MiLB.com's new series that takes an in-depth statistical look at ballparks across Minor League Baseball. Here's how it works. Each part in the series will begin with a simple query about ballparks around the Minors and how they play for hitters. Using information from the past three seasons, Factor Fiction will delve deeply into the world of ballpark factors. Where are the best places to hit among full-season stadiums? Which parks are friendlier to pitchers? Why? This is the place to check it out.
Fact or fiction: All parks in the California League are hitters' paradises.
We're in the second week of our four-part mini-series that takes a look at ballparks that seem difficult for hitters to see in. How do we ascertain that a specific park isn't so easy on the eyes? By looking at three different statistical categories: batting average, strikeouts and on-base percentage. The theory was that a ballpark that had a low batting average and on-base percentage as well as a high strikeout rate was tough to see in. Looking at ballpark factors, we came up with a list of the top 15 Minor League parks in each category. Remember that anything above 100 in average and on-base percentage signifies a hitter-friendly environment while anything below means the park is better for pitchers. The inverse is true with strikeouts, with anything above 100 meaning it's more likely for a hitter to whiff there than elsewhere.
We then boiled it down to a "vision quotient." There are a total of seven teams that finished in the top 20 in each category. Assigning points for each stadium's place in the rankings for each category, we're able to come up with a vision quotient. If our hypothesis is true, these would be the toughest places for hitters to see the ball, in order:
Right at the top of the list is San Jose's Municipal Stadium, something you might not expect considering the reputation of the California League as a whole. The lack of offense isn't due to ridiculous dimensions -- it's 320 feet down the lines and 400 to center -- so something else must be going on. How else could a park finish first (or last) in average and on-base percentage factor while landing fifth in strikeout rate?
The numbers tell the story. In 2005, San Jose and its opponents hit .263 at Municipal Stadium and .290 away from it. Hitters whiffed 1,110 times in 4,674 at-bats in San Jose and just 1,064 times in roughly 260 more at-bats elsewhere. The league's collective on-base percentage was 16 points higher away from San Jose.
The trend continued in 2006, with a .247 average in San Jose and a .273 mark in other Cal League locales. Last season was even more extreme (.225 vs. .268). The strikeouts and on-base percentage figures were equally skewed.
As we've pointed out countless times in this feature, though, these are just numbers and we're the first to admit that numbers don't always tell the entire story. Experiential evidence can go a long way towards proving a theory developed from numbers.
"I thought something was wrong with my eyes," said Giants outfield prospect John Bowker, who played for San Jose in 2005 and 2006. "I had them checked, but my eyes were fine. I struggled in San Jose. It is tough to see the ball there."
In 2005, Bowker hit .267 with 13 homers and 67 RBIs overall. Eleven of those 13 home runs, however, came on the road. The outfielder hit .273 away from Municipal Stadium and .260 in it. He fanned 53 times in 215 at-bats at home that season, compared to 55 in 34 more at-bats while traveling.
The 2006 season was even more extreme for Bowker. He hit .284 overall for San Jose with seven home runs and 66 RBIs. In San Jose, Bowker hit .249 with just one long ball while striking out 47 times in 209 at-bats. On the road, he hit a robust .312 with six homers and 53 strikeouts in 253 at-bats. Bowker recalls two causes.
"There's really no hitter's eye there," Bowker said. "There are mountains in the background and the ball comes out of this white haze. Over center field there was a little black-looking tarp. They tried to make it a hitter's eye, but it didn't work. The fences were white, too, with signs right there in center field. For me, it was tough to pick the ball up there.
"Also, the sun would set and these trees would make really bad shadows between the pitcher's mound and home plate. The stadium is small, so it doesn't block the sun and those trees would make some shadows."
Any time a pitcher with any height came to visit, Bowker recalls, it was particularly difficult.
"Guys who were taller [were tough] because they would be completely coming out of the sky," Bowker said. "I remember we faced [6-foot-9 Rays pitcher] Jeff Niemann in his first game there. It was tough to see the ball from him because he was so tall. The ball seemed to be coming right out of the white sky and horizon."
Bowker isn't the only hitter to experience problems at Municipal Stadium. Outfielder Ben Copeland was the Giants' fourth-round draft pick in 2005. He spent his first full season playing in Augusta, which is also a challenging park. In 2007, he called San Jose home. He hit .280 for the season with seven homers and 50 RBIs. He also walked 70 times, struck out 77 times and compiled a .387 on-base percentage.
His home-road splits tell a more complete story. Copeland hit .246 in San Jose and .308 on the road. Five of his seven homers came away from home and his home on-base percentage was 32 points lower than his road mark.
"Right around game time, in the middle of the season -- June, July and part of August -- the sun is in center field. For the first three innings, the sun is there, so you're looking into the sun."
Like Bowker, Copeland recalls having problems with particular pitchers. Especially in those early innings, anyone with a plus fastball could cause fits for a hitter.
"Every once in a while, if you've got a guy throwing hard, you'll be like, 'Wow, I can't see a thing,'" he said. "I remember facing Max Scherzer there. It was his second start. He threw a perfect game for seven innings. We couldn't see the ball."
Scherzer struck out 13 in that game without walking a batter, and after one more dominant start, his California League career was over. Bowker's Cal League career came to an end, thankfully for him, in 2007, when he was bumped up to Double-A Connecticut. The Eastern League can be tough for hitters and the Connecticut Defenders' home is one of the worst (If you recall, in our first Factor Fiction, Dodd Memorial Stadium had two of the worst 10 seasons for OPS over the past three years). But that didn't matter to Bowker, who hit .307 with 22 homers and 90 RBIs this past season, albeit with another fairly dramatic home-road split.
"Obviously, it's easier to hit when you can see the ball and that's how it's worked out," said Bowker, who hit .267 at home in 2007. "They say Norwich is a tough place to hit. For me, it's all about being able to see the ball. The dimensions don't matter to me, so I hit pretty well there."
Answer: Myth. The Lancasters and High Deserts of the Cal League give it the reputation of being a complete hitter's paradise, but it's apparent that few enjoyed swinging the stick in San Jose.
Next week: Bowie's Prince George's Stadium.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.