Welcome to Factor Fiction, MiLB.com's new series that will take 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: The Florida State League is a haven for pitchers and brutal for hitters.
That's the prevailing sentiment. Ask around and you'll get the same answer. The FSL is a great place to pitch and a lousy place to hit. There are a number of reported reasons, from park dimensions to sea air. But how true is it? Let's take a look at the park factors over the past three years (see the methodology box for an explanation of the ratios), sorted according to OPS. Keep in mind that anything over 100 means it's more hitter-friendly, while anything under the century mark means it's a nicer place for pitchers.
Well, what do you know? It turns out that six of the 11 stadiums in the FSL (Roger Dean Stadium is shared by two teams, Jupiter and Palm Beach) have OPS factors above 100. By these numbers, at least, more than half the venues in the league are at least slightly hitter-friendly. There's more to gauging park factors than OPS, though. Five of the parks skew toward hitters in terms of home runs, seven are neutral or better in runs scored and batting average, and eight lean toward hitters or are neutral in RBIs.
It doesn't take a statistician to realize that Vero Beach's Holman Stadium stands out. The 207 home run ratio from 2005-2007 is the top HR factor in the Minors in the same time frame. It means the Vero Beach club and its opponents hit 107 percent more homers (more than double) in Holman Stadium than they did in games at other FSL venues. Vero is at or near the top in just about every offensive stat category in the league and would rank near the top in the Minors.
There are plenty of individual numbers that back these figures up. In 2005, 161 home runs were hit in Vero's home games, but just 72 in its road matchups. In 2006, the figures were 158 and 65. Even last year, with a change in organization from the Dodgers to the Rays, the difference was 137 to 74. Back in 2005, Matt Kemp exploded on the scene by hitting .306 with 27 home runs and 90 RBIs for the Vero Beach Dodgers. A closer look at his season showed he hit 22 of those long balls at Holman and just five on the road. Dodger third base prospect Adam LaRoche had a monster season in '05 as well, hitting .333 with 21 homers and 51 RBIs in just 63 games. Sixteen of his homers came in Vero and just five away from the friendly confines. It's not just the Dodgers. Look at Sergio Pedroza, who hit 22 homers for the Vero Beach Rays this past season: 15 at home and seven on the road.
It works for pitchers, too. The Dodgers' Danny Muegge served up 11 homers at home in 2005 but didn't give up a single long ball on the road. Chuck Tiffany, now with the Rays, gave up 17 homers that season, 13 in Vero.
"It's just like every other park; you want to keep the ball down," said Tiffany, who's missed the better part of the past two seasons with shoulder problems, but is now healthy and looking forward to Spring Training with Tampa. "The difference in Vero is, if the ball is up, it's a short park, so the ball goes out. At times, the wind really did carry it and since it was a small field, the ball would go out if you kept it up.
"It's a great lesson. It teaches you to pitch better, to work down. When you have a bigger field, you get lucky at times. There's no deep part there, it carries really easily."
When the Rays switched their Class A Advanced affiliate to Vero Beach after seasons at Visalia and Bakersfield in the hitter-friendly California League, Tiffany warned his teammates that they weren't moving into a park that fit the FSL stereotype.
"I told them my numbers and mentioned it's a smaller park," Tiffany said. "They said it can't be as bad as the California League and I told them, 'When you're at home, it's going to feel like the California League.'"
Holman Stadium isn't alone in debunking this myth, especially when it comes to home run factor. Dunedin's Knology Park weighed in with a 130 in that category. Blue Jays outfield prospect Ryan Patterson played there in 2006, hitting 19 homers in 84 games. Ironically, his 6-for-6, three-homer, nine-RBI game came in Vero. But of his 16 remaining dingers, 11 came at Knology.
"I think the west of the FSL is a lot easier to hit in than the east," Patterson said. "Dunedin and Clearwater were pretty good to hit in. I think what people think of is places like Lakeland and Tampa, which are pretty tough." Overall, Lakeland doesn't seem to be such a bad place to hit, but Patterson recalled being there for the 2006 All-Star Game and during the early stages of the day, it was impossible. While Tampa is just slightly leaning toward pitchers in OPS factor, the home run ratio backs up what Patterson says about it. A 90 speaks volumes about just how hard it is to hit the ball out there.
"I thought Tampa was the toughest place to hit," Patterson said. "I didn't see the ball real well there and you couldn't hit the ball out, other than down the line. Dunedin and Vero were the two places you could go out to center easily."
There is the other side to the coin, of course. Roger Dean Stadium is the worst place to hit in the league and finished near the bottom in comparison with every other park in the Minors. It's striking to look at its home run factor of 57 compared to the hefty 207 mark in Vero. What makes the numbers even more effective is the fact that they carry double the weight. Two teams -- the Marlins' Jupiter Hammerheads and St. Louis' Palm Beach Cardinals -- both call the pitchers' paradise home. Cards outfielder Joe Mather hit 16 homers in 2006 playing for Palm Beach and finished the year with a .788 OPS. Last year, he exploded with 31 homers at Double- and Triple-A and had a combined .879 OPS. Maybe that's the real reason why the Cardinals chose to skip two of their better hitting prospects, outfielder Colby Rasmus and catcher Bryan Anderson, over Palm Beach straight to Double-A Springfield in 2007.
What does this mean for pitchers? Just look at the Marlins' all-first-round rotation that began the 2007 season in Jupiter. Brett Sinkbeil, Chris Volstad, Aaron Thompson and Ryan Tucker gave up a combined 19 homers on the road last year. When taking the mound at Roger Dean, they yielded just five. Volstad, the 2006 first-round pick, had a 3.22 ERA in 12 home outings, 6.24 in nine road starts, while seeing his batting average against go from .251 at home to .345 on the road.
Numbers like those -- and from the bottom portion of the chart overall -- give the FSL its reputation. It is not a complete picture, just like calling the circuit a hitter-friendly league based on the stats from Vero and Dunedin would be unfair. In the end, when looking at all 11 venues in Florida as a whole, the league seems to average out to just about neutral. Both the numbers and the experiential evidence point to there being as many, if not more, decent places to hit in the FSL than anyone would have admitted.
That likely won't stop people from continuing to make the assumption. Reds first base prospect Joey Votto came into the FSL on the heels of an outstanding 2004 campaign in the Midwest League. Things didn't go too well for Votto in Sarasota as he hit just .256 and finished with a .755 OPS (compared to .945 in 2004). Many chalked it up to the difficulties of hitting in the pitching-friendly Florida State League. The numbers, however, say that Sarasota was a pretty good place to hit and Votto, who bounced back in 2006 and 2007 to put him on the cusp of winning a big-league job in 2008, backs the figures up with his own opinion.
"From my perspective, it was not a bad place to hit at all," Votto said. "The International League was a far tougher place to hit than the FSL. I'll be honest with you, [my 2005 season] had nothing to do with the ballparks. I felt that was my favorite league to play in. Vero and Clearwater were pretty good places to hit. Dunedin wasn't bad, but the wind blew in at times. On the other perspective, there were some big ballparks. Fort Myers was really big and I hit some balls there I thought were going out, but didn't. Tampa was like that, too. And the largest park I ever played in was Roger Dean. It took a cannon to get it out of there. I hit an opposite field homer there and no one had any idea how I hit it out. I had no idea how I hit it out. That park was enormous."
Patterson agrees with Votto, believing the reputation the FSL has is at least slightly unwarranted. "I had heard that when I was going to play there, that my numbers were going to go down," Patterson said. "But when I was there, I kind of liked hitting there. As a hitter, we'd rather hit where it's hotter. The ball seems to carry better when it's hotter. That's why I liked to hit there because it's pretty warm all the time. There's some wind, but it seems the wind blows in your favor [most of the time]. I played at one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the league, but even on the road there weren't too many bad ones.
"I think it was a little bit of a myth. I think the Eastern League was a lot tougher to hit in than the Florida State League."
Answer: Fiction. While parks like Roger Dean Stadium in Palm Beach and even William H. Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers support the notion that the Florida State League is a pitching paradise, the truth is that there are just as many, if not more, stadiums that favor hitters or are at least neutral, than there are that help pitchers.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.