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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: Tri-City's Dust Devils Stadium is not the best place for a hitter to get his introduction to pro ball.
As the Factor Fiction concept has been developed, we've spent considerable time turning the numbers this way and that to see what comes out. During that process, it's been noted there are certain parks that seem to have some correlating numbers. Several, over the past three years, have had very high strikeout rates for hitters. Combined with low average and on-base percentage factors (see the Methodology box in previous Factor Fiction stories for an explanation), it appeared that there must be something about those parks that makes them tough to hit in.
Well, not just tough to hit. If hitters were striking out at a high rate, not getting hits at a reasonable clip and not drawing many walks, perhaps it was tough for hitters to see at these stadiums. The factors looked something like this, with the top 15 in three categories listed:
That's a lot of information to take in, so let's boil it down a little more. 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 the hypothesis is true, then these would be the toughest places to see the ball for hitters, in order (We've added an eighth team that finished outside of the top 20 in one category for reasons that will be explained momentarily):
There's so much information to go through that we decided to break this into a four-part mini-series of sorts, looking at one park in a different classification each week. Here's how it will break down:
Now you know why Bowie was added. But enough with the rundown. Let's dive into the nuts and bolts of Dust Devils Stadium. Located in Pasco, Wash., and short-season affiliate of the Colorado Rockies in the Northwest League, Tri-City has long been a really rough place to hit. Pick just about any offensive category and Dust Devils Stadium rates near the bottom. For the purposes of this exercise, it's important to know the ballpark had the highest strikeout factor, second-lowest batting average factor and placed 13th on the lowest OBP factor list.
Things like batting average and power numbers can be explained by large dimensions or wind blowing in consistently. Many people we talked to mentioned that the grass was always extremely high at the park, perhaps contributing to low numbers in some categories. But with a strikeout factor of 121 and an OBP factor of just 94, something more was amiss. Why haven't hitters there been able to make contact more regularly?
"The backdrop," Rockies first base prospect Joe Koshansky stated simply. "The batter's eye is not very big. You'd lose the ball pretty easily in the sky and landscape in the background."
Koshansky made his pro debut with Tri-City in 2004. Overall, he had some difficulty making the transition to the pro game, hitting .234 with 12 homers and 43 RBIs. He had a .322 OBP and struck out 84 times in 66 games. Take a closer look and you'll know what Koshansky is talking about. The first baseman hit .267 on the road with eight home runs and 43 strikeouts in 135 at-bats. At home, he managed just a .192 average with four homers and 41 Ks in 104 at-bats. Clearly, home cooking didn't suit Koshansky well.
"It was definitely difficult to pick up the ball, especially early in the game," Koshansky said. "I had more success later in the game. Early, the ball was the same color as the sky. It's a little frustrating, not being able to see right out of the chute like that. You feel you're at a disadvantage for no good reason. You're getting used to swinging the wood bat, making the transition to pro ball, [the batter's eye] just made it more difficult."
He obviously isn't alone. The Dust Devils have inhabited the stadium since Koshansky's season in 2004, and each year has seen less-than-thrilling offensive output. In 2005, teams playing in Dust Devils Stadium hit a combined .236 (compared to .264 in Tri City's road games). Hitters struck out 101 more times in 67 fewer at-bats in Tri-City than away from the park. The following season was even more extreme, with a .210 average at home and .253 mark on the road. There were 733 strikeouts in 2,503 at-bats that summer in Tri-City; 595 K's were recorded in 2,575 ABs on the road.
Like Koshansky, Daniel Carte remembers his 2005 season in Tri-City less than fondly. Carte had put himself on the draft map with a strong Cape Cod season in 2004, using wood, so clearly that wasn't the issue. He hit just .225 with a .302 OBP for the season, but his home-road split was even more pronounced than Koshansky's. Carte, an outfielder, hit .264 on the road, with 29 K's in 125 ABs. At Dust Devils Stadium, he managed just a .172 average, whiffing 37 times in 93 at-bats.
"There wasn't a batter's eye or even trees or mountains," Carte said, echoing Koshansky's description. "The eye was the horizon. It was impossible when the sun was going down. That first AB before the sun went down was the toughest. If you could get through that one, the rest of them really weren't that bad.
"Most of the games there were low-scoring. The first couple of times through the order, everyone struggled. Our pitchers had an excellent summer, so it goes both ways."
For a young hitter, though, trying to make a good first impression, trying to hit in such a venue took its toll. Carte said that with every bad at-bat, the pressure mounted mentally.
"It's a tough place to hit, no question, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't get in my head a little bit," he said. "It was frustrating and I made it worse than it needed to be. A lot of it was in my head."
Even so, it's clear the batter's eye was a problem for all hitters. Just why was the stadium built with such a small area in center field to help hitters? Originally known as Tri-City Stadium, it housed an independent league team, the Posse, starting in 1995. The Rockies came in 2004 and a new ownership group took over in 2005. This group obviously wasn't around when the stadium was constructed, but there are some theories.
"The orientation of the stadium was so that it would be facing the river," said Dust Devils president Brent Miles, part of that newer ownership group. "There are some nice views of the river, it might have had something to do with that. It was also built for an independent league team, so they didn't have any [National Association] guidelines you had to meet. They probably didn't know what they were doing, either."
Both Koshansky and Carte have been able to shake off the Tri-City effects and performed well higher up the Rockies' chain. Koshansky's career average in the Minors stands at .282 and his OBP is up to .365. He's hit 90 homers over the past three years and got his first big-league callup last September. Carte's success has been more moderate, though he's hit 14 homers in each of the past two seasons, picked the batting average up to .261 and the OBP to .324.
Both have seen a variety of stadiums at various levels of the Minors with varying degrees of dimensions and sight lines. Koshansky maintains that the batter's eye issue, while extreme during his pro debut, was not something exclusive to Tri-City.
"I guess it's more difficult than you'd think, having a good batter's eye," Koshansky said. "You'd be surprised how many across Minor League Baseball aren't big enough, aren't wide enough. If the batter's eye was increased, it would be an improvement."
Funny he should mention that. Prior to the 2007 season, the Dust Devils did just that, making it four feet higher and four feet wider.
"We bought the team three years ago and have been steadily making improvements," Miles said. "The Rockies had mentioned that one and it came off the list last year. Batting average at home increased fairly significantly. I think that was a factor."
Indeed. In 2007, teams hit a much more robust .255 at Dust Devils Stadium, compared to .266 in Tri-City games away from home. The .332 on-base percentage mirrored the stat in road games. There were still 110 more strikeouts at home than on the road, but the rate was better than it had been in the past, with nine more at-bats at home than on the road. To put it in the context of our park factors, Dust Devils Stadium scored a 96 in average (compared to 89 and 83 in 2005 and 2006, respectively). The strikeout factor was still a pitching-friendly 116, but an improvement from the 120 and 126 marks of the previous two seasons. And the 100 on-base percentage ratio is neutral, a huge step from the 93 and 90 of '05 and '06.
It's amazing what 16 square feet can accomplish.
Answer: Fact, to put it mildly. Thanks to a bad batter's eye (dimensions and tall grass didn't help, either), Dust Devils Stadium has been an extreme pitcher's park for years. Enlarging the backdrop in center helped even the playing field a bit in 2007, but it's likely Tri-City will always be a place pitchers like more than hitters.
Next week: San Jose's Municipal Stadium.
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.