In addition to our weekly Toolshed column, every Tuesday during the first half of the offseason our new Toolshed Stats series will use advanced statistics such as ISO, FIP, Spd and park factors to better understand prospect performance during the 2016 Minor League season.
As tempting as it may be to make side-by-side comparisons of prospect stats, there are myriad factors that must be taken into account when evaluating performance, including a player's age, Minor League level, skill set and -- as will be explored over the next few weeks -- ballpark effects, starting this week with Triple-A.
It's no secret the International and Pacific Coast Leagues have very different reputations. The PCL is known as one of the best offensive environments in the Minors. As shown in the first table below, the league ranked first in home runs per nine innings among the 14 domestic non-complex-level circuits, second in hits per nine and fourth in runs per nine. The IL placed no higher than sixth in the three categories.
The other tables below show the park factors of each Triple-A stadium, from most offensive-friendly to least in terms of runs scored. A perfectly average park is considered 1.000. Everything above favors offense. Everything below tilts toward pitching. This is derived by taking runs scored and allowed by the team's roster per home game and dividing them by the amount of runs scored and allowed on the road (same for home runs and hits).
Which brings us to two peculiar cases -- Colorado Springs and Columbus.
The former plays at Security Service Field, which sits 6,531 feet above sea level and is the highest ballpark in the country in terms of elevation, more than 1,000 feet higher than Coors Field in Denver. Given the way a baseball is known to soar in high-altitude environments, it'd be expected that the home of the Sky Sox would produce lots of offense, and indeed it does. Security Service Field has ranked first in both run and hit factors in Triple-A over the past three seasons, even after the use of a humidor to keep baseballs in atmosphere-controlled conditions.
However, the park actually tilts toward pitchers when it comes to long balls with a 0.938 home run factor in 2016 and 0.970 over the past three seasons. The stadium does go long down the lines at 350 feet to both right and left fields, extending out to 410 in center, but Mother Nature has perhaps the biggest say in who gets to leave the yard in Colorado Springs.
"Offensively it's a bit of a wash," said Sky Sox manager Rick Sweet. "Yes, the ball travels more because of the altitude, but the way the wind blows in, it kind of negates all that. Coors Field doesn't have the wind we play against. It's constant. It's usually blowing 12-15 mph in. Something like that keeps our guys focused on hitting line drives instead.
"You notice it even more in batting practice. If there's no wind or the wind is blowing out, it's amazing how many baseballs go over the fence. On a day the wind is blowing in, there will be times when no balls go out in batting practice. We also have a lot of center-field area with some big games. We probably were very high in terms of triples. But it definitely starts with the wind."
On that point, the Sky Sox finished tied for third in the PCL with 52 triples on the season, 36 of which came at home. That home number was more than the total of six PCL clubs (Las Vegas, Memphis, Omaha, Sacramento, Fresno, New Orleans). In terms of homers, no one hit more than Andy Wilkins' 12 for the Sky Sox, and of those, only four came at home in 143 at-bats compared with eight over 184 at-bats on the road. Sticking with that theme, Wilkins still managed to post a much better home OPS (.884) than on the road (.628), despite having more balls stay in the yard.
But it's not just extra-base hits that are impacted in a high altitude such as Colorado Springs. Sweet noted it can take more than a week for players to get their bodies re-acclimated to the low-oxygen environment, but his club was rarely home long enough to complete the process, perhaps leaving his players at a slight disadvantage when it comes to power production. And even if homers were down on account of the wind, Security Service Field can still be quite tough on pitchers. The Sky Sox manager credited veterans Hiram Burgos (4.08 home ERA, 4.71 away) and Brent Suter (3.81 home ERA) and top Brewers pitching prospect Josh Hader with adapting to conditions and using their breaking stuff to find success at home.
Over in the IL, Columbus' Huntington Park proved to be the circuit's most hitter-friendly venue in 2016, surpassing even Charlotte's BB&T Ballpark, where pitchers have seen their ERAs inflate since its opening in 2014. With a 1.571 home run factor, the Clippers and their opponents were 57.1 percent more likely to homer in Huntington Park this past season than they were in the average IL park. Columbus tied for the league lead with 129 homers as a club and led the circuit with a .400 slugging percentage and 1,952 total bases. The Clippers even boasted the IL home run champ in Jesus Aguilar, though 17 of his 30 home runs did come on the road. A better case study might be Michael Choice, who hit nine of his 14 long balls at home and saw his home isolated slugging percentage jump from .183 on the road to .235 at home.
The park itself is much smaller than the one in Colorado Springs, where it's only 318 feet down the line in right and 325 in left. The gaps stand at 365 and 360, respectively, and the park goes out to 400 in center -- not a massive distance by normal measure. Add in some favorable conditions, and there's always a chance to see the ball fly in Ohio's capital city.
"At times or parts of the year, depending on the wind, the ball can travel pretty well to the gaps," said Clippers manager Chris Tremie. "It's a very nice field for sure, but it's somewhat unevenly designed with the alleys and the gaps being a little shorter, particularly in right. It can play small, but it can play normal too or even big depending on the weather."
Park factors in Triple-A can muddy the resumes of prospects and veterans trying to do whatever they can to make that last step to the Majors. While coaches at other levels might try to use tough park environments as teaching tools, the hope is that when they've reached the Minors' highest level, the alterations necessary come as second nature.
"By the time they're at Triple-A, they're so close," Sweet said. "They've gone through all that. They've been told to keep making adjustments. When they're younger, they might struggle with that. By the time they're with us, there's the altitude and other things that will affect them to the point that if they're not used to adjusting already, they'll struggle. If they make the Majors, there are places like Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati -- I could still hit one out in BP there. Milwaukee's a hitters' park, too. They better know to make adjustments by now because they're going to keep coming."
For that reason, park factors remain just one statistical tool Minor League clubs and Major League organizations use in their decision-making structure.
"There's a lot more than just stats when we're looking at this," Tremie said. "There's quality at-bats, work ethic, attitude. When we're looking purely at stats, it's a good indicator of how things are going, but there is value in seeing these guys on a daily basis. In today's game, numbers are all valued, but the context of parks, time of year, all that is important. It's not a blanket number. There's a lot more evaluation that we're putting into it."
Below are the breakdowns of one- and three-year park factors for the two Triple-A leagues. (Note: Nashville was not included in the 2014-16 table for the Pacific Coast League as First Tennessee Park opened in 2015.)
|International||4.0 (14th)||0.7 (sixth)||8.7 (eighth)|
|Pacific Coast||4.9 (fourth)||0.9 (first)||9.4 (second)|
International League -- 2016
Pacific Coast League -- 2016
International League -- 2014-16
Pacific Coast League -- 2014-16