Right can be wrong at McCormick Field

Short porch proves too inviting for some left-handed hitters

(Tony Farlow/MLB.com)

By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com | December 26, 2007 5:00 AM

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: Asheville's McCormick Field is such a cozy ballpark that stats compiled there should be thrown out the window.

The story goes that a young first baseman back in 1975 played in Asheville. A natural right-handed hitter, he took one look at the extremely short right-field fence at McCormick and learned how to switch-hit. His name? Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, who is second all-time in home runs by a switch-hitter.

Just how cozy are the confines in Asheville? Take a look at the dimensions:

  • Left field: 326 feet
  • Left-center: 370 feet
  • Center field: 373 feet
  • Right-center: 320 feet
  • Right field: 297 feet

It's easy to see why Murray wanted to take some hacks from the left side of the plate, right? Just how have the friendly confines affected hitting there? It's time to unveil our ballpark factors.

Check out the box on Methodology to see how our crack stats team derived the numbers, but basically, using a per 1,000 plate appearances norm, ratios for a number of stats were calculated from home and away stats. With 100 being neutral, anything above it means the park is hitter-friendly; anything below leans more toward pitchers. Here are the numbers for McCormick Field for the past three years:

Year
2005
2006
2007
Avg.
R
144
115
117
125
H
116
108
116
113
XBH
136
117
129
128
TB
129
114
119
119
2B
121
132
142
132
HR
210
119
138
158
RBI
148
117
116
127
AVG
117
116
116
114
OBP
114
106
112
111
SLG
130
109
119
120
OPS
123
108
116
116

The averages tell you that, yes, this is a very, very good place to hit. And it's important to focus on something like a three-year average because there are many variables that can affect the numbers from year-to-year. The dip in production from 2005 to 2006 is fairly obvious. Much of that can be attributed to a huge new scoreboard that was added in 2006. It's about 40 feet high and anything hit off it is in play. That's why the home run factor dropped from 210 to 119, but the doubles increased from 121 to 132.

 Methodology
Just how were the ballpark factor ratios tabulated? MLB.com's director of statistics Cory Schwartz explains:

First, we added up all offensive stats compiled by the home and away teams in the ballpark to determine the total offensive production. We did the same thing for the home team on the road, combining their away-game stats with those of their opponents in those games. We pro-rated each statistical category over 1,000 plate appearances to determine how frequently each offensive event -- hit, home run, walk, etc. -- occurred in each ballpark. Finally, we divided the pro-rated home stats by the road stats and multiplied by 100 to determine a ratio of how much each home ballpark increased or decreased in production.

Example: Team A and its opponents combined to score 449 runs in 2,894 plate appearances at Home Field X in 2007, compared to 368 runs in 2,774 plate appearances in Team A's road games. That translated to a rate of 155 runs per 1,000 plate appearances at home, versus 133 per 1,000 on the road. Divide 155 by 133 and multiply by 100, and the result -- with some rounding -- comes out to 117. Therefore, we conclude that Home Field X increased run production by 17% in 2007. To put it another way, Home Field X produced a "park factor" of 117 in 2007.

The same method used to determine the effect on run-scoring can also be applied to any other stat category. For example, some teams with short outfield lines may see an increase in home runs, but a decrease in doubles, resulting in a somewhat neutral overall run-scoring effect.

Note that more sophisticated methods can also take into account overall schedule composition, since the imbalanced Minor League schedules may result in stronger teams playing more games in some ballparks and weaker teams playing more games in other venues. But to determine the basic influence each ballpark plays on offensive production, the method we've applied here produces very convincing results.

But what happened this past season, when everything went back up close to 2005 levels? One thing that makes Minor League park factors so hard to gauge is how frequently the personnel changes. Looking at the 2007 Asheville Tourists, of the top five hitters in OPS, for instance, four are right-handed hitters and the other is a switch-hitter. Righties are not going to take advantage of the short porch in right nearly as much, but they can use the fact that left field isn't exactly a launch to their benefit.

Living up to the numbers put up in Asheville can often be a daunting task. Just ask Joe Koshansky. Back in 2005, the lefty-hitting first baseman batted .291 with 36 homers, 103 RBIs, 31 doubles and a .603 slugging percentage in 120 games in Asheville. His home-road splits that year just added to the argument that he was a product of his environment. The former sixth-round draft pick hit .355 with 25 homers and 68 RBIs at McCormick Field. In other South Atlantic League locations, he managed just a .227 average, 11 homers and 35 RBIs in three fewer at-bats. People wanted to see him do it again at higher levels before they were believers.

Koshansky, of course, obliged, hitting 31 homers at Double-A in 2006 and 21 more at Triple-A this past season to give him a .525 career SLG. But there have been other left-handed hitters who haven't been able to live up to the Asheville-produced hype.

Joe Mikulik has seen more than his fair share of those types come and go. He's managed in Asheville since 2000 and even played there in 1985 (a right-handed hitting outfielder, Mikulik had, not surprisingly, one of the best seasons in his 11-year Minor League career with 23 homers, 87 RBIs and 27 doubles). He knows McCormick Field perhaps better than anyone. He also knows a good deal about developing young players and the key, he thinks, is making sure they maintain good habits even when that short porch in right is taunting them.

"The routine is the biggest thing," Mikulik said. "It's actually good for our right-handed hitters because they can work on going the other way. But it challenges the left-handed hitters to do that and to keep the ball out of the air. Young left-handed hitters want to lift and separate and hit one over one of those mountains out there. It's important to implement a plan, have them be consistent with the plan in batting practice and carry it into the games."

Some have been better than others in this regard. Mikulik pointed to Michael Paulk as a perfect example. In 2006, it was obvious the dimensions affected the left-handed hitter mentally. He hit just .245 with a .635 OPS. Not a power hitter by nature, Paulk got into some bad habits in trying to poke balls over that right-field fence. A year older and wiser in 2007, he repeated the level and hit .303 with an .838 OPS.

While the emphasis has been on the effect the park has on lefties, it's interesting to delve further into Mikulik's point about right-handed hitters. It's not like it's cavernous to other fields and hitters who have been adept at developing opposite-field pop have enjoyed success there.

Matt Miller could be Exhibit A from that 2005 season. He was the SAL MVP after hitting .331 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs. The right-handed-hitting outfielder's splits were not quite as extreme as Koshansky's but still stand out: .366, 20 HR, 65 RBI in Asheville; .293, 10 HR, 35 RBI everywhere else.

"It was a good training tool to want to go the other way," Miller said, echoing Mikulik's sentiments. "It was the perfect place for me to hit. I knew I could hit it out of right field the other way and could pull it out. Up in the mountains, the ball carries well. Even center field was kind of a joke. Most parks you have to hit it as hard as you can. In Asheville, you could get under it and still hit it out there. You can see I haven't hit that way since."

It's not that Miller's been bad. He hit .307 in 2006 between Class A Advanced Modesto and Double-A Tulsa while driving in 87 runs, but he only homered 13 times. This past season is one he'd rather not remember as he batted .262 with 11 homers and 61 RBIs. Miller was smart enough to recognize he'd never duplicate the numbers he put up in that first full season, but he has tried to maintain the same approach that led to his success. Sometimes it's worked, sometimes it hasn't.

Miller thinks the lack of production comparitively can be chalked up to a combination of different ballparks and more advanced pitching.

"It's a little bit of [dimensions in Asheville]," he said. "In Asheville, to right-center field, it's a home run or off the wall. My home parks since then have played against that. The wind blew from the right-field corner to left field. If you want to pull the ball down the line, it's going to fly. But that's never been me. I have a hard time doing that.

"I have decent opposite-field power, but I can't crush the ball into the wind 390 feet against the wall. That may be an excuse, but that led to a lot of frustration. In Tulsa, to left field, it's real easy to hit home runs there. But pitchers know that, too. You can make that park really small, but Double-A pitchers are better."

"The difference in parks is one of the frustrating things in baseball, but it also makes it interesting. In basketball, courts are basically the same and differences are negligible. In baseball, there are huge differences and it can [change things]," Miller concluded.

While some might see otherwise, Mikulik sees positives from having players start their pro careers in a bandbox like McCormick Field. And he does so by looking at the flip side -- what it does for pitchers. The dimensions teach a lesson very early on in development that otherwise could take a long time to be learned.

"It's a good ballpark to develop young players, especially for pitchers," Mikulik said. "It's not a good park for pitchers, but it teaches you how to pitch, that you have to keep the ball down. That's a challenge for young pitchers. They have to be effective in pitching inside and keeping the ball down and not being afraid of contact. I always say that it's not the home run that kills you, it's the walk before the home run that does it."

Answer: Fact. Asheville's McCormick Field is such a cozy ballpark that stats compiled there should be thrown out the window -- more or less, anyway. Maybe the numbers shouldn't be thrown out the window -- there's more than a fair share of hitter-friendly ballparks around the Minors, but it's clear that, especially when compared to the other parks in its league, McCormick Field is pretty extreme.

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.

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