Home of Mets affiliate becomes less extreme with Columbia move
Mets southpaw P.J. Conlon sports a 1.47 ERA over 159 career innings in the Minor Leagues. (Jeff Blake)
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | December 13, 2016 11:00 AM
In addition to our weekly Toolshed column, every Tuesday during the first half of the offseason our 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.
For the 2016 season, the Mets' Class A affiliate moved from Savannah, Georgia to Columbia, South Carolina. No one may have been more grateful for the relocation than New York's hitting prospects.
This week's Toolshed Stats column continues its series on park factors but focuses on something a little different -- not how a park plays, but how it plays when compared to its predecessor.
In this case, the example is Columbia's Spirit Communications Park, a new stadium built in time for the Fireflies' inaugural campaign in 2016. By normal standards, Columbia plays as a pitchers' park. Already in a league that ranks eighth or ninth among the 14 domestic non-complex-level Minor League circuits (see first table), the home of the Fireflies played a bit below average, even by South Atlantic League standards, with a .900 run factor, .910 home run factor and .940 hit factor. (Note: 1.000 is considered average. Anything above favors hitters; anything below favors pitchers.)
Compare that to the numbers collected in 2014-15 at Savannah's Grayson Stadium, a structure built in 1926 and twice-renovated that now plays home to the Savannah Bananas, a collegiate summer team. Over those two seasons, Savannah posted an .870 run factor, .524 home run factor and .907 hit factor.
It should come as no surprise then that Columbia's 72 homers as a club during the 2016 season were the highest for a Mets Class A affiliate since 2012 and the second-highest since the organization changed its Class A club from Hagerstown to Savannah for the 2007 season. Columbia hitters equally split those 72 homers -- with 36 coming at home and 36 on the road. (The below-average home run factor came from an inequality on homers allowed.) In 2012, the then-Sand Gnats bashed 85 homers, 31 of which were at home and 54 on the road.
The move away from Grayson Stadium, known for its 16-foot wall from center to right field, had some in the Mets system feeling much cozier in Spirit Communications Park, a ballpark with a wall around 18 feet high in small stretches in left and center but typically between 8 and 12 feet the rest of the way.
"For me, that field [in Columbia] -- it's kinda hard to describe, but the ball jumps off the bat sometimes," said Fireflies hitting coach Joel Fuentes, who worked in Savannah in 2007, 2012 and 2013. "It can definitely be tough to hit some days, but if you get in the good spots like left-center, the ball can be flying. If you hit it right back to center field, there can be a long way to go, and that affects things. But it's more of a hitters' ballpark for sure [than Savannah].
"In Savannah, pitchers have lots of confidence because they know they're not going to get hit. It's a big-time field. You have to hit the ball well as a hitter, the field's so big."
That said, there is always a learning curve when it comes to getting to know a new home, especially one without previous data.
"I'm going to explain something that might sound a little crazy," Fuentes said. "[Columbia manager Jose] Leger, myself and one or two other coaches would have to use this app to find out how the wind was going to blow out, depending on if the game was starting at 5:30, 6, 7, whatever. When the wind blew there, sometimes it could be a big-time breeze. It could last 10 seconds or five minutes. That determined how carefully we have to pitch in terms of fly balls. It was very interesting to follow based on the different times and hours we were playing."
The Mets organization and Fireflies players and coaches will get to know Spirit Communications Park better during the second season of the Minor League club's existence, but chances are the stadium will still tilt toward pitchers.
Consider the performance of Minor League ERA leader P.J. Conlon during his time in the South Atlantic League. The No. 26 Mets prospect, who finished with a 1.65 ERA in 142 innings between Columbia and Class A Advanced St. Lucie, posted a 0.90 ERA in 50 innings at home with Columbia this past season. That number jumped to 3.49 in 28 1/3 frames on the road. The 23-year-old left-hander's average-against also jumped from .213 to .263 in those same scenarios. On the other side, no qualified Columbia hitter posted an OPS above .671, and the team's home run leader, Dash Willingham, finished tied for 19th with 12 on the season -- half that of league leader Jose Pujols of Lakewood.
That should be good news for No. 8 Mets prospect Thomas Szapucki. The 20-year-old left-hander is coming off a breakout 2016 season in which he posted a 1.38 ERA and a .145 average-against with 86 strikeouts in 52 innings between Rookie-level Kingsport and Class A Short Season Brooklyn. He'll likely get his first taste of full-season ball in Columbia at some point in 2017, if not immediately in April. That's also a possibility for 2016 19th-overall pick Justin Dunn, though New York's fourth-ranked prospect could jump straight to Class A Advanced out of Boston College. On the flip side, Columbia's conditions could hurt the stat line, though not the reputation, of No. 6 prospect Desmond Lindsay in the solid-hitting outfielder's introduction to the Sally League.
Whether he's working with hitters in a pitchers' such as Columbia or an extreme pitchers' park like Savannah, Fuentes' message is always the same.
"When you sign and the Mets sign and make a commitment to you, you have to develop, especially in that first full season," he said. "That starts with learning how to hit the ball here. I'm not looking at stats. I have a few things to keep in mind. For me, it's if you can hit the ball gap-to-gap at this level, if you can try to hit it right back up the middle first. There are a lot of things you can say to these guys. But if it's Columbia or Savannah, it's said the same way -- learn how to hit the ball and we'll go from there."
Here are the remainder of the one- and three-year park factors for each Class A club:
Midwest League 2016
South Atlantic League 2016
Midwest League 2014-16
South Atlantic League 2014-16
* -- only includes data from 2016 season
** -- only includes data from 2014-15 seasons
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.