Connecticut claims most pitcher-friendly venue on good hurlers circuit
Kyle Funkhouser was taken with the 115th overall pick in the 2016 Draft out of Louisville. (Gordon Donovan/MiLB.com)
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | December 20, 2016 10:00 AM ET
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. This is the last in that series.
Short-season circuits are meant to provide learning opportunities, and there are a few things Tigers prospects learn quickly upon arriving at the organization's lowest non-complex-level affiliate. The New York-Penn League can be tough on hitters, and Connecticut's Dodd Stadium can be really tough on hitters.
The final edition of this Toolshed Stats series on park factors turns to the Class A Short Season level, where the NYPL can serve as a favorable first environment for pitchers. The circuit ranked 13th among the 14 domestic non-complex-level circuits with an average of 4.1 runs per nine innings in 2016 and placed last with 0.4 home runs and 8.2 hits per nine innings.
While some of that may have to do with the circuit's Northeast location -- away from the hotter climates where balls typically jump off the bat -- or with the parks themselves, one manager thinks the lack of offense has a lot to do with the level of play and players' typical introductions to the rigors of pro ball. (This has some basis, as well, in the Northwest League, which placed fifth in R/9, 13th in HR/9 and seventh in H/9.)
"This is a lot of guys' first times with a wood bat," said Mike Rabelo, who managed Connecticut from 2014 to 2016 and will move up to Class A West Michigan for the 2017 season. "I know they say they used it in summer ball or [Cape Cod] or wherever, but they're not playing nearly as many games in those situations as they are in the Penn League. Plus the pitching is better, so there are a lot of variables involved. It's kinda like getting your feet wet. That's how you have to look at it."
Then again, Connecticut's Dodd Stadium is a completely different beast.
The home of the Tigers ranked last among New York-Penn clubs in run and home run factors in the one- and three-year models. Using park factors in which 1.000 is considered average while everything below leans toward offense and anything below toward pitching, the park posted a 0.840 hit factor and an astonishingly low 0.542 home run factor over the past three seasons combined. Its hit factor was much closer to average at .949. To put this into perspective, an average game at Dodd Stadium features roughly 54.2 percent of the long balls that would happen in a neutral New York-Penn park. In a league that's already known for a lack of homers, that can be incredibly rough.
On its face, Dodd Stadium doesn't look like a pitchers' park. It's 309 feet down the right- and left-field lines and 401 feet to straight center.
"The dimensions aren't that worrying," Rabelo said. "The ball just doesn't carry. It reminds me of Oakland a lot actually. When the fog rolls in at night, the ball doesn't fly. In all my years at Dodd Stadium, I can count on one hand the amount of home runs hit to center field. Maybe it's the fact that it's on the top of the hill. I don't truly know. But it doesn't take long to see that the ball won't carry there."
For example, the Connecticut Tigers bashed 18 homers as a club in 2016, and only six of those came at home, even though the club split its home and road contests at 38 apiece. Three Tigers (Blaise Salter, Joey Havrilak, Cole Bauml) tied for the team lead with three apiece. The club record is eight, established by Tyler Collins back in 2011. In the five seasons that have followed, only two players have hit seven -- Jake Stewart in 2012 and Michael Gerber in 2014.
On the flip side, Tigers pitchers can see some enjoyable splits when they move to the NYPL. Tigers No. 6 prospect and 2016 fourth-round pick Kyle Funkhouser, the only prospect currently ranked among MLB.com's Top 30 to play for Connecticut this past season, did not allow a run and held batters to a .146 average over 15 innings in his five home starts with the club this summer. In eight road starts spanning 22 1/3 innings, he posted a 4.43 ERA and a .300 average-against. For a bigger sample, turn to Locke St. John, who led the club with 89 1/3 innings in 2016. The 23-year-old left-hander's splits weren't extreme, but his numbers at Dodd Stadium (1.94 ERA, .200 average-against, 0.99 WHIP, one homer in 55 2/3 innings) were undeniably better than those on the road (2.41 ERA, .281 average-against, 1.46 WHIP, two homers in 33 2/3 innings).
"When you're trying to harp on throwing strikes and focusing on pitching in the middle of the plate, it's easier to get guys to buy in, knowing the ball doesn't exactly fly," Rabelo said. "[For hitters], oh my goodness, it's amazing. You've got to learn to hit the ball to all fields. You want to be a pull donkey and try to get some down the line all the time, and it's just not gonna work there. It's that old cliche. You have to use the whole field in a place like that."
So though Dodd can be used as a perfect teaching tool for both hurlers and sluggers, Rabelo cautioned against warning players about the advantages and disadvantages of playing in one of the Minors' most notorious pitchers' parks -- advice 13-year Major League veteran and first-time skipper Gerald Laird might want to heed when he takes over in Norwich next summer.
"I've learned that there is so much being thrown at these guys that I don't want to go over little formalities with them," he said. "I don't want to give them too much and overload them. These guys are ballplayers, and they have that first summer to show us what they've got. The Tigers drafted them because of their talent. Come Spring Training or instructs, that's when we can try some different things. But at the very beginning, I try not to hammer them with too much. They'll find things out pretty quickly."
Here are the park factors for the rest of the Class A Short Season clubs:
New York-Penn League 2016
Northwest League 2016
New York-Penn League 2014-16
Northwest League 2014-16
* -- only includes data from 2015 and 2016 seasons (NYPL franchise played in Jamestown in 2014)
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.