Safeco Field changes aren't expected to turn ballpark into a launching pad for home runs — but should make it 'fair'
Mariners hitters are glad to see the fences moving in this season at Safeco Field, by as much as 17 feet in left-center field.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Open HouseFans can check out the ballpark with free admission and free parking on Monday. Gates open at 6 p.m. Watch the season opener on the new big screen.
The fences are coming in at Safeco Field, and just about everyone associated with the Mariners is delighted about it.
Hitters feel like they've been liberated from the soul-draining experience of striking a ball with every ounce of their strength, going into a home-run trot ... then watching an outfielder haul the ball in at the wall.
Manager Eric Wedge is happy to clear the clubhouse of a pervasive source of angst, one that has infiltrated various incarnations of Mariners lineups but has reached critical mass with their current generation of young hitters trying to find their way.
"Just getting rid of that distraction, deterrent, excuse — whatever you want to call it — is a very positive thing," Wedge said during spring training.
Ex-Mariners, many of them consulted by general manager Jack Zduriencik when the team was researching the pros and cons of a newly configured ballpark, were unanimous in their support. The prevailing sentiment was something along the lines of "What took you so long?" Followed shortly by "Why didn't you do this while I was still there?"
Fans are craving the return of potent offense to Safeco Field, having soured on the dysfunctional, tepid mess that sucked much of the fun out of the past three seasons, in particular. Unless watching Felix Hernandez throw gem after gem and often get either a no-decision or a loss is your idea of a good time.
Even Mariners pitchers have come to believe that the hoped-for benefit — more run support — will offset whatever increase in their home earned-run average that might accrue from the cozier dimensions. When Zduriencik approached the since-departed Jason Vargas last year to solicit his opinion on the proposed changes, Vargas' reply was, "Give me an extra run a game and trust me to hold a lead."
In the abstract, it's the dawn of a new, run-prolific era at Safeco Field (or, more accurately, a return to that dynamic; it may be a dim memory now, but the Mariners did lead the major leagues in scoring in 2001, their second full season at Safeco.)
Yet one should be forewarned not to expect Safeco to turn into Coors Field incarnate. Assistant general manager Jeff Kingston, who was one of the point men in the exhaustive research that informed not just the ultimate decision to move in the fences, but where and how far, has a couple of gentle warnings about this grand experiment.
First of all, hold off on those hasty conclusions. If the Mariners are shut out in the home opener on April 8, it doesn't mean the new dimensions are a failure. Conversely, if they bash out 18 hits, it doesn't mean they'll romp their way to one slugfest after another. The carry of the ball will still be relatively sluggish in the cold, damp months early in the season.
Kingston, in fact, cautions that it might take three years — or longer — to get a true indication of how the revised Safeco will play. The relatively new, and still inexact science of "park factors" has taught us that to truly judge a stadium, you must tune out the noise. And be patient. Any number of influences separate from the ballpark itself can skew scoring in the short term — weather patterns, the infamous "marine layer," an aberrational game or series — not to mention just how good, or bad, a team's hitters (or pitchers) might be in a given season.
"We've cautioned everybody internally that one month, half a season, two seasons, may not tell us everything we need to know," Kingston said. "We're going to have to let this thing play out. It's going to be scrutinized quite a bit, and we're going to try to remove ourselves from getting too up and down with individual games or moments. But we are confident it will play more fair."
That word — fair — keeps cropping up when you talk to Mariners officials. Because in the minds of Seattle batters, in particular, a grave injustice was being waged against them, in the lack of their deserved reward for crushing a ball.
"I've said it ever since the news broke: It's a confidence thing for us hitters," said Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak. "You're going to have your good games and your bad games. But maybe your bad games now, instead of 0 for 4, and you fly out to the warning track, it's 1 for 4 with a home run and a couple of RBI."
Raul Ibanez, who has returned to Seattle after two previous stints with Safeco as his home park, is well-versed in the griping that has prevailed since Alex Rodriguez called Safeco "the hardest park in the history of baseball" to hit in.
"Guys grumbled about it, for sure," Ibanez said. "What I would do is get up and leave when guys grumbled about it, because I didn't want to hear about it. I never wanted to buy into it, because I thought a line drive is a line drive anywhere.
"Over the years, I'm sure there were guys who let the park defeat them a little bit. That's a choice, really."
And so was the decision to move in the fences by as much as 17 feet from the left-field power alley to straightaway center field. But here's a statement from Kingston that might surprise you:
"Based on all of our analysis, we feel it's still going to be a pitchers park. It's just going to be a lot closer to the middle of the pendulum than being on one extreme."
The Mariners studied every ball hit from 2009-11, and Kingston said the guesstimate is that the new dimensions will lead to about 30 to 40 additional home runs a year, total, between the M's and their opponents. And here's another surprising statement:
"Our look-back conclusion was that our opponents were hurt a little more than we were. Our objective here is not to try to get cute and add more homers to the Mariners and less for the other club. It's more the psychological impact on our own hitters, and playing there 81 games."
For those who fear opponents might be helped more than the Mariners, Kingston says the more talented team will end up with the biggest benefit.
The Mariners have left themselves the ability to tinker with the dimensions but have no plans to even consider that until they observe the park in action over several seasons.
"The one thing to think about," Zduriencik said, "is that no matter what your ballpark looks like, there is no right or wrong ... But I think when you have an outlier — a ballpark that's enormously hitter friendly, or a ballpark that's enormously pitcher friendly — that tips the scales. So to try to get to the middle of the pack and make it a fair ballpark, that's what we've attempted to accomplish."
And in the process, brought smiles to the faces of their hitters — along with sighs of relief.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry.
|Home has been sweet for Mariners pitchers|
|Seattle pitchers have had a higher ERA on the road every season since Safeco Field opened. Last year, the Mariners' ERA was 1.63 higher on the road. Year by year, from 2000, the first full season at Safeco Field (with AL rank in parentheses):|
|Year||Home ERA||Road ERA||Difference|
|2012||2.96 (2nd)||4.59 (9th)||+1.63|
|2011||3.69 (4th)||4.14 (9th)||+0.45|
|2010||3.37 (2nd||4.53 (10th)||+1.16|
|2009||3.62 (1st)||4.15 (2nd)||+0.53|
|2008||4.40 (11th)||5.08 (11th)||+0.68|
|2007||4.57 (9th)||4.90 (11th)||+0.33|
|2006||4.26 (8th)||4.96 (10th)||+0.70|
|2005||4.15 (8th)||4.86 (8th)||+0.71|
|2004||4.30 (7th)||5.26 (11th)||+0.96|
|2003||3.54 (2nd)||3.99 (1st)||+0.45|
|2002||3.77 (4th)||4.40 (5th)||+0.63|
|2001||3.04 (1st)||4.05 (4th)||+1.01|
|2000||3.84 (1st)||5.20 (11th)||+1.36|