An Example of How Much a Home Ball Park Can Effect Performance

The Nationals reportedly just signed relief pitcher Shawn Kelley to a three-year deal worth around $15M or $16M.  He probably owes about half of that contract to the fact that he was pitching his 2015 home games in San Diego, rather than in Yankee Stadium, where he pitched the previous two seasons.

In 2014, Kelley had a 4.53 ERA with the Yankees.  In 2015, Kelley had a 2.45 ERA with the Padres.  Yet, his other numbers were pretty similar, only with a few more hits, a few more walks and one more home run allowed in 2014 than 2015 in roughly the same number of innings pitched.

In 2014, Kelley had a home ERA of 4.97 and a road ERA of 3.97.  In 2015, Kelley had a home ERA of 1.37 and a road ERA of 3.60.  When you factor in the fact that Kelley allowed four unearned runs in 2015, while allowing no unearned runs in 2014, I think it’s fair to say that Kelley was exactly the same pitcher in 2015 that he was the year before.  Only his home ballpark, from an extreme hitters’ park to an extreme pitchers’ park, had changed.

This leads me to another opinion.  I strongly believe that pitchers in strong pitchers’ parks and hitters in strong hitters’ parks play better both home and away, because the bump they get from their home field advantage/performance gives them greater self-confidence and allows them to perform at least somewhat better away from home.

This is an idea that I have been mulling over for some time, and I will admit that I have not done the research to test my theory.  Instead, my evidence is mostly anecdotal, which is to say the worst kind of evidence.  The idea came into my head at some time after the Rockies came into existence, and apparently washed-up or never-was players like Andres Galaraga, Dante Bichette and Vinny Castillo developed into 40 HR hitters.

Here are the road OPS numbers for Galarraga and Bichette before and after moving to Coors Field, the ultimate hitters’ park:

Galarraga (six years before) .767, .832, .750, 714, .610 and .620.

Galarraga (six years after)  .912, ,882, .759, .748, .931 and .990.

Bichette (three years before)  .710, .637 and .781.

Bichette (three years after)  .701, .762 and .802.

Somehow, playing in Colorado seems to have made both Galarraga and Bichette better hitters everywhere (you will note that both were past the age of 27 when they began playing for the Rocks), and not just in Denver.  The only way I can explain it is that playing half their games in Coors Field significantly improved their self-confidence as hitters, which made them better hitters.

If my supposition is correct, it would help explain why teams playing in extreme hitters’ parks have such a hard time developing young pitchers and why teams playing in extreme pitchers’ parks have such a hard time developing young hitters, and vice versa.  If I am correct, teams like the Padres and Mariners should focus on developing young pitchers, while attempting to gain more experienced hitters through trades and free agency, while teams like the Rockies and Cubs should be developing young position players and trading or free agent signing more experienced pitchers.  I’m sure I’m not the only one to have noticed that the very best pitchers, like Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and David Price, mostly seem to be have spent their formative MLB seasons pitching in extreme pitchers’ parks.

However, it is worth noting that Andres Galarraga had a great deal of MLB experience before ending up (with his future career in doubt) in Denver, and he shows a much more pronounced effect that Bichette, the younger, less experienced player.  At the major league level, all of the regulars on both sides of the ball are extremely talented.  As a result, park factors play a larger role in performance than they would at, for example, the high school or college level, where the talent level is much more diverse.

If a major league player thinks he’s a superior pitcher or hitter because of the home park he plays in, he becomes a better hitter or pitcher by virtue of his greater self-confidence, which allows him to better focus on the field.  Young pitchers, in particular, need a lot of self-confidence to trust in their stuff, i.e., they don’t need to make perfect pitches on the edges of the strike zone with every pitch.  Playing in a ball park where fewer out-over-the-plate mistakes get hammered, or at least stay in the yard where your outfielders have a chance of catching them, is obviously going to give a pitcher more confidence in his ability to just rear back and throw the ball to the catcher’s target, rather than worrying about making a mistake.  At least, that is the theory.

To some degree, the role of self-confidence in professional baseball is already tacitly recognized in the fact that teams are generally extremely careful (unless the major league team is playing so poorly that it has to rush them up) about promoting prospects too quickly through the minor leagues.  Teams want to see a certain level of performance from young players before they advance to the next level, not merely because of their greater likelihood of success at the next level, but also because they don’t want to damage the youngster’s self-confidence by advancing him too quickly.  In a game where dealing with repeated failures is large part of the game, teams are wise to try to minimize those failures for talented youngsters in order to sustain their self-confidence and gradually develop them into successful major league players.

Explore posts in the same categories: Denver Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Washington Nationals

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