Friday, December 31, 2010

Taking Advantage of Target Field

Perhaps the biggest Twins event of 2010 was the opening of the new downtown ballpark. With much fanfare and hype, Minnesota baseball returned to the natural environments.

However, after the first full season not everyone had rave reviews about the newly constructed baseball cathedral. The field drew criticisms from members of the offense that the park was unfair and deflating their power totals. In November, Justin Morneau even implored via email to the Star Tribune beat writers that the Twins should consider altering the confines:
"Right-center to left-center is ridiculous. It's] almost impossible for a righthanded hitter to [homer to the] opposite field and very difficult for lefties. It affects the hitters a lot, and you start to develop bad habits as a hitter when you feel like you can only pull the ball to hit it over the fence. You take those habits on the road."
Because of the wall height, distance, temperature and wind patterns, the field in its first season deterred plenty of would-be home runs back on to the field. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the area Morneau noted. Michael Cuddyer, who had hit nine home runs to center and right-center at the Metrodome in 2009, was able to reach those seats just once in 2010. Likewise, Jason Kubel hit 10 home runs in center and right-center at the Metrodome in ’09 but just two this past season.

In the recently released Hardball Times Annual 2011, Greg Rybarczyk, operator of the seminal site which tracks “true” distances of the league’s home runs, published what he considered the “Ultimate Home Run Park Factors”.

For those unfamiliar with the metric, Park Factors measures the influence of a ballpark’s configuration that may increase or decrease the possibility of offense in comparison to other parks across baseball. By’s account, Target Field finished dead last when it came to home runs. Although has been carrying this number for years on their website unlike Rybarczyk’s totals, the World Wide Sports Leader’s website does not include wind patterns and temperature into their equation.

Rybarczyk’s research revealed that, thanks to the extremely inviting Crawford Boxes down the left field line, the Houston Astros’ home ballpark, Minute Maid Park, was the easiest field to hit a home run at (especially if you were a right-handed pull hitter) with an overall Home Run Park Factor of 119. Conversely, based on the distance and size of the walls (16 feet high around), Citi Field in Queens was considered the most difficult venue to book a round-trip vacation at with an overall Home Run Park Factor of 70.

Probably to the surprise of Morneau and company, Rybarczyk’s findings showed that Target Field’s overall Home Run Park Factor was 96, ranking 16th out of 32 possible major league stadiums. This is an astonishingly neutral result:

“True” Home Run Park Factors
Target Field
(via Hardball Times Annual 2011)

What we find, based on Rybarczyk’s conclusions, is that Target Field isn’t all that daunting after all. Certainly from the alley-to-alley the field is a bit home run resistant, but in general, the corners are favorable (right field is a particularly alluring spot for left-handed sluggers who pull the ball) and the ballpark rated out as a field that slightly favors hitters. In short, hitters like Cuddyer, Kubel and Morneau may struggle at times to vacate the field in center and right-center, but they will also be rewarded if they pull the ball a bit more.

While Morneau stated his concern that the home configurations would ultimately affect how players hit on the road, Delmon Young was one player who recognized that this wasn’t a bad thing. After posting a .576 slugging percentage with 7 home runs while pulling the ball in ’09, Young demonstrated much better pop by knocking out 17 home runs to left while slugging a much more robust .846 when pulling the ball. Without much alteration to their approach, Cuddyer and Kubel might be able to mirror Young’s success.

If you are in charge of the team-building for the Twins, what this means is that your ideal free agent acquisition is either a (1) dead-pull hitter to either field or (2) a line drive hitter to center/alleys (fly balls will likely just die in the wind). If you are targeting a free agent who has a majority of their home runs to the alleys or center field, that player is probably going to witness a significant drop in power. This means that someone like Derrek Lee, who has hit nine of his 19 home runs to center, right-center and right, would likely not replicate that total in a Twins uniform. Meanwhile, someone like Vladimir Guerrero, who pulled 23 of his 29 home runs in ’10, would likely have a better chance of having his power numbers remain static.

To be sure, despite the neutral results in ’10, Rybarczyk also acknowledges that Target Field may wind up playing more towards the pitcher in the future but, at the same time, the field should not finish dead last like’s Park Factors suggests:
“Target Field is a fair park if you consider only the field dimensions, but the cool temperatures will shave some distance off most homers hit in the Twins’ new park. I suspect that after an adjustment period, home runs will settle in at Target Field at a level around 90 overall, based on the fence layout and the early and late-season temperatures.”
In the end, the Twins will simply have to learn how to cope with their surroundings. In terms of offense, either hitters need to attempt to pull the ball more if they want the extravagant home run totals or look to capitalize on the spacious alleyways if they can settle for the home run’s less sexy cousin, the double. Delmon Young made some adjustments and it served him well, leading to a team-high 25 doubles at home. Similarly, Danny Valenica, a line drive machine to center field, hit .386 at Target Field by shooting gaps. These success stories can be emulated.

By focusing on playing to the field’s strengths in 2011, the Twins will be able to produce a distinct home field advantage.