Commentary

Shea it isn't

Citi Field is costing the New York Mets -- and their opponents -- home runs in 2009

Updated: July 2, 2009, 1:11 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

In order to hit a homer at Citi Field, you have to hit the ball a country mile.

Or at least that's what David Wright's fantasy owners might have you believe. A 33-homer hitter as recently as last season, the slugging No. 3 fantasy pick overall finds himself on pace for nine home runs in 2009.

But incredibly, in spite of his season-long power drought, Wright enters Saturday's play ranked the ninth-best player in all of fantasy baseball. He might not be the bopper the big spenders were expecting at the draft table, but he's getting the job done in other ways, and it's a product of his making adjustments to his game necessitated by his new home ballpark.

That's because, like Mets fans and their Shake Shack burgers, Citi Field is gobbling up home runs at an alarming rate. At least, that's what Greg Rybarczyk reports, thanks to data culled from his hittrackeronline.com Web site.

According to Rybarczyk, the most significant change in ballpark effect by the Mets' switching from Shea Stadium to Citi Field this season has been in terms of home-run production. In the first 37 games of Citi Field's existence, the Mets and their opponents have been "robbed" of a combined 36 home runs that might have cleared the fences at Shea. Compare that to only two home runs -- both hit by fellow fantasy first-rounder Chase Utley of the Phillies -- hit at the Mets' new home that would not have been round-trippers at Shea, and you're talking a staggering difference in ballpark factors. (For those interested in the specifics, I've included Rybarcyzk's complete chart breaking down these 36 "stolen" and two "gift" Citi Field home runs at column's end.)

Citi Field/Shea Stadium
Greg Rybarczyk/Hit TrackerCiti Field's fences are deeper and taller than they were at Shea Stadium, except in right field.
So what's causing such a dramatic effect? Rybarczyk illustrates the vast difference in outfield dimensions between Shea and Citi Field in the diagram to the right. But it's more than that. As he adds: "Keep in mind that the fences at Citi Field are considerably taller than those at Shea Stadium, and that for a typical home run ball, each additional foot of fence height is equivalent to moving the same height fence back by 0.84 feet. So, the 16-foot fence in left field at Citi Field is not only much deeper than the left-field fence at Shea Stadium, it is 8 feet taller, which equates to about another 6 feet of distance."

Those ballpark factors are very important to us, the fantasy owners, particularly the ones coming from new venues. We might aim to predict the future, but trying to forecast how a new field might play is akin to predicting the year-end Citigroup Inc. stock price. You might feel like you have an idea, and experts might give you a hint, but darned if you'd feel confident putting money on your guess.

Well, we've got 37 games in the book at Citi Field, a small sample size, yes, but also enough of one to begin getting some accurate readings. As one who doesn't believe in one concrete method of measuring ballpark factors, I'll provide you the breakdowns from several angles and let you decide for yourself.

Here's a comparison of the per-game and ratio (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS) numbers for Citi Field in 2009, for Shea Stadium from 2004 to 2008, and this year's league average:

Now here's the breakdown of Citi Field in 2009 versus Shea from 2004 to 2008, except with each category calculated using the same formula used to determine our Park Factor page. Naturally, the league average is unnecessary to list here, as a league-average ballpark factor would be 1.000.

What those tables show us are two things: One, home-run production is down by 19.1 percent from Shea Stadium. Run production is down as well, an obvious byproduct of fewer home runs' being hit, but fortunately only slightly -- by 3.5 percent.

The other thing they show is that the Mets have actually adapted their game, both at home and on the road, to account for the difference in ballpark factors, evident in the second chart related to Park Factors. They're taking advantage of the gaps more, driving the ball for doubles and triples, and making contact, both in terms of their major league-low 394 team strikeouts and .276 batting average, fifth-best in baseball. Hitting coach Howard Johnson, in fact, expressed this change in approach during the Mets' Monday broadcast, and Wright himself recently hinted to Peter Gammons that he'd altered his own style.

"It took an adjustment," Wright said, according to Gammons' blog. "The idea is to hit line drives gap to gap. That's what I've concentrated on and not worrying about hitting balls to the warning track for easy outs. I've found two things. The first is that because the outfield is so huge, I'm getting some cheap hits at home. The second is that it's going to help us on the road because you get into good habits in a pitchers' park. It's a lot easier going from a pitchers' park to a hitters' park than vice versa."

One must applaud Wright for putting up the numbers he has, adapting as quickly as he has to his new home park. In addition to his nine-homer pace, he's batting .351 and is on pace for 213 hits, 50 doubles and 43 stolen bases, all of which would easily represent new career highs. He's also on track for 88 RBIs and 107 runs scored, and if you go back into baseball's annals, only one player in history had a season of at least a .340 batting average, 50 doubles and 40 steals with 10 home runs or fewer: Tris Speaker in 1912, the year he won his only MVP award.

Wright, though, has also lost the most homers as a result of the differential between Shea's and Citi Field's dimensions. According to Rybarczyk, six of Wright's batted balls at Citi Field would have cleared the fences at Shea; those plays instead resulted in one single, three doubles and two triples. Not that I have any right to suggest that baseball games might play out the same if individual results are changed, but just for fun, if we rerun Wright's numbers awarding him those homers (and alter his other stats accordingly), here's how his 2009 pace looks:

Sans homers: 107 R's, 50 2Bs, 7 3Bs, 9 HRs, 88 RBIs, .939 OPS
With homers: 114 R's, 46 2Bs, 2 3Bs, 23 HRs, 103 RBIs, .984 OPS
2006-08 per-year average: 108 R's, 41 2Bs, 3 3Bs, 30 HRs, 116 RBIs, .933 OPS

Chase Utley
Al Bello/Getty ImagesYou won't hear Chase Utley complain about the Citi Field right-field fences. Two of his recent homers would have died on the warning track at Shea.
Gary Sheffield is the only other Met to lose multiple home runs because of the ballpark change; he has lost two. Visiting players Brett Carroll, Chipper Jones and Evan Longoria can also cry foul that two of their batted balls apiece would've been home runs if hit at Shea. All told, the Mets have lost 16 homers, but their opponents have lost 20. Their most devastating series in terms of home run impact: the June 9-11 series against the Phillies, of which the Mets won one of three. Rybarczyk notes that the Mets lost five home runs to Citi Field's tougher dimensions, the Phillies one, but the Phillies actually gained two homers that wouldn't have been so in Shea.

Mets pitchers, of course, benefit, especially seeing as three of their usual rotation members, Johan Santana, John Maine and Livan Hernandez, are noted fly-ballers. Sure enough, Santana has been spared four homers he might have served up at Shea (two became long outs), and Maine three (one caught for an out). Amazingly, Hernandez hasn't benefited at all, but the impact on the staff is clear: You're less apt to serve up the costly long ball at Citi Field than at Shea.

So what does the future hold? Rumors abound that both the Mets and Yankees -- and don't worry, we'll get to their park next week -- might alter their outfield dimensions for 2010. I wouldn't find it surprising if the Mets should lower or bring in their fences or effect some combination of both, which would probably minimize the home run-sapping effect in future seasons.

But for the remainder of 2009, don't call this a cavernous, can't-score ballpark. The Mets, at least the healthy ones -- their injuries, for sure, have played a part in all of this -- are still generating good numbers, and matchup-seekers need only alter their projections based on a lesser prospect (or fear, for pitchers) of the home run. Citi Field might be pitcher-friendly, but it's no Petco Park.

Besides, even if Wright isn't giving you the elite home run stats you expected, he's certainly giving you elite value. That's the mark of a great player: He makes the adjustments and fills the fantasy stat sheet, even if it takes some categorical creativity. Lose the homers but gain the speed, you know?

It's a stat sheet I'd gobble up as quickly as this Shake Shack burger. Speaking of which, please excuse me -- it's time to eat!

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here.

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