Commentary

Target Field not homer-friendly so far

Early returns have Twins' new home playing more like Petco instead of Metrodome

Updated: July 14, 2010, 12:01 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Move over Petco Park, you've got competition for the title of baseball's Grand Canyon.

Minnesota's brand-new Target Field might be a spectacular new ballpark with a great baseball feel, plenty of Twins history and, perhaps most importantly, pork chops and walleye on a stick. But if there's one thing that's not a plus, it's this: So far it has been darned near impossible to hit a home run there.

Target Field
AP Photo/Paul BattagliaTarget Field's overall dimensions aren't much different than the Metrodome, but the numbers say the two parks are a contrast in styles.

As we enter the All-Star break, Target Field has hosted 43 regular-season games, or more than half the Minnesota Twins' 2010 scheduled contests there. In those 43 games, the Twins and their opponents have hit just 60 total home runs.

Just to put that number into perspective, in the first 43 games of Petco's existence, San Diego Padres hitters and their opponents hit 59 homers. (For those of you wondering, there were 66 homers hit in the first 43 games played at the New York Mets' Citi Field.) So, while Petco -- at least so far -- still holds the crown as the game's most homer-suppressing ballpark, might Target be well on its way to earning that status in the American League?

Don't tell Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau that. After all, it's not like Target's outfield dimensions are substantially different from those of its predecessor, the Metrodome, and in fact, one could say that for the most part they're slightly smaller, especially in left-center field. To that point, ESPN Stats & Information notes that Mauer and Morneau hit 30 homers combined at the Metrodome in 2009; only one of those -- a deep fly to center field by Mauer on May 11 -- wouldn't have cleared the fence at Target.

Still, both lefty sluggers have struggled to scale Target's 23-foot fence in right and right-center field with regularity. Check the home numbers of Mauer and Morneau as well as a few other notable Twins:

Mauer: 0 HRs in 129 ABs, .086 ISO (isolated power) at Target in 2010; 15.3 AB/HR, .253 ISO at Metrodome in 2009
Morneau: 38.0 AB/HR, .171 ISO; 18.6 AB/HR, .243 ISO
Michael Cuddyer: 32.4 AB/HR, .197 ISO; 15.7 AB/HR, .276 ISO
Jason Kubel: 22.3 AB/HR, .201 ISO; 16.6 AB/HR, .265 ISO

Judging by those splits, how can you not suspect the ballpark? One could argue they're in the midst of coincidentally sluggish starts, but if that were true, how is it that Morneau, through half a season, has career highs in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, not to mention is on pace for a personal-best 35 home runs? Morneau's home/road splits actually serve a perfect example of the Target factor; he has hit 14 of his 18 homers in road games, and despite a similar fly-ball rate at home (45.2 percent) to on the road (44.6), his home run/fly ball percentage at home is 7.1 percent, well beneath his 28.0-percent road number.

Don't get the idea that Morneau, a historic first-half player, always does this sort of thing before the All-Star break, either. He has never managed AVG/OBP/SLG rates this high, nor hit so many homers in road games, in the first half of any season before.

Target in comparison to other venues

Our Park Factors page does a good job of illustrating the hitter- or pitcher-friendly nature of the 30 ballparks active at any given time in the major leagues. One thing it does not do, however, is paint a picture of a ballpark's leanings over several seasons, meaning random fluctuations from year to year might not give you an accurate sense of certain venues. In order to better put Target into perspective, the chart below utilizes the same formulas from our Park Factors page, but uses statistics from the past five seasons, or since the beginning of 2005.

I also included two categories that the Park Factors page does not: 2B+3B (doubles plus triples), designed to measure a ballpark's impact upon extra-base hits that remain in the field of play, and BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which is the only one that's a straight home-game statistic (no comparison to road contests).

A caveat: The 43 games played at Target represent fewer than 10 percent of the number of games that 25 other venues have each hosted since 2005, so the numbers are probably significantly skewed by the small sample size. Still, that's a lot of ground for Target to make up to catch Petco in terms of home runs, even if its numbers in the other categories merely classify it as somewhat pitching-friendly (as opposed to extremely pitcher-friendly, as Petco is across the board).

Now, look at how Target compares to the Metrodome, using numbers from the past five seasons (2005-09) from the Twins' former home:

Eerie, isn't it, how the most noticeable difference appears to be the impact on home runs, and home runs alone?

Lefty/righty advantages

Since the Twins are more of a lefty-laden lineup, perhaps there's something in the numbers to suggest how much that steep porch in right field is affecting Mauer and Morneau. The chart below also uses Park Factor formulas to demonstrate how left- and right-handed hitters fare in each of the 30 active ballparks, though in order to fairly compare the sample sizes in each group, each category is an average per at-bat as opposed to per-game (since there are obviously more right-handed hitters in baseball, their average would be noticeably higher per game).

It seems right-handed hitters are actually the ones having the greater trouble at Target, despite the cozier dimensions in left and left-center field. Again, that might be skewed by the sample size and the right-handed talent currently on the Twins' roster, but it's an interesting early development.

Other interesting findings, pertaining to other ballparks:

• Everyone thinks of Petco as a homer-gobbling ballpark, but it's actually not nearly so bad for right-handed as it is for left-handed hitters. That it's approximately 15 feet deeper to most points in right field has a lot to do with that, and yes, that's still a bottom-10 ranking in terms of homers even for righties, but it shows how you shouldn't be quite so fearful of your visiting righty sluggers' matchups there.
• Similarly, AT&T Park is a much better power-hitting park for righties than lefties, with the greatest differential of the group (righties have a .163 Park Factor advantage, greater than Petco's .154). Aubrey Huff's nine homers at AT&T (out of 17 overall) suddenly look a lot more impressive.
• The greatest lefty power advantage: Pittsburgh's PNC Park, which is the second-worst in terms of homers for lefties, but is middling for righties.
• No surprises that Yankee Stadium favors power across the board, but you'll notice that it's not only the lefties who benefit from a short porch; righties also ranked first, with a surprisingly greater Park Factor number than lefties.
• Washington's Nationals Park provides lefties with a somewhat significant advantage across the board, despite the fact that the power alley is only seven feet shorter in right-center than left-center.

Does a ballpark naturally change in time?

Ah, the grand question, and people who recall how much the new Yankee Stadium favored home runs and Citi Field suppressed them -- in spite of the latter's bizarre No. 12 rating in the category on the 2009 Park Factors page -- might be wondering whether the data for either of those parks has changed in their sophomore seasons. Could it be that Target might be gobbling up homers in its first year, but might settle in as a more homer-friendly venue -- or at least one in line with the Metrodome's rates -- in year No. 2 and beyond?

Other than the wild fluctuations at New York's Citi Field and Houston's Minute Maid Park their first two seasons -- both of which could be explained partially by the quality of offenses the home teams sported those years -- it seems that once a homer-friendly (or homer-suppressing) venue, always a homer-friendly (again, or homer-suppressing) venue. The New York Mets' offense is stronger this season than last, for instance, but even accounting for that, Citi Field is playing like an extreme pitchers' park, as everyone expected it would.

Detroit's Comerica Park did experience a bump in home-run production in its fourth year of existence, which can be easily explained by the fact that the team moved its outfield fences in, particularly in left-center, where the distance shrunk from 395 to 370 feet. Outside of that, San Francisco's AT&T Park offers Target Field its primary hope for a natural boost in homer production, and even there, the lefty/righty chart discussed earlier shows how canyon-esque that field can play in right.

Sell Twins hitters?

The natural conclusion from all this, of course, is that you should be quickly peddling names like Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer and Kubel. Perhaps with Morneau that's true; he has a long-running trend of poor second-half performances, though none of it in the past was necessarily ballpark-driven.

Here's a reason to stand pat with the other three:

Mauer: Batted at least .300 with an .850 OPS after the All-Star break in three of the past four seasons; hit 13 of his 28 homers in 2009 in the second half.
Cuddyer: Has a lifetime second-half OPS that's 46 points higher than first half, and seven more homers after the break than before it.
Kubel: Had .286/.369/.531 second-half numbers last season, and has had a second-half OPS of .800 or greater in each of the past three years.

Target Field's leanings notwithstanding, you might actually want to target (pun unintended) Twins hitters, not to mention scoop up their pitchers, too, accounting for the ballpark's leanings.

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, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.