30 Questions: What will Nationals Park mean to the players?
Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
Ah, the speculative, seemingly annual, new ballpark question.
Ballpark factors, until the games actually begin, are nearly impossible to pinpoint. You can do all the historical studies you want, study the measurements or the measurement differences between the old and new park, analyze wind factors, etc., but suffice to say that it will take a year or two to see how it really plays, and even longer to get a precise trend on a new ballpark.
That said, I didn't say we can't get close. And, besides, isn't it fun to speculate?
So, from the angle of rampant speculation, gut instinct, an off-the-cuff prediction, whatever you choose to call it, here's my answer to the question in bold above: A lot.
I say that partly because, after three years and 243 games of Nationals baseball played at cavernous, pitching-friendly RFK Stadium, the pendulum can't help but swing at least a little toward the hitting side. Look at the numbers amassed there from 2005-07: RFK ranked no higher than 23rd in either runs scored or home runs on our Park Factors page in any single season. In 2007, in fact, RFK ranked dead last in home runs (0.676), with the lowest number of any park since Atlanta's Turner Field registered a 0.568 in 2003. Baseball-reference.com's three-year Park Factor -- which uses a different formula -- ranked RFK a 94 for hitters and 95 for pitchers; those are the lowest numbers of any park but Oakland's McAfee Coliseum (93/93) and San Diego's Petco Park (91/91).
Now, you might argue that the terrible teams the Nationals have sported might have largely contributed to the poor numbers those three seasons. One thing that seems to suggest otherwise: The Nationals as a team batted .261 with a .741 OPS on the road from 2005-07, a mere two points in batting average and three in OPS off the MLB average road marks during that span (.263 and .744). At home, though, the Nats fell 20 points in batting average and 64 in OPS short of the MLB home numbers (.272 and .775). In other words, the Nationals' offense performed like an average team away from RFK, but dreadfully at it.
Do the math. What that tells you is that if Nationals Park plays exactly neutral, the Nationals would be good for 29 more homers, 91 more total bases and 26 more points of OPS than they had in 2007, going off their per-game road averages from 2005-07. That's a noticeable-enough difference.
But is Nationals Park really going to be a neutral environment?
Here's a handy comparison of the old and new parks' dimensions:
|RFK Stadium||Nationals Park|
|Plate to backstop||53'2"||58'|
That's a pretty noticeable shortening of the outfield fences, wouldn't you say? In particular, we're talking a fence 10 feet closer in right-center field in Nationals Park, albeit with a tradeoff of six feet in fence height. Still, looking at the field layouts of the two ballparks, I can't help but feel that the architects took a pair of scissors to RFK's playing field and snipped off the curved sections in the power alleys to shorten and straighten them.
It'll be interesting, therefore, to see how quickly outfielders, particularly visiting players, adapt to the more angular fences than the ones in RFK. In the early weeks especially, Nationals Park might be a doubles and triples heaven.
There's something else that dawned upon me, looking at Nationals Park's dimensions. With a scoreboard and a high wall in right-center, the new park brings to mind another similar, nearby ballpark. Check out the dimension comparisons below:
|Nationals Park||Citizens Bank Park|
|Plate to backstop||58'||49'5"|
They're not substantially different, right? Sure, Citizens Bank might have shorter left- and left-center field fences, and its foul territory is a bit slimmer, but those center- and right-center field measurements are eerily similar. Plus, unlike the former RFK, Nationals Park isn't an enclosed environment; it has open outfields, like Citizens Bank. I'm not saying I'd expect Nationals Park to play like Citizens Bank in 2008, not by a long shot, but on the ballpark-measurement scale, I'd place it a bit closer to Citizens Bank than RFK. And the seeds are there for it to get somewhat close, depending on the weather effects.
What, then, might those weather effects be?
Meteorologist Howard Bernstein of WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., shed some light on the subject. Winds tend to breeze in from the south/southwest in the city, so with the new ballpark situated just north of the Anacostia River, facing northeast from home plate, hitters stand to benefit most. Bernstein speculated that left-handed sluggers might receive the biggest boost; the southwest winds might trend from the third-base dugout to right-center or right field, into that favorable power alley. Ryan Howard surely will love to hear that the first time he makes the trek south to D.C.
However, Bernstein also noted that in the early weeks of the season, poor weather almost assuredly will come into play. The back-door cold fronts prevalent in Washington in April and May might lead to frequent temperatures in the 50s, drizzle and slicing winds drifting in from the north and northeast. That might play unfavorably toward the hitters, perhaps reminding us of old times at RFK. In other words, don't be fooled by the early returns, but as temperatures rise midsummer, we'll get a better read.
All that adds up to a ballpark that appears likely to trend neutral to somewhat hitter-friendly; think of it as a strong candidate to crack the top-10 hitters' parks, though only barely so. In addition, the early-season weather concerns, not to mention the risk of gambling on the unknown of a new park's statistical factors, might put Nationals hitters in more of a "buy-low" than "buy-on-draft-day" category, and pitchers on the "draft-'em, then sell high" side. That'd ring especially true if the April/May numbers put Nationals Park within range of RFK; trust me, folks, this park is not RFK.
Individually speaking, here are a few players I expect would be most affected:
Jason Bergmann: Two things not to like here. One, he's an extreme fly-ball pitcher, averaging 0.67 ground balls per fly ball for his career, and two, his platoon split against left-handed hitters is particularly troublesome (.263 BAA, .889 OPSA). Once a popular NL-only sleeper, Bergmann is best left as a late-round pick, and one to classify in the "sell-high" category if he gets off to a hot start in those dreary April/May months.
Chad Cordero: Again, a fly-ball pitcher who averages 0.73 ground balls per fly ball for his career. Plus, Cordero has served up 21 homers combined the past two years, too many for a closer. He's the Nationals' most valuable pitcher for fantasy, but if this team kicks off slowly, the threat of a trade into a setup role elsewhere looms.
Nick Johnson: He's one of the team's few decent left-handed hitters, which plays back to talk that Nationals Park will favor hitters from that side. I'll put Johnson in the category of "buy-later" than "buy-now," accounting for the fact that he'll be working himself up to full strength in the early weeks. But he'll be a "buy-low" for sure before long.
Austin Kearns: He won't be at all upset to see RFK go. He finishes his career a .242 hitter with a .727 OPS in 118 games there, and in 2007, his rates were .228/.695, significantly beneath his .292/.883 on the road. He's coming off a year in which he had a career-high 35 doubles and, at 27 years old, is still young enough to improve. If he can't at least match his 24 homers and 86 RBIs of 2006, I'd be surprised.
Felipe Lopez: Like Kearns, he couldn't have liked RFK one bit, batting .264 with a .660 OPS in 121 career games there. Lopez might not even be in the Opening Day lineup, but all that'd do is potentially create another "buy-low" opportunity. In the event Nationals Park trends more hitter-friendly than expected and he emerges as a starter, he'd be well worth acquiring. Remember, Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park sure helped him.
Finally, and perhaps most important of them all, Opposing pitchers. Remember when a trip to RFK was once considered among the most favorable matchups for an opposing pitcher? No longer. Nationals Park should balance things out, so don't be too hasty to pick just any arm scheduled for a trip to our nation's capital.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.