- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The Minnesota Twins might be piranhas at home, but they've played like clown fish on the road for much of this season. Tuesday's 10-5 victory in Oakland was a rare respite for the Twins, who have too often failed to produce the clutch hit that makes the difference between an uplifting win and a disheartening defeat on the road.
"If we knew, we could fix it," said Rob Antony, Minnesota's assistant general manager. "But there's no explanation. We come up with so many big hits at home. When we get a couple of guys on base on the road, there's just not the same feeling because it's been such a negative trend all year."
The big home-road win-loss differentials for Minnesota and San Diego, among other clubs, got us thinking about individual players who've experienced a noticeable disparity in performance depending on where they're playing.
In this week's installment of Starting 9, we take a look at split personalities: players who have been world-beaters at home and roadkill everywhere else. Or vice versa. It's still early enough for the "small sample size" argument to apply, but there's no shortage of weirdness going on out there.
Adrian Gonzalez, Padres (.786 SLG on the road, .485 at home)
Gonzalez has never been a Petco Park fan. "If you put the best lineup in baseball in our park, the numbers would be bad," he said in an interview two years ago. "When we get on that plane out of San Diego, every hitter is a happy hitter."
Still, Gonzalez has made his peace with the place in a way that Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin never did. Klesko complained about Petco's dimensions during his first round of batting practice at the park, and Nevin derisively referred to Petco as "Barry Bonds-proof." Neither hitter ever recovered.
Gonzalez's strategy seems to revolve around holding his own in San Diego, then partying like it's 1999 on the road. He has a nondescript .446 career slugging percentage at Petco, but slugs .746 at Wrigley Field, .705 at Miller Park in Milwaukee and .702 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. He's better than .600 in Washington, Colorado and Houston.
"I think he subtly changes his swing in San Diego," said a National League scout. "He thinks more opposite-field when he's at Petco. Then he lets it fly and looks to pull the ball more on the road."
Gonzalez's home run spray chart on Hit Tracker suggests that he'll use the entire field regardless of where he's playing. He's pulled only six of his 22 home runs to right field. The other 16 have either gone to dead center or the opposite way.
"Teams aren't pitching to him at all right now," said an AL scout, "but I think he's just going with what they're giving him. When they do leave it over the plate, he's hitting it hard."
Ian Kinsler, Rangers (1.164 OPS at home, .616 on the road)
Ever since White Sox starter Mark Buehrle responded to a beatdown in 2005 by suggesting that the Rangers gain an edge by stealing signs at home, conspiracy theorists have dropped hints that there's some hanky-panky going on in Arlington.
The Rangers denied the charge when Buehrle made it, and they still deny it. "There's no truth to it," general manager Jon Daniels said in an e-mail. And it's worth noting that while Texas scores runs in abundance at home, Rangers pitchers have done their share of suffering in Arlington.
Kinsler, whose home-road splits were dead even in 2008, has been Chase Utley at home and Emmanuel Burriss on the road this season. He's walking more and striking out less at home, and 21 of his 30 extra-base hits have come in Arlington.
The Rangers don't have a handy explanation for the disparity, but one stat provides some insight: According to the FanGraphs Web site, only Carlos Pena, Rod Barajas and Bengie Molina have a greater fly-ball ratio than Kinsler, who has hit the ball in the air 55.1 percent of the time.
Kinsler is also a dead pull hitter, with 14 of his 15 homers going out to left field. The Rangers have made road trips to New York, Detroit, Seattle and Oakland this season, and long fly balls that might be off the wall or over it in Texas are more likely to die at the warning track in those parks.
Dan Uggla, Marlins (1.021 OPS at home, .557 on the road)
Uggla's home-road splits might simply be a reflection of the schedule. His swing was out of whack in April and May when the Marlins were playing 19 of 26 games on the road. When he worked out the kinks in late May, the Marlins happened to be in the middle of an extended homestand.
Uggla has hit 10 of his 11 homers in Florida. He's also been a much more selective hitter at home, where he has drawn 29 of his 36 walks this season.
The Marlins' home park, Land Shark Stadium, was once considered a hitters' graveyard, but that reputation no longer applies. One theory making the rounds is that the wind patterns became more conducive to offense when Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga made some football-related renovations to the stadium.
Uggla has grown fond of the place, but rumors persist that he's not long for Florida. The Marlins have prospect Chris Coghlan, a natural second baseman, playing left field. Emilio Bonifacio, another second baseman by trade, is clearly miscast at third base. He's already made 11 errors at the position. Uggla won his arbitration case in February and is making $5.35 million this season, so it's no surprise his name keeps popping up in trade rumors.
Kevin Slowey, Twins (7-0 at home, 1-2 on the road)
Slowey is Exhibit A that won-loss records can be deceptive. He has a higher ERA at home (4.24) than on the road (3.86), but he's been a major beneficiary of the big offensive numbers posted by Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer at the Metrodome.
The Twins have averaged 6.6 runs per game in Slowey's eight starts at the Metrodome, compared to 3.0 runs per game in his four starts on the road.
Still, it's apparent that Slowey has a comfort zone in Minnesota similar to the one that Brad Radke -- the former Twin to whom he's so often compared -- enjoyed there. Slowey has exceptional control, pitches with the understanding that he's going to allow some solo homers, and has parlayed that approach into a 16-4 career record at the Metrodome.
Slowey's penchant for throwing fly balls is a good thing when Carlos Gomez and Denard Span are chasing everything down in the gap. And contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Hubert Humphrey "Homerdome" is actually charitable to fly-ball pitchers. The Metrodome was baseball's 27th most conducive home run park in 2007, and it ranked 21st last season.
David Wright, Mets (.833 OPS at home, 1.090 on the road)
In a recent Sirius XM radio interview with Cal and Bill Ripken, Chipper Jones said Wright is a "little frustrated" with the Mets' new park. Based on the Braves' first visit to New York this year, Jones isn't very high on the place, either.
"I juiced the ball just right of center field as hard as the good Lord can let me hit a ball, and it hit midways up the center-field wall for a double," Jones said. "And every time there was a long fly out or a double that hit off the wall or something, David Wright would run by me and go, 'Nice park.'"
Mets manager Jerry Manuel recently observed that Wright might be trying too hard at home, and a National League scout seconded that opinion.
"He might be more adversely affected by the new park than anyone on that team," the scout said of Wright. "He's got power, but he's not a legit slugger, and that field is Death Valley all over the place. And because of his personality, I think he sees himself as having to carry that club, especially with the scrutiny they get at home."
Last year, in the finale for Shea Stadium, the Mets ranked ninth in the majors with 95 home runs at home. This year, New York is 27th in the big leagues with 21 homers at Citi Field.
For what it's worth, the Mets aren't hitting with much power regardless of where they play. Wright has gone deep once outside Citi Field, and the Mets are 29th in the majors with 16 homers on the road. The loss of Carlos Delgado to a hip injury certainly hasn't helped.
Wright, Carlos Beltran and Ryan Church all homered Tuesday, and the Phillies and Mets combined for seven home runs at Citi, so maybe the park will be more hitter-friendly when the nights start getting warmer.
Jon Garland, Diamondbacks (8.71 ERA at home, 3.08 on the road)
The Diamondbacks aren't sweating the above disparity given that Garland has had eight solid starts, one passable outing and three dreadful appearances this season.
"It just so happens that all of the rough ones have been at home," said general manager Josh Byrnes.
Nevertheless, some underlying numbers suggest that Garland is walking a tightrope. Even though he's widely perceived as a sinkerballer, Garland has thrown 2,098 fly balls and 1,788 groundballs in his career. That doesn't make him a great fit at Chase Field, where the ball really flies.
Garland's strikeout-to-walk ratio, never pretty, continues to drift in the wrong direction. He has 28 strikeouts and 32 walks this season.
The Diamondbacks signed Garland to a one-year, $7.25 million contract in January, with a mutual option for 2010, so the two parties have four months left to see how compatible they are. If Arizona doesn't expect too much, Garland is a serviceable guy.
"He's got good stuff and a good delivery, and he's going to give you a boatload of innings," said an AL scout. "I've had him as a No. 4 for a while now."
Jim Thome, White Sox (.731 OPS at home, 1.011 away)
"His power hasn't diminished," said an American League scout. "He has the same holes he's always had, but he's still dangerous."
Thome's 52 strikeouts in 157 at-bats are evidence of the holes, but he still flashes enough power to make you think he's capable of another 30-homer season.
Thome's slow start at U.S. Cellular Field is in keeping with the entire Chicago lineup. The White Sox have a feeble .350 slugging percentage at home this season, and they're last in the majors with 33 doubles at home. In comparison, Boston, Toronto and Arizona all have more than 70 already.
The White Sox haven't gotten much production from Chris Getz, Alexei Ramirez, Brian Anderson and their new blood, and Carlos Quentin's injury problems have taken a bite out of the offense. Despite GM Kenny Williams' efforts to make the lineup younger and more athletic, the Sox don't look very dynamic when they're not going deep.
Jay Bruce, Reds (.988 OPS at home, .549 away)
"He's got 'small ballpark' power," said a National League scout. "He's kind of like Raul Ibanez. I think he's really helped by that park. Fly balls will carry out there that don't go out in other places."
Bruce isn't the only young hitter whose production at home far surpasses what he's doing on the road this season. Toronto's Adam Lind, Kansas City's Billy Butler and San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval all fit the description.
It makes sense, in theory, that young hitters are going to be more comfortable with a certain routine. So if Bruce likes the hitting background at Great American Ball Park or derives a little extra charge from the fan support, it's going to help him.
Bruce put up some big power numbers during homestands in April and May, but he has struggled regardless of the venue in June. He's hitting .100 this month (2-for-20) and doesn't have a homer or an RBI.
Opponents have been pitching Bruce hard in and soft away, and he's been overanxious and flying open with his front shoulder. The absence of good friend Joey Votto with stress-related issues has put even more pressure on Bruce to carry the power burden in Cincinnati. Bruce has the talent to be an All-Star one day, but that's a lot to expect for a kid who just turned 22.
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (1.53 ERA at home, 6.75 on the road)
Kershaw is learning on the fly at age 21, so that entitles him to a break right off the top. Like all young pitchers, his effectiveness on a given day is going to depend largely on fastball command and his ability to throw his breaking ball for strikes.
"When everything is on, that big 12-to-6 curveball and the elevated fastball are a good complement to each other," said a scout. "Once he starts using his changeup more, he'll be a lot better. He flashes a good one, but he needs to use it more."
Kershaw's numbers are more a reflection of the opposition than the venue. He's 1-0 with a 1.59 ERA in home starts against Washington, San Diego and San Francisco. In road games at Houston, Colorado and Philadelphia, he's 0-3 with a 12.21 ERA.
Kershaw is not the first pitcher who's discovered that life at Chavez Ravine is great for reasons other than the sunshine and the palm trees. Just ask Chan Ho Park.
Others of note
Nick Swisher, Yankees: Nine of his 12 home runs have come on the road. One scout said Swisher got too "pull-happy" when he caught a glimpse of that short right-field porch at the new Yankee Stadium. Swisher went 7-for-14 on the team's most recent homestand, so that's a good sign.
Ryan Theriot, Cubs: Theriot has a .992 OPS at home, compared to .631 on the road. He's quickly grown to love Wrigley Field.
Andre Ethier, Dodgers: He has a .637 slugging percentage and 10 homers at Dodger Stadium, and he's .347 with one homer everywhere else. Good luck trying to explain that one.
Some players, including MLB home run leader Adrian Gonzalez, are roadkill at home and world-beaters on the road. Or vice versa.