To be honest right out the gate, the title of this post isn’t terribly fair. The new Yankee Stadium was built to have dimensions identical to the old stadium, so we can’t blame Steinbrenner for what’s been going on there thus far. That being said, let’s have some fun at their expense.
For those who are unaware, there’s been a lot of talk since the new stadium opened in the Bronx that home run balls are flying over the fences at an alarming rate. Given my thoughts on the Yankees and their traditional neglect of pitching, or any other aspect of baseball removed from slugging, I can’t help but find this to be sweet, poetic justice. The House That Ruth built gives way to The House That Steinbrenner Built, and appropriately enough, the fan base that loves to watch home runs now gets to see plenty of them. Too many. And this time, it’s to the detriment of the team.
One of the many wonderful things about baseball is that each park is different, with its own characteristics and variations on strategy. For example, center field in Minute Maid Park where the Houston Astros play features a somewhat ridiculous slanted hill. Here in San Diego where Upper Deck is located, the hometown Padres play at Petco: a wonderful stadium with large dimensions located right next to the thick, harbor air, creating an environment that supresses home runs like none other. And of course there’s the legendary Coors Field, where the thin mountain air made home runs too common, while pitchers struggled to make their breaking balls, well, break. It got so bad that management now stores game balls in a giant humidor, in an effort to regulate the environment and play something that less resembles video game baseball.
Which brings us to the new Yankee Stadium. Now, granted, April hasn’t even ended yet, so it’s a bit quick to make assumptions. But looking at some of the quotes from articles written on the subject, it’s hard to not be alarmed. For example, take a look at Buster Olney’s ESPN column, linked above: “With the way the wind has been the last couple of days, right field is a joke,” one official said. “I would say at least three or four home runs in this series would be routine outs in nearly every park.”
So why does this even matter? After all, the Yankees have built their legacy on home runs, so if anything, isn’t this appropriate to their history? On a superficial level, sure. But at the end of the day, the player who matters the most in baseball is the guy standing on the mound, with the ball in his hand. Pitching wins games, and when you play in a bandbox, your pitching is hurt in the process. If you take a look at the Rockies and Rangers, their historic difficulties as franchises can be directly attributed to the pitching woes created by their stadiums. And yes, we can blame their management for poor decisions when it comes to scouting and signing, but fostering an environment that actively punishes pitchers is not a very good strategic decision.
Here’s the thing: if your pitchers need to compete in a bandbox half the time, they’re going to get shelled more than your average team that gets to play half its games in a neutral, or pitching friendly stadium. As a result, your starters get knocked out of games earlier, which means your bullpen needs to come in sooner, and everyone gets fairly exhausted (not to mention demoralized) in short order. And let’s not forget about the kids either: what happens when a prospect like Phil Hughes comes up, and routine popups clear the fences? It’ll shatter their confidence, and suddenly they’ll change their approach to try and avoid those situations (not to mention praying and hoping their start comes on the road, and not at home).
The good news is that not all hope is lost. Unlike the Rangers and Rockies, the Yankees have the resources to lure free agent pitchers, regardless of their environment. And the Phillies play in a bandbox themselves, but it didn’t prevent them from winning a World Series last year. The team can take strategic measures to take advantage of this environment (especially the short porch in right), such as signing quality lefty starters and relievers, strikeout and groundball specialists, and avoiding fly ball pitchers at all costs. Lefty hitters with a history of warning track power suddenly become an asset in pinstripes. And given that fly balls are clearing the fences more often than usual, you can probably sacrifice a bit of defense at the outfield corners. After all, if the ball doesn’t stay in play, you can’t catch it.
Still, this is going to be an albatross the Yankees will have to deal with forever, unless there’s some reconstruction magic they can do in the winter. It’s incredibly difficult to cultivate pitching strength in an environment like this, which I suppose is more appropriate for the Yankees than any other team. The legendary, storied franchise that has only retired the numbers of two pitchers now has a stadium to match that philosophy. Sluggers like A-Rod will be thrilled, and fans will pay money to marvel at how many balls go home as souvenirs. And pitchers in pinstripes will be eternally frustrated, but they should know better: it’s not like they’ve ever been a focus in the Bronx anyway. How appropriate.