Saturday, April 9, 2011

The New Backdrop In Center Field At Target Field

Ok, friends. Last year, behind the center field wall at Target Field here in Minneapolis, there was a row of pine trees. Apparently, hitters didn't like them - the waving-gently-in-the-breeze thing confused these poor, overmatched Major League Baseballers, and so the trees have been uprooted and replanted elsewhere.

Denard Span: "I can't make any excuses and say maybe why I didn't hit as good as last year was because of those trees... But I can say having that background there was definitely better than having those trees back there."

In 2010, the Twins had a batting average of .282, and an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .776 at Target Field. Twins batted .276 and OPS'd .750 at every other ballpark they played at. Almost the entire difference in OPS is in an increase in home on-base percentage, by the way. I'm not sure what that means, but wouldn't it be that much harder to draw a walk if you couldn't see the ball as well?

Opposing teams batted .263 and OPS'd .709 at Target Field, and .270 and .758 at the other various parks around the league. Most of that difference in OPS come on the slugging percentage side of the stat. So it's clear that opposing batters didn't particularily hit well at Target Field compared to their home ballparks, especially for power (remember that the Twins slugging percentage is nearly identical at home and away for 2010), but then again, very few teams ever hit better on the road than at home.

Here are the 2010 home/away OPS splits for the teams in the AL Central:

Minnesota Twins - .776/.750 (differential: .026)
Chicago White Sox - .796/.709 (.087)
Detroit Tigers - .775/.726 (.049)
Cleveland Indians - .710/.690 (.020)
Kansas City Royals - .751/.710 (.041)

The Twins home/away differential is less than that of the White Sox, Tigers, and Royals, but greater than that of the Indians. Does this mean that the Twins batters may have a point; that if only they had a better batter's-eye view (i.e. no confounded conifers!), their home hitting would be that much better?

I looked up how other MLB teams did at the ballparks in the AL Central against the hallowed five of the Great Lakes Division. Remember, this is OPS against, a measure of pitching prowess, not hitting skill. Here are those numbers, at the park in question/at all other venues:

Target Field - .709/.758 (differential: .049)
US Cellular Field - .736/.704 (-.032)
Comerica Park - .695/.770 (.075)
Jacobs Field - .728/.789 (.061)
Kaufman Stadium - .759/.795 (.036)

It's interesting that the Twins didn't even have the biggest split here - that honor goes to Comerica Park in Detroit, where Tigers pitching apparently REALLY shined when enjoying the comforts of home. The Indians pitchers, too, had a better time of it at home than away relative to Twins hurlers. The somewhat (in?)famous home-run friendly atmosphere at US Cellular Field is reflected here by the White Sox actually allowing higher OPS against at home than on the road.

After looking at these numbers, it's clear to me that Target Field does provide some sort of advantage to the pitcher. What isn't so clear is how MUCH of an advantage, and relative to at least several other ballparks in the AL Central, whether or not it's even worth talking about. If you consider the home/away OPS against stat as a good cross-section measurement of opposing batters, Target Field wasn't the toughest park to visit in the AL Central - Comerica Park was.

Obviously, some teams had better hitting overall, and some teams had better pitching overall. But the splits tell a tale worth your attention. Look at the differential. Was Target Field really so devilishly hard to hit at? The Indians at Jacobs Field had both a smaller OPS advantage for their hitters (.020) and larger OPS against advantage for their pitchers (.061) than the Twins. I'd say that makes The Jake the toughest park in which to get comfortable at the plate in the Great Lakes Division.

Jason Kubel, after hitting a pinch-hit single in his first at-bat at Target Field since the pines were taken out: "I liked it... I saw everything fine. [In batting practice], when it was sunny out there, it was fine. Three o'clock games were the worst ones."

If the batter's-eye has been improved by the forced relocation of the evergreen row, I'd expect the differential for Twins offense to be larger this year, and also I'd expect opponents to hit better at Target Field relative to other parks than they did last year. We'll see what happens.

I liked the pines.

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