As Ken Griffey Jr. first took batting practice in the skeletal, incomplete confines of Safeco field—the narrative was set, Safeco Field was about to make a slew of power hitters unhappier than a three year old who is well past his nap time. Griffey himself was so distressed with the hitting conditions he even refused to speak to reporters after his first ever batting session in the then new stadium. Later he recollects the event with traditional Ken Griffey Jr. embellishment; pitchers sporting devious, satisfied smirks and sure thing home runs dropping into gleeful outfielder’s gloves. Foreshadowing, as it turns out, for the style of baseball provided to fans in the Pacific Northwest for over the last decade.
The rest in history as they say and even Ken Griffey Jr. couldn’t have know how eerily accurate he was regarding the issues the Mariners would experience from 2002 – 2013. Throughout those years, the Mariners have put together some historically horrible offenses; unwatchable, lamp throwing, rage inducing, swear-in-front-of-the-kids-even-though-I-promised-the-wife-I-wouldn’t, offenses. Through the rage and hate and tubes upon tubes of wasted super glue, apathy eventually started to sink in. This, more than anything else on this earth, is the most dangerous thing to a sports franchise. Anger, rage, and disgust are emotions of passion. These emotions are birthed from the same place as the primal roar that burst from the exploding neurotransmitters in our brain when we witness a walk-off home run, because we care… a lot. Apathy rips our ability to care away. Instead of screaming in utter disgust and chucking a $45 lamp against the wall, we laugh and turn the game off. “Typical Mariners,” we say, “what a joke.”
This has been our reality for more than 14 years. The revolving door at General Manager and manager has more often than not, failed to produce a on the field product than can supplement Safeco’s attributes. Safeco field has been home run and offense suppressing ballpark, yet the Mariners have done everything possible to build teams focused on hitting the long ball since the franchise crippling decision to appoint Bill Bavasi as the organization’s GM. In 2013, the Mariners moved in the fences in an attempt to make their traditional pitchers haven a bit more offensively neutral. Did it work? Well, both the 2014 and 2015 Mariners’ offenses were quite good, especially in the second half of the season. That could speak to the park, or the untypically hot summers the region has been experiencing, or it could just be as simple as having very good offenses these last two years. A little bit of everything as it turns out. Safeco field has indeed played a bit differently these past two seasons than it has in the past, and it appears to be driven by two main factors: the new dimensions and the weather.
The new dimensions of Safeco have been covered ad nauseam. Left-center shrunk to 378 from 390, the deepest point went from 409 to 405, dead center was chopped from 405 to 401, and right-center move in about four feet. The field has always played smaller for lefties and therefor, no dimensional changes to right field were necessary. Since 2001, Safeco field has averaged a park factor of .86 for home runs which is favorable to the pitcher, but not drastically. Since the changes, the Mariners have achieved exactly what they set out to do, Safeco over the past three years has averaged a park factor .94 for the long ball. This just covers the home runs, but the park has been an overall offensive suppressant since being birthed into existence. So, exactly how many home runs have these new dimensions given life to? Well, over the last three years Safeco has averaged 2.01 homers per game as opposed to 1.43 over the previous three before the dimension changes. So, the old cozy confines aren’t as cozy for the fly ball pitchers as they used to be.
And speaking of cozy, let’s discuss the weather. We are all familiar with Seattle’s mild, comfortable summers. The average summer high temperature in Seattle is a nice, cool and comfortable 73.4 F. It’s the perfect environment to brew a nice, thick marine layer. The average for last summer however, was an astounding 80.2 F. That on the other hand is plenty warm enough to help burn away the marine layer. What is a marine layer, how does it affect a baseball, what does any of this have to do with Safeco park effects? This is taken from an article I wrote a while back when the organization first announced it was going to be moving in the fences:
It’s called a marine layer, a distasteful product of the Puget Sound. It is caused when the otherwise warm air comes into contact with the surface of cold water. This process causes the once warm air to cool down and increase its density. After all, water along the west coast stems from Alaskan waters and is much cooler than water you would find mirrored on the east coast. You may have heard this referred to as May-Gray, and while clouds could be present, they are not always an indicator of the presence of a marine layer. So when thick marine air is mentioned with regards to Safeco field, you now can understand where is comes from. However, we do not fully understand how it effects the flight of a baseball. In a vacuum, a baseball traveling the same speed, at the same trajectory will land in the same spot every time. However, cold air is dense and thick. With a simple understanding that cold molecules move much slower than those that are warm, drives the next portion of understanding. I’m no scientist, however this is a simple scientific notion discovered somewhere around the sixth grade. As the suns bright rays beam down upon a baseball field, warming the air and raising the temperature, molecules in the atmosphere expand and increase in speed. Therefor a dry, hot environment allows a baseball to travel further, accomplishing the path of least resistance. After all, heat is an energy source helping to keep the baseball airborne for a longer period of time. Seeing how cold is the absence of heat, it would stand to reason that any molecular activity in cold air would be the exact opposite of that in hot air. Thus a baseball traveling through cold air is going to travel less than that in hot. Take a layer of dense cold marine air, and the ball is not only going to be lacking an extra energy source (heat), but it is going to be dragged down by the moist marine air.
I have always been the one to argue than our environment has more to do with Safeco playing as a pitcher park than anything else. Our environment may be in the process of changing. Dependent on your views of Global Warming, these hot summers could be here to stay. This could potentially play a larger role in changing the way Safeco plays than moving the fences in did a few years back. If the summers are getting hot enough to burn away the marine layer on more days than not, then the Mariners may find themselves in more than just a neutral offensive environment, but dare I say a friendly one.
The Mariners have spent an entire offseason building a roster around the way Safeco field plays. They have dropped one-dimensional power bats with no defense and acquire speedy, athletic spray hitters. They acquired Evan Scribner and Wade Miley in an attempt to maximize their pitching potential in union with Safeco’s reputation of aiding fly ball pitchers. They have done this with the best intentions and the correct though process, but Safeco may be evolving in a way that we have yet to see. Safeco may be a park in transition, but as we all know it takes a long time to kill baseball narratives and with only three years of data fighting against 12, odds are they may be battling this one for a long time to come.