The rate at which home runs have been flying out of the new Yankee Stadium has been a hot topic since the first weeks of the season, but up to now the statheads have been urging caution and calm. “Small sample size” they have cried.
But as we close in on the two month mark, it is becoming increasingly more clear that New Yankee Stadium is one of the greatest home run parks of all time.
Indeed, in only its first season, the stadium is already on pace to smash the mark for most home runs hit at a ballpark in a single season. The current record was set at pre-humidor Coors Field in 1999, when 303 homers were bashed (making Coors only stadium ever to surpass 300 thus far). But with 82 homers hit at Yankee Stadium already in only 22 games, the stadium is on pace for a ridiculous 317 homers this year.
Averaged out, an astounding 3.91 homers per game have been hit in the Bronx so far this season. By comparison, 1.98 homers were hit per game at Old Yankee Stadium last season, which is right around the typical American League average of about 2.00 per game.
What went wrong
So what exactly is wrong with New Yankee Stadium? Well, recent wind studies have demonstrated that the new ballpark is about 20% more likely than the old one on any given day to have a wind blowing out to the outfield of 10 mph or more, with the likelihood increasing even further in the spring and fall. Given that a tail wind of 10 miles per hour will cause a typical borderline homerun ball to travel about 25 feet further, a significant assist that is only increased as the windspeed goes up.
Just watching the highlights of the homers hit out of New Yankee Stadium so far, this wind assist is plain to see. Anything hit fairly high in the air takes off once it gets into the wind, especially to right field. Guys are hitting home runs one handed, or even when they get jammed or get too far under the ball. And when players actually do hit the ball right on the screws, they are hitting monstrous bombs.
Only adding to the homer woes, the stadium designers pulled a fast one with the dimensions in right field. Although the most often cited dimensions, such as down the foul lines and to straightaway center are the same as the old park, thus preserving “Yankee tradition,” the designers flattened out the sharp dogleg in the right field wall, meaning that in some places, the right field wall is as much as nine feet closer to home plate in the new stadium.
This is pretty huge, and very significant when the old stadium was already legendary for having one of the shortest right field porches in the entire game (allegedly designed for the Babe). Already this season somewhere in the region of ten homers have been hit out to right field that would not have gone out in the old stadium, just judging by distance alone, before wind is even taken into account.
What to do now
It’s obviously a little too late to go back and fix a $1.5 billion stadium. And I’m actually of the opinion that having different stadiums that play differently is one of baseball’s charms, unlike football or basketball where the dimensions are always identical.
But what the Yankees do need to do is build a team that will be best suited to their stadium. And they need to start now. Here are my recommendations:
When you have a home park that yields a lot of home runs, the obvious first step to take is to focus on acquiring groundball pitchers. The Yankees are fortunate in that they already have five of the best groundball pitchers in the game in Chien Ming Wang, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite, AJ Burnett, and Sergio Mitre.
But a problem is that the Yankees also have some of the worst flyball pitchers in the game, particularly in the bullpen. Many people have pointed out how woeful the Yankees pen has been so far this season, but few people have recognized that one of the main reasons the pen has been so bad is that outside of Rivera it is chock full of extreme flyball pitchers and that these pitchers are getting battered at home. I’m looking at you Brian Bruney (career FB% of 45%), Damaso Marte (42%), Jose Veras (44%), Edwar Ramirez (a ridiculous 49%), Phil Coke (43%), and Alfredo Aceves (41%).
When it comes to flyball percentage, anything above 40% signifies a major flyball pitcher, and all six of these pitchers have drastically elevated home run rates this year, compared to previous career norms. Given that one of the worst things a relief pitcher can do, given that they often come into the game with runners on base, is give up a home run, the Yankees will never have a good bullpen in their new park if that many guys have flyball percentages over 40%. Brian Cashman should look to move as many of these pitchers as possible and bring in guys who can keep the ball on the ground.
Of course, bringing in a lot of groundball pitchers also calls for having a strong infield defense to take advantage of all of those ground balls. While they Yankees significantly upgraded their infield defense by bringing in former third baseman Mark Teixeira, who has already dazzled with his glove, they still have a gaping hole in their infield defense in the form of Derek Jeter, whose range has basically fallen off a cliff in recent years.
Another consequence of the new ballpark then, is that the Yankees should explore trading Derek Jeter this year, so they can bring in a better defensive shortstop. Although even mentioning this is blasphemy to head-in-the-sand Yankee fans, trading Jeter in 2009 makes sense on a lot of levels. Jeter’s offense has declined to the point where it no longer justifies his poor defense, but he is still a huge name, and is still under contract through 2010, so there should be plenty of willing buyers, and the Yankees should be able to get a sizeable return (especially if they eat some of his salary, which they can easily afford to do).
Another player the Yankees should look to trade as soon as possible, in light of the new stadium, is Philip Hughes. Hughes’s career flyball percentage of 43.3% does not bode well at all for success in New Yankee Stadium, yet he is still a much-hyped young arm who can get a good return on the trade market. The Yankees should not wait until their homer happy home park takes the luster off of Hughes’s hype to trade him away.
But besides trading away players, who should the Yankees look to acquire?
The starting pitchers not currently on the Yankees with groundball rates under 25 percent (minimum 500 IP) are Brandon Webb (18%), Derek Lowe (20%), Jake Westbrook (22%), Tim Hudson (23%), Aaron Cook (23%), Lenny DiNardo (23%), Roy Halladay (24%), and Kirk Saarloos (24%). DiNardo and Saarloos, who had a 3.66 FIP with the A’s last season, are intriguing options for pitching depth who is likely available now, so the Yankees should look into acquiring them and stashing them in AAA, and should kick the tires on acquiring the other pitchers or at least keep them on the watch list as possible future free agent signees.
As for the bullpen, relievers with a career FB percentage of less than 24% (minimum 100 IP) include Cla Meredith (16%), Brandon League (17%), Joe Smith (19%), Sean Green (21%), Brian Shouse (22%), and Javier Lopez (23%). Green, Smith, or Lopez could probably be easily acquired right now, and would probably put up significantly better numbers than most of the current, fly-ball prone Yankee relievers in the long run.
When it comes to offense the obvious move would be to seek out left-handed flyball hitters, which of course brings to mind Adam Dunn. In light of what we know know about the new Yankee Stadium, it is chilling to think of how many homers Dunn could hit there in a full season. I honestly don’t think that 60 homers a year is at all unreasonable. The Yankees should seriously consider trading for Dunn to be their DH of the future, or otherwise signing him when he becomes a free agent in 2010, as there is no park in the majors which could better maximize his talents than the new Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees should also now seriously consider resigning Johnny Damon. I wouldn’t have suggested this at all before the season started, but of the current Yankees, nobody’s swing is more ideally suited to hit homers in the new stadium, as Damon hits almost all of his homers down the right field line. Damon wants to stay, and he is much more valuable in the new Yankee Stadium than he would be in other parks.
In sum, here is a rough outline of the course of action the Yankees should follow, given what we now know:
minor league groundball pitching prospects
minor league left-handed flyball hitters
Granted, some of the players above are very good and/or unlikely to be traded away by their teams, but given who the Yankees would be trading away and their financial resources, the Yankees should be able to get some deals done. I am obviously not saying that the Yankees should pass up or trade away better players to get rid of or acquire the players above, but rather that other things being equal or near equal, the Yankees have a chance to extract added value the players listed above by virtue of the difference betweent their home park and other parks.