Weekly Mailbag: Park Factors, Yankees with the Most to Gain/Lose, and Trade Values!
Before I get into this week’s mailbag, I just want to tell all of you that I hope you and yours are healthy safe. Personally, I get restless if I’ve been cooped up for too long (and I know I’m not alone there), but we all are doing the things we have to do while under quarantine. I will say that one fun thing I’ve done while I’ve been cooped up in the house has been to watch classic games and documentaries on MLB Network. I don’t know how many of you saw it, but I really enjoyed watching MLB Network’s documentary on “The Bird,” Mark Fidrych. We’re all doing our best to get through this, so I’m trying to look on the bright side.
In this week’s mailbag, we’ll talk about park factors, the Yankee that stands to benefit most and least from the shutdown, and trade values! Let’s get at it:
Stephanie asks: Baseball stadiums come in all shapes and sizes. In other sports, like football and soccer, the field is exactly the same size no matter where the game is played. To me, it seems like teams can create unfair advantages by significantly altering the dimensions of their fields. It can also lead to very different statistics being compiled on one field versus another. Am I missing something?
Stephanie brings up a really interesting point that I think many baseball observers think about. I have always argued that part of the game’s strategy is building a team that suits your home ballpark. How many times have we talked about not wanting the Yankees to sign fly-ball pitchers to long Free Agent deals? Obviously, that’s becoming harder to do now that launch angle is all the rage, but the point stands that Yankee Stadium (new and old) has always been considered a hitter’s ballpark with the short right field porch and power alley. Truthfully, I’ve never minded, because both teams on any given day are playing in the same conditions, so I don’t think that one team really has an advantage over another.
If we look back into history further, we see an even greater disparity in field conditions and dimensions. The Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants and Willie Mays was 483 feet deep in CF, but just 258 (!) feet to dead right, and 279 feet to dead left. This is an extreme case, and frankly as cool as I find stadiums of baseball’s past, I could probably get behind your point if today’s ballparks had dimensions that were as wild in their extremes as the Polo Grounds.
However, even despite the fact that modern stadiums do have very different biases based on dimensions, altitude, and temperature and humidity conditions, modern baseball statistics have a way of normalizing statistics to take the stadiums in which games were played into effect. It’s called Park Factor. Park Factors are used to arrive at a final, normalized offensive statistic for players based on their home ballpark. Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+, my preferred offensive statistic that assesses a player’s offensive contribution plus or minus 100 as the average player; in other words, a player with a 123 wRC+ was worth 23% more than an average player in offensive runs created, while a player with a 93 wRC+ was worth 7% less than an average player in offensive runs created) is one of the statistics that takes Park Factors into account in its calculation.
One of the most famous players for whom park factors are important is Larry Walker. Walker played the majority of the second half of his career with the Colorado Rockies, who play at Coors Field, the most notoriously home run friendly ballparks in baseball since its inception. Coors Field has had the highest Park Factor every season since its first. Walker put up prodigious numbers at Coors Field (and away from Coors Field…after all, he is a Hall of Fame Player!). Let’s look at his 1995 season, his first at Coors, and compare it to his strike-shortened 1994 season. First, we’ll look at the traditional stats (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage/OPS):
On the surface, these are pretty similar numbers using traditional statistics. Walker showed significantly more power in 1995, but he hit for a better average in 1994, boosting his on-base percentage and slugging percentage enough to make his OPS comparable to 1995. wRC+, which takes Park Factors into account, tells a very different story, though:
1994 wRC+: 149
1995 wRC+: 129
1994 was Walker’s last year with the Expos, while 1995 was Walker’s first season with the Rockies, whose home ballpark is Coors Field. Park Factor may not be the only factor that affected Walker’s wRC+ calculation, but it certainly played a large part.
Park Factors allow us to judge players who play in different ballparks on level playing fields. I think the variance in ballparks is one of the beautiful differences in baseball versus other sports, and given that we have a way of normalizing statistics compiled in different stadiums, I don’t think that anyone has an unfair advantage.
Bobby asks: What Yankee has the most to gain from the shutdown? What Yankee has the least to gain?
In terms of the Yankees who have the most to gain, we have plenty of options given the number of injuries that the Yankees sustained during training camp. James Paxton, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton can all lay claim to the title given that all might be able to recover in time to begin the season, whenever that occurs. For now though, I’ll say Giancarlo Stanton.
Stanton spent most of last season hurt, and given the length of his contract and stretches of lackluster play in his first year in pinstripes, became the subject of some ire among the fanbase. I think Stanton wanted to come out and prove that he could return to MVP form by mashing at the plate and playing in the outfield a considerable amount of the time. The calf injury he sustained during camp threw a wrench into that plan. Realistically, he would have likely been able to return in mid-late April without any setbacks (*does rain dance to keep away the bad spirits of 2019*), so the calf injury shouldn’t have been that damaging to his season, but the public perception would have dogged him. Now, Stanton can come out for the season fresh.
The player with the most to lose is Clint Frazier. With Stanton and Judge on the shelf, Frazier had a clear path to playing time and could have taken the bull by the horns and forced his way into a regular spot on the roster. Given the likely length of the shutdown, I don’t think that Frazier is going to get his chance now. Things can certainly change, as 2019 showed us, but Frazier now appears likely to either ride the bench or toil at AAA. Frazier is great depth, but he won’t be able to squeeze his way into playing time ahead of Stanton or Judge.
Lionel asks: As the current situation likely means that the trade value of players on expiring contracts is melting away, do you see any related reduction in the trade value of players whose contracts expire after the following season?
That’s a hard one to pin down. I know that MLB and MLBPA are in the midst of negotiating behind the scenes to determine the proper course of action regarding service time and contract statuses. To use a non-Yankee example, how would you feel to be the Dodgers, having traded for Mookie Betts for a single title run, only to see a large chunk of that season cancelled due to events out of Major League Baseball’s control? Realistically, I think that something needs to be done to manipulate service time based on what has occurred this season.
However, assuming no changes to service time or contract agreements, I think that any player with less time on their deal or less time of team control has realistically lost trade value. That includes players on expiring deals who are highly unlikely to be dealt, like Tanaka or DJ LeMahieu, but also guys like Gleyber Torres or Jordan Montgomery, who lose time of team control by the day. Without games, guys can’t gain value due to performance, so in a vacuum, all players that lose time of team control lose value.
I also wonder what this will do to activity on the trade market when baseball resumes, but there are so many variables at play here, that I think it will be tough to predict right now with any degree of certainty.
That’s all for this week! It means a lot to me that questions still came in to the Mailbag even though baseball is on hiatus. We’ll be here, every week, so keep sending those questions in to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. Be well, everyone.