The end of the year has brought with it the end of the free agent frenzy. A few marquee names remain on the open market—Michael Bourn, for example—but, for the most part, teams have a pretty good idea of what they’ll look like on Opening Day. This winter, Los Angeles has been the city of loose purse strings, as the Dodgers and Angels have combined to spend $272 million on Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, alone. But, 120 miles south, the biggest addition to the San Diego Padres has not been a player, but rather the new fences in right and left-center field.
Petco has earned its reputation as one of the pitcher-friendliest parks in baseball. Its 2012 Park Factor for runs scored was 0.854, the fifth-lowest in baseball. In particular, Petco inhibits the long ball. Its 2012 Park Factor for home runs was 0.626, third-lowest in baseball. Only Safeco Field in Seattle, at 0.583, and AT&T Park in San Francisco, at 0.522, surrender fewer home runs relative to other parks than Petco, and no park limits home runs for left-handed hitters more than Petco does.
To me, a ballpark with unusual dimensions has always seemed like an advantage. Every free agent has his market price set by his strengths and weaknesses as they play under average conditions. Hitter A could be a dead pull hitter with plus power, limited defensive range, a good batting eye, and poor baserunning skills. Hitter B could be a tremendous contact hitter with elite speed and range, a great arm, and no power at all. And still, the two players could be similarly valuable on the open market.
To specific teams, however, those two players could have dramatically different values based solely on their home parks. Matt Cain is the perfect example. Cain has thrown at least 190 innings the last seven seasons. In that time, he has never allowed more than 8.4 percent home runs per fly ball, and he has only once allowed more than 40 percent ground balls. Cain is an extreme flyball pitcher in a park that limits home runs, a park factor that greatly benefits Cain’s particular skill set. He would be valuable on the open market, of course, but Cain has a career ERA of 3.27, nearly a run lower than his career xFIP of 4.19. Chances are, Cain would perform worse in any other ballpark.
There are not many Matt Cains who reach free agency, but one would expect the Padres to sign players and build their farm system with their park in mind. With so spacious an outfield, the Padres could reap more benefit from outfielders with great range, groundball and line drive hitters, and flyball pitchers than other teams. Their park provided them with an opportunity for a competitive advantage, but they have not capitalized.
Last season, the Padres’ starting pitchers had a groundball rate of 49.5 percent, the highest in baseball. Some of that was bad luck. Cory Luebke had a 35.6 percent groundball rate in 2011, the lowest of San Diego’s five starters who reached 100 innings. He also led the staff with a 3.16 FIP. He threw just 31 innings in 2012 before needing Tommy John surgery.
Still, some of it was planned. They traded away Mat Latos and his 43.7 percent groundball rate. That was probably a smart move for a team that was not contending and needed prospects, but they then filled his void with Edinson Volquez, whose groundball rate exceeded 50.0 percent in 2010 and 2011 on the Reds and then in 2012 on the Padres. In the Adrian Gonzalez trade, they acquired Casey Kelly, whose fastball has a natural sink that led to a 55.8 percent groundball rate in limited innings last season. This winter, the Padres re-signed Jason Marquis, who, like Volquez, has seen groundball rates well above 50.0 percent the last three seasons. Rumors have them chasing Rick Porcello, who has never allowed more fly balls than ground balls in a season.
The square-peg-round-hole strategy has not been limited to their rotation. According to Baseball Info Solutions, Carlos Quentin has cost his teams 20 runs because of his poor range in close to 2,500 innings in left field in his career, and his 46.7 percent flyball rate was ninth-highest among batters with at least 300 at-bats in 2012. San Diego had a payroll of $55.6 million in 2012. With the three-year, $27 million extension Quentin signed, he will make close to one sixth of their entire payroll in 2013, if the team does little else this offseason.
Bringing in the fences for 2013 will probably benefit the Padres as they are currently constructed. I’m sure Chase Headley, who hit 18 of his 31 home runs away from Petco, will enjoy the changes. I just wonder if the Padres would have been better off to embrace the uniqueness of their park and build a team that complements it. Over the last three seasons, the Padres are 122-121 at home and 115-128 on the road. That seven-win disparity is the fifth-lowest in baseball. Extreme dimensions should help a team win at home, especially a team with limited financial resources. It is a small thing, but small-market teams need every advantage they can find.