Mariners ace Felix Hernandez says he's not worried about the shorter dimensions this season at Safeco Field. "We need to keep the ball down and make good pitches."
Every hitter at Safeco Field has a sob story (or 10) — the blast he was sure was going out until it died in the marine layer.
Well, there’s a flip side to that standard tale of woe, of course. For every hitter sulking in the agony of a tater lost, there has been a pitcher reveling in the ecstasy of an ERA preserved.
“If everyone looked back,” said right-hander Blake Beavan, “you can think of certain pitches; you’re like, ‘I don’t know if that’s going to stay in … oh, thank you.’ That big, deep breath you let out.”
Since the Mariners announced Oct. 2 they are moving in the fences for the 2013 season, much of the focus has been on the impact the change will have on hitters, who have exhaled in unison. But the other part of this equation is whether it will backfire by harming Mariners pitchers more than it helps their hitters.
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The consensus in the organization is that the tradeoff will be worth it, an opinion strongly held by the Mariners’ ace, Felix Hernandez. He gave general manager Jack Zduriencik his blessing for the move last season, and then proved his lack of concern by signing a seven-year contract extension over the offseason.
“I’m not worried at all,” Hernandez said. “When we play on the road and play in short ballparks, we’ve pitched pretty good. I’m not worried about that. We need to keep the ball down and make good pitches.”
Pitching coach Carl Willis, in fact, plans to preach to his staff to keep their same priorities.
“I don’t think anything changes,” he said. “You can’t go out and necessarily pitch to the ballpark. We’re going to continue to be aggressive early in counts, try to establish pitchers’ counts, as opposed to hitters’ counts. … I don’t think from our pitchers’ standpoint it’s going to be that much different.”
But there’s no doubt Mariners pitchers have thrived from playing half their games in Safeco. In all 13 full seasons since the ballpark opened, Seattle has had a lower earned-run average at home than on the road. The biggest discrepancy of all came in 2012, when Mariners pitchers put up a 2.96 ERA at home (second lowest in the American League) compared to 4.59 on the road (ninth in the AL). The difference of more than a run and a half a game (1.63) surpassed the 1.36 differential in 2000, the first full season of the ballpark.
Zduriencik is well aware of those numbers but believes pitchers are more equipped to adjust.
“A hitter has a swing,” Zduriencik said. “He patterns his game to his swing. I think when there’s additional pressure put on a hitter, psychologically they try to do more than they’re physically capable of doing. They try to swing harder. Then they get out of a groove. All of a sudden, they lose their swing and have a hard time coming back to it.
“A pitcher oftentimes can locate better, and use an assortment of pitches in a different way.”
At Citi Field, where the Mets moved in their fences last year, the staff’s home ERA rose only minimally, from 3.89 in 2011 to 4.02 in 2012, as Mets pitchers gave up five more earned runs in 12 fewer innings. Home runs allowed skyrocketed, from 58 to 88, though doubles actually declined from 140 to 124.
“All the batted balls, the fly balls, that aren’t home runs, the percentage that are caught go up,” said Jeff Kingston, Mariners assistant general manager.
As a visiting pitcher at Safeco for several years with the White Sox, Jon Garland watched many a batted ball fall short of its expected destination on the other side of the wall.
“You’re kind of in awe it didn’t go out,” said Garland, who was in camp with the Mariners this spring before being released and signing with Colorado. “In Chicago, it would be raining and heavy, but the ball would still get out of there in a heartbeat. You’d see the exact same ball hit in Seattle. After seeing guys on your team, you kind of know how the ball comes off their bat. You’d see it come off, and you’d walk to the end of the dugout to give high fives, and it would be an out.”
Bottom line is that Mariners pitchers believe the more runs they get, the better it will be for them. Despite trailing only Tampa Bay in home ERA, it translated to a 40-41 home record because the Mariners scored the fewest runs in the majors at home — 30 fewer than the nearest team.
“This year, they’re going to score runs, believe me,” Hernandez said.
Beavan added, “I think it might benefit the pitchers when our hitters are out there grinding and putting runs across the board, giving us confidence to go out there and have a shutdown inning. You pitch with a little more comfort.”
Willis said he looked at the data compiled by the Mariners and was convinced that the gain for hitters will offset any detriment to his staff.
“It’s going to put us somewhere in the middle of the pack, but still more toward a pitcher’s park,” he said. “We believe in pitching to strengths. You get in trouble when you start to try to go away from strengths and do something different that’s maybe not what you do best.”