Ballparks can define performances

May 10, 2005 3:52 AM

Baseball is unique in that every ballpark is different in its size and field configurations. This isn’t true in any of the other sports.

A football field is always 100 yards long, and both college and pro basketball courts are the same length — the only difference being the three-point line. Baseball has several small, hitter-friendly parks like Jacobs Field, Fenway Park, Coors Field, the Metrodome, Tropicana Field, the Ball Park in Arlington, Texas, as well as small parks in Milwaukee, Houston and Cincinnati.

There are several parks with expansive outfields that are tough to hit home runs in, perfect for pitchers, such as Shea Stadium, Safeco in Seattle, Dodger Stadium, as well as parks in Oakland, Detroit and San Diego. Smart organizations will construct teams around the strengths and weaknesses of their park. For instance, the Mariners and A’s have huge outfields and know the importance of speedy outfielders (Ichiro and Mark Kotsay). There is very little foul ground around first base in Fenway Park in Boston, as well as a very small left field because of the Green Monster.

Historically, the Red Sox haven’t paid much attention to having good defensive players at first and left field, preferring to go with strong offensive players. They can get away with it for 81 home games. On the road, however, those weaknesses can reveal themselves. That’s one reason the Red Sox are usually much stronger at home than on the road. On the way to winning the World Series last season, Boston was a respectable 43-38 on the road but a sizzling 55-26 at Fenway!

The biggest surprise in the American League has been the Orioles, a team constructed heavily around offensive players. Most surprising is that the Orioles started 9-7 at home in Camden Yards, but 9-2 on the road. It might not be easy to keep up their strong road play, especially with such untested starting pitching. Two other American League East teams have extreme home/road differences. Tampa Bay started 9-8 at home, yet 1-11 on the road. Toronto started with a losing record at home, yet a strong 11-7 road mark. This is unusual, as the Blue Jays couldn’t have been more different last season, with a 40-41 home record but a 27-53 road mark.

Strong all-around defensive teams can negate significant home/road differences. The Twins are good example, a low payroll franchise that stresses defense and fundamentals to its players coming up through the minor leagues. Minnesota has a winning record both home and away this season, which is nothing new: The Twins were 49-32 at home in 2004 and 43-38 on the road. Although, this doesn’t quite explain the Mariners’ troubles. Seattle is a strong defensive team, too, with an excellent road record, yet they stumbled to a 4-10 start at home!

In the National League, the Marlins have outstanding balance, with speed, defense and talented pitching. In the competitive NL East, Florida has been playing well, getting off to an impressive 7-4 road start. Meanwhile, take a close look at the Houston Astros: a 10-5 start at home, a 1-11 start on the road! The pitching-thin Reds are similar, with a winning record at home, but a miserable 3-11 start on the road.

The team in the NL that’s going to be tough to catch if healthy is defending champ Cardinals. They have a super offensive team, a slew of brilliant defensive players, and improved pitching, especially in the starting rotation. With 3B Scott Rolen, CF Jim Edmonds, LF Reggie Sanders, RF Larry Walker and sure-handed SS David Eckstein, they can turn double plays and run down balls in the outfield that would drop for hits on many other teams. The Cardinals were an incredible 52-29 on the road last season! This year: a 10-3 start away from home. Don’t expect this talented team to start struggling on the road like many other teams.

Finally, the Colorado Rockies for years have had the most distinct home/road discrepancies, playing in high altitude, hitter-friendly Coors Field. The Rockies were close to a .500 home team last season, but 30-51 on the road. Things don’t look any different thus far this season, as Colorado started 5-6 at home, but 1-13 on the road!