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Baseball's Home/Road Surprises
by Jim Feist - 06/16/2009
Baseball is unique in that every park 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 is very different, with several small, hitter-friendly parks like Fenway Park, Coors Field, the Metrodome, Tropicana Field, the Ball Park in Arlington, and small home-run friendly parks in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Houston and Cincinnati.
There are several parks with expansive outfields that are tough to hit home runs in, perfect for pitchers, such as Safeco in Seattle, Dodger Stadium, plus 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 Dodgers have huge outfields and put a premium on the importance of speedy outfielders (Ichiro and Matt Kemp).
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, though that's not the case the last few years. The thinking was that they could get away with it for 81 home games, though on the road those weaknesses can reveal themselves, which is one reason the Red Sox are usually much stronger at home than on the road. On the way to winning the World Series in 2004, Boston was a respectable 43-38 on the road, but a sizzling 55-26 at Fenway!
They won the World Series in 2007 with an outstanding defensive team. However, this year's team has troubles at shortstop defensively because of an injury to Jed Lowrie. Lowrie is expected back later in the season and they need him, as SS Nick Green is below average defensively and Julio Lugo is worse. The Red Sox have been great at home, but have a losing road mark, hurt by the lack of range at shortstop.
Strong all-around defensive and pitching teams can help diminish significant home/road differences. Toronto has been the big surprise in the AL East and they've done it by winning 31 of their first 41 games at home. On the road, though, the Blue Jays have a losing record. This may surprise you, but even a weak team like Kansas City is playing .500 ball at home, but started 8-19 on the road. The Royals have offered value as a home dog, but have not shown much bite on the road.
The most remarkable extreme in the American League has been the Twins. The Metrodome is a tough place to pitch and play defense in, with a short outfield and artificial carpet. The organization for years has taught its young arms to throw strikes, not walking anyone and don't worry about giving up a lot of hits. That's true with the 2009 Twins. But that formula hasn't worked on the road, as they have been great at home but terrible away, starting 8-19. Minnesota just finished a 10-game road trip which was part of an 11-3 run under the total as the offense struggled.
The biggest surprise in the American League in 2008 was Tampa Bay. The Rays vastly improved their pitching and defense, starting 24-10 under the total at home. This season has been similar, with a sometimes free swinging/struggling offense, but very good pitching. They brought up young star lefty David Price recently during a 10-2-1 run under the total.
Baseball fans often talk of a Cubs/Red Sox World Series and they have a shot this season. The Cubs last won a World Series in 1908, looking to end a remarkable 101 year drought. By the way, the Cubs and Red Sox did meet in the World Series once, in 1918.
In the National League, the defending champion Phillies have been bizarre, with a losing record at home but the best road mark baseball. They were 48-33 at home last season and an impressive 44-37 on the road, so this team is not built just to win at home. One team that is built to win only at home is San Diego. The Padres have been one of the best examples ever since Petco Park opened, the toughest place to hit in baseball: The Padres can't score any runs at home or on the road. That is okay at home, where no one can score runs, as San Diego started 19-11. But on the road, the Padres are a disaster, starting 8-20.
The San Diego offense has consistently ranked near the bottom in most offensive categories because of the park the last three years. The Padres averaged just 3.5 runs at home last season where they started 22-13 under the total. In 2007 they started 19-11 under at home and this season started 16-9-3 under. Teams that play well on the road can avoid slumps by upgrading their defense and pitching, a key to success during a 162-game marathon.