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A New Topic From Out of Left Field–er, Right Field

November 22, 2010

“That short right field porch in (old)  Yankee Stadium”

In my  early adolescence I spent (or wasted) a lot of time studying major league baseball history, off-beat characters like Rube Waddell and Hack Wilson, and wondering why they couldn’t calculate ERAs for Mathewson and the other deadball-era pitchers, why  old-time pitcher Smokey Joe Wood had a sensational season ( 34-5  in 1912), then never pitched 150 innings a season ever again and never won more than 15 in any season.  What happened?  Why  did Chuck Klein’s youthful,  eye-popping, Hall-of-Fame- caliber stats go into permanent  sharp decline at age 28 when he was traded to the Chicago Cubs, who, after all,  played in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field? I didn’t have access to the information to answer my questions. Nonetheless,  without the aid of the internet or pocket calculators, I  manipulated statistics and made some interesting discoveries doing that.  (yes, I was an only child with too much time on his hands). From time to time, I returned once a decade or so to dabble in it again.  I found that  Juan Marichal, for example, seems to be the only right-handed pitcher in the entire Lively Ball Era (1920 to the present)) to win over 200 games in any 10-season stretch.  In the 10 seasons between 1962-71, the ‘Dominican Dandy’ (I wonder if he liked that nickname or hated it?)  went 202-97 (.676)  for the Giants with a 2.65 ERA, and 46 shutouts.

 Decades later, in the 1990s I stumbled across the work of Bill James and his Sabermetricians and felt envious: “I shoulda  stuck with it!  I coulda had his career.” But  no, I had and have too many other interests competing for my time.  But I  certainly respected their attempt to invent more meaningful stats and do more in-depth,  sophisticated analysis.   I say all this by way of  preface to introducing a question the stats in James’ book Historical Baseball Abstract  helped answer. I treated it like a reference, consulting it for one answer after another until I’d read the whole thing ,  just over 700 pages.

The reputed effect of the asymmetrical shape and short right field fence in Yankee Stadium on homerun totals is almost conventional wisdom.  After it opened in 1923 until a major remodelling in 1974-75, and its  demolition last year, the stadium was frequently remodelled, seats added and taken out, the field lowered, home plate moved, the outfield distances altered.  But in the 1950s and 1960s it was only 296 feet down the right field line, with a low, 44-inch  high rail that I often watched rightfielders either boost themselves up on with their bare hand,  or  tumble over in an attempt to rob an  oppoisng batter of a homerun on a ball traveling only about 300 feet.  I believe I saw Roger Maris himself do that.

Not long ago I read another  article asserting, like many before,  that Roger Maris had the “perfect left-handed pull hitter’s swing to take full advantage of that short right field fence.” As if that were what allowed Maris to break Babe Ruth’s homerun record in 1961 by hitting 61 homeruns.  True, Maris had hit only 28 and 16 homeruns in the two seasons preceding his trade to the Yankees and he hit exactly 100 in his first two in a Yankee uniform. But only 43 of those 100 were hit at home, with 57 on the road. That short right field porch doesn’t explain his power surge. Bill James pointed this out himself, which made me want to check Ruth and Gehrig’s records, too.

“Yankee Stadium was not only the House That Ruth Built, but the House Built For Ruth,” I still hear baseball  commentators say that,  meaning it was shaped that way to boost Ruth’s homerun totals, since Ruth was another left-handed power hitter.  Ruth had Yankee Stadium as his home park for twelve (12) seasons, 1923-34 inclusive. He hit a total of 512 homeruns in those 12 seasons, 259 at home and 253 on the road. That’s an insignificant differential. Most hitters hit better at home than on the road, all other things being equal, probably because of familiarity with the quirks of their particular home park. So if that short right field porch boosted The Babe’s homerun total, it was only by an average of one “extra” homerun every two years, a total of 6 in 12 years. That’s not even a 51- 49% difference. That’s as close to even as you’re gonna get if players are not machines.

Lou Gehrig, another left-handed power hitter came up the year Yankee opened so it was his home park for his entire career.  Since all but the first 34  of the 2,164 games he appeared in were part of his consecutive game streak, his playing time and times at bat  at home and on the road must’ve been very close to equal. Gehrig hit 493 homers, 251 at home, 242 on the road, in the equivalent of  14 full seasons.  A total of 9 more HR in home games, (again less than a 51% to 49% diffeential) scattered over his entire career.  Again, that’s less than one  “extra” homerun every season, again an insignificant difference.

(Since Mickey Mantle was a switch-hitter, he’s not really comparable, and I didn’t  have access to a record of homeruns hit left handed vs. right-handed, broken down into home and road games. Reggie Jackson only played five (5) seasons in a Yankee uniform, hitting 66 HR at home, 78 on the road, but the stadium’s dimensions were changed by the 1974-5 renovation)

Reasonable Conclusion: that  “short right field porch” in Yankee Stadium doesn’t seem to have actually inflated the home run totals of the Yankees’ most famous  lefthanded-batting homerun hitters in any meaningful way. Left-handed pull hitters or not, the Yankee Big Guns didn’t seem to fatten their HR totals by using that short right field fence.

The cavernous dimensions of left and left-center field (402 and 457 feet respectively), with center at 461 ft.) certainly hampered right-handed power hitters. Joe DiMaggio, for example, hit only 148 (41%) of his 361 homeruns in Yankee Stadium, with the other 203 (59%) coming on the road. (all stats based on James’ Abstract).

It’s  frivolous but fun to ponder “what if?”.  If Hank Aaron, being right-handed, had played for the Yankees, he might not have broken Ruth’s career record. But, on the other hand, it he’d played his entire career as a Chicago Cub, he might have hit 850 to 870 homeruns. How do I figure that? I think the ‘friendly confines’ of Wrigley Field would have easily given him an average of 4 or 5 additional homeruns each season. Over a 23-season career, that’s 92 to 115 more. Add that to the 755 he actually hit and you have 847 to 870. A plausible  alternative history that didn’t happen.

(Yes, I know I didn’t take into account the many, relatively minor remdoels and alterations of the stadium between 1923 and 1974 bu they seem to have been comparatively  minor)

Now I’ve got the winter Hot Stove heated up….just in time for the snow that’s coming  tonight.

  

  

  

  

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One Comment leave one →
  1. pedrocqwalker permalink
    February 9, 2011 10:28 PM

    First-class information it is really. My friend has been waiting for this info.

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