Sunday, February 21, 2016

What Happened to the Offense?

In the 2014 baseball season, teams averaged only 4.07 runs per game. That represented the nadir of a steady decline since the 2000 season, and the lowest run production since 1981, when the figure was 4.00. In comparison, the figure had been more than a run higher (5.14) as recently as the year 2000.

Trends like this tend to distort our perception of player achievement. A slugger who batted in 102 runs in 2014 is as productive as one who batted in 129 in 2000, yet those two RBI figures look very different to our eyes. Lacking in-depth analysis, we perceive a player who bats in 100 runs to be a solid middle-of-the-lineup guy, a good player, but one possessed by virtually every team in the majors. On the other hand, our mental shortcuts determine a player who drives in 129 teammates to be a premier slugger, possibly the league leader. In fact, no player came within ten of that number in 2014.

Similarly, a pitcher with a 3.74 ERA in 2014 was an average major leaguer, a sturdy third starter, but in 2000, that would have been good enough for third place in the American League, behind only Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens, and barely behind Clemens (3.70) at that.

The gap between 2000 and 2014 by no means represents a radical outlier in baseball history. If you want to see a dramatic contrast, study 1908, 1930 and 1968, when the "runs per game" statistic went on a roller coaster ride from 3.38 up to 5.55 and back down to 3.42. There is no need to study years which are multiple decades apart. The decline from 2000 to 2014 is a steep and sudden one to occur in merely fourteen years, but nowhere near as steep as the drop in the fourteen years from 1894 to 1908, which looked like this:

The detailed reasons for that decline are outside the purview of this article, but the simplified explanation is that the pitching distance was changed from 50 feet to 60 feet in 1893, and that change resulted in an immediate upsurge in run production. In 1892 the runs per game figure looked like a modern number and was in fact lower than in the year 2000, but the modified pitching distance immediately gave batters a massive edge which they only gradually relinquished as the existing pitchers learned how to adapt, then new pitchers arrived who had developed their deliveries from the longer distance.

Given those sharp contrasts between the apogee and perigee of run production, it's amazing that the baseball itself has not changed appreciably in size and weight since 1893, which was the first season played with both overhand pitching and the modern pitching distance. Many other things have changed: the inside composition of the ball, playing conditions, ballparks, mitts, the height of the mound, the size of the strike zone, the strength and conditioning of the players, the hitting strategies, the use of relief pitchers, night games, PEDs, how often the balls are changed within a game, and various rules here and there. Whenever the game has tilted too far toward either offense or defense, the lords of the game have begun tinkering with counter-strategies to restore some kind of equilibrium satisfactory to players and fans.

In order to understand the value of various players throughout baseball history, we need detailed analysis to adjust our perceptions of the players' stats from year to year and era to era. As shown in the graph above, the run production per game dropped from 7.44 to 3.38 in a relatively short period at the turn of the 20th century, so 70 RBI in 1908 were approximately equivalent to 150 in 1894. (Well, these would be hypothetical, retroactively calculated RBI, since that particular statistic was then unknown.) It is not easy for us to accept the fact that a 70 RBI man and a 150 RBI man are equivalent. It is equally difficult to understand that Pedro Martinez's 1.74 ERA in 2000, when the major league ERA was 4.77, was actually better than Bob Gibson's 1.12 in 1968, when the average of MLB was 2.98. In fact, Gibson's season was only the sixth-best of the modern era, relative to the league's performance. Greg Maddux alone had two better seasons.

I suppose many of you are already aware of every point I have made thus far. I'm afraid that I have, as usual, given a verbose and marginally relevant introduction to an article about exactly how offenses have changed over the years, but for the benefit of those who do not pore over old record books, it's essential to establish first that those changes have actually happened and have often been significant. For the essence of this analysis, I am going to concentrate on only four years:

  • 1894, when the game reached its offensive peak.
  • 1930, which was the peak year of the offensive explosion begun by Babe Ruth, which essentially ended after the prime years of Mays and Mantle. (That era lasted approximately from 1920 until 1962.)
  • 2000, which was the peak year of the offensive revival that occurred from 1993 to 2009.
  • 2015, which was neither a peak nor a nadir of any trends, but just happens to be the most recent year in the books. (If I really wanted to establish a point about offensive decline, I'd use 2014, in which the run production was the lowest since 1981. Inconveniently enough for my point, offenses actually made a slight comeback in 2015.)

The goal: to compare contemporary baseball to the top offensive seasons in history, in order to determine precisely what has changed.

The first thing we learn from that comparison is that on-base percentages have declined steadily.
  • 1894: .379
  • 1930: .356
  • 2000: .345
  • 2015: .317

We then can determine that walks have relatively little to do with the decline. The number of walks per 550 at bats has remained relatively constant since 1894.

  • 1894: 56
  • 1930: 49
  • 2000: 60
  • 2015: 47

And therefore, since walks are not really to blame for the decline in on-base percentage, we realize that batting averages have declined steadily, ultimately dropping 55 points since 1894.
  • 1894: .309
  • 1930: .296
  • 2000: .270
  • 2015: .254

We can completely eliminate extra base hits as the cause of that decline. Although triples have metamorphosed into homers over the years, the number of doubles has remained almost constant, and so has the total number of extra base hits per 550 AB:
  • 1894: 44
  • 1930: 48
  • 2000: 51
  • 2015: 46

We have therefore found our culprit in the case of the declining on-base percentage: the number of singles per 550 AB has steadily declined.

  • 1894: 125
  • 1930: 114
  • 2000: 98
  • 2015: 93

A decline from 125 singles per 550 AB to 93 represents a loss of .058 in batting average, and that explains the entire decline for the past 120 years. Knowing what has changed drives an investigation into why. On the surface this fact seems puzzling, because baseball has a little-known constant which is worded as follows: excluding extra-base hits and strikeouts, batters achieve a single once out of every four times they put the ball into play.

  • 1894: .265
  • 1930: .253
  • 2000: .247
  • 2015: .246

And that finally ends the quest to determine why on-base percentages have declined. Since batters have always had approximately the same success rate - about one in four - when putting the ball into play for a single, and since neither the number of extra base hits nor the number of walks has changed significantly, the simple answer to the decline in OBP is that batters are not putting the ball into play as often. Bingo! With the possible exception of the fact that modern players hit ever more homers and ever fewer triples, the greatest change in baseball offenses from 1894 to the present has been the number of strikeouts per 550 AB.

  • 1894: 32
  • 1930: 50
  • 2000: 103
  • 2015: 124

In a hypothetical season of 550 AB, the average player in 1894 would put the ball into play for a single about 474 times, since he would hit 44 extra base shots and whiff 32 times. By 1930 that number had declined to 452 tries, then to 396 in 2000, and finally all the way to 380 in 2015. That decline represents an immense difference. For an average player, it means that 94 at-bats per year that used to result in fly balls, line drives or ground balls, thus presenting a one in four chance of a hit, are now terminated while the batter stands in the box.

Why? It may be that today's pitchers are faster and have more pitches in their repertoires; it may be that today's pitching strategies force the batter to face a fresh arm far more often; it may be that today's batters more frequently swing for distance rather than contact; it may be that there has been a decline in the art of bunting for a base hit; it may be (and probably is) all of these things. The explanation may be complex and nuanced, but the conclusion is not: the one and only reason why on-base percentages have declined over the years is simply the steady decline in the frequency of batters putting the ball into play.

To address the question posed at the top of this page - "What Happened to the Offense?" - the answer is obviously "strikeouts."

This trend is not at all in remission. Today, there are 7.7 strikeouts per team per game. At the beginning of the decade the figure was 7.1. At the beginning of the previous decade it was 6.5. In 1990, it was 5.7. In 1980 it was 4.8. There were some up and downs in the 1950-80 period, but in 1950 the number was 3.9. In 1940 it was 3.7. In 1930 it was 3.2. That number went up and down a bit in the 1893-1930 period, but in the first year of the modern pitching distance, it was 2.13.

Here is the chart that reflects all the data referenced above. All non-percentage numbers are expressed per 550 AB. I use that arbitrary number because it represents, to us, a typical season for a typical full-time player. We understand the difference between a 30-strikeout player and a 90, or the difference between a two-homer man and an 18, so it is easy to view the chart and immediately perceive what kind of player performance was typical in an era.

avg ex  K avg ex K and HR
avg ex K and EBH
Year 2015
Year 2000
Year 1930
Year 1894

We know that batters in 2015 hit .254 overall and .329 when not striking out. Thanks to Fan Graphs, we also know approximately how that breaks down by type of contact.

type of contact
percent of at bats
batting average
fly ball
line drive
pop up
strike out

all at bats

non strikeouts


How does this affect pitching statistics?

The vast and relatively recent increase in strikeouts affects pitching statistics and strategies perhaps even more dramatically than it affects batting, because it greatly increases the advantage of a strikeout pitcher over a pitcher who allows contact. In essence, strikeouts and WHIP have become ever more closely correlated. This point stems from another of baseball's constants: when not striking out, batters achieve a hit once every three times. The difference between this constant and the one above is that extra base hits are now considered in the same category as singles, simply so we can see the effect of strikeouts on batting average. In other words, when batters do not strike out, they hit about .333, and always have since the game started using the modern rules. The following shows the batting averages of all players when not striking out:

  • 1894: .328
  • 1930: .326
  • 2000: .333
  • 2015: .329

It is astounding that with all the changes in baseball since 1894, the needle here has not moved.

That statistic stays relatively constant from team to team and pitcher to pitcher as well, although a single season may not be adequate for the stability to be apparent because of the variations caused by relatively small sample sizes. While a modern major league season produces overall statistics based on some 180,000 plate appearances, and therefore reflects an accurate measurement of performance relatively unaffected by random variations, an individual starting pitcher will only face about a thousand batters or fewer in a season, so his statistics will be more significantly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of chance. But even there we can see the truth of the axiom. You know that batters hit for very low averages against Randy Johnson, and 2002 was his winningest year, when he won the Cy Young by going 24-5 and leading the league in wins, winning percentage, strikeouts and ERA. He allowed only 6.8 hits per nine innings, compared to a league average of 9.0. So what did batters hit against him when not striking out? They batted .321, the same as they hit against any mere mortal. Pedro Martinez had a similar season in 1999, when he was 23-4 and led the league in all those same categories. Batters hit .343 against him when not striking out. Bob Gibson's winningest year was 1970, when he went 23-7. Batters hit .315 against him when not striking out.

What additional value derives from knowing this?

Quite a bit, actually. Since players succeed in one out of every three at-bats when not striking out, you can accurately predict a pitcher's "hits allowed" if you know how many strikeouts he had. To word it another way, "hits allowed" is not really an independent variable. Since the batting average in non-strikeout at bats is a constant, the number of hits is a derived statistic which hinges on the number of non-strikeout opportunities, as follows:

  1. Take the number of innings pitched and derive the number of pitching outs. There are three outs per innings, but only 20 of every 21 outs is created by the pitcher. The rest come from baserunning, so the number of pitching outs = innings pitched times 20/7.
  2. Subtract his strikeouts to get the number of other pitching outs.
  3. Divide the total by 2/3 to get the number of other at bats against him. (If hits represent 1/3 of the at-bats, then outs must be the other 2/3.
  4. Multiply that number times 1/3 to get his hits allowed.

You can combine those steps of course. Steps three and four are easy to combine because dividing a number by 2/3 then taking a third of the result is the same as taking half of the original number. Therefore, half of (20/7 IP)-K is 10/7 IP- K/2. In English, multiply innings pitched times 10/7, then subtract half of strikeouts.

If you are working with "per inning" numbers, hits per inning equals 1.43 minus half of strikeouts per inning, as summarized below:



Here is the same chart expressed per 9 innings rather than per inning, since some people prefer to read it that way:



The last row in each chart represents the equilibrium point, the place where strikeouts are equal to hits. For example, if a pitcher strikes out 8.57 batters per nine innings, you would also expect him to allow about the same number of hits.

Does this knowledge have any practical value?

Maybe. These charts enable one to identify pitchers with special talents. If a pitcher strikes out only three players per nine innings, for example, but consistently manages to hold the opposition to nine hits in those innings, then he has the ability to defy the .333 constant in some way, perhaps by inducing weak grounders, perhaps by getting many fly balls in a cavernous ballpark. Such a pitcher was Ned Garver, the only man ever to win twenty games for a team that lost a hundred. He went 20-12 for the hapless 1951 Browns, a feat so miraculous that it earned him the start in the All-Star Game and second place in the MVP balloting. In the course of his career he averaged only 3.2 strikeouts per game (defined as nine innings), but allowed only nine hits, as compared to a predicted eleven. He did this by defying the .333 constant. Over the course of his career, batters hit only .286 against him when not striking out.

Hall of Famer Robin Roberts also managed to defy the constant. Over the length of his career, batters hit only .292 against him when not striking out. In the peak of his career, 1952-1955, when he led the league in wins every year, he allowed a typical number of extra base hits, but demonstrated a remarkable ability to prevent singles, especially in his home park. If these sorts of pitchers can be identified, and if it is possible to determine the reasons for their success, they can be placed in situations suited to their talents.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Baseball's radio and TV announcers: 1959

Baseball's radio and TV announcers: 1959

Reference: (click to enlarge)

More info here. That link ( lists the TV and radio announcers all the way back to 1924, including brief bios of the most important figures.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The last .400 hitter

No, I'm not writing about Ted Williams. Everyone who loves baseball knows that he batted more than .400 in 1941 and capped it all off by getting six hits on the last day of the season. I don't know if there's anything more to say about Teddy Ballgame. His life and career have been dissected like a frog in a high school bio class. He was one of the rare humans whose fondest wish came true, that one day he would walk down the street and people would point at him and say, "There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived."

Today I'm going to tell you the story of another kind of major league ballplayer, the kind of guy who walks down the street and people say, "Isn't that the night clerk at that motel by the interstate?" His name is Bob Hazle ...

... Bob "Hurricane" Hazle, the last .400 hitter, who is seen below in his one and only baseball card, from the 1958 Topps series.

For, you see, there are many ways to define "the last .400 hitter." It may be the last major leaguer to hit .400 or more in a full single season in which he qualified for a batting championship (Williams in 1941), or perhaps the last man to hit .400 or better over a stretch of 162 games, whether in a single season or not (Tony Gwynn, from career game #1551 on Jul 27, 1993 to game #1712 on May 13, 1995), or perhaps the last man to hit .400 in a single season with 150 or more plate appearances (Bob Hazle, 1957).

Hazle not only did that, but did it during the pressure of a pennant race when his performance was critical.

Let's back up to the beginning of the 1957 season.

The Milwaukee Braves were coming off a near-miss in 1956, when they had finished in the middle of a three-way pennant race (right) which was decided on the last day of the season.

The Braves were actually up a half-game with two left to play. At that point the second-place Dodgers had three more games to complete. The Braves won one and lost one, while the defending champion Dodgers won all three, to give them their last pennant in Brooklyn.

The Braves felt that things were going to change in 1957, because the Dodgers, who had been virtually perennial champs since Jackie Robinson had come up in 1947, were obviously fading. As the 1957 season began, the core members of the Bums' great six-time pennant-winning team had all passed their primes. Robinson, Cox and Reiser were gone. Pee Wee Reese was 38, Campy 35, Furillo 35, Hodges 33, Newcombe 31, Snider and Erskine 30. The Braves, in contrast, were loaded with young guns. Superstars Ed Mathews and Henry Aaron were 25 and 23, while hard-hitting catcher Del Crandall and slugging first baseman Joe Adcock were still in their 20s. They had bolstered their team significantly by filling their only real weak spot with a future Hall of Famer, switch-hitting second baseman Red Schoendienst. They were loaded for bear.

But a lot of things went wrong. Left field was supposed to be handled by a capable platoon of old-timers, Andy Pafko and Bobby Thomson, each of whom entered the season with more than 200 lifetime homers. Centerfield was considered one of the team's strengths when manned by speedy Bill Bruton, who had led the league in either triples or stolen bases in every year of his career. But Bruton and Pafko were plagued by injuries, and Thomson had to be surrendered in the Schoendienst trade, so the team found itself short of outfielders. Their only option was to reach down to their AAA club at Wichita. First they brought up Wes Covington to play left and then, when Bruton was injured, brought up Bob Hazle to play right, allowing Hank Aaron to move over to center in Bruton's stead. That didn't seem like a positive situation at the time, but it certainly turned out to be. Covington had an OPS of .875 for the season, with 21 homers in only 328 at-bats, while Hazle turned out to be the second coming of Ted Williams, at least for two months, with an OPS of 1.126 (Williams' corresponding figure was 1.116 lifetime.) The combined OPS of the two left-handed Wichita call-ups was higher than that of the club's big sluggers, Mathews and Aaron. As you might imagine, adding the equivalent of a second Mathews-Aaron combination gave the team a turbo boost.

Hazle became the club's regular right fielder on August 4th. Here is what the standings looked like at the close of the previous day:

The Braves were ahead of the aging Dodgers at that point, but found themselves a game and half behind the Cardinals. And then they were blown forward by a powerful force, a young man who arrived in Milwaukee as Bob or Bobby, but who soon became known as Hurricane Hazle.

His namesake was a notorious tropical storm that had devastated the coast of South Carolina in 1954 and had moved from there through the eastern United States with such force and eccentricity that it had eventually meandered all the way to Toronto where it became, and may still be, the worst natural disaster ever to hit that city. As you might imagine, Toronto is not designed to be hurricane-proof and the people of that inland city have no idea how to prepare for a hurricane or what to do during one, so the storm left an unprecedented trail of destruction and death there in October of 1954. Hurricane Hazel became as notorious in its time as Katrina would be two generations later. Like Katrina, any mention of it was universally understood as a symbol for devastation.

Bob Hazle, also originating in South Carolina, had a metaphorically similar impact on the other teams in the National League. He made a Milwaukee debut that was unlike anything in baseball history. The Braves won the first eleven games Hazle appeared in, while outscoring their opponents 99-34. In eight of those eleven games they scored eight or more runs. Hazle himself had a four-hit game and three three-hit games in that streak, and ended that run with a batting average of .545. In less than two weeks, from August 3th until August 15th, his team had climbed out of their game-and-a-half deficit, all the way up to an eight-game lead, and it was the Hurricane who had blazed the upward trail.

And Hazle was barely getting started. He still had two more four-hit games and two more three-hit games in him before the season would end. On August 25th, he won a game almost by himself by smacking a pair of three-run homers in a 7-1 victory, raising his batting average back up to .526, and causing the AP to feature him in both their game narrative and a sidebar, thus making the whole country aware of his phenomenal hot streak. (You can click the story below to enlarge it.)

His final dramatic moment came in the September 22nd game, a come-from-behind victory over the Cubs in which Ed Mathews tied the game with a ninth inning homer, setting the stage for the Hurricane to blow the Cubs down with his own four-bagger in the tenth, his fourth hit of the game. (Once again the story below can be enlarged.)

The team had been averaging 4.65 runs per game through August 3rd, which was barely above the league average of 4.4, but that figure soared to 5.75 after Hazle became a starter. He finished the season with a .403 batting average, a .477 OBP and a .649 slugging average, easily besting Mathews, Aaron and Adcock in all three categories.

Some years later, a sportswriter asked Eddie Mathews why the team had voted Hazle only a partial World Series share. Without hesitation, Mathews replied, "We were really that cheap? Damn, that's awful. We couldn't have won without him."

Hazle's shining season essentially came out of nowhere. He had started playing pro ball in 1950 and, before he arrived to salvage the Braves' 1957 season, had spent one season in military service and six seasons in the minors, five of which could not be deemed much better than mediocre. As recently as 1955 he had been demoted from AAA to AA ball in the Reds' system. His lifetime AAA batting average was only .265, and he had shown just moderate power (13 homers per 550 at bats). Even his great 1957 season, which was to fulfill every dream of major league stardom he might have had, didn't begin auspiciously. After a knee injury halfway through the 1956 season, Hazle was slated to spend a second consecutive year at Wichita. The bad knee hampered his exercise program and he was struggling with his weight. He was depressed enough about his baseball career that he was resigned to the possibility of a demotion to the Braves' AA affiliate in Atlanta, and was almost hoping for it because the fishing was better there than in AAA Wichita. Back in South Carolina, where they still called him Bobby, the Greenville Index Journal reported the following on April 8th:

Later that year Hazle said, "I thought I had had it. I decided if I didn't make the majors in '57. I would call it quits and go sell insurance or something. I got to camp this spring and the knee still bothered me. I was ready to take the first bus back home."

The coveted promotion to the big show wasn't looking very good as the season progressed. Hazle was batting only .279 with mid-range power at Wichita when Bruton went on the DL, while one of his outfield teammates (Ray Shearer) was hitting .330 with a lot of homers. But Lady Luck was on the side of the Hurricane. The major league club wanted some additional lefties in the line-up, and the left-handed Hazle happened to be streaking at the time of Bruton's injury - he batted .364 in July - so the Braves by-passed the right-handed Shearer to get Hazle on the major league roster. (Shearer would be called up later in the season for his only three major league plate appearances, in which he singled and walked, for a lifetime OBP of .667!)

Hazle's baseball career after that season turned out to be no better than his efforts before that point. In April and May of 1958, he suffered from two beanings as well as an ankle injury, which kept his appearances infrequent and his performances weak. He was sold to Detroit for about five bucks and a set of Ginsu knives (actually $50,000, according to reports at the time). Detroit used him sparingly in 1958, sent him down to AAA in 1959, and when he showed no sign of the old pop in his bat, demoted him to AA in 1960. He retired after that season. In Lee Heiman's 1990 book "When the Cheering Stops," Hazle is quoted as saying, "My confidence was shot. In the majors, you have it all built up inside you. But when you end up back in the minors there’s the small ballparks again with no one coming out. It’s very discouraging. And even though I was hitting well (in 1960), I just didn’t feel I would ever get another chance. And as it turned out, I was right." As McGuire and Gormley pointed out in their profile of Hazle in "Moments in the Sun: Baseball's Briefly Famous," he retired without losing the conviction that he still had major league talent, but at 29, lacked "the vinegar, the intensity" to fight his way back upward. He had first played AA ball in 1951, at the age of 20, and it was disheartening to find himself back there nine years later, especially after having tasted major league stardom, however briefly.

He retired as the answer to a puzzling trivia question which should win many a bar bet: "Among all the position players who have ever played major league ball, who is the only lifetime .300 hitter who never had a season in the .300s?" Hazle finished with an impressive .310 lifetime average, based on one season in the .400s and two in the .200s. That .310 figure is higher than the lifetime averages of Pete Rose, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron - and pretty much anyone else who played the game. If Hazle had enough at-bats to make the list, he'd be just outside the top one hundred of all time.

Hazle was not forgotten by those who love the game. Blogger Bob Lemke has recounted his entertaining encounter with the Hurricane at a card show in the late 80s. That blog post also includes a rare photo of Hazle in his late 50s. Lemke has actually gone to the trouble of creating some custom baseball cards for the one-year wonder. The following mock-ups picture Hazle in the style of the Topps cards from (top to bottom) 1955, 1956 and 1959.

The Hurricane was especially well remembered and loved in Milwaukee for having led the Braves to their one and only World Championship in that city. One of his young fans in that triumphant year, David Lamb, grew up to author a book called "A Sense of Place: Listening to Americans." That book really has little to do with baseball, but Bob Hazle became the subject of one of its most poignant chapters, a tale of how Lamb's boyhood favorite became just another survivor, his nose to the grindstone alongside the rest of us, after his glory days had been all but forgotten. After the baseball years, Hazle returned to the small towns of South Carolina whence he sprang. There he became a salesman, trying his hand at insurance and tombstones before finding his niche as the sales rep for a liquor distributor that serviced every local hole-in-the-wall selling booze. Lamb wrote, "His '82 Buick Regal, air conditioner purring, windows rolled up to keep out the heavy, damp, noontime heat, speeds on toward the one-room whiskey stores ahead, carrying a man in pursuit of his livelihood, if not his dreams."

Or as John Mellencamp summed it up in a famous song lyric, "Oh, yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone."

Hazle had a heart attack in 1981, followed by open-heart surgery, after which his wife declared “The Hurricane, these days … is really just a gentle breeze.” In 1992 he suffered a second heart attack, and the winds were forever becalmed.

Whatever hard times and ordinary times befell him in his last thirty-five years, the fact remains that he was right there in the national spotlight in 1957, laughing and winning alongside Eddie, Hammerin' Hank, Spahnie and the rest, as the boys from Bushville won a pennant and then defeated the mighty Yankees in the World Series.

In fact, I just misspoke. The Hurricane wasn't really "alongside" those stars. He led the charge.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Park orientation and other physical specifications

"It is desirable that the line from home base through the pitcher's plate to second base shall run East Northeast." - Official Baseball Rules, section 1.04.

It makes perfect sense to have the batter hitting toward the East-Northeast in most of the country, because winds typically come out of the Southwest in summer. That minimizes the wind effect, since the batter rarely hits into the wind, and gets little benefit from any trailing wind because he has an enormous grandstand behind him, blocking the breezes. On the other hand, it may be worth noting that the East Northeast rule was conceived before there were parks in Miami and San Diego, where the wind patterns are dramatically different. Marlins Park and Petco are laid out in reasonable compliance with rule 1.04, but perhaps they should not be. Left-handed hitters in Marlins Park hit Southeast into right center - directly into the Atlantic breezes when the roof is retracted. (This point is more theoretical than realistic because Marlins management rarely opts to play a game with the roof open.) Right-handed pull hitters in San Diego will find that the left field line is due Northwest from home plate, which would be nice in Miami, but is directly into the wind in San Diego. The July wind charts for these cities are shown below. (Click to enlarge and study.)

The chart below shows the orientation of the major league ballparks, the distance of the fences, and the height of the fences (parens following distance). If the centerfield dimension contains two numbers, the first is the distance to straightaway center, and the second is the deepest part of the park.

PF (HR) represents the 2014-2015 park factor for home runs only, expressed as a percent. The split is LH/RH.  In order to be listed as having a significant impact, the park must have shown at least a 10% effect in that direction in both years. An "x" indicates that there was no statistically significant trend. The raw data comes from

Ballpark Orientations (Google Maps)
 PF (HR) Center
LF line
RF line
Parks where the batter hits approximately due north to straightaway center

North NW NE
Coors Field, Denver +26/+32 415 (8) 347 (8) 350 (17)
Chase Field, Phoenix Retractable x/x 407 (25) 330 (8) 335 (8)
Progressive Field, Cleveland x/x 405/410 (8) 325 (19) 325 (8)
Petco Park, San Diego x/x 396 (7) 334 (4) 322 (12)
Rogers Centre, Toronto Retractable x/x 400 (10) 328 (10) 328 (10)
Parks where the batter hits approximately north by northeast (22.5 degrees azimuth) to straightaway center

Wrigley Field, Chicago x/+29 412 (11) 355 (15) 353 (15)
Turner Field, Atlanta x/x 400 (8) 335 (8) 330 (8)
Camden Yards, Baltimore +29/x 400 (7) 333 (7) 318 (25)
Nationals Park, D.C. x/x 402 (12) 337 (8) 335 (12)
Dodger Stadium, L.A x/x 400 (8) 330 (4) 330 (4)
Citi Field, New York (Queens) x/x 408 (8) 335  (8) 330 (8)
Citizens Band Park, Philadelphia * x/+40 401/409 (6) 329  (9) 330 (13)
* Note: centerfield in Citizens Band Park is not quite north or NNE, but actually about 13 degrees azimuth - about halfway between NNE and north
Parks where the batter hits approximately northeast (45) to straightaway center, therefore due north to the left field line, due east to right

NE North East
Fenway Park, Boston -31/x 390/420 (9) 310  (37) 302  (5)
Kauffman Stadium, KC  -14/-22 410 (9) 330 (9) 330 (9)
Angel Stadium, Anaheim -22/x 396 (8)  347 (8) 350 (18)
Safeco Field, Seattle Retractable x/x 401 (8) 331 (8) 326 (8)
Tropicana Field, Tampa-St. Pete Domed x/-15 404 (10) 315  (10) 322  (10)
Parks where the batter hits approximately east by northeast (67.5) to straightaway center - as suggested by the rule book!

Busch Stadium, St.L. x/x 400 (9) 336 (9) 335 (9)
Oakland Coliseum, Oakland x/-16 400 (8) 330 (8) 330 (8)
Yankee Stadium, NY (Bronx) +54/x 408  (14) 318 (8) 314 (10)
Parks where the batter hits approximately due east (90) to straightaway center

East NE SE
Target Field, Minneapolis x/x 403/411  (7) 339 (13) 328 (23)
AT&T Park, San Francisco -44/-31 399/421 (8) 339 (8) 309 (25)
Parks where the batter hits approximately east by southeast (112.5) to straightaway center

PNC Park, Pittsburgh -x/x 399/410 (10) 325  (6) 320  (21)
The Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati +30/+14 404 (8) 328 (12) 325  (8)
Parks where the batter hits approximately southeast (135) to straightaway center, therefore due east to left, due south to right

SE East South
U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago x/x 400 (8) 330 (8) 335 (8)
Marlins Park, Miami* Retractable -30/-20 407 (8) 344 (8) 335  (8)
Globe Life Ballpark, Arlington x/x 400/407  (8) 332  (14) 325  (8)
Miller Park, Milwaukee Retractable +59/x 400 (10) 344 (10) 345 (10)
* Note: Marlins Park is quite a few degrees from southeast, but is not any closer to east by southeast
Parks where the batter hits approximately south by southeast (157.5) to straightaway center

Comerica Park, Detroit -24/x 420 (8) 345 (8) 330 (8)
Parks where the batter hits approximately north by northwest (337.5) to straightaway center.

Minute Maid Park, Houston Retractable +23/x 409 (9) 315 (21) 326 (7)

The following shows the average (summer) climate factors for the major league stadiums. Covered stadiums are always shown as 72 degrees and zero wind. The typical wind direction for any city in any month may be obtained through the NRCS. Extremes are highlighted in red.

Ballpark Orientations (Google Maps)
Avg July temp
Avg July wind
Coors Field, Denver 73 8 5100
Chase Field, Phoenix Retractable 72 0 1100
Progressive Field, Cleveland 72 8 800
Petco Park, San Diego 71 6 0
Rogers Centre, Toronto Retractable 72 0 600
Wrigley Field, Chicago 73 9 600
Turner Field, Atlanta 80 7 1000
Camden Yards, Baltimore 76 7 100
Nationals Park, D.C. 79 6 0
Dodger Stadium, L.A 74 8 100
Citi Field, New York (Queens) 75 6 0
Citizens Band Park, Philadelphia * 78 9 0
Fenway Park, Boston 74 11 0
Kauffman Stadium, KC  78 9 1000
Angel Stadium, Anaheim 74
7 100
Safeco Field, Seattle Retractable 72 0 400
Tropicana Field, Tampa-St. Pete Domed 72 0 0
Busch Stadium, St.L. 80 8 600
Oakland Coliseum, Oakland 61 10 0
Yankee Stadium, NY (Bronx) 75 6 0
Target Field, Minneapolis 73 9 800
AT&T Park, San Francisco 63 13 0
PNC Park, Pittsburgh 73 8 1200
The Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati 76 5 800
U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago 73 9 600
Marlins Park, Miami* Retractable 72 0 0
Globe Life Ballpark, Arlington 86 7 600
Miller Park, Milwaukee Retractable 72 0 700
Comerica Park, Detroit 74 9 600
Minute Maid Park, Houston Retractable 72 0 100
Normal range 71-80 0-9 0-1200

Summary for 2014-2015:

Parks favorable to all home run hitters: Coors Field, The Great American Ballpark

Parks favorable to right-handed home run hitters: Citizens Band Park, Wrigley Field

Parks favorable to left-handed home run hitters: Miller Park, Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards

Parks unfavorable to all home run hitters: AT&T Park, Marlins Park

Parks unfavorable to right-handed home run hitters: Tropicana Field, Oakland Coliseum

Parks unfavorable to left-handed home run hitters: Fenway Park, Angel Stadium

Most major league franchises now do a significant amount of statistical analysis, and generally use their data to neutralize their parks to whatever extent is reasonably possible, that is to say, they try to make them extremely friendly neither to hitters nor pitchers. For example, if there are too many homers, management may raise or extend the fences; if there are have too few homers, they may block the wind or bring the fences in. Because of this constant tinkering, some of the more extreme park effects have been neutralized, so places like Citi Field, Petco, Safeco and even venerable Wrigley Field seem to be closer to neutral than in the past. You can bet that other places like Marlins Park and Comerica, and maybe even Yankee Stadium, will experience some tinkering in the future.

In some cases, it would be impossible to create anything close to a neutral ballpark on the existing site.
  • Denver's altitude is a permanent fixture, and they have no plans to move the fences back any farther than they are. Only the remodeled Wrigley is farther down the lines. It would make perfect sense to make the fences at Coors 375' away along the lines, but it is unlikely to happen because it just doesn't seem sufficiently traditional.
  • The Dallas area is not going to get moderate temperatures in summer. That's the only remaining place in the country where major league baseball is constantly played in intense heat, now that the teams in Tampa, Miami, Houston and Phoenix are all playing indoors. Given that the Arlington stadium is quite new, the Rangers will probably not be getting a roof any time soon.
  • You may think of California as a warm place, and it is in general, but the San Francisco Bay area is the coldest and windiest major urban area in the contiguous United States in the summer. On an average July day, it's ten degrees colder in San Francisco than in "frigid" Minneapolis, and that's excluding the wind-chill, which would make the gap even wider! Like the Texas Rangers, the Giants and As are not going to be playing in neutral weather conditions unless they play in an indoor stadium. That means that AT&T Park will undoubtedly continue to be a right-handed pitcher's dream for many years. As for Oakland, who knows? The fate of that team and that stadium has been the subject of an ongoing debate for as long as I can remember.
  • It seems that iconic Fenway Park will continue to be an extremely negative venue for left-handed power. The right field line in Fenway is already the shortest in the majors, and the fence ... well, you probably have a higher fence in your back yard, so there just doesn't seem to be any additional way to help lefties out. Coors and Fenway face the same problem in opposite directions. Neither a 375' line not a 280' one provide a credible solution which is consistent with MLB's overall presentation. Both solutions could be quite logical, but they just aren't going to happen, especially in a park whose dimensions are considered to be a cultural treasure that connects today's baseball to the game's storied past.

In some other cases, the solutions may exist, but are not immediately evident or desired.
  • Nobody has quite determined how to keep the homers from flying out of Miller Park, for example, because analysts have not yet determined why the ball flies out of there in the first place. The fences are high and distant; the climate is fully controlled; the altitude is moderate. There seems to be nothing about the location favorable to flight distance. In fact, the previous ballpark, which was literally on the adjoining lot, was a pitchers' park.
  • In my opinion, the Royals will not tinker with Kauffman Park for a long time. They currently have a team built around small ball. Almost every visiting team has more home run power than the Royals, so the fact that their stadium suppresses homers works in their favor. If they were to somehow suddenly end up with Stanton, Harper or Trout on the team, you could bet that they would start messin' with the place.
  • The Angels have two of the game's premier right-handed hitters on the team, and no left-handed power hitter suffering from the park. (Their only power-hitting lefty, Kole Calhoun, hits great there!) If Pujols and Trout were lefties, they'd probably be thinking about bringing in that 350' right field foul line, and/or cutting down that 18' fence in right field, but as it stands, visiting teams are likely to have more left-handed power than the Angels. Given that situation, their stadium's tendency to suppress left-handed home runs probably works to their advantage, and tinkering would produce no benefit. (The park is also slightly unfavorable to right-handed home run hitters - the tendency is small, but consistent from year-to-year.)