The Oakland Athletics are getting a new ballpark and the desired location has been announced (complete with lakefront views!). While the big-league club trudges towards another last place finish, the hope of brighter days and a new place to call home is what is keeping some fans going.
With a new ballpark on the radar, the A’s are forging ahead with a rebuild that aims to inject dynamic young talent in big leagues and down to the lowest levels of the A’s system. There are several teams that either have rebuilt their rosters recently or are in the process of rebuilding. Most, like in Houston, Detroit and Chicago either have historic homes (Cubs) or relatively new ballparks (Minute Maid Park; Guaranteed Rate Park; Comerica Field) that will be around for a bit, making it easier to look for players whose skillsets fit their homepark. However, there is one recent rebuild that took place while the team was opening a new ballpark: the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves aren’t finished rebuilding their roster, although they had hoped to post a better record in their new park than they have this season. Still, the Braves’ experience in the first season of SunTrust Park makes for an interesting guinea pig for the A’s to observe while planning their own entry into a new park.
I took a look at how SunTrust Park was playing this season compared to their old park, Turner Field. The Braves have already surpassed their home run total at home from last season, their team OPS is 38 points higher and their wRC+ is 5% better.
On the mound, their team ERA has gone up by about three-tenths of a run. If you give the team roughly the same ERA from last season, assuming that the ballpark has something to do with the spike in runs scoring, that gives them a Pythagorean win-loss record of about two to three wins higher than what they have. In other words, the Braves’ pitching is costing them wins. Whether those pitching woes are related to the new ballpark or are coincidental remains to be seen. Atlanta currently has the best crop of minor league starting pitching prospects in baseball, so they should offer a good test for the offense-friendly nature of SunTrust in the next few years.
The A’s have famously built their playoff teams around top pitching staffs since the franchise moved to the Oakland Coliseum nearly 50 years ago. A big reason for that roster design was the dynamics of the Coliseum, which suppressed offense with its Marine Layer and big foul territory. Any new ballpark isn’t going to have the same amount of foul territory and the weather patterns may play differently. So how can the A’s account for a homepark factors five years down-the-road when they don’t know what those factors will be?
New Ballpark, New Problems?
The Colorado Rockies have held the same question since they came into existence, and that is how they heck does one pitch at altitude? While the questions that the A’s will have to answer about their future home won’t be that dramatic, it is worth considering how the park could play before locking players into place for the long-term.
I took a look at all of the teams that have opened ballparks dating back to the 2003 Reds. The 2001 season is when ESPN’s Park Factors begin, so the parks in Seattle and San Francisco would have data for the opening season, but not for their previous residences.
Since 2003, the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees are the only two of the nine teams to win a World Series trophy since opening their new parks, and both clubs did so in their inaugural seasons. New Yankee Stadium immediately became a huge home field advantage with the Bombers collecting a 120 wRC+ at home that season. The ’04 Padres and the ’17 Braves (so far) are the only other teams to see their production as a team go up at the plate when changing venues.
As for Busch the third, the Cardinals’ team ERA went up by half-a-run, they scored a little less and were all around less productive at the dish. St. Louis had a 100-win club in the previous Busch’s final season, so even though they dropped 17 more contests, they had enough to make it through the playoffs and win the World Series in ’06.
The New York Mets opened Citi Field the same year that the Yankees opened their park, but the results were not nearly as good. They dropped 19 more games in Citi’s first year than the previous season, and hit just 49 home runs after smashing 95 the year before. Angel Pagan was their best player according to Baseball-Reference, and he played in just 88 games. That said, their team ERA was still well below league average and their OPS was just a couple ticks below, so their 70-92 campaign was a result of less production on both sides of the ball from the players that catapulted them to 89 wins the year before.
In adding up all nine team’s inaugural seasons in the new ballparks, those clubs came out losing 25 more games than the previous season, or a little under three games per team, but that figure is skewed. Two teams won more games than the previous season by a wide margin, while the ’04 Phillies stuck at 86 wins. Aside from the Yanks’ 14-game improvement, it was the San Diego Padres that appeared to adjust the best to their new digs, whether that was by design or not.
The Pads ended up winning 23 more games in ’04 than they did in ’03 while their Park Factor ranking stayed the same (28th) from The Murph to Petco. Their team ERA dropped nearly half a run, and their offense improved marginally, which made enough of a difference.
That Padres team answered the age-old question: “What if the A’s and Giants combined their rosters?” with their smattering of former and future Bay Area connections. For starters, it was current Giants manager Bruce Bochy leading the way that season, with former Giants Rod Beck, Rich Aurilia and future Giant Jake Peavy all on the roster. San Diego and Oakland made a deal that winter that sent Mark Kotsay to the A’s while Terrence Long and Ramon Hernandez headed south. Add Jay Witasick and Jay Payton to the team and you have a nice Bay Area stew. The Padres also drafted the reborn Matt Bush (before the reborn part) in the first round and one-time Athletic and Giant Kyle Blanks in the 42nd.
How to Proceed
A big part of a rebuilding process is acquiring the right players through the MLB Draft, trades, waiver claims, etc., and typically you’re looking for players either with the most talent, or ones that will play up at your home ballpark. With the hopeful location of that new venue just being announced, it’s safe to say that a lot of the basic park details are far from finished.
In the Chronicle piece (linked above) detailing the site announcement, they talk out a potential timeline, which would leave groundbreaking at the site around 2021. While there will be mock-ups and models made and remade over and over again, that presumably gives the A’s a couple of years to figure out which players they could literally build their new ballpark around. The Giants gave Barry Bonds a short porch in right (it also came with a 1,000 foot wall guarding the moat), and that is something that the A’s could end up considering with some of their own talent.
Matt Olson has been hitting many a dinger of late, with six this month and 17 overall, and his smooth left-handed swing could benefit from a short porch like the one at Yankee Stadium. That porch could also lead to an emphasis on adding left-handed pitching either through the draft or other means, to complement Sean Manaea and A.J. Puk as they keep the opposition away from that built-in home field advantage.
Olson is also 23 and would be 29 come opening day 2023, meaning that he’d be near his peak at that point, but making a long-term decision on the ballpark’s dimensions for a few years of potential production (see: Bonds, Barry and San Francisco’s current struggles). Olson would is also set to hit the free agent market the winter leading up to the 2023 season.
And that is where things get interesting. After the trade deadline I wrote about some of the potential players that the A’s could sign to extensions this winter if they wanted to get some extra good publicity along with the ballpark announcement. If this were to happen this winter, that could end up being an indicator to what some of the ballpark dimensions end up looking like.
If they feel that they want to build a speedy team, perhaps one that focuses on Jorge Mateo, they could incorporate their own version of Triples Alley while focusing on athletic outfielders that can cover ground.
What could be most intriguing is if the new ballpark dimensions have an effect on the organization’s philosophy. With copious amounts of foul ground at the Coliseum, it could actually be detrimental to foul pitch after pitch off, unless you’re lining all of them into the seats. One lazy fly ends up in a corner infielder’s mitt.
With an expressed desire to bring the fans closer to the action, could the coaches in the minors start implementing a new strategy at the dish to spoil as many pitches as they can in order to get their pitch? The kids that are in the minors now will more than likely see more time at the new Coliseum than most of the current roster, so grooming them for success in the coming seasons could help ease that transition.
One other tidbit to consider: With Lake Merritt on one side and Oakland Harbor on the other, will there be an effect on how the ball travels? The A’s look to have the power to overcome some of those difficulties on their current roster, but it’s definitely something that will be looked into and factored in to their personnel decisions down the road.
Fans in the Bay Area, like most places, love to support a winning product. With a new ballpark off in the distance, putting a winning team on the field for their inaugural season at the new venue could pay major dividends in creating a plethora of new, repeat fans, and bring in the money that this ownership group has been longing for. If the A’s can’t adjust to their new park, like many of the teams before them, then their one shining opportunity at reclaiming a large swath of the Bay Area fan base could be lost.
There will be innumerable factors that go into how the final ballpark looks and plays, but just as important as laying the foundation of a new ballpark in Oakland will be finding out which players are the foundation to the next run of playoff-bound A’s teams that this ballpark will (hopefully) aid to many, many victories and a few banners.
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