Safeco Field: The place where long fly balls go to die

SAFECO FIELD — Throughout this season, the elephant in the room, so to speak, has been the Mariners offense, or lack thereof, in their home ballpark.

But hey, at least that elephant has plenty of room to roam in Safeco Field’s spacious outfield.

So, what is a baseball team to do when it can’t hit in its own stadium? That has been question No. 1 for most of this season, and no one seems to know for sure how to answer it.

Some say the Mariners need to make Safeco Field more hitter friendly by moving in the fences. Others suggest they close the roof more often, particularly on those cold evenings in April and May. Still others suggest that the answer is better hitters, not a reconfigured stadium.

The short answer, of course, is that there is no easy solution. If there were some simple salve that would make the Mariners hit better at home — and win more; remember, that’s the ultimate goal, not just more runs — they would have done it quite a while ago. Like, perhaps, before they posted back-to-back historically bad offensive seasons in 2010 and 2011.

But whether the issue is Safeco Field’s spacious dimensions or the Puget Sound region’s cool, damp spring and early summer — which weather records tell us has been extra cool and damp this season — or simply the quality of hitters in the Mariners lineup, it is impossible to argue that something strange is going on this season.

Since before Safeco Field opened, we have heard that it is a bad hitter’s park from players like Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Years of statistical data also show that Safeco is one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in baseball.

So why is this suddenly such a big topic this season? Why is manager Eric Wedge, after another loss at home, lamenting his team’s offense?

“It’s frustrating, because I know these guys are a much better offensive club than what we’re seeing them do here at home,” he said after a 2-1 loss Wednesday.

Safeco Field’s impact on hitting has been such a big issue this season, quite frankly, because Seattle’s offense has been unusually awful at home. Since their first full season in the stadium, the Mariners have almost always been a better hitting team away from Seattle (see chart at end). However, in most years the statistical differences have been fairly minor and in one unusual year, 2008, they actually put up better numbers at home.

In their 12 full seasons at Safeco Field, the Mariners biggest disparity in home vs. away batting average was .041. After their first year in Safeco, the gap was never more than .029, and twice the Mariners have had a higher average at home than on the road.

As expected with a big ballpark, slugging percentage has been more affected by Safeco Field, but after that first season in which the Mariners slugged .064 better on the road, the gap has never been more than .043.

This year, however, the Mariners numbers at home are comically bad. The gap between their home and road batting averages, on base percentages and slugging percentages are substantially bigger than they were in any of the previous 12 seasons at Safeco. Not surprisingly, the Mariners are scoring more than two runs-per-game more on the road than at Safeco.

So, does this mean that Safeco suddenly became a much more difficult place to hit? Hardly. Yes, an unseasonably cool spring — even by Seattle standards — has probably contributed a bit, but ultimately the first half of this season is almost certainly a statistical anomaly more than it is a sign that the Mariners need to make drastic changes to their ballpark.

Now that doesn’t change the fact that Safeco always has been a park that prohibitively favors pitching. If the Mariners want to change that to create more offense, to try to make their ballpark more appealing to free agent hitters, then moving in the fences could be a viable solution.

While games like Thursday’s pitchers duel between Felix Hernandez and Franklin Morales can be baseball drama at its best, an endless string of low-scoring games eventually will drive the majority of baseball fans crazy. But would moving the fences in lead to more wins? That is a debate that the Mariners’ brass should probably have during the offseason, but a few more home runs would hardly be the solution to all of the Mariners problems.

And as this topic keeps coming up over and over, another concern for Wedge has to be that Safeco Field has gotten into his players’ heads. It isn’t impossible to hit at Safeco, but if players start feeling like it is, that can quickly lead to a lot of bad at bats.

“It’s hard,” catcher John Jaso said. “No team that plays here has the production that they would somewhere else.

“You look at Texas, how many runs are put up on both sides when you go play at Texas? It is different places, but this still is a great place to play, and the challenge is doing the best with it. … Yeah, it is tough if you square up balls and they don’t go out. But that’s the thing about the big leagues is you have to be mentally tough. It’s a game of failure, and to be strong enough to get through it is what keeps people up here and what puts people up here in the first place.”

But as much as the Mariners should be mentally strong, anyone who has played in Safeco Field enough has had to overcome a bit of frustration when a well-struck ball is chased down at the warning track.

“I can guarantee you anyone who has played here has hit a ball to the warning track or in the alleys that has been run down and (it’s) been like, ‘Ugh,’” outfielder Michael Saunders said. “But this is where we play and we have to learn to deal with it.

“If we’re going to bring a championship to Seattle, we can’t worry about muscling up and trying to hit it further, we just have to worry about hitting the ball hard and good things will happen.”

The Mariners desperately want to hit the ball harder at home, and in all likelihood what we’ve seen so far in 2012 is an anomaly more than a sign that Safeco Field is an impossible place to hit. But until signs of offensive progress come, this will be a topic that won’t go away.

“We still need to do a lot better at home, but we’ll conquer that,” Wedge said. “… If nothing else, it should be one hell of a motivation to hit better at home just not to have to talk to you guys about it every day, right?”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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