Hickey: Safeco changes could aid free-agent hires

Hickey: Safeco changes could aid free-agent hires

Credit: Erik Breon

Hickey: Safeco changes could aid free-agent hires

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by John Hickey

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on December 4, 2012 at 2:30 AM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 4 at 2:30 AM

From the first game in July 1999, there have been complaints from hitters and from fans of hitting about the spacious dimensions of Safeco Field.

Through good offensive years and bad, the criticism hasn’t gone away.

Safeco is too tough on right-handed hitters, some said. Others would bemoan the way the elements conspire to keep the ball from going over the fence.

Mostly, though, it’s been about veteran, free-agent power hitters who don't even consider Safeco as a destination. Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, right-handers with power, were signed in 2005, but no significant free agent hitter has come since.

Does that change now with Tuesday’s announcement to make the park more hitter friendly? The plan is to bring in the fences from near the left field corner to right-center, with the biggest changes taking place in left-center. The hand-operated scoreboard in left field is being taken out of play.

“Money is always going to be the bottom line,” Southern California-based agent Joe Urbon said Tuesday night. “What this does, it doesn’t rule them out of the initial conversations. They are still going to have to come to the table with the most money in the end, but this will keep them in the conversation.

“I’m glad they are doing this. It’s good. But it’s never as simple as the ballpark is too big or the ballpark is too small, no matter who the player is. You have to step up and be aggressive if you want a player to come to you.”

The Mariners have been unable to attract free agent hitters here for the last half-dozen years in large part because the club hasn’t been competitive and ownership hasn't stepped up. But the ballpark also takes a share of the blame because of the way the ball dies in left and left-center, where the fences are more distant on average than in most major league parks. That, coupled with the cool, dense air that is part of the sea-level Puget Sound climate for so much of the year, depresses offenses in both senses of the word.

That keeps free agent hitters at arm’s length.

“We’ve had many discussions (with free agents) about that question,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said when asked about hitters' apprehensions about Safeco. “It does come up in conversations.”

When powerhouse first baseman Prince Fielder was a free agent last year, the Mariners had some interest because it was Zduriencik who first signed him in Milwaukee. But word was that while Fielder and Zduriencik have a bond, both the Mariners’ steady stream of losing seasons and Safeco itself meant that the deal never had a chance even if the Mariners offered a big deal, which they didn’t.

Seattle assistant general manager Jeff Kingston, executive vice president Bob Aylward and vice president of ballpark operations Scott Jenkins formed the three-man panel that came up with the plan after talking with current and former executives inside and outside of the organization and examining how substantial changes at other parks – principally Detroit’s Comerica Park and New York’s Citi Field – impacted the game.

Kingston said the committee, which started meeting about two months into the season at a time when the Mariners were hitting under .200 at home, couldn’t factor 2012 stats into the their equations. But they did look at full-season statistics from 2009-11.

“Everyone knows that left field and left-center field are Death Valley here,” Kingston said. “Last year we estimate that 30-40 home runs were lost between both teams. “When we were tracking it, Guti (center fielder Franklin Gutierrez) really got hurt by the fences here.”

Felix Hernandez, perhaps Gutierrez’s best friend on the roster, said one former player felt the anguish of the fences to an even great degree.

“Adrian (Beltre, the current Rangers’ third baseman) used to get so mad; he’d hit one he thought was out and it would get caught,” Hernandez said. “This place really used to piss him off.”

The park, built to suit then-Mariners slugger Ken Griffey Jr., a lefty, who was traded after the park was opened for the second half of the 1999 season, bums out some of the current crop of Seattle hitters.

Switch-hitter Justin Smoak can pull the ball over the right field fence from the left side without trouble. Not so from the right side; and when he hits the ball the opposite way as a lefty, that’s a problem, too.

“It will be a different feeling here next year,” Smoak said with a tone of complete approval in his voice. “It’s a mental thing (now).”

Manager Eric Wedge downplayed the mental issues of dealing with a park so spacious to left and left-center, saying he was proud of the way his hitters wouldn’t “use it as an excuse.”

But not saying anything isn’t the same as not feeling anything.

In addition to keeping free agents away, Safeco also served to push batters, particularly right-handers, out the door. Center fielder Mike Cameron and Beltre both cited the difficulty of hitting as a right-hander in Safeco as among the reasons they left.

In the 2013 configuration, the distance to the left field foul pole remains the same, 331 feet from the plate. But the adjacent wall will be brought in from 341 feet to 337 and the hand-operated scoreboard just behind it will be moved and positioned out of play so that the height of the outfield wall will be a standard eight feet all the way around.

Starting in the left field power alley, the distance from the plate will come in from 390 to 378. In left center, the arc of the wall will be reduced from four to 17 feet. The distance in dead center will be trimmed from 405 to 401.  From the right field power alley to the right field corner, distances will remain same.

“Our goal is to create an atmosphere here that won’t punish pitching, but will create a fair ballpark,” Zduriencik said. “We think this park will play fair. There are considerations playing here in the Puget Sound, where the air can be very heavy and very cool in the spring and sometimes all the way into June. We thought by making some alterations it would create an atmosphere that might be an awful lot of fun going forward.”

As a team, the Mariners hit .195 all the way to the All-Star break. While that average is up to .218 now, that’s not going win any pennants. It’s significant that that decision to go ahead with the analysis came in the middle of that first-half Safeco slumber.

“Our hitters have to be here 81 games a year,” Zduriencik said. “That was a major consideration. Other ballclubs come in here for three days and boom, they're gone. It doesn't affect them. But when you're here for 81 days there are factors here that are extreme and we were trying to level the playing field.”

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