The Challenge and Promise of Safeco


Before I get into my topic, I just want to say one thing: I miss Adrienne Beltre.

Watching Texas in the post season has reminded me of just how much fun he is to have around. Not only is he an exciting third baseman, but he’s currently hitting .260 in the post season and hit .296 in the regular season, with 33 home runs. Fans with good memories may remember that in his last season with the Dodgers, in 2004, he hit .334 with 32 homers.

Things were a little different in Seattle. In five seasons with the Mariners, Beltre hit between .255 and .276 and never racked up more than 26 home runs. His last season in Seattle he only hit 8, a career low. But as soon as he moved to Boston in 2010 his average shot up to .321 with 28 homers.

And Adrian is not unique in this instance. Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, John Olereud, Reggie Sexson, and other players all saw their batting averages and slugging percentages drop at Safeco. (Bret Boone, who had very good years in 2001, 2002 and 2003 is an anomaly — a batter who actually hit better with Seattle than almost anywhere else, and for two of those seasons hit better at home than away.)

How do we explain these numbers?

The most popular answer is to blame it on Safeco Field. Almost universally, the Mariner’s home stadium has the reputation of being hostile to hitters. Safeco actually sits two feet below sea level — the air pressure, coupled with the cool, damp air most of the year has the effect of deadening the ball. (Exactly the opposite, say, of Coors Field in Denver). Furthermore, the dimensions of the park are formidable. 321 feet (left) and 326 feet (right) to the foul poles, 405 to center, 386 down the right field power alley, and 390 on the left. At the time the stadium was built, only Yankee Stadium and Comerica Park had longer power alleys. None of this adds up to good news for power hitters.

Even if some of Safeco’s reputation is exaggerated, in an activity as fraught with psychology and superstition as ML hitting, that reputation carries a lot of weight. It’s highly unlikely that Seattle is going to be successful building a team that relies on power hitting.

So what does that call for?

A team built around quickness and speed, with precision hitters who are capable of stringing together hits and knocking in runs without necessarily hitting a lot of home runs. The advantage to this kind of team is that those same hitters, who can provide potent offense at Safeco, will be just as effective on the road in more forgiving venues.

I have my doubts whether this kind of team can be built — at least in the short run — out of mostly young prospects. A team that relies on strategy, precision and execution needs a balance of youth and experience, with veteran players in key positions to supply the finesse. So far, Seattle’s luck in providing that balance, has been mostly bad.

But as I have said many times before, Safeco field is nearly my favorite place on earth. Of all the wonderful ball parks in the Major leagues, there’s not another that I would rather call home. And when the Mariners do succeed in building a team that can thrive in the rigors of Safeco Field, that will be an exciting team to watch.