A park-factor puzzler
I was looking up something else when this caught my eye. Among active players with at least 70 career home runs:
- The highest percentage of HRs hit at home belongs to Andre Ethier – 66% (85 of 129).
- The lowest percentage of HRs hit at home belongs to James Loney – 34% (25 of 73).
Both bat left-handed and have spent virtually all their careers with the Dodgers, both starting in 2006. (Loney played 30 games with Boston last year.)
But wait — there’s more!
Loney has become known as a guy who doesn’t hit enough generally (and especially not enough HRs) to be a starting first baseman, averaging a 104 OPS+ with 13 HRs per 162 games. He was a throw-in to last year’s big Dodgers/Red Sox trade, and in December he signed with Tampa for one year at $2 million. Ethier, with a 124 OPS+ and 21 HRs per 162 games, is starting a five-year deal that will pay him at least $85 million.
But away from Dodger Stadium, Loney has hit better than Ethier — .293 BA and .807 OPS for Loney, .272/.775 for Ethier. That’s in 1,700 to 2,000 PAs each way for each player.
Loney has hit 4 more road HRs than Ethier (48-44), in about 260 fewer PAs.
The splits for each player are consistent from year to year. Loney has a higher OPS away in each of his 7 seasons, while Ethier has been higher at home in 6 of 7 years.
A hitter who thrives in Dodger Stadium?
Ethier’s Home/Road OPS split is .903/.775, a ratio of 1.17. I didn’t know there were any longtime Dodgers who hit that much better at home. So let’s check with the Batting Split Finder.
- Out of 41 Dodgers with at least 1,000 PAs in Dodger Stadium, only Joe Ferguson had a higher ratio of Home/Road OPS than Ethier.
- And only Adrian Beltre had a lower ratio of Home/Road OPS than Loney’s 0.88.
In that group of 41 longtime Dodgers, Ethier ranks 3rd in Home OPS (.903), right behind Mike Piazza (.921), 5th in Home BA (.309), and 3rd in Home SLG (.525). He’s 1st in ratio of Home/Road BA, and 3rd in ratio of Home/Road HR%.
Which way to the nearest exit?
Getting back to the Ethier/Loney home run conundrum … Their directional splits may tell some of the tale (although they’re not broken down home and away). Neither is a pull hitter; they each pull about 25% of the time and go up the middle about 57%. When they do pull, their HR rates are very close — 7.3% of ABs for Ethier, 6.6% for Loney. But up the middle is quite another story: 4.5% for Ethier, just 1.6% for Loney. (As for left field, neither one has any power that way.)
Is Dodger Stadium a tough place to hit one out to center? Or does Loney only have pull power? Looking at other long hits to CF, there’s a smaller gap in their rates of doubles and triples (combined) — 6.4% for Ethier, 5.2% for Loney. By itself, that might not be significant, since it’s just about 100 hits apiece. But the fact that it points in the same direction as their HR gap gives it a little more weight.
The listed distance in CF is 395′, but various sources say it’s really 400′ — not unusual, either way. It’s 375′ to both power alleys. There is a rather sharp in-curve right at the foul lines, making both 330′. But I don’t see how that would explain anything about Loney and Ethier. Our working hypothesis is that Loney has only pull power; but if he were adept at pulling it right down the line, his home HRs wouldn’t be as rare as a packed house that stays through the 9th. And if that 330′ line was working to Ethier’s advantage, you’d think he’d have become more of a pull hitter over time, but no; his pull rate over the last 2 years is right in line with his career.
Even in 2009, when Ethier hit a career-best 31 HRs and 22 at home, his pull rate was still 25%. So, from the splits I have, I can’t infer any short-foul-line benefit for Ethier, nor any particular attempt on his part to hit that spot.
Anywhere is better than here
Loney showed even less power in the minors, so maybe his road HR rate is the real surprise. Where has he hit them? As you’d expect, his best rates are in the two HR-friendly parks in his old division. With 10 HRs in Chase Field and 9 in Coors, Loney has averaged 31 HRs per 650 PAs in those two — three times his rate at Dodger Stadium. In no other park has he hit more than 5 taters.
Ethier, meanwhile, has not really enjoyed his visits to Coors and Chase, with a combined rate of 15 HRs per 650 PAs. (By the way, both players have just over 100 games in those two parks combined, so it could be meaningful.) Ethier hasn’ hit more than 5 HRs anywhere but his home field. He has 6 HRs in 106 combined games in San Francisco and San Diego, while Loney has 9 in 90 games in those two.
I guess I’ll stop here. I started this journey mainly from the shock of Loney’s respectable road HR rate — about 20 HRs per 650 PAs, vs. 10 at home — and sort of hoping that he might gain some traction now that he’s out of LA. I’m not a fan or anything, I just hate to see a guy get buried by his home park. But I wouldn’t be too hopeful on his behalf. Because all we really know for sure is that he can jack ‘em out in the mountains and the desert — and he’ll get no more than 5 games there with Tampa this year, instead of the 18 per year that he got with the Dodgers.
And just for the sake of completeness: Matt Kemp, the only other current Dodger with 1,000+ PAs in Chavez Ravine, has homered 39% more frequently there than on the road. But his OPS split is almost level; what he loses in road HRs, he gains back in singles, doubled and triples.
Your thoughts? Conjectures? Far-fetched fancies? Want to appear on our show? Just send a stamped, self-addressed envelope….
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