The Mariners and Safeco Field’s fences

It’s the topic of the hour right now – Justin Smoak and Safeco Field’s fences.

For years, really since A-Rod left, there has been an underlying debate regarding the fences at the ballpark. Are they too big? Are they too small? Do they favor lefties too much, since left field is so cavernous?

Safeco Field panorama
Creative Commons Flickr image from digitonin (http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitonin/)

Last night, Justin Smoak hammered two balls that went to the warning track of both right-center and left-center field. Unfortunately, they didn’t carry over the wall and resulted in two separate outs. The hit to left-center field, he said, was given all the power he could summon. (Lookout Landing has a great article on this, as does Ryan Divish over at the Tacoma News Tribune)

Now, Smoak is a strong guy. He leads the team in home runs, with 10. He can hit for power – part of what made him attractive in the 2010 Cliff Lee trade with Texas. Smoak also isn’t the first to say the ballpark’s fences are too far back. Since the Mariners’ offense began struggling consistently back in 2004, calls have been made to bring the walls in. (You can see a diagram of the field here. Obviously, it makes it pretty tough on right-handed batters, especially in left-center field)

The field’s dimensions are obviously the problem, right? Nothing else can account for it.

After spending way too much time a quick few minutes digging up Seattle weather history since 2001, nothing has really changed. Back in June 2001, humidity was in the mid- to upper-70s, and in 2012 it’s been averaging in the 70s. Air pressure really hasn’t changed much, staying steady around 30in through 2012. Even in that rotten 2004 season, the air pressure was a bit lower, around 29in that year.

So, if Seattle weather hasn’t changed much since 2001, what has?

The Seattle Mariners, in their incredibly dominant 2001 season, didn’t lead the league in home runs. They haven’t since Griffey left after 1999. That honor typically goes to the powerhouse Texas Rangers or some other team that manages to have a great year. Back in 2001, the Mariners had an unbelievable .288 team batting average. The figure made my jaw drop – I knew they were good, but not THAT good! Players on the team hit for power (Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, John Olerud and Mike Cameron all had a 20-homer season), but the team wasn’t pounding the ball out of the park in every game.

They just scored runs.

Even in the 99-loss 2004 season, when this madness started, the Mariners were right at the middle of the pack for batting average. Pitching was fine, as well.

The problem? They couldn’t score runs.

The Mariners of today, however, can’t seem to get anything going with its offense. For three of the past four years, 2012 included, the lineup has been in the cellar of the American League. The fences in Seattle haven’t changed and the weather in Seattle hasn’t changed. What has changed?

The roster.

Seattle has had incredible teams in the past, with talented young players earning their way up to the major leagues. This team’s history since the 2000s has been littered with horrible draft picks, ill-advised free agent signings and trades that depleted what remaining hope many fans had left of a winning season. Only in the past few years have we seen any glimmer of that once-lost hope from some excellent draft choices, multi-team trades and judging talent at a good level.

Just 10 years ago, this team could do little wrong. Today, however, fans watch as the latest effort attempts to rebuild the “rebuilt” 2008 team created from five years of mostly misguided decisions.

During all that time, Safeco Field’s fences have stayed the same. They’ve held the line. The walls are a goal for a major-league level lineup to reach.

The Seattle Mariners can be a great offensive team once again. Shrinking the field’s dimensions, though, is just like inflating a grade in class. Sure, you may have an A stamped on that essay, but did you really earn it? Sure, you may have hit that home run at Safeco Field, but did you really earn it?

Or were the fences moved in for you?

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