The alterations to Citi Field not only transformed it into a more hitter-friendly park for this season. Bringing in the walls, along with shortening some, also changed the topic of conversation in Flushing.
During the Mets' first visit to Marlins Stadium, Miami's cavernous dome, Dillon Gee was amused by the topic of conversation among the Miami players. In talking to Logan Morrison about the new ballpark, the grumbling that Gee heard from him sounded very familiar.
"They were already complaining about it," Gee said.
The "it" Gee referred to was not the zany home run sculpture or the fish tank behind home plate or the bumping techno music blaring from the Clevelander bar beyond the outfield wall. No, the Marlins were griping about the stadium's dimensions, which have made it too difficult to clear the fences.
Funny, Gee thought, because that's something you don't hear anymore around Citi Field, where the early reviews for the stadium's re-sizing have been overwhelmingly positive.
That's a big change from the first three years of the ballpark's existence, even if the statistical data has yet to catch up to the perception that the shorter, closer walls have created.
"I enjoy it," third baseman David Wright said. "Obviously, it's smaller, so I enjoy that. But it's tough, I guess, to describe the effect that it has because it's still relatively early. A lot of how the ball carries has to do with the weather, and the weather has been chilly, rainy and windy."
That's always been the case out at Willets Point, by the shores of Flushing Bay, be it Shea Stadium or Citi Field, for much of April and into May. Wright has plenty of experience with this particular microclimate, and he attributes the scarcity of early homers to these more pitcher-friendly conditions.
A power boost
Through the first 20 home games, there have been 26 home runs hit at Citi Field, and that frequency of 1.3 per game is tied (with Wrigley Field) for 13th-best in the National League. Only AT&T Park (0.84), PETCO Park (0.96) and Marlins Park (1.24) had produced fewer.
Before Citi's changes are deemed inconsequential, however, consider this: According to ESPN Home Run Tracker, 10 home runs needed the new dimensions to clear the walls, and if there were only 16 home runs to this point, that drops the average rate to a minuscule 0.80 -- the lowest in either league.
Of the eight home runs that Mets have hit at Citi Field this season, Wright has two, and only one -- the April 7 shot off the Braves' Jair Jurrjens -- was far enough (411 feet) to soar over the former bullpen fence in right-centerfield. The other, hit April 25 off the Marlins' Mark Buehrle, was a blast as well, flying an estimated 409 feet. But it landed at the far end of the new Party City deck in left-centerfield -- about halfway up what was formerly known as the Great Wall of Flushing. That's a long double in 2011.
"I think there's more of a comfort level now, stepping into the batter's box," leftfielder Jason Bay said. "If you put a big leaguer in a Little League ballpark, just standing there, you'd feel pretty good. As a hitter, you'd want the wall 100 feet away if you could have it that way. Not that it's making my job or anyone else's seem any easier. It's just given the choice of A or B, and B is closer, I'd like B. It's pretty simple."
The Mets have a team batting average of .240 at Citi Field this season, with a .322 on-base percentage and .335 slugging percentage. They are averaging 3.25 runs per game with a batting average on balls in play of .332.
Bay, on the disabled list with a fractured rib, has only 31 at-bats at Citi Field, but he does have a home run. When Bay went deep off the Giants' Barry Zito on April 20, the ball sailed high over the Party City deck and landed roughly 10 rows deep into the leftfield seats. No help required there.
Good for Mets pitchers, too
"I would say it's been favorable for us simply because we've been able to pitch similarly to where we pitched last year and our hitters have benefitted," starting pitcher R.A. Dickey said. "So in that regard, it's been a big plus."
Dickey is right to some degree. But of those 10 "new Citi" homers, six have been hit by opposing teams. Still, whatever anxiety the adjusted dimensions initially may have stirred up among the Mets' pitchers has so far been unfounded. Through Thursday, they were a combined 12-8 (.600) with a 3.43 ERA, and opponents had a line of a .239 batting average, .308 on-base percentage and .382 slugging percentage against them.
Comparing the numbers
Last season, the Mets' pitching staff finished 34-47 (.420) at Citi with a 3.89 ERA, and opposing teams had a line of .256/.324/.379. Obviously, there has been a change in personnel, with Johan Santana at the front of the rotation now, but the smaller field could also be a factor. This season, opponents are reaching base safely at a rate of 28.7 percent on balls put in play. Last year, it was slightly higher at an even 30 percent.
According to the Mets' statistical analysis, they would have hit 81 more home runs during Citi Field's first three seasons with the new dimensions and allowed only 70.
"As a pitcher, any time they say they're going to bring the fences in, it's not what you want to hear," said Gee, a starter. "But it hasn't made as big a difference as we first made it out to be, at least to this point. We knew it was going to play more fair, but it's not like it's Citizens Bank Park," which is more home-run friendly.
Six weeks into the season, Mets ownership is happy for that. As much as the front office believed changes had to be made to the four-year-old stadium, the hope was not to trade one extreme for the other, and that hasn't appeared to be the case. Pulling in the leftfield wall and expanding the Mo Zone in right also has created popular new seating areas without disrupting the ballpark's feel overall.
"It doesn't look like a sore thumb sticking out, in the terms of the changes that we made," chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon said. "I think it's been very successful in that sense. We knew it wouldn't make a huge difference -- we wanted it to be a moderate difference."
Even so, Wilpon added, "I wish we were hitting more home runs, either with the benefit of the changes or without the benefits."
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