The Atlanta Braves open their new ballpark, SunTrust Park, tonight, rekindling an age-old debate: How much should ballpark factors weigh in our pitching matchup decisions?
The answer: They're among several driving factors, but in certain cases -- like Colorado's Coors Field, renowned for being the worst environment in which for a pitcher to work -- they can be the most important ones.
Pitchers at Coors, fly-ballers at Yankee Stadium, anyone facing the Chicago Cubs ... these rank among the obvious matchups to avoid on the pitching side. Conversely, left-handers at Tropicana Field, right-handers against the Chicago White Sox, anyone facing the Philadelphia Phillies ... these are among the obvious matchups to exploit.
What if I told you, however, that I anticipate the Braves, in their home games, might rank among the matchups you should generally avoid?
One of the reasons is the Braves' offense is more potent than perceived. During the second half of 2016, the Braves ranked fifth in the majors in runs per game (4.75), fourth in weighted on-base average (.339) and posted the ninth-lowest team strikeout rate (19.7 percent of their trips to the plate). And while the team's overall Grapefruit League numbers were poor, its current top six hitters weren't, batting a combined .326 with .112 isolated power. This offense should also get only scarier once Matt Kemp returns from a hamstring injury, perhaps by the end of April.
The other reason is the chatter surrounding the Braves' new venue itself. Though we have but a one-game, exhibition-season sample from which to draw statistically -- that March 31 contest between the Braves and New York Yankees saw 13 runs, 18 hits and three home runs on 20 fly balls combined between the two teams -- many who were present suggested SunTrust Park will definitively play as more of a hitters' park than its predecessor, Turner Field. The smaller dimensions in right-center field, crosswinds and the direction of the stadium itself will all cause SunTrust to play differently than Turner did, even if it only takes the park factors to the neutral range. After all, Turner Field was notorious for its high strikeout rates, tilting the advantage to the pitcher. Even skewing the needle closer to center might represent a dramatic change in the matchup.
Sticking with the theme of unexpectedly favorable or unfavorable matchups, here are a few more to keep your eye on in the coming weeks:
Left-handers against the Pittsburgh Pirates: Jung Ho Kang's absence seems to be having a profound impact upon the Pirates' offense against left-handed pitching. David Freese, while a capable regular playing in Kang's stead, lacks Kang's power punch and strikes out significantly more often. Having Jordy Mercer and his .313 lifetime on-base percentage leading off, and Gregory Polanco and his .595 lifetime OPS against lefties batting cleanup, hardly helps matters. This matchup should be especially attractive for opposing lefties when they're visiting Pittsburgh's PNC Park, which is one of the game's most awful venues for right-handed power. Typical lineup: Mercer SS, Starling Marte CF, Andrew McCutchen RF, Polanco LF, Freese 3B, Francisco Cervelli C, Josh Harrison 2B, Josh Bell 1B.
Left-handers against the Kansas City Royals: Like the Pirates, the Royals aren't a power-laden lineup, and it doesn't help that they're seemingly platooning Mike Moustakas and Cheslor Cuthbert at third base. The Royals usually roll out Alex Gordon at leadoff and Eric Hosmer batting third against a lefty; neither player is especially productive against a lefty. What's more, this team has a 23.3 percent strikeout rate thus far, noticeably higher than the league's average (21.8), and while the small-sample caveat applies, the Royals' team strikeout rate during the second half of 2016 was right in line with the league's average. Whatever happened to this contact-oriented offense? It's especially susceptible to lefties in games at Kauffman Stadium, an awful park for power. Typical lineup: Gordon LF, Lorenzo Cain CF, Hosmer 1B, Salvador Perez C, Cuthbert 3B, Paulo Orlando RF, Jorge Soler DH (when healthy), Alcides Escobar SS, Christian Colon/Raul Mondesi 2B.
Milwaukee Brewers road games (i.e., when they're the ones traveling): This lineup might have plenty of exciting fantasy names in it, like Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton, Jonathan Villar and Domingo Santana, but it also has a lot of strikeouts in it. These Brewers led the majors with a 25.5 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and they lead so far in 2017 with a 28.3 percent rate. Take them out of Miller Park -- one of the more favorable hitters' environments and an excellent one for power -- and they're a much less scary starting eight. Typical lineup: Villar 2B, Eric Thames 1B, Braun LF, Travis Shaw 3B, Santana RF, Broxton CF, Jett Bandy C, Orlando Arcia SS.
Matchups to fear
Visiting Great American Ball Park: The Cincinnati Reds averaged 4.76 runs per game at home during the second half of 2016, 10th-best in the majors and well above the league average (4.55), and they're a headache on the base paths now that they've got Billy Hamilton and Jose Peraza occupying the top two spots in their lineup. This is a poor matchup particularly for pitchers weak at holding runners on, or for fly ballers. Typical lineup: Hamilton CF, Peraza 2B, Joey Votto 1B, Adam Duvall LF, Eugenio Suarez 3B, Scott Schebler RF, Zack Cozart SS, Tucker Barnhart C.
Miami Marlins road games: The caveat here should read, "For so long as they're healthy," as Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna can be scary power sources when they're in the lineup. Getting this team out of pitching-friendly Marlins Park grants them an uptick offensively, especially in parks that are neutral-to-hitting-friendly. It'll only help matters when Martin Prado returns, as the team can mix and match at the corners between Justin Bour and Derek Dietrich. Typical lineup: Dee Gordon 2B, J.T. Realmuto C, Christian Yelich CF, Stanton RF, Bour 1B, Ozuna LF, Dietrich 3B, Adeiny Hechavarria SS (when healthy).