Mariners come home, hoping hot hitting continues
The Mariners, who begin a homestand Friday against the Dodgers, have been a much better hitting team on the road this season, scoring 4.8 runs per game away from Safeco Field and just 3.3 per game at home.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Los Angeles Dodgers @ Mariners, ROOT, 7:10 p.m.
Casper Wells had launched a cannon shot to center field with the bases full, and his Mariners appeared ready to topple a starting pitcher who'd long given them fits.
But then, just as Matt Harrison of the Texas Rangers prepared to accept his grand-slam fate, center fielder Josh Hamilton raced back to the wall and hauled in the ball.
In the home dugout, Mariners players shook their heads, consoled Wells and began muttering.
Welcome to Safeco Field.
It was during that late-May game that Mariners starting pitcher Jason Vargas admits he began to swing his opinion from being steadfastly against moving in the ballpark's fences to perhaps taking a closer look at the idea. Vargas, more than any Mariners pitcher, is perceived to benefit from his home ballpark because of fly balls he yields that are caught at Safeco but could have been home runs in other places.
But he said there's a balance involved and that it's tipping in the wrong direction.
"I think that game with Texas might be one of those turning points," said Vargas, who has a 1.93 earned-run average at home this season versus 4.53 on the road. "Where I was just like, 'You know what? Regardless of whether it keeps me from giving up two runs as opposed to four runs, when we score eight and the other team scores four, I'll take the win every day of the week.' "
The issue of the run-scoring environment at Safeco Field should be front-and-center this homestand, with the Mariners coming off a nine-day trip in which they scored 64 runs — including a 21-run thrashing of the Rangers in Texas. Seattle is averaging 3.3 runs a game at home this season. After scoring more than seven per game on their trip, the Mariners now are averaging 4.8 runs on the road.
The limited sample of any nine-game stretch leaves room for debate, which is why this upcoming homestand will serve as a litmus test for some observers wanting to see whether the Mariners revert to previous low-scoring ways.
There has been talk within the organization of addressing the fences issue and even moving them in as early as next season.
Such discussions, however, won't take serious shape until August or September when the team evaluates where things are headed on the field and begins planning for 2013.
Getting "Safecoed" is something the Mariners freely discuss among themselves. It's tough not to notice the differences between the team's home and road hitting splits, especially when the Mariners are coming off two of the worst run-scoring seasons of the past 40 years.
ESPN.com runs an "MLB Park Factors" chart in which the Mariners are consistently a bottom-five team when it comes to the rate at which they score runs at home versus on the road. They were second-worst in 2010, fifth-worst last season and sit third-worst behind only San Francisco and Pittsburgh this year.
This season, the Mariners have an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .584 at home versus .725 on the road. Entering the season, they had a .719 OPS at Safeco, .744 away from it.
"You've got a cold climate, it's rainy with thick air — it's different," said Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak, who has an OPS of .742 on the road compared to .552 at home. "To right field, it probably plays true, but from gap-to-gap it's not easy. We've seen it. Everybody's seen it. Guys crush balls that go nowhere. From right-center to left-center. That's something we have to deal with until it gets warm."
Unfortunately for the Mariners, that warm weather often won't come until the midway point in the schedule.
Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo said the ball clearly carries better on the road.
"I think they need to move the fences in a little bit," Olivo said.
Olivo has hit all four of his home runs on the road this season. He said that with the team going younger, it's important the Mariners be on the lookout for anything that might cause newer players to become discouraged.
Indeed, there is a growing concern that some players will let the ballpark get inside their heads and change their hitting approach during home games.
"You still have the same approach," Smoak said. "If you can hit it, hit it. You can't really change that at all. Being a power guy, if you square the ball up and it doesn't go anywhere, so be it. There's nothing you can do about it."
Smoak agreed that the topic comes up in the clubhouse.
"Everybody knows about it," he said. "The fans talk about it. Everybody talks about it."
One reason the fences have yet to be moved in is debate about whether that would truly help.
Many fans remember the 101-loss Mariners sweeping a playoff-bound Reds team at Safeco Field in 2010 when the visitors had about eight potential home runs caught at the warning track.
Mariners pitchers have an ERA of 3.23 at home this year compared to 4.21 on the road.
Also, the spacious gaps at Safeco should, in theory, be helping line-drive hitters like Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley and Ichiro pile up doubles and triples.
"It goes both ways," said Ackley, whose OPS jumps to .752 on the road versus .564 at home. "There's a lot more room in the outfield at Safeco, so there's a lot more room for hits and things like that. To me, you might have fewer homers, but maybe more hits. So, it's more of a give-and-take."
And yet, going into Friday, the Mariners ranked fourth-worst in the majors in the rate in which they hit doubles at home compared to on the road. They were the worst team in baseball last year and sixth-worst in 2010.
Seager has an OPS of .899 on the road this year, compared to .616 at home.
"There are balls that you hit on a line in the gaps that are going to be hits anywhere," Seager said. "I think the balls that really get affected are the ones you get more up in the air and you drive out more to center field that maybe the outfielders can kind of get under.
"And, I mean, there are some pretty impressive outfielders in this division."
But Seager said the Mariners are developing into better hitters as a group overall, meaning their numbers should start to increase regardless of where they play.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge shares those feelings, which is one reason team officials are hesitant to move in the fences.
The Mariners want a better gauge overall as to whether they've really needed ballpark changes all these years, or merely better hitters.
"We're not the same team now that we were at the beginning of this year," Wedge said. "I mean, that's evident for those of you (media) guys who have been on this road trip. We're not the same team now as we were when we started this road trip.
"So, when it comes to the home-road splits, you can't argue with them because they're real. But over time, will that get a lot better? Yeah, I'm sure it will. I'm sure they will because I think that we're a lot better."
Guys like Vargas sure hope so.
He has found he can more aggressively challenge hitters while playing for a team capable of giving him run support.
"We've got a lot of young guys who are going to be here for while," Vargas said. "And to make them comfortable is going to make the team comfortable. I mean, you see it with (Angels pitcher) C.J. Wilson, when he was in Texas. Not a pitcher's park, but he pitched very well there. When you have that type of offensive backing, you know you'll be able to go out there and challenge hitters and be more effective.
"As opposed to when you're trying to pitch and not give up any runs. It's a completely different situation then, because your mindset becomes to stay away from contact and that everything has to be perfect. Over the course of a season, you're going to give up more that way."
For now, the Mariners look like a team capable of giving Vargas that offensive support so lacking in the recent past. The challenge will be to carry it over in a home that hasn't always been so sweet.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @gbakermariners.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
|Trouble at home|
|The Mariners are scoring 4.8 runs per game on the road, compared to 3.3 at home. They're hitting .257 on the road, .193 at Safeco.|
|Better on the road|
|Seattle returns to Safeco Field for a homestand that begins Friday, hoping to find more success at the plate. The Mariners have been much better on the road this season.|
|Mariners||G||W-L||R (per)||HR (per)||Avg||OBP||SLG||OPS|
|Home||22||9-13||73 (3.3)||12 (0.54)||.193||.278||.305||.584|
|Away||37||17-20||178 (4.8)||43 (1.16)||.257||.307||.417||.725|