The Cardinals’ search for more offense has them looking not only to their lineup but to the place that lineup plays: Busch Stadium.
Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch reported on Sunday that the Cardinals were “exploring internally how their downtown ballpark has become detrimental to their offense” and if changing the dimensions of the park could “correct a competitive disadvantage.”
Those changes could include bringing in the walls to encourage more home runs and changing the angles of the outfield wall to facilitate more doubles.
The working theory is that the new high-rise constructions around the ballpark – including Ballpark Village Phase 2 – have changed the weather dynamics of the park. While Busch has always favored pitchers, the club asserts that balance has now tipped too far.
Other ballparks, like Coors Field in Denver, might reward less-than-ideal contact. Busch punishes batters, even when they hit the ball well.
Former Rockie Nolan Arenado has experienced this firsthand: “Arguably, I go from one of the top three greatest hitters ballparks to the top three worst, numbers-wise, ballparks for hitters… I think the biggest adjustment as far as that, where I’ve failed in a sense, is focusing on the end result. When you hit the ball well you don’t always get rewarded, not necessarily. Where at Coors Field or here (Milwaukee) you get rewarded.”
Moving or re-aligning the outfield walls would not be the first step that the Cardinals have taken to encourage more consistent offense at Busch. This winter the team installed a humidor to store the official game balls.
While the Rockies and other teams have used a humidor for years to add moisture to the balls and make them play down in parks with extreme offensive numbers, the Cardinals’ goal was not to suppress offense. It was to gain offensive consistency.
Humidity has always been a factor at ballgames at Busch. The team believes that the high humidity – i.e. heavy air – at Busch in the summer months hinders ball flight. By taking humidity out of the ball and keeping them at a stable atmospheric environment (humidity and temperature), it could (theoretically) provide a more stable hitting experience. This would counterbalance the effect of humidity swings in St. Louis to provide a more balanced offensive environment throughout the season. (Check out this article I wrote on the subject back in June if you want to know more.)
So, are they right? Has the offensive environment at Busch changed in recent seasons?
With 66 out of 81 games concluded at Busch Stadium this season, the Cardinals have exactly 5000 plate appearances worth of data to consider – from their own offense and visiting clubs. Over the last three seasons, they have over 14000 PAs. That’s more than enough data to make some very direct points about how Busch Stadium plays with Ballpark Village Phase 2.
This first image below represents Baseball Savant’s “Park Factor” rankings for 2021, sorted worst – lowest factor, poorest offensive performance – first. Park Factor is a measure of how much above or below average a ballpark plays. In typical Baseball Savant standards, red indicates above average, with dark red being the highest percentile ranking in park factor by offensive event. Blue indicates below average, with the dark blue shading representing the lowest percentile ranking in park factor by offensive event. White is neutral.
As you can tell from all that blue ink, St Louis remains one of the worst locations in baseball to hit. Their overall park factor of 95 is just one off the lowest in the game – the Mariners’ T-Mobile Park. That extends to nearly every offensive possibility. Busch Stadium actively limits how hard a ball is hit. It suppresses run scoring 10 points below average. It is the second-worst park in the league to hit a home run with a factor of just 80. 100 would be average.
If you think this is just an outlier or a result of bad hitting from the Cardinals’ bats, remember, this data includes the visiting teams. So, not only do the Cardinals suck at hitting homers at Busch, so does every other team.
This can be traced back several years. Here is the same data, but with a 3-year rolling average.
This paints a pretty consistent profile. The Park Factor itself, runs scored, and homers are all essentially the same for the last three seasons – 2019, 2020, 2021.
This wasn’t always the case for Busch. As recently as 2017, the Park Factor at Bush was a more robust 98. Runs scored was at 96. Homers were still hard to hit with an 88, but not impossible. Perhaps more importantly, the ballpark was essentially neutral on hard-hit balls at 99, just below average. Outside of homers, in 2017, if a batter hit the ball hard they were rewarded with the expected result.
Jump back another 2 years. In 2015, we see an environment that was very similar to 2017. Park factor was a 99. Runs were a 98. Hard-hit rate was an even 100. Homers were down – 84.
Goold’s article reports that the club has conducted wind studies of Busch Stadium. Those studies, along with their own proprietary versions of the data presented above, trace the change in the offense to new construction projects in Ballpark Village Phase 2. The time frame fits.
How does Busch compare to other parks in the NL Central? Arenado was right to notice a difference and cite Milwaukee as an example of an alternative.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Arenado has 29 homers. Baseball Savant has a fun (and painful for the Cardinals’ batters) tool that calculates expected home runs by ballpark. While playing half his games at Busch, Arenado has 29 homers. Move him to Wrigley and that number jumps to 38! Milwaukee? 34. Cincy? 31. On average, he is down 3 HRs compared to all ballparks.
What would we be saying about Arenado’s season if Busch were Wrigley and he was sitting with 35-38 HRs right now?
We can play the same game with the rest of the team’s sluggers.
Goldschmidt, who has had an MVP-like second half of the season, has lost 4 HRs. He would have 31 at Wrigley. 35 in Cincy. 30 in Milwaukee.
Are you disappointed in Dylan Carlson’s power numbers this season? Well, just imagine him elsewhere in the NL Central. He’s lost two homers to the depths of Busch. He would have between 15 and 17 at the other three offensive-happy divisional ballparks.
Tyler O’Neill? Here’s an example of what it takes to consistently hit homers at Busch. O’Neill doesn’t hit “doubters” – HRs that would only be out of certain ballparks. When he hits it, it goes. So, he’s down just 1 HR on the season on average. Cincy would be the kindest to him, giving him 5 extra homers this season.
Busch forces power hitters to hit no-doubt homers. Anything less than that has a good chance of being an out. Milwaukee, Cincy, and Chicago don’t.
Of course, there is a flip side to this.
While the humidor could add a more consistent environment and moving the walls could better reward quality contact, those moves are going to punish a pitching staff and philosophy built on pitching to contact.
The Cardinals’ pitching staff has a long and storied tradition of outperforming their FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching. What FIP does is remove the impact of fielding from the evaluation of pitcher performance. It focuses on the parts of the game that the pitcher is directly responsible for – homers, walks, and strikeouts. (Plus hit-by-pitches.)
With Busch so actively suppressing offense, Cardinal pitchers have been able to get away with a lot more than their counterparts throughout the league.
In 2019, the Cardinals led the league in “E-F” (or ERA minus FIP) at -.45. That’s a half a run per game difference between what the pitchers did versus what they actually account for.
In 2020 that number was even lower. In the shortened season, the Cardinals hurlers beat their FIP by a collective -.66
This season, with the oddities of walks terrorizing the pitching staff (plus the loss of FIP beaters in Mikolas and Hudson), the team hasn’t been so fortunate. Still, their -.19 ranks 22nd in the league. Or 8th if you want to look at it that way.
And since someone will ask, yes, Adam Wainwright has been one of the league’s biggest benefactors of Busch’s offense-suppressing powers. His ERA has outperformed his FIP by -.59. That’s the 7th highest amount in baseball among qualified starters.
That’s where I would take issue with the idea that Busch Stadium’s run suppressing environment is, as Mozeliak called it, a “competitive disadvantage”. It’s only a disadvantage from the perspective of hitters like Arenado, who make their livelihoods from hitting balls over fences.
It’s a distinct advantage for pitchers who have pushed their way into prominent roles and contracts by dramatically outperforming their FIPs. Busch Stadium has enabled the Cardinals to beat the odds and get significant production from sources other FIP-neutral teams would shy away from – like Dakota Hudson, Kwang-Hyun Kim, and Miles Mikolas.
Kim, for example, has a career MLB ERA of 2.99. That’s fantastic. His FIP? 4.15.
Hudson? 3.17 to 4.74. He’s the poster child of taking advantage of Busch Stadium’s uniqueness.
Mikolas? In 2018, Mikolas had a 2.83 ERA and a 3.28 FIP. That’s not crazy, but he was able to parlay that into a multi-year extension and hasn’t been able to replicate the FIP luck.
Recent acquisitions like Luis Garcia, JA Happ, Jon Lester, and TJ MacFarland were all let go by their collective squads because of bad performance. They were targeted by the Cardinals because the Front Office rightly hoped that Busch would be able to squeeze some extra water out of those stones.
It’s working. Sort of. At least it is with some of those names.
It won’t if they dramatically change the playing environment.
While I personally would support re-configuring the outfield walls at Busch to allow for more homers and doubles, that comes at a cost. The Cardinals would have to change their approach to pitching and the types of pitchers they target in both free agency and the draft.
I would support that, too!