Safeco Field is one of the most pitcher friendly ballparks in all of baseball. It is often blamed for the failure of Mariners‘ hitters by fans and baseball writers/pundits. It is conveniently ignored that previous Mariner teams have hit just fine at Safeco (the 2001 Mariners hit .288/.360/.445). I have already written about Safeco and the “fence issue” earlier this year, but I wanted to look at this time more from the 2012 Mariners pitching staff angle.
Out of the 18 pitchers (that isn’t many, as the Blue Jays have used 31 this year) who have pitched for the Mariners on the road this year, only 8 have have HR/9IP of less than league average (1.03). You can throw out George Sherrill because he is out for the season/it was a short sample size/he won’t be returning to make it 8/17. You can toss out Steve Delabar and Brandon League as they are no longer with the team, but League was much better than league average while Delabar could not keep the ball in the park on the road. So only 7 out of 15, less than half of the Mariners pitchers, have been better than average at keeping the ball in the park: Carter Capps (small sample size + a ton of walks), Oliver Perez (free agent at end of year), Charlie Furbush (team control and good bullpen piece), Lucas Luetge (team control and good bullpen piece), Tom Wilhelmsen (team control and good bullpen piece), Kevin Millwood (free agent at end of the year), and Felix Hernandez (he is good).
So really, the Mariners have 1 good returning starter and 3 good returning bullpen pieces (and the wildcard of Carter Capps). If the Mariners did not play in Safeco field, we would really be panicking about this pitching staff. However, a combination of good defense (the team’s ERA is nearly a quarter of a run below their FIP per game, saving about 39 runs over a full season. Luck is a variable here of course.) and Safeco is making the pitching staff look good. Despite what looks like a below average pitching staff, opposing teams are hitting just .216/.278/.328 at Safeco. At home, 8 of the Mariners 15 pitchers have HR/9IP better than league average (with Shawn Kelley just missing the cutoff). One great example of the difference between home and road (besides the really obvious one, I am look at you, Jason Vargas) in somewhat of a small sample size is Josh Kinney. Overall, despite a disappointing ERA, Kinney has pitched quite adequately, with a FIP of 3.93 and 3.45 SIERA. At home, he has been amazing with 1.59 ERA and .63 FIP. On the road, he has looked like a pitcher that should not be in the big leagues with a 6.89 FIP and 6.71 xFIP.
Safeco does make the Mariners hitting worse. There is no question about it. However, it works both ways. It makes their pitching better. Without Safeco, the Mariners would have a rotation left in tatters. They would be in a position where they would not only need to spend currency (whether players or money) on their hitting (as it simply wouldn’t fix all their offensive problems) and their pitching. The Mariners are having a not-good but not-awful season. At least on a meta-narrative front, the Mariners are making progress. Moving in the fences or adjusting the ballpark would not make the Mariners better. It would make their ability to find cheap pitching much harder than it has been. With the current setup, the Mariners can at least theoretically use most of their available salary on hitting (while simultaneously keeping their defense good) and find cheap pitching that plays in the ballpark.