Pittsburgh Sports Report
May 2004

Playing The Field
PNC Park's Dimensions Help Dictate Pirates' Roster
By John E. Sacco

Todd Walker lofted a fairly well-hit ball to right field at PNC Park last month. The shot landed in the bleachers, clearing the 320-foot deep, 21-foot tall wall for a home run that helped the Chicago Cubs defeat the Pirates.

Walker, not known as a home run hitter, is just the kind of offensive player who can do some real damage at PNC Park.

He bats left-handed, hits for some power and can get the ball in the air.

His home run that April evening was nothing special, prompting Pirates' broadcaster Bob Walk to describe the round-tripper "as one of those he got up in the air" and took advantage of the park's dimensions. Walk called Walker's hit one of those "cheap ones" one sees from time to time at PNC Park.

There is little argument that left-handed hitters hold some type of advantage at the ballpark.

In the first three seasons of PNC Park's existence, left-handed hitters posted a .280 batting average while right-handers hit just .257. The disparity was greater last season. Lefties posted a .296 batting average compared with a .259 mark by right-handed batters.

Manager Lloyd McClendon thinks the ballpark plays pretty fair but acknowledges that left-handed hitters hold some advantage.

While the team's first priority is to find good players, regardless of which arm they throw with or which way they bat, PNC Park's dimensions and trends have to be considered.

"It plays a little bigger when it's colder," McClendon said. "The ball jumps pretty good when it's warmer.

"We try to look for good players. We can't be too choosey at this point. Obviously, though, we play 81 games here and we have to take certain things into account."

Groundball Pitchers

In theory, left-handed pitchers who throw a lot of groundballs should excel at PNC Park. Consequently, it was thought that Jimmy Anderson - a left-handed sinkerball pitcher - was a good fit. Obviously that was false.

Asked what kind of pitchers should do well at the park, McClendon chuckled, "left-handed, sinkerball pitchers."

McClendon followed that by stating that the best players will adapt to situations and ballparks.

In 2003, Kip Wells' 2.12 earned run average at PNC Park was the best home ERA in the National League.

Wells is a hard-throwing, right-handed pitcher.

"He has dominating stuff," McClendon said. "Sometimes, the park or the venue doesn't matter."

While the Pirates think about the type of players they bring in through trade or via free agency, most baseball people agree that drafting players to fit a particular ballpark is not a good way to do business.

Short RF Porch

Matt Stairs, signed as a free agent after the 2002 season, certainly seems like a perfect fit for PNC Park.

He is one of those players the Pirates identified as the type of hitter who could thrive at PNC, taking advantage of the short porch in right field. The height of the wall did not present problems for Stairs, who often gets good lift on the ball.

Stairs did not disappoint. In his career, he owns a .340 average at PNC Park with 14 home runs and 49 RBI in 191 at bats.

Yet, the Pirates didn't seem to have great interest in re-signing Stairs after the 2003 season. They offered him less than they eventually offered pitcher Solomon Torres and later were forced to re-sign first baseman Randall Simon late in the off-season to provide a left-handed bat.

Simon, who also was brought into the fold after the 2002 season, isn't the type of left-handed hitter, in terms of hitting home runs, that can take full advantage of PNC Park. Simon is more of a line-drive type hitter.

He was traded to the Cubs late in 2003 but returned to the Pirates this spring after the club failed to land free agent first baseman Travis Lee, who signed with the New York Yankees.

Defensive Traits

While a lot of the talk about PNC Park often focuses on offensive players, it is defense and pitching that play a key role.

It is generally agreed on by those who watch a lot of games each season at the park that the outfield dimensions require the Pirates, who play 81 games there each season, to have solid defenders in center and left fields.

Tike Redman, and Kenny Lofton before him, did a nice job in center in 2003. Brian Giles was outstanding manning left-field for the Pirates in the first two-and-a-half season of its existence, and Jason Bay has the speed and defensive prowess to handle the position.

Playing a team's best corner outfielder in left field goes against the grain. But the big gap in left-center calls for a left fielder who can cover ground. Right field at PNC Park is much easier to play because there is far less ground to cover.

That fact leads us to Craig Wilson. PNC Park's right field is made for him. He doesn't have to cover a lot of ground and that actually has allowed him to develop as an outfielder.

One thing is for sure, Wilson likes to hit at home. In 2003, he owned a slugging percentage of .581 in Pittsburgh as a part-time player. He hit nine home runs there as well.

Playing Against Type

Although left-handed pull hitters thrive at PNC Park, Wilson is a right-handed power hitter in a park that tends to be tough on righties. While it's only 325 feet down the line in left field, the fence juts out quickly until it reaches 410 feet in the notch in left-center. Prevailing winds can knock down balls hit to left and left-center, while aiding those hit to right and right-center.

Don't tell this to Albert Pujols or Sammy Sosa.

Pujols entered the 2004 season with a lifetime average of .381 at PNC Park. In 105 at bats, he had 40 hits, 11 home runs and 32 RBI. He had hit more home runs here than anywhere except his home park - Busch Stadium.

The Pirates have done a pretty fair job against Sosa through the years. However, he entered this season with a .278 average with 25 hits, six homers and 20 RBI in 90 at bats. That average was 20 percentage points higher than his lifetime mark of .258 at Three Rivers Stadium. Sosa hit eight homers in 198 at bats at Three Rivers Stadium with 26 RBI. He owns the longest home run hit at PNC Park.

Like Sosa, left-handed hitting Sean Casey of Cincinnati struggled at Three Rivers Stadium. Casey, an Upper St. Clair High School graduate, hit just .175 in 63 at bats at Three Rivers. He loves PNC, though. He hit the first home run there and through the first three seasons, Casey hit .359.

For the record, Barry Bonds is 11-for-22 (.500) at PNC Park with four home runs and 10 RBI. His next stop is August.

Talent Prevails

"Give me a good player and that player can play anywhere, including Ringling Brothers Circus," said Chuck Tanner, who has attended many of the games played at PNC Park in its first four years of existence as a scout for Milwaukee (2001-2002) and now Cleveland (2003-2004). "Good players make a ballpark work for you."

Tanner doesn't discount the special features of ballparks. He understands, in some cases, the manager has to consider the venue when putting together a lineup.

"If I were managing in Chicago and the wind was blowing out, yes I would consider playing more fly ball type of hitters," Tanner said. "I most often wouldn't sacrifice a good player being in the lineup but you have to consider things.

"The bottom line is you can hit anywhere or pitch anywhere if you a good enough hitter and you have good enough stuff as a pitcher. Look at Roger Clemens. He went to Houston where there's a hitters' park. He won his first four games. Good players make a lot of things work for a manager."

John E. Sacco has covered the Pirates and major league baseball for PSR since October 1998. Previously, he covered the Pirates from 1986-1992. He is a former member of the Baseball Writers of America Association, Pittsburgh chapter.

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