On The Miami Marlins And Ballpark Backdrops

Miami, FL, USA; A general view of Marlins Park before a spring training game between the Miami Hurricanes and Miami Marlins. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

There's been some expressed concern that the Miami Marlins' colorful home-run feature in the outfield could be a distraction for batters. Let's investigate with words and pictures.

The Marlins are moving into a new stadium, and the new stadium has a big ugly thing beyond the outfield fence that's activated by Marlin home runs. We have written about it before.

Not long ago, there was some concern expressed that the big ugly thing could make it difficult for left-handed batters to see the ball out of the hands of right-handed pitchers. We wrote about that, too.

But then recently we wrote about Jered Weaver possibly benefiting from Angel Stadium's outfield rockpile during day games. The numbers suggest that Weaver's strikeouts go up and his homers go down. In response, Drew Fairservice re-visited the Marlins Park issue. And that's what I'm going to do here as well. Now we have some numbers that might show how a distracting backdrop could affect the batters. In Weaver's case, the effect seems to be significant.

Let's review what we're dealing with. From Clark Spencer towards the beginning of March:

According to Marlins players, the psychedelic home run sculpture in deep left-center could pose a problem for some hitters, specifically left-handed batters facing right-hand pitchers with sidearm deliveries.

"If it is an issue, it can no longer be there," warned Marlins utility player Greg Dobbs. "I won't be the only left-handed hitter saying something."

Here's a picture of Angel Stadium. Note the position of the rockpile:


Here's a picture of Marlins Park. Note the position of the Ricky Martin concert stage:


Pretty close. Both the Angel Stadium rockpile and the Marlins Park Illuminated Fruit Hat are a little to the left of dead-center field. If players have voiced concerns that the rockpile can make it hard to see the ball, which they have, it's not a stretch to think the colorful Marlins sculpture could make it hard to see the ball. There's a lot going on there, and batter's eyes exist as they do for a reason.

Now, how significant a distraction could this be? From the same article as Dobbs' quote above:

"Not an issue whatsoever," said team president David Samson. Samson said Major League Baseball officials gave the ballpark a thorough going-over Thursday to make sure it conformed to standards that include the batter's ability to pick up a baseball as it leaves the pitcher's hand.

The Marlins don't think this is an issue, which means it's probably not a huge issue. The ballpark got the OK. But then, ballparks have had to change their backdrops before, even after opening. In Target Field, trees were replaced with a honeycomb panel. In Safeco Field, trees were replaced with a honeycomb panel. Those ballparks got OKed by Major League Baseball, and still changed due to negative feedback from players.

So the Marlins might still have to do something in time. We'll see - it's impossible to say how things will play out until things play out. Batters will need to get in there and see what it's like in game action. Either they'll manage, or they'll complain.

Let it be said that, if the home-run feature is a distraction, it won't give the Marlins a home-field advantage. Pitchers on both the home and visiting teams will be free to try to hide the ball in all that color, and while Marlins batters might get a little accustomed to the experience, what's hard to see is hard to see. Practice doesn't really improve visibility.

Based on the Weaver/rockpile example, if the Marlins' thing is an issue, we'd expect elevated strikeouts and reduced home runs. Pretty intuitive. Interestingly, the Marlins will be moving in from a park that elevated strikeouts and reduced home runs. Sun Life Stadium had the highest strikeout park factor in baseball. Strikeout park factors are a real thing - there are park factors for everything - and while they're not always easy to explain, one can't deny the math.

If this were just about a colorful structure possibly having an effect on Marlins Park's park factors, that would be one thing. People tolerate some pretty weird park factors, even if they don't realize it. There was Sun Life Stadium and strikeouts. Dodger Stadium is death to triples. No batter has hit a home run to right field in Petco Park over the entire course of its existence. Park factors are quirky, and people like quirks.

There's a safety issue, though. From the article linked above, here's Michael Cuddyer on those Target Field trees:

At TwinsFest in January, right fielder Michael Cuddyer said the trees "cast three different shades on the background -- in the view of the hitter. Especially those 3 o'clock games on Saturday, it's scary. It's literally scary. ... I'm literally scared I'm not going to see the ball, period."

A pitch that's hard to see out of the pitcher's hand could be a strike or a ball. If it's a strike, it'll be tougher to hit. If it's a ball, it'll be tougher to judge, and if it's a ball high and tight, it'll be tougher to move out of the way. It's important that hitters be able to see the ball clearly - not just so they can hit it, but also so they can not get hit by it in a dangerous area.

So we'll see where this Marlins thing goes. It's easy to see how this could be a distraction, but we won't know until there are games. Maybe the Marlins' executives and Major League Baseball are right, and the structure won't be an issue. Or maybe Greg Dobbs is right, and it's going to be hard for lefties to read pitches from certain right-handed pitchers. In that event, the Marlins will have to weigh the inconvenience of making an adjustment against the maximization of player safety. They think they'll be fine, but as other stadiums have demonstrated, there's no substitute for experience.

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