Thursday, March 13, 2014

Candlestick Countdown: Part One

We'd heard awhile back that Candlestick Park was slated for demolition this month, and we'd made tentative, if financially unsound, plans to fly out and witness the implosion of the beloved old landmark in person. Now we hear the grand (grand?) old dame has been given a year's reprieve, and rumors abound that even the Giants might deign to give her a sentimental sendoff by playing one final game on the once-hallowed (and soon-to-be-hollowed) ground.

A day game, one would hope.

Well, with the start of the baseball season blessedly less than a month away, here we present the first in an irregular series of posts about the old 'Stick, where we idled away many a day-- and, yes, a few nights-- back when we lived in the area and loved a team that once in a while loved us back.   We'll have stories, sightings, tall tales, short fuses, and portraits of great ballplayers and colorful characters, not all of whom were on the field.

But today, in our continuing myth-bustin' contrarian sabermetric way, we'll tackle one of the biggest historical canards in baseball, one that speaks directly to the Legend of the 'Stick:

"Candlestick Park cost Willie Mays a chance at Babe Ruth's career home run record!"

One of the first baseball magazines we ever read was a pre-season 1966 glossy, title since forgotten, which featured a lead article written by (or ghosted for) none other than Stan Musial, entitled "Where There's Willie, There's A Way." Stan commented on Mays' epochal MVP season of 1965, in which he had passed 500 career home runs, and opined that even at age 35 Willie, with his great athleticism and conditioning, was capable of four or five more years at the same level, which would put him in the neighborhood of 714. Musial also noted that, in addition to age, Willie's chief enemy in the pursuit would be the inhospitable environment of Candlestick; death, it was widely believed, for right-handed power hitters.

Four years later, Willie's 3,000th hit earned him the cover of Sports Illustrated, including a sidebar with Henry Aaron, who'd beaten Mays to the 3,000 mark and was about to overtake him in home runs. Classy as always, Hank allowed that if it weren't for Candlestick, he'd have had no chance of catching, let alone passing, Willie.

And we've heard the subject broached endlessly whenever the talk of Willie Mays comes up, especially in comparison to Aaron.  Whether Willie himself has ever proffered such an opinion we don't know, though we doubt it-- he's usually been quick with the jokes, but never with the excuses.

Now, we're compelled to admit that Bill James already debunked this myth a quarter-century ago in his first Historical Baseball Abstract, but for those of you who need the numbers, well, we've got them.

Willie Mays played at Candlestick Park for twelve years, from 1960 through 1971. For all but one of those years the park had an open outfield and the westerly winds blew straight across the field from left to right. This was the park where "home runs to left ended up as popups to short," and where Stu Miller was "blown off the mound" in the 1962 All-Star Game. After the outfield was enclosed by upper-deck stands prior to 1971, in order to accommodate the 49ers, the winds became more capricious and tended to swirl,  with updrafts and small cyclones and the occasional multi-directional gale. In any case it's safe to say that Willie played in a park with extremely challenging weather conditions.

In those 12 years from 1960 through 1971, Willie Mays hit 396 home runs, 202 at Candlestick and 194 on the road.

Eight of those twelve years, Willie hit more homers at the 'Stick than on the road; in 1971 he hit 9 at home and 9 away. His season high at home was 28 in 1962; he hit the same number on the road in '65, one of the few years he did better away from the benighted park.

A difference of eight homers over twelve years is not statistically significant, and no one is claiming Mays was helped by Candlestick. But, as a colleague of ours likes to say, mathematics is not an opinion. There is simply no way to spin the numbers to show that Candlestick Park cost Willie Mays even one home run, let alone a shot at 714 lifetime.

Over his career with the Giants, Willie hit 328 homers at home and 318 on the road. He averaged 17 per year in neutral parks, 17 per year at Candlestick, 16 in each of his two years at Seals Stadium, and 19 per year in five (full) seasons at the Polo Grounds. Had Willie played his entire career at the Polo Grounds, and averaged an extra two homers per year for 14 years, he might have approached 700 home runs. On that slender basis, one could argue the move from New York to California cost him his best shot at Ruth's record. But not very convincingly.

"Okay, Candlestick didn't hurt Mays-- but what about Hank Aaron? Didn't the 'Launching Pad' in Atlanta help carry him past 714?"

We remember thinking, as we read that 1970 sidebar, that it was wise of ol' Hammerin' Henry to disparage Candlestick, as opposed to acknowledging the obvious advantage of Fulton County Stadium, which sits nearly half a mile higher than the sea-level 'Stick and about which Don Baylor famously said, "When you're at the plate here you feel like you're in scoring position." How much did Henry Aaron's pursuit of the fabled record benefit from such infrastructural largesse?

In 21 years with the Braves in Milwaukee and Atlanta, Hank Aaron hit 375 home runs at home and 358 on the road. In neutral parks over those 21 years, Aaron averaged the same number of home runs per year as Mays, 17. (You diehards who insist Mays would be equal to Aaron in homers if not for extenuating circumstances-- there's a supporting statistic you can take to the bank.)

Hank played at the 'Pad' for nine years, 1966-1974, and there's no question it helped him. He hit 190 homers in Atlanta, an average of 21 per year, four homers per season to the good or 36 overall. Replace the 'Pad' with an average park, and he projects to 719 career homers; given the vagaries of time and circumstance, without Atlanta maybe he breaks the record and maybe he doesn't.

But for twelve years prior to the Braves' 1966 move, Aaron played at Milwaukee's County Stadium, and County Stadium cost him home runs in a way Candlestick never did to Willie Mays. Hank averaged only 15 homers a year in Milwaukee; over twelve seasons that's two per year fewer than in neutral parks, or 24 fewer overall. Looking across the man's entire career, the disadvantage of County Stadium took away two-thirds of Fulton County Stadium's vaunted advantage. Hank's home field nets him only twelve career homers over 21 years with the Braves, which is awfully similar to Willie's ten in 19 years with the Giants.

We already noted that if Willie had played his entire career at the Polo Grounds (or a similar park), he might have hit more like 690 homers, possibly even 700.  And while the 'Launching Pad' had only a slight positive effect on Hank's career overall, it definitely confers an advantage: had he played all 21 years with the Braves in Atlanta, Henry Aaron likely would have hit 800 homers. But, conversely, we must note that had the team remained in Milwaukee, Hank's total probably would not have passed 700.

Park effects are real. In Willie's case there is no park effect. In Hank's there are two, one positive, one negative. Therefore, we can say with certainty that neither Willie Mays nor Henry Aaron were significantly helped, nor were they hurt, by their respective home fields over the course of their careers. Had they played in league-average parks the entire time, Willie would have ended up with about the same number of home runs he actually did, falling short of the record; Hank would have hit about 735, more than enough to break it anyway.

We can add a third all-time great to the mix: Barry Bonds. (And shouldn't it tell us something that two of the four greatest home-run hitters of all time played a total of 19 years at Candlestick Park?)  Barry's career is split in even thirds: seven years in Pittsburgh, seven at Candlestick, seven at Pacific Bell/AT&T. Over his career Barry averaged 18 homers on the road , which projects to 756 lifetime, six off his career total. He averaged 19 per year at the 'Stick, again better than average, and a whopping 23 per season at the 'Bell, which is a bigger advantage than Aaron enjoyed in Atlanta. Only Barry's early years with the Pirates, in which he batted leadoff quite a bit, hold his career homer total down from approaching 800. Candlestick certainly didn't.

"Okay, well it seems like the great players are going to be great regardless. But surely Candlestick Park was a terrible hitters' park. Didn't it hold down home run totals overall?"

We'll study this entertaining question in our next installment of "Candlestick Countdown." Look for it.  

No comments:

Post a Comment