Thursday, June 18, 2015

Candlestick Countdown Part II



The slow demolition of Candlestick Park continues apace, and we recently came to the belated realization that our last 'Stick-related missive was over a year ago, when we conclusively proved that the windy old hellhole did not cost Willie Mays the career home-run record or, indeed, any home runs at all over the course of his fabulous career.

We left the question hangin' as to whether this was further evidence of Willie's superiority over mere mortals, or whether, and how much, Candlestick cost anybody any homers, and the larger question of whether, and how much the 'Stick cost teams runs over the years. How much of a hitters' graveyard, in other words, are we talkin' about?

Lord knows, the anecdotal evidence abounds. "A cold park at sea level," mused the ineffable Bill James, "a nightmare for hitters." In a ballpark-by-ballpark review done in the early 1980s, the selfsame sage succinctly described Candlestick's infield as "Cobblestones." During his brief Giants sojourn in the late 1970s, former batting champ Bill Madlock put it this way: “It’s like trying to hit a cotton ball wearing an overcoat." Cleveland slugger Rocky Colavito was blunt. "If I had to play here, I'd think seriously about quitting the game," he groused after the 1962 All-Star Game.  We ourselves earned our Croix de Candlestick on a night when the old scrap pile put up her legendary weather trifecta: wind, fog, and mist.  Giants lost that night, of course, and to the Dodgers, too. 

So, with a plug and a thank-you to our good friends at baseball-reference.org, we ran a whole spectrum of numbers and came up with our best estimate as to just how much Candlestick Park affected home runs, and offense in general.


Home Runs

Over the entire 40 year-period, 5280 home runs were hit at Candlestick Park. The league average for all other parks over the same period was 4890. Thus Candlestick, by this simple comparison, increased home run production by about 8%. Over the course of an average season, 132 home runs were hit at the 'Stick, 122 on average elsewhere. The split is more pronounced (145-125) from 1960 through 1970, the years in which the outfield was open and the "Candlestick Express" gale winds blew west to east (left to right) across the field and out into the parking lot behind the right-field scoreboard. The advantage drops to 127-121 after the stadium was fully enclosed to accommodate the 49ers prior to the 1971 season. 

Of course, some of you wise guys are already nodding your heads, sharpening your pencils-- er, hovering over your keyboards, that is-- and ready to point out that from 1960-1970, the Giants had a whole boatload of home-run hitters on the roster, from Mays to McCovey to Cepeda to Jim Ray Hart, and that those guys were gonna hit the ball out anywhere, whether it was Candlestick Park or Yellowstone Park. And that will be a theme we return to later in this screed: how much of the "Candlestick effect", if there is one, can be attributed to the park, and how much attributed to the Giants? Which has the greater effect on the statistical skew?

The Giants outhomered their opponents, on average, 69-63 per year at the 'Stick; that's six of Candlestick's ten extra homers. From 1960-1970 the split was even more extreme: 82-64. That's 90% of Candlestick's 20-homer-per-year advantage for the decade.  If we remove the Giants from the picture entirely, most of the Candlestick difference from the other parks just melts away. Opponents averaged 126 homers per year at the 'Stick as opposed to 122 elsewhere, a 3% difference. Not quite statistical noise, but not terribly significant, either.

On balance, Candlestick Park was an average home-run ballpark.  In 30 of the 40 years the facility was open, more home runs were hit there on average than in neutral parks. Most of those years, the advantage was modest. And of the ten years where Candlestick saw fewer home runs hit, seven in a row were from 1975 through 1981, when the Giants were notably lacking in sluggers. The last year Candlestick fell below the league average was 1988-- just as a few guys named Mitchell, Clark, Williams, and (later) Bonds were warmin' up.  It seems beyond question that the quality and quantity of sluggers on the home team had a much greater effect on the number of home runs hit than did Candlestick's well-known deficiencies.

It didn't rob anyone or any team of homers. Of course, if you weren't a slugger to begin with, it didn't help much, either. Not a place for cheap home runs by any stretch, but the "homer to left ending up as a popup to short" is likely based more on myth than on fact.

Except for one year, 1960, the year the old battle-axe opened her doors. We'll have more to say about that later, and it may cast some light on how ballplayers and teams adjust to extreme park effects.  


Runs

"Well, maybe Candlestick wasn't so bad for homers, but my goodness, who wants to hit a cotton ball while wearing an overcoat? No batting champion ever played there, right? And my copy of the 1982 Abstract flatly states that Candlestick cuts run production by 10%. So there!" 

From 1978 through 1981, the years James measured, Candlestick did indeed cut run production compared to all other parks-- 2192 runs as opposed to 2486, which is more like 12%.  That's significant.

And it's an anomaly, too. Over 40 seasons, 658 runs per year were scored at Candlestick, 663 in neutral parks. That's less than a one percent difference, which really is down in the statistical noise. The difference between the old, open-outfield configuration and the later enclosed bowl is negligible. Twenty out of forty years, more runs were scored at Candlestick on average than at neutral parks. The other twenty years, fewer were scored. Dead even.    

If we look only at the Giants' opponents' runs, we see on average they scored 318 at the 'Stick, or a rate of 636 over 162 games, 28 fewer than in the neutral parks. That's a little less than five percent, which moves us into more familiar territory.

If we "normalize" the league stats to remove the Giants from the picture completely-- that's runs scored and runs allowed, hitting and pitching -- the results change slightly. Over 40 years the Giants' effect on the league was 587 more runs than average, or about 15 extra runs per year.

Given that Candlestick yielded about 5 fewer runs per year than did neutral parks, it would appear the Giants' influence on runs scored is about three times that of Candlestick Park itself.  If we remove the Giants' 15 extra runs per year, then Candlestick would probably yield about 20 runs per year fewer than an average NL ballpark, which is about a 3% reduction.

The most extreme bias we can apply is to measure how the Giants' opponents did on their own home fields as opposed to Candlestick. Opponents averaged 350 runs per year at home, or about 9% more than they did at the 'Stick (318). 

So, to summarize:

Visiting teams on average scored 9% fewer runs at Candlestick than at their home fields.  

Visiting teams scored 5% fewer runs at Candlestick than they did at all other parks.

The Giants averaged about the same number of runs at the 'Stick as they did elsewhere (341 versus 345).  Little or no home-field advantage, as we would expect.

Candlestick's park effects are statistically masked, to a certain degree, by the Giants' own numbers. 

Our best estimate is that Candlestick Park reduced offense by about 4% for an average team in an average season.


Outliers 

Enough dull numbers. What about the fun stuff?

There were 799 runs scored at Candlestick in 1970, 74 more than the league average. The Giants themselves scored 831 runs that year, their second-highest total ever-- but they also allowed 826, and thus finished third. They scored 413 at home, 418 on the road.

Those 799 runs were the most scored at the old ballpark until 1996, when 831 crossed the plate-- an appalling 431 of those allowed by the Giants' execrable pitching staff.

The 1962 pennant-winning team outscored opponents 479-299 at Candlestick and 878-690 overall, still the highest-scoring team in San Francisco history, and probably the greatest, too. 

The 479 runs scored remains the Candlestick record.  

Also, that 180-point spread is by far the biggest home-field advantage of any Giants team; only the 1989 pennant winners came even close, at 113. 

The only other Giants team to score over 400 at home was the 1998 squad (423), which lost a one-game playoff for the wild-card spot.   

Who remembers 1979? Oh, we're so sorry. Among other things, that team was outscored 361-298 at home, 63 runs to the bad, worst ever at Candlestick.  1974 (-58), 1984 (-53), 1985 (-42), 1995 (-59), and, of course 1996 (-45) were also terrible years. 

On the other hand, the 1997 team was outscored at home by ten runs and still won the division. Its complement would be that great 1993 club, which outscored opponents by 69 runs at home-- and 103 on the road, far and away the team record-- but lost the division by one game despite winning 103. 

The fewest runs per game allowed by any Giants team at Candlestick was in 1978, when opponents managed only 244 in 81 games. The Giants themselves scored a modest 291. The 1978 season total of 535 is the lowest in Candlestick history, excluding the 1981 strike year. It's even lower than in Candlestick's inaugural season of 1960, of which more presently. 

The Giants outscored their opponents at home in  each of their first 14 years at Candlestick. Not until 1974 were they outscored  at home.

The rising and falling fortunes of the Giants themselves had little effect on whether Candlestick yielded more or fewer runs than the average park. In six of the ten "3-M" years of the 1960s, with the open outfield, Candlestick yielded fewer total runs than average. Then, for nine straight years (1969-1977) that included some of the team's leanest, Candlestick runs totaled 409 more than average, including a 94-run bulge in 1973.

Just in time for Bill James' 1982 analysis, run totals cratered at the 'Stick in 1978-- 120 fewer than league average, the all-time low-- and for 15 of the park's remaining 22 years she remained a pitchers' park, with a few exceptions (1984, 1990, 1996).

And for a clear example of how a team can fare regardless of its park effects, consider the Giants of 1984-1985, two of the worst teams, certainly, ever to don  the orange and black. In 1984  Candlestick Park was 14% above league in runs scored, and the Giants lost 96 games. The next year, the Stick reduced offense by 13%, and the Giants lost 100 games.


1960

Candlestick Park's reputation as a hitters' graveyard was confirmed in her inaugural 1960 season, and likely was perpetuated for years and decades afterward by that experience.

119 fewer runs were scored at the Giants' new stadium that year than average, and 57 fewer homers were hit.  Both totals are major outliers for a ballpark that, on balance, proved to be essentially neutral for home runs and had, at best, a small bias in favor of the pitcher. The Giants scored only 296 runs at the new ballpark, but 375 on the road; opponents managed only 256 at the 'Stick. Both are among the lowest totals ever, and this during a season that was otherwise average for runs. It's not like the Giants had weakened their lineup, either; they had essentially the same players in 1960 they'd had in 1959, and the road numbers show that. It had to be the ballpark.

There were some strangely configured stadiums in those days-- the Dodgers were in their third year, of four, at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, a facility so ill-suited to baseball that it simply would not be permitted today-- but it seems likely that few, if any, professional ballplayers at that time had ever endured conditions such as Candlestick's for more than a day or so.  There were only 16 major-league teams, and none of them played in conditions where chilly winds and wet fog were a daily occurrence. The minor leagues were heavily skewed toward midwest, southwest and southeast locations where heat and sun, not cold and wind, were the prevailing conditions. We can only imagine the shock. 

And we can only imagine the ingenuity and resiliency that prevailed over those conditions before even one more year had passed. Runs scored at Candlestick shot up to 687 in 1961, 778 in 1962, and continued well over 600 every season up until the "Year of the Pitcher" in 1968, and then went right back up to 600-700 again. Willie Mays, after hitting 69 homers in two years at Seals Stadium, dropped to 29 his first year at Candlestick. He then went on the greatest home-run barrage of his career, 226 over the next five years-- playing in the same ballpark, where he hit 118 of those 226 homers. 

First impressions. We all know the story of Horace Stoneham, visiting the Candlestick construction site at noon, being surprised by the gusty winds, only to be told by the foreman, "Oh, the wind don't really pick up 'til about three o'clock." Candlestick Park was a lousy place to watch a baseball game, especially at night. It was a lousy place to play a baseball game, too, especially at night. 

But the baseball players, Giants and opponents alike, got over it, and got over it quick. It's in the record. 




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