Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs.com posted an interesting piece earlier this week about the unique ballpark factors of PNC Park. To summarize Jeff’s findings, PNC Park suppresses the three true outcomes (strike outs, walks, and home runs) like no other stadium in baseball. PNC Park is both the hardest stadium for a hitter to draw a walk and the hardest stadium for a pitcher to strike out a hitter. It also is the third hardest stadium to hit a home run. It is especially tough for right handed power hitters. It is the hardest park in the league for right handed hitters to hit a home run. Every Pirate fan knows why. The 410 foot deep North Side Notch is a black hole for right-center field home runs. Left handed hitters have it just a little bit easier. It is the seventh hardest park for lefties to go yard.
Given what we know about PNC Park, what kind of hitter would be best suited for this environment? We can start by eliminating most right handed hitters. Only right handed hitters with plus power will reach the fences with any regularity at PNC Park. Right handed hitters with above average but not elite power are the most robbed. Gaby Sanchez has hit just one home run at PNC Park in his year and a half tenure with the Pirates. Right handed fly ball hitters are a terrible fit. Here is a stat that will make Pirate fans cringe. Over the last 5 seasons Rod Barajas has the highest fly ball rate of any player in baseball by a wide margin. 59.9% of Barajas’ batted balls were fly balls. The next highest total was Kyle Phillips at 54.3%. No wonder Rod Barajas was so bad. This free agent signing makes you wonder if the front office takes ball park factors into consideration at all.
This is not to say that all right handed hitters are handicapped at PNC Park. Players with good speed and high line drive rates can make the outfield gaps play to their advantage. For his career Andrew McCutchen has a .901 OPS at home and an .839 OPS on the road despite having higher HR/FB rates away from PNC. Despite McCutchen’s success at PNC Park I believe left handed batters are at less of a disadvantage. A left handed version of McCutchen could be even better.
I’m going to take a crack at finding the perfect hitter for PNC Park. We need the following ingredients:
- A left handed hitter that can hit left handed pitching. If the hitter can be neutralized by platoon splits that sort of defeats the purpose.
- Well above average batting average on balls in play. Since PNC suppresses walks, strikouts, and home runs it conversely boosts the amount of balls in play. We need a hitter with a high BABIP to take advantage.
- Low strike out rates. Since our ideal hitter has a high BABIP we should also look for one that puts the bat on the ball at high rates.
- Above average HR/FB rates. PNC Park doesn’t take homers away from left handers quite as much as it does from right handers, but it still suppresses left handed homers above league average. Solid HR/FB rates would indicate the hitter has enough power to still overcome this slight disadvantage.
- High line drive rates. The outfield at PNC has a lot of green, especially to the opposite field for left handed hitters. Line drives the opposite way would be preferable to fly balls. Let’s just say lots of line drives create more opportunities for doubles and triples.
- Above average speed. More balls in play means a lot more running. The quicker the better.
Does such a hitter exist? Well yeah, actually it does. I used the following filters to find a list of players that might meet the criteria:
Time Period = Last 3 seasons
PA > 1000
BABIP > .310 (league avg is .297)
K% < 19.0% (league avg is 19.9%)
HR/FB > 11.0% (league avg is 10.5%)
LD% > 22.0% (league avg is 21.2%)
No surprise that it would turn up a list of super stars. Five LH hitters were a match. They are Robinson Cano, David Ortiz, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder, and Adrian Gonzalez. However, only Cano has above average speed. So there you have it, Robinson Cano is the most perfect hitter in the game today for PNC Park. He matches each of the attributes I was looking for. The Pirates are never going to have Robinson Cano, but they might have the next perfect fit for PNC Park and he might be playing in Pittsburgh very soon. Gregory Polanco has shown many of the same attributes in his minor league career. Will Polanco become the perfect hitter for PNC Park? Pirate fans can only hope.