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April 13, 2009

Big Apple Ballparks

Citi Field

by Jay Jaffe and Marc Normandin

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Money was on the Mets' minds this winter, and not only in the usual how-much-for-this-free-agent way. As the team prepared to move into brand-new Citi Field, headlines from the current financial crisis spilled off of the business page and onto the sports page, leaving the Mets red-faced if not awash in red ink.

First came the controversy about the ballpark's naming rights, owned by Citigroup via a record-setting, 20-year, $400 million deal. Last fall, the troubled bank received $45 billion of taxpayer funds via a pair of bailout efforts, prompting legislators to call for the stadium deal to be broken, or for the new park to be renamed "Citi/Taxpayer Field." As that drama unfolded, reports surfaced that Mets owner Fred Wilpon may have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in Bernie Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme. While the Mets spent more money in the winter free-agent market than all but four other teams and opened the season with the game's second-highest payroll, their refusals to upgrade their rotation or corner outfielders suggest the scandal may have caused them to skimp regarding the on-field product.

Citi Field may not provide as much instant relief as expected, at least in the short term. The new park contains over 15,000 fewer seats than Shea Stadium, and while the average non-premium ticket price rose 8.6 percent to $36.99 (fourth highest in the majors) according to Team Marketing Report, the Mets are scrambling to find buyers for its more expensive seats, just as their cross-town rivals are, and the team resorted to auctioning off unsold seats for its April 13 home opener. Although they're projected to exceed three million in attendance, that would represent a drop of over 25 percent from last year.

All of which may mean rough sledding in the NL East race. Despite the down economy, the World Champion Phillies are enjoying a typical post-title effect of increased ticket sales and revenue the following year. Though their average ticket price rose 10 percent to the game's sixth highest, season ticket sales are up 17 percent, and their payroll rose 15 percent. A continued halo effect may translate into more latitude than the Mets have to add salary mid-season to further a playoff push. As for the Braves, their PECOTA forecast suggests they'll be the league's most improved team, which could create buzz to counter slumping season-ticket sales. The Braves are much more budget-conscious than either rival, and while the memory of empty Turner Field seats during their epic playoff run counters that notion, even they could profit from the Mets' spending limitations.-Jay Jaffe


Citi Field's dimensions are a dramatic shift from those of the Mets' former home, Shea Stadium. While there are a few spots in the park that are going to be better for hitters than in their old park, most of the fences have been moved back in a way that is going to significantly decrease home runs for the Mets and their opponents. Unlike the new Yankee Stadium, Citi Field is meant to be more old-school in its presentation, so besides the change in distances from home plate, the heights of the fences have also been altered.

Shea Stadium's fences were eight feet high all the way around the park, whereas Citi Field's go anywhere from eight to 18 feet, with plenty of changes in height in between. The right-field wall retains the eight-foot-high fences, while also bringing them closer to home plate anywhere from eight to 13 feet. After that, though, it's not pretty for fans of the home run. As you move from right to right-center, the fences increase by two increments of two feet, all the way up to 18 feet, and when they begin to head back toward eight feet, the distance from home plate is nearly 27 feet further than it was at Shea.

While the change in fence distance on its own is enough to suppress home runs, the fact that the fences are so drastically different will also alter offense. Greg Rybarczyk of Hit Tracker says that one foot of height added to a fence is equivalent to 0.84 feet of distance. That means that a spot in right center at Citi Field that is 25 feet deeper than it was at Shea (383 feet) with an 18-foot-high fence is equivalent to a fence that is actually 33 feet further than it was at Shea. It isn't just right field that sees changes this drastic either, as heading from center to left field gives you fences that are roughly 8-10 feet further back than at Shea with fences twice as high, so it's as if they're 15-17 feet further back due to the change in height. The fences down the left-field line are a smidge closer to home than at Shea, but with fences 4-6 feet higher, negating that difference and making Citi the more difficult park for long balls once again.

Consider this: the category of "Just Enough" homers at Hit Tracker encompasses all balls that cleared the fence by 0-10 feet. There were 1,490 of these homers last year in the majors (or 31 percent of all home runs). Chances are good that if Citi Field hosted all of the major league games, you would lose a significant number of those 1,490 homers, as well as a large chunk of the league's home-run production.

For someone like Carlos Delgado, who averaged over 411 feet on his homers last year, this isn't going to be an issue, though his bombs now won't look like they're going quite as far. For David Wright, though, who hits many of his home runs between the 350- and 400-foot range to left, we may see a spike in doubles production with fewer homers to that side, and maybe just a handful of shots to right. Carlos Beltran is another player who may suffer, as he averaged just under 400 feet on his homers last year, a number that isn't high enough to clear most of right-center field, even without taking the higher fences into account. All of this open space could boost other extra-base hits, but it should be a lackluster year for home runs for the Mets.-Marc Normandin

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Related Content:  Right Field

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