CD's Connect The Dots... No Money In The Bank

There is nothing like a huge home field advantage in sports. The roar of the crowd, the anticipation of victory, the dismayed look of the opposition as they face another defeat. Money in the bank. Yet for the Philadelphia Phillies, their home, Citizens Bank Park, has been anything but home sweet home. For them, the park has been...no money in the bank.

Alas, the history of the Phillies has been one of almost always being one step slow of the enemy. Veterans Stadium, although a good home park for the club, was merely the latest and worst example of the cookie cutter multi-use facilities that sprung up in the 1970s. Oh, they could seat more people and theoretically bring in more revenue, but they were unappealing to the eye, less than fan friendly, and had almost none of the baseball atmosphere that so endears Wrigley Field and Fenway Park to the hardball masses.

Thus, there was much anticipation and excitement when the Phils finalized plans to build a "baseball only" stadium scheduled for completion in April of 2004. The stadium would be state of the art, phan friendly with great sight lines, and most of all, Phillies management wanted the stadium to "play fair for both hitters and pitchers". In other words, not a hitter's haven like Coors Field in Colorado nor a decided pitcher's paradise like Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

In fact, the team seemingly went to great lengths to insure this fairness. They had some of the best stadium designer architects study what went right in Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston, Detroit, San Francisco and San Diego to insure that Philadelphia would have the best and most modern stadium that money could buy. They had some of the best engineers and meteorologists study the weather and wind patterns to insure that the park would not overtly favor either hitters or pitchers.

Unfortunately, because of the cities political infighting, Citizens Bank Park as the new stadium would be called, was forced to be constructed right next to where the old Veterans Stadium had been built. This didn't seem to present any major problems, other than most of the new stadiums with any real charm were being built in the downtown areas of the major cities.

Teams like Baltimore, San Francisco and San Diego were wise enough to construct their stadiums with ambiance in mind, and when stadiums were built downtown, so were restaurants, shops, stores and other entertainment areas. Of course, this allowed for tremendous inner city growth and a renewed commitment to tourism and city pride.

No so Philadelphia. As mentioned previously, political theatrics and cost determinations forced the team to build their new stadium almost directly next the old stadium. At first glance, this didn't seem to present any major problems and as the stadium was being built it was obviously going to be something of beauty and charm. In fact, it was and still is to this day, and the record breaking attendance figures are testament to this fact.

However, there was one small and seemingly insignificant factor that was not considered in the overall equation...the affect on the wind currents once Veterans Stadium was demolished. Every wind current test had been made while the old but enormous stadium was still intact and when it finally came down weeks before the new stadium opened, something new and alarming began to unfold.

Citizens Bank Park, designed with the goal of being equal parts hitter and pitcher friendly, began to take on the look of a launching pad, especially for balls hit to left and left center field. This not only made it a difficult place for pitchers to pitch but became a major problem for a team like the Phillies, whose major offensive strength was in power hitting left-handed hitters like Jim Thome, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

It may be more than mere coincidence that the team lost its first ever home games at Citizens Bank Park back in April 2004 because for the most part, they have been losing consistently at home ever since. Certainly not in disastrous proportions, though their 41-40 record at home in 2006 undoubtedly cost them a wild card berth, but with enough regularity that the term Home Sweet Home has never applied to the Phils since they moved to CBP in 2004.

Pitchers for the most part can't stand hurling in the stadium. Outspoken opponents like John Smoltz and Milton Bradley have had nothing but utter disdain for the place, while acknowledging its beauty and fan friendly atmosphere. Now we have the story, albeit in mostly hushed tones, of Phillies hurler Brett Myers bristling at the what he perceived to be two pop-ups going out of the ballpark for home runs.

Clearly, this cannot be good for the home team and in fact, it has not been. Since the stadium opened in 2004, the Phils have played at a .534 pace [164-143] at home while playing at an almost equal .525 pace [162-146] on the road. Historically speaking, teams cannot expect to make the playoffs, much less win the pennant, unless they can maintain a fairly dominant home record, something the Phillies have never been able to do.

Of course, this begs the question; how did this failure to anticipate the wind currents at Citizens Bank Park occur and what can be done to rectify the situation? In fact, without a firm understanding of the first question, the second one can never fully be answered satisfactorily and no Phillie phanatic wants to look forward to another 20 years of home field frustration and missed playoff opportunities.

Simply put, the enormous size of the Veterans Stadium structure did a very good job of blocking the wind currents that enter CBP at the opening of the third base gate and now from the concourse out into the stadium. This in turn allows for a jetstream effect that causes seeming pop-ups [to quote Brett Myers] to carry the ball out of the ballpark, much to the consternation of most pitchers, especially those inclined to surrender fly balls.

Once Veterans Stadium was demolished there was no longer anything to block those wind currents, which especially during the hot summer months, can reach almost gale like forces at higher elevations. Added to this are the still questionable distances listed to the outfield fences and what the team has is a potential pitcher's worst nightmare, an extremely hitter friendly park.

At first glance this might not seem like such a problem and certainly many baseball fans enjoy high scoring games with plenty of offense. Critics of Phillies management maintain that, in fact, this is exactly what they believe and why they turn a blind eye to the problem.

Yet, if the adage that pitching is 90 percent of the game holds true, and most believe that it does, then logic dictates that over the course of an 81 game home schedule Phillie pitchers will be at a decided disadvantage almost all the time. While hitters like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell might put up impressive offensive numbers, fly ball pitchers like Adam Eaton, Tom Gordon, Brett Myers and J.D. Durbin will struggle to pitch effectively at their alleged "home field."

Clearly, this then is a problem and it may be no mere coincidence that several fine Phillie clubs since 2004 have all failed to make the playoffs while suffering from largely inferior home field records compared to other playoff bound teams.

Practically speaking, it would be much too cost prohibitive to think of reconfiguring the stadium and there has never been discussion of trying to block the wind currents that now bedevil the stadium. What then should the Phils attempt to do in order to greater create a home field advantage for the team?

Happily for the team, there are a few blueprints for pitching success already hurling for the club, and even more importantly, they are home grown examples. Ace lefty Cole Hamels has never had a problem pitching or winning at Citizens Bank Park and thus far this season he sports a 7-2 record while allowing a bit over three and one half runs per game.

What probably makes Hamels so successful is not his propensity for being a ground ball hurler but in the fact that he trusts his stuff and never fears to use it. Hamels has no fear of enemy hitters and has come to grips with the fact that because of the park he will give up some home runs simply because he is not a strict ground ball pitcher.

Still, he limits his walks, challenges hitters with strong inside stuff and is not fazed by the occasional long ball as long as they come with no runners on base. In the end, a home run still only counts for one run, it is when the bases are clogged with other runners that the home runs can be painful.

Cole Hamels understands this and is not afraid to challenge hitters. More often than not, he will win the battle because he does trust his stuff and feels confident in his ability. It also helps that Hamels has a strikeout pitch that he uses effectively. Nothing stops the long ball like the strikeout.

Another example of how to be successful at Citizens Bank Park is exhibited by rookie wunderkind Kyle Kendrick. After defeating the San Diego Padres on Sunday, Kendrick now has fashioned a 6-0 record at home while allowing a bit over three runs per game. This is outstanding and should serve as the Phillie Blueprint for all hurlers coming up in the organization not named Cole Hamels.

Truth be told, few pitchers have the stuff and skill of a Cole Hamels, but most pitchers who make it to the big leagues can equate their talent to that of Kyle Kendrick. The Phillies rookie righty does not have overpowering stuff and rarely strikes out more than a few hitters per game.

What Kendrick does well is A] throw strikes, B] command his pitches well and C] cause an inordinate amount of those pitches to turn into ground ball outs. Simply put, he does not walk hitters often, puts his pitches where he wants them and keeps the ball on the ground. This should become the Phillie Blueprint for all hurlers coming up through the farm system.

The organization must begin to draft and develop hurlers who will either have the stuff and confidence of a Cole Hamels or have the command and control of a Kyle Kendrick. While this may be easier said than done, there seems no other way that the system can begin to change the perception in baseball that pitching at Citizens Bank Park is equivalent to hurling at a launching pad.

In fairness to the club, the team seems to understand this and has made a solid effort to build a stable of young, aggressive and confident hurlers like Carlos Carrasco, Kyle Drabek, Andrew Carpenter, Edgar Garcia, Scott Mathieson, J.A. Happ, Josh Outman, Heitor Correa and in this years draft, Joe Savery, Julian Sampson, Tyson Brummett and Chance Chapman.

Unless the Phils find a way to develop these young hurlers, they will always have to overpay for free agent hurlers like Adam Eaton [at 8 million dollars a year!] or watch the John Smoltz's of the world poison the reputation of the stadium by equating it to a Little League field. In baseball, as in life, perception is often greater than reality, and no statistics being carted out by professed Phillie expects will change this.

As of now, CBP is a pitcher's graveyard and until this changes the team will find it difficult if not impossible to lure top of the rotation starting pitchers to Philadelphia. In fact, a solid test case may occur this off-season when former Phillie ace, Curt Schilling, hits the free agent marketplace.

Schilling has always had an affinity for Philadelphia and has never hid his desire to one day return and pitch for the Phightins. All things being equal, it would seem that Schilling and Philadelphia might just be a return marriage made in heaven as he wants to finish his career with a pennant contender and the Phils need a top of the rotation type hurler.

Yet, Schilling is a pronounced fly ball pitcher who dearly wants to cap his career with not only a pennant winning season but with outstanding individual numbers to match. Will he sense that pitching at hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park hurt his chances for final season fame and glory, both of which might enhance his Hall of Fame aspirations? Only time will tell, but this is a story worth watching this off-season.

Another way in which the Phils must change is that they need to begin developing strong fundamentally sound right-handed hitters to take advantage of the friendly winds blowing out to left and left center field. The old adage that "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" should apply here.

In fact, there was a good reason that lefty swinging Ryan Howard hit so many home runs last year...he learned to hit the ball the opposite way and took advantage of the friendly confines of left and left center field at the Bank. This season, for whatever reason, Howard has become much more pull the ball to right field conscious and his hitting has suffered because of it.

One of the reasons that Aaron Rowand is having a strong season is because he has learned to take advantage of CBP's solid propensity to assist a disciplined right-handed hitter. Many attribute Pat Burrell's resurgence to the fact that now that he is healthy he has returned to the strong, disciplined and fundamentally sound hitter that he was when he came out of the University of Miami.

There are signs within the organization that privately the Phils understand this also and are doing things to rectify the problem of too many power hitting lefty swingers in the system [Howard, Utley, Greg Dobbs, Mike Costanzo] and not enough power-hitting righties.

Not only have the Phils continued to cultivate the strong five tool talents of young right-handed hitting outfielder Greg Golson, but drafted and signed no less than five potentially powerful right-hand hitters in the latest June amateur draft. The organization drafted and signed Travis d'Arnaud, Travis Mattair, Michael Taylor, Tyler Mach and Karl Bolt and all with the express purpose of adding power to the systems pipeline to the major leagues.

The fact that all five are right-handed could not have been mere coincidence and while not all of them will make it to the major leagues, if even one or two of them should have big league success, then the club will have gone a long way towards helping make The Bank a more friendly home park place to play.

Still, these players, even the most advanced of them, are years away from Citizens Bank Park and between the time they have major league success and now, there are many contests to be played, games to be won, and playoffs to be contested. Up to now, the organization has not done a good job of addressing any of these three realities, and if something doesn't change soon, another lost season will enter the books.

The team has certainly weathered more than one thunderstorm that could have sunk the Goodship Chollypop, but as the rain clouds and gathering wind currents continue to swarm around the Phillies new playpen, something very striking has become clear.

What has become quite apparent is that while Citizens Bank Park remains beautiful and has attracted record home attendance, the cash cow stadium as yet provides the team with little or...no money in the bank.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to allenariza@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast


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