When plans were revealed for Marlins Park’s left-center home run sculpture, people freaked out. When the sculpture was actually constructed and emplaced, people freaked out all over again, having been given a better sense of scale. The thing drew criticism from all corners, and while I’m sure some of that was just piling on, and while I’m sure some more of that was just standard Internet overreaction, people had a lot to say about the aesthetics of the monstrosity. People were not prepared to see in real life what they would…see in real life…in left-center field, and for a while it seemed the Marlins’ sculpture was more frequently discussed than the actual Marlins.
But it wasn’t only the beauty of the thing, or the lack thereof, that made for a topic of discussion. There were also some on-field concerns, some actual baseball concerns, that I believe were first voiced by Greg Dobbs. Quote:
“If it is an issue, it can no longer be there,” Marlins utility player Greg Dobbs told the Miami Herald during spring training. “I won’t be the only left-handed hitter saying something. If other teams have a problem with it, they’re definitely going to voice their concern to the league.”
Added John Buck:
“It’s kind of my job to scope those things out,” said catcher John Buck. “It might be close. It might be all right. I don’t know. We’ll see. I think for left-handed batters it might be trouble.”
The sculpture has a lot going on. If you think about your typical center-field backdrop, you’ll have a surface that’s dark and monochromatic. This, obviously, allows the batters to see the baseball out of the pitchers’ hands. The Marlins’ sculpture wasn’t placed in dead-center field, so it wasn’t exactly in the batter’s eye, but there was concern that it might have been in the batter’s eye for left-handed hitters against right-handed pitchers. Take a look at the sculpture and it isn’t hard to figure how it might be distracting. Even in its inactive state, the sculpture is not unlike a gaudy psychotic hallucination. The sculpture could conceivably make it more difficult to pick up the baseball.
For their part, Marlins executives were unconcerned, although I think we’ve probably all learned a few lessons about the Marlins’ executives and trust. They did, presumably, plan carefully for where the sculpture would be located, as I can’t imagine they’d be that careless. Still, from April:
One of the many unique features of the ballpark is a large sculpture in left-center that features leaping marlins when the home team hits a homer. A couple of the D-backs left-handed hitters said the sculpture was distracting when they were in the batter’s box.
The neat thing is now we can put this to the test. We have just a season of data, which isn’t a lot, but it’s better than nothing. We can try to examine how well the results match up with the opinion. As an alternate example, Marlins Park developed an early reputation of being extremely pitcher-friendly. Sure enough, it significantly reduced home runs, but it still played neutral overall, because homers aren’t the only way to score runs. Now howzabout the effect of the sculpture?
I looked at numbers for left-handed batters against right-handed pitchers, because these would seem to be the matchups most potentially affected. I looked at these showdowns in Marlins games at home, and then in Marlins games on the road. First, we’ll examine strikeouts:
We don’t see anything particularly alarming in there. If the sculpture was distracting, it wasn’t causing strikeouts to skyrocket. Strikeouts were actually a little less frequent in Marlins Park than elsewhere, for this matchup. The strikeout factor for right-handed batters, incidentally, was neutral. But, okay, maybe batters were just being more aggressive and trying to put the ball in play earlier in the count. Let’s check out the walks:
More walks. Fewer strikeouts, and more walks. Our samples are obviously limited, but the results aren’t eye-opening in any way. If the sculpture was interfering with how well the batters could pick up the baseball, we aren’t seeing that in the standard plate-discipline stats. The right-handed walk factor was neutral. Let’s conclude with overall production:
No significant difference in wOBA. Once again, the right-handed factor was neutral. We’re not seeing any evidence in here of a negative effect on the hitters’ visibility or success.
Now, a few things. For one, we have to once more acknowledge the limited sample sizes. We’ll have a better idea of things a few years down the road, when the sample is much larger. One season is an insufficient sample, and this isn’t even one full season since we limited our scope to lefties against righties, home and away. For two, we don’t have a control; we don’t have numbers for what would have happened without the sculpture being where it is. It’s possible lefties would’ve posted an even higher wOBA, an even higher walk rate, an even lower strikeout rate. It’s unlikely but it is a consideration. We can’t compare this data against that to which we’d like to compare it.
And there could be a real, meaningful effect on lefties facing righties with low arm angles, or more extreme release points. Release points that might come in front of the sculpture’s facade. These matchups, however, would be infrequent, as those right-handed pitchers tend to have dramatic platoon splits, and so their exposure to left-handed hitters is limited. This is something that one could investigate more deeply, if one were to so choose.
One year in, though, our conclusion has to be that there’s no evidence of a real effect. It’s not a firm conclusion, it’s not a conclusion that couldn’t be changed with more data later on, but for now it seems like the sculpture wasn’t nearly as distracting as people were afraid it might be. Left-handed hitters can see it back there, behind the fence, but it doesn’t seem to have changed the way they hit. There’s evidence of other backdrops having an effect. The rockpile in Anaheim, for example, seems to help Jered Weaver in day games, when the sun is reflecting off of the surface. That evidence is compelling. For now, there’s nothing here. A lot of things about the Marlins wound up being disastrous, but the location of the sculpture doesn’t appear to be one of them.