The only disappointing trend of Jerry Dipoto’s otherwise laudable effort to rebuild the Mariners has been their inability to succeed at Safeco Field. They are 18-7 away from Seattle — that’s the best road record in baseball — but began Tuesday with an 8-11 record at home.
The home-road split is curious because Dipoto’s first priority upon accepting the job as general manager was to customize his team for its ballpark. This meant emphasizing speed at both ends of the batting order and in the outfield, which explains the acquisitions of Leonys Martin and Nori Aoki.
A sound plan, but it has yet to pay off. The Mariners’ slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) is .269/.334/.456 away from home and .221/.308/.361 at home. Such a disparity is likely to look less conspicuous as the six-month season sorts itself out, but still, the numbers don’t lie: Productive hitters removed from Seattle are turning into feeble hitters in a ballpark with specific advantages for versatile, athletic players.
The Mariners have attained a comfort zone on the road, and they’re not alone. Going into Tuesday’s action, 18 of 30 teams had winning road records. The Braves weren’t among those teams — those poor blokes are challenged to win anywhere — but their 10-14 road record is downright respectful compared to their 2-17 record in Atlanta.
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What’s the deal?
Well, for one, home-field advantage is less pronounced in baseball than in other sports. During the 2014-15 season, NHL home teams won 60 percent of their games; NBA home teams won 58 percent and NFL teams won 57 percent. In 2015, MLB teams home teams won 54 percent of the time.
For another, while there’s a psychological benefit of owning last-at-bat rights in the bottom of the ninth inning, pushing a run or two across the plate in the top of the first also provides a psychological benefit.
“It’s always good when we score runs early in the game,” Mariners pitcher Wade Miley told 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer last week. “It allows the starting pitcher to get into a rhythm and execute the game plan.”
Concurred manager Scott Servais: “When you jump out ahead it settles everybody down, especially the starting pitcher.”
Which prompts a question: Could the Mariners decide to bat first at Safeco Field? It’s their park, after all, and if jumping out ahead settles everybody down, shouldn’t they have the right to choose?
The short answer is no, major league rules require the visitors to bat first.
The not-so-short answer is that until 1950, home teams were given the option of batting first. But the option was rarely exercised, and the rules were changed because owners of professional sports teams savor any opportunity to change rules.
Through the early 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for home teams to bat first — pragmatic strategy during an era when one ball was used. Fouls hit into the stands were returned to the field, which saved money but made a clean connection with the ball exponentially more difficult after the top of the first.
The ball was grass-stained, muddy and rumpled. Teams in mill towns typically scheduled 3 p.m. starts — a convenience for fans employed in factories — but parks weren’t equipped with lights, and on overcast afternoons, the combination of a dark ball and a dark day was a recipe for disaster.
On Aug. 16, 1920, the Yankees’ Carl Mays, a submarine-style right-hander who was a spit-ball specialist, threw a high-and-tight pitch that Cleveland’s Ray Chapman never picked up. It fractured his skull and killed him, a tragedy that led to a prohibition of the spitter, a push for fresh baseballs (fouls hit into the stands stayed in the stands) and still another rule, implemented 30 years later, requiring batters to wear helmets.
All are sensible laws that have endured the test of time. Chapman, big-league baseball’s first fatal victim of a beanball, remains its last.
Disallowing the home team the option of batting first, on the other hand, has not been vindicated by time. But the rule is in the book, the rule is here to stay, and I’m wondering: Why?
If the manager of the home team is searching for a mojo adjustment, what’s the harm in giving him the choice to bat first?
The initial possession in a football game is decided by the flip of a coin. There are tipoffs in basketball and faceoffs in hockey. Baseball is the only major sport that demands the home team do some work before getting offensive.
If offered an option, I suspect a manager such as Servais would choose for the Mariners to bat last at Safeco Field, oh, about 80 times in 81 home games. But at least he’d have the flexibility of turning the tables around on any given day.
Scoring first, putting some pressure on the opposition while enabling a starting pitcher to get into a rhythm, these are advantages deprived every home team in baseball.