Augusta GreenJackets first baseman Joe Rapp hit a hard line drive to deep left-center in the fourth inning of a May 14 game against the Rome Braves.
It had the makings of a home run, but it fell short and into the glove of left fielder Josh Elander, another victim of Lake Olmstead Stadium’s home run suppression.
While the San Francisco Giants play in the toughest ballpark in Major League Baseball to hit a home run, their Class-A affiliate nearly holds the same ranking in Minor League Baseball.
Lake Olmstead Stadium ranks as the second-toughest park to hit a home run in the minors, according to three-year data released by Baseball America. The stadium averaged 0.72 home runs per game, ranking 119th among 120 full-season teams, from 2010-12.
“Our park is pretty well known for not being able to hit the ball out of the park,” GreenJackets third baseman Mitch Delfino said. “Our park plays pretty big.”
AT&T Park in San Francisco is even more extreme, averaging 0.52 home runs per game in 2012, which ranked last in the majors, according to ESPN. The park averaged 0.67 homers per game over the past three years, just below Augusta’s.
The GreenJackets were the last team in the minors to homer this season – in their 21st game. The first home run at Lake Olmstead Stadium came May 2, nearly a month into the season. The Giants were last in home runs in 2012, relying on pitching, defense and manufacturing runs to win the World Series.
Different factors enter into the equation in Augusta.
Minor league players in the lower levels are less likely to homer on a consistent basis, because they are younger and still developing strength and experience. The South Atlantic League’s median age was 22 years old in 2012, compared to 26 in Triple-A’s International League, according to Baseball America. The SAL totaled 1,254 home runs in 2012, and the IL had 1,563.
Park location should be considered. Ballparks in the South are generally less likely to be a hitter’s haven, as damp, humid air in the summer softens and weighs down the baseball.
The majority of teams in the South Atlantic, Florida State, Carolina and Southern leagues are in the Southeast. All four rank outside the top five in home runs per game as a league, with the highest being the Carolina League at sixth, averaging 1.36 home runs per game.
Four of the bottom five parks in home runs per game are in the South, all with fewer than one home run per game – Birmingham, Jupiter, Augusta and Savannah. The exception is the SAL’s Lakewood club in New Jersey.
In comparison, the Pacific Coast, California and Texas leagues are all inside the top five, with some parks in those leagues averaging more than two home runs per game. The Pacific Coast League ranks first, averaging 1.94 home runs per game.
Four of the top five parks in home runs per game come from the California and Pacific Coast leagues, all with more than two home runs per game – High Desert, Albuquerque, Lancaster and Stockton. The exception is Columbus in the IL.
GreenJackets manager Mike Goff offered another potential factor: wind. Simply being at the park on a daily basis, one would notice the wind is usually blowing off the lake, meaning it enters the stadium from left field.
“I’ve seen guys just crush balls and the ball barely get to the warning track, unless you catch a day with the wind blowing out,” he said. “But 90 percent of the time the wind is either blowing straight in or blowing left to right. It’s never blowing straight out.”
The stadium’s dimensions are average, listed at 330 feet down each line and 400 feet to center.
The one park below Lake Olmstead Stadium in home run suppression is Grayson Stadium in Savannah. The Sand Gnats averaged 0.63 home runs per game.
Toby Hyde, director of broadcasting and communications for the Sand Gnats, said there is a list of factors contributing to the park’s difficulty, including sea level and dense air.
But what does this do for developmental purposes? Is a pitcher more likely to skip a level because a park is considered hitter-friendly?
FanGraphs.com prospect writer Mark Smith said teams might skip pitchers over certain leagues to avoid extreme offensive environments, but a team’s evaluation of a prospect is more fluid and doesn’t rely so much on individual points in a player’s minor league career, such as his stats in one extreme park.
“There isn’t much they can really do about it,” Smith said. “Parks are the way they are. It affects their in-house assessment of those players. But the minor leagues are all about process – not year-by-year steps. The majors are that way because each year’s production is so vital. The minors are not that way. If the player is in their organization, they can simply move the player on without guaranteeing anything.
“One year in a known extreme park likely won’t change their perception much unless something has really changed.”