Yankee Stadium produces pinstriped pinball

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

There is a scout who has spent a lot of time at the new Yankee Stadium, and he feels somewhat derelict in his duties when doing so.

"I'm supposed to be watching baseball, not pinball," he said.

There is an executive whose team went to the new Yankee Stadium skeptical that it was as bad as everyone said, and he left thinking it's worse.

"Much worse," he said.

And then there are players. Their thoughts on the new Yankee Stadium depend on their position. Hitters enjoy it. Actually, no. Hitters pretty much don't ever want to leave. They have found Valhalla, and it exists in right field at the most expensive ballpark ever built.

The new Yankee Stadium is a lot of things that the New York Yankees expected when they planned it. No one fathomed it would be the park that could break Coors Field's stranglehold on the single-season home run record of 303 in 1999. More than a quarter the way through the season, the 87 home runs in 23 games at new Yankee Stadium have set a pace that extrapolates to 306.

How the perfect megastructure turned into a big question mark is a classic whodunit, or better yet, whatdidit? Neither the Yankees' owners, the Steinbrenner family, nor the stadium's brain trust, president Randy Levine and COO Lonn Trost, seem too terribly inclined to deliver a mea culpa about turning real baseball games into home run derbies.

For now, they can hide behind the statisticians who warn about interpreting too much from a small sample size. Such a belief is sound. Stadium data takes two years to fully interpret, and gleaning anything earlier could be folly.

And yet sometimes logic must take a backseat and the eyes must deliver judgment. Because right now, this much is certain: Yankee Stadium, for all its magnificent aesthetic value, is a pathetic excuse for a fair major league ballpark.


So, what the hell happened?

The Yankees, aided by New York's taxpaying public, spent $1.5 billion on the stadium. It cost nearly twice as much as the second-most expensive baseball venue, the neighboring Citi Field. How loose was the money spigot? When a Boston Red Sox fan buried a David Ortiz(notes) jersey under cement in an attempt to curse the stadium, the Yankees blew about $30,000 to extract it.

Surely, then, they wouldn't skimp on something as important as how the ballpark plays. Predicting such a thing, of course, is almost impossible. Not until the final piece of rebar is soldered can a park accurately reveal itself. Still, there are methods to combat a home run explosion.

RWDI, a Canadian engineering company, has positioned itself as the industry leader in assessing wind patterns at stadiums. The company uses computer modeling to determine whether wind will batter fans in a hot dog line or send a ball rocketing toward a particular section of the field. Though the studies can be exhaustive, RWDI spokesman Bryan Hayter said one conducted at new Yankee Stadium did not qualify as such.

"We didn't do a terribly elaborate one," he said.

When asked to expound, Hayter said the company does not divulge specifics from its studies, and that perhaps Populous would be better suited to answer.

The architecture company formerly known as HOK, Populous started the retro ballpark craze with its design of Camden Yards and is generally the go-to company for new stadiums. Populous contracts RWDI for its wind studies and uses the results to modify its original designs.

Populous was not terribly interested in discussing the flaws at Yankee Stadium, either.

"Unfortunately, the Yankees are asking everything go back through them," said Gina Leo, the company's spokesperson.

Considering the opinions of the on-field Yankees and everyone that plays them, a call to the team seemed rather unnecessary. Except the Steinbrenners spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build this peerless palace, and while no other ballpark has an on-site butcher, none can quite carve up a pitcher's ERA this expertly, either.

So, sure. It made sense to reach out to Alice McGillion, a Yankees public relations official, and ask about the front office's impression of the new stadium – and its added bonus of delivering a bleacher souvenir every two innings or so. She didn't seem inclined to respond.

Now, it was one thing for RWDI and Populous not to talk. But the Yankees? There are serious questions about why the home of the most decorated team in sports is playing like a Little League field. This isn't some non-issue, and it's not going away. Players think it's crazy. Executives think it's crazy. Fans think it's crazy. There must be an explanation for how this happened. Something went wrong somewhere, and the Yankees will remedy it.

"I understand your point," McGillion emailed, "but we are not going to comment."


A man named Greg Rybarczyk delights in talking about the Yankee Stadium mess. He runs Hit Tracker, a Web site that charts how far every home run hit in the major leagues travels.

He is not exactly sure why the home runs at Yankee Stadium have ballooned with such ferocity. A number of factors determine home run rate: a park's size, the wind, the weather, the home lineup and pitching staff, the quality of opponent thus far. The latter two factors, especially, are fluid.

Rybarczyk does believe the sample size is big enough, at this point, to confirm that we're witnessing the ballpark's true nature – and he's convinced that as the weather warms, the home run rate will increase, and perhaps significantly.

Much of Rybarczyk's findings center on the new Yankee Stadium's dimensions. The Yankees continue to say publicly that they are the same as the old stadium. Rybarczyk argues otherwise, using modeling software to show that the fences in right field and right-center field are four feet closer than the House That Ruth Built – and 17 feet closer than the average fences on the right side of other ballparks. The left and left-center fences, Rybarczyk said, were moved in three feet. The Yankees did push the center-field fence back 3½ feet, though only 11 percent of home runs land there, so it doesn't exactly offset the launching-pad effects of the gaps and lines.

Right field, such a flashpoint for the new Yankee Stadium complainants, has seen eight home runs travel 350 feet or less. The total for the other 29 stadiums: 36. Which means 19 percent of piddling homers this year took place in one part of one stadium.

It's not exactly like the majority of home runs are sneaking over the fence – even if one hit by Mark Teixeira(notes) and another by Asdrubal Cabrera(notes) would've been outs in every other ballpark, according to Hit Tracker data. On average, Rybarczyk said, 30 percent of home runs make it by 10 feet or fewer. The percentage at the new stadium is 27.6.

That could grow by plenty. For every 10 degrees gained in air temperature, Rybarczyk said, four feet of distance are added onto home runs. The average temperature in the Bronx from June through September is nearly 78 degrees – about 17 degrees higher than April and May. Thus, Rybarczyk believes the ball could travel another seven feet on average. And applying his previous rule about the home runs that barely clear the fence, Rybarczyk said the home run rate could increase by 21 percent should the weather hold this summer.

As for the wind, Rybarczyk said, it "may be driving some of the increase, but the results are pretty much inconclusive so far."

On April 18 and May 22, the wind gusted toward the outfield. In those games, teams combined for 15 home runs.

Then again, on April 17, there was a negligible wind and a six-homer game. And May 18, the wind blew in during a five-homer game. And May 24, the wind blew out like crazy, and there was only one home run.

"I expect that we'll find, if we ever do truly nail down the causes of the high home run rate, that it is a combination of a lot of physical factors, but there could be some [mostly unquantifiable] psychological factors at work as well," Rybarczyk wrote. "Hitters are probably more relaxed about just putting the bat on the ball and hitting it where it's pitched, while pitchers are probably tense about not leaving a pitch up toward right field."

Boy. Wonder why.


Want to know the funniest part? Even meteorologists are chiming in. Meteorologists make careers of being wrong, and Yankee Stadium is such a mess that they believe lending their expertise may actually help the situation rather than muddy it more.

No use in recycling their theories. It's more bluster about the wind, which we don't know for certain is the cause, and if it is, we can't say whether the angle of the seats, the openness of the stadium or the cavernous open-air Great Hall is leading to the gusts. We don't know if the piece-by-piece demolition of the old stadium will change the wind for better or worse, and we don't know, if it does, whether it will cut down on homers.

Whatever happens, the first two months of the new Yankee Stadium have been incredible. It could get worse starting Tuesday when the powerful Texas Rangers come in for a three-game series. Already Cleveland has set records for runs against the Yankees at home (22) and biggest inning against the Yankees (a 14-run second in that game). At the new stadium, the Rangers – who lead the major leagues in home runs – could do either. And if not them, then surely Tampa Bay, which follows the Rangers in New York for a four-game set – and with the fourth-highest home run total in the majors.

The new Yankee Stadium has become a place where the pop-fly home run is as commonplace as the pop fly, and where the broken-bat home run is met with a shrug of indifference instead of indignance. It is where opponents tell Teixeira at first base that he'd better hit 40 home runs, where they take a real accomplishment and treat it as cannon fodder.

There is no solution right now. The Yankees can't change the dimensions of the ballpark midseason, and they'll be loath to do so at all if it cuts into the seating capacity. They could hang screens to try and dampen the wind – and create potential eyesores by doing so. Or, as baseball physicist Alan Nathan has suggested, they could store the balls on ice, because serving them neat does not seem to work.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi has done his company-man best to minimize the reality: His team must survive this place for the rest of the season, no matter how ludicrous it gets. So they've played, currently to the top of the division. And from their great new stadium with its one fatal flaw, they can shout, for the world to hear, who they are.

The New York Yankees, AL East pinball champions.