By the Numbers: Cubs need to build team, not ballpark

Greg Jayne: By the Numbers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoIn an agreement announced Sunday, April 14, 2013, Wrigley Field will get a $500 million facelift, including its first electronic outfield video board, as part of a hard-fought agreement between the City of Chicago and the ball team.

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Well then, why didn't they think of this sooner?

"If this plan is approved," Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said this week, "we will win the World Series for our fans and our city."

That would be news, considering the Cubs have spent more than a century planting and cultivating and harvesting a reputation for being lovable losers. It takes a lot of effort to go 104 years without winning a World Series — or 67 years without even playing in one — but the Cubs have been up to the task.

So, in an attempt to break that curse, team officials have reached a preliminary agreement with the city for a $500 million facelift for Wrigley Field. It might seem far-fetched to suggest that such a plan will be enough to secure a World Series victory, but it has to be a better investment than the eight-year, $136 million deal the Cubs signed with Alfonso Soriano a couple years ago.

Yet there might be something to this notion that Wrigley Field has kept the Cubs down for all these years. Wrigley, you see, for years and years and years was the best hitter's park in the National League, and that made it susceptible to a theory that Bill James put forth some time ago.

James' theory — I believe he called it the Fenway Theory — was that certain ballparks create illusions that hamper management when it comes to building a team.

For decades, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field were the best hitter's parks in their leagues. And it's probably not a coincidence that the Red Sox went 86 years between titles while the Cubs are still waiting.

For an extreme example, from 1968-73 the Cubs and their opponents combined to score 9.06 runs per game in Wrigley Field, and 7.22 runs per game away from Wrigley. The Cubs' home park increased scoring 25 percent during that six-year span.

Ah, I can see the quizzical looks on your faces. "So what?" you ask. "Don't both teams play on the same field?"

Yes they do. But here's why it matters: The Cubs of that era had Billy Williams in his prime, Ron Santo near his prime, and a declining Ernie Banks for a couple years. They also had Ferguson Jenkins in his prime on the mound. That's four Hall of Famers, and yet they won nothing.

The reason, in part, is that management was duped. For example, they saw Glenn Beckert hit .294, .291, and .288 and thought he was good enough to keep his job. In a normal park, Beckert's ineptitude at the plate would have been more transparent. Batting .290 with no power and few walks might be acceptable; batting .265 with no power and few walks certainly is not.

Look at it this way: In 1970, the average Cubs hitter, per 650 plate appearances at Wrigley Field, batted .285 with 98 runs, 23 homers, and 93 RBI; on the road, he batted .234 with 69 runs, 14 homers, and 65 RBI for every 650 plate appearances.

Chicago finished second in the league in runs that year, but that was an illusion created by Wrigley Field. And it's an illusion echoed across generations.

Boston, for decades, had the same problem. But the 1999 addition of auxiliary press boxes atop the roof apparently changed the wind patterns and made Fenway Park less of a hitter's paradise, making their players' batting statistics a more accurate reflection of their ability.

Colorado's Coors Field, since it opened in 1995, has been the best hitter's park of the past 80 years. Throughout his career, for example, Todd Helton has batted .349 with a .446 on-base percentage and .612 slugging percentage at home, but .289/.389/.476 on the road.

Helton is, undoubtedly, a major-league hitter. But the Rockies have employed many players who kept their jobs thanks to the illusion created by their home park.

The opposite can be true, as well. The Mariners have been hoodwinked by their pitcher-friendly park into thinking their pitchers are better than they actually are. How else do you explain giving Jason Vargas 119 starts over four seasons?

So maybe altering Wrigley Field can play a role in the Cubs winning a World Series. But having some decent players would probably be even more beneficial.

Question or comment for By the Numbers? Contact Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To "Like" him on Facebook, search for "Greg Jayne - The Columbian"