Billy Beane and the A's got famous for finding the players with undervalued talents and putting them to work in crafting a winning ballclub. I'm wondering if it might be time to do the same with respect to ballparks as the A's look to a new stadium.
Please no discussion about whether the team will or should end up in San Jose vs. Oakland--it's a question I care deeply about, as I'm sure almost every A's fan does, but it's not at issue.
The reality of the A's situation is that we're not going to be a power-hitting team anytime soon. We've probably got a couple more years in the Coliseum, with all the low payroll and nobody wanting to come play there that it entails. Even after that, for a few years, the new ballpark will not fully erase the A's stigma in some of those players' minds, and the payroll will probably increase gradually. We might get ourselves up to $100 million, but that won't happen in 2013.
When the Giants wanted to make their new stadium work for them, they played to their strength at the time: Barry Bonds. They built him a ballpark that is actually not compliant with MLB distance regulations and were inexplicably allowed to do so, so he could hit HRs every 10 ABs and walk a trillion times a year.
The A's strength is different. The A's strength is pitching, and if what a lot of people say is true, our strength will be pitching for awhile. I've seen heavy indications that the A's are moving in the pitching/defense direction as an organization, since power and OBP and batting average and basically EVERY remotely important offensive statistic are at a premium.
So why not play to that strength? Why not build, maybe not Braves Field, but a decidedly pitcher-friendly park? 350 down the lines and 425 in straightaway center. Make a hitter earn his home run. I think at least a part of any true baseball fan must long for the times when a pitcher who "made a mistake" and gave up a home run could really be said to have made a mistake. There was a time when a pitcher could throw the ball high in the zone and expect a fly ball, not a dinger. Hell, there was a time when throwing the ball high in the zone was considered an out pitch, of sorts; sure, Mickey Mantle might take you yard, but most hitters would chase the high fastball and whiff or fly out. If a pitcher got ahead 0-2 or 1-2 or even 2-2, he might throw the high fastball to sneak out of the at-bat. He might even throw the high changeup if he thought he could get away with it. With the advent of widespread hitters' parks, the entire upper half of the strike zone now seems off-limits, and not just when you're pitching to the premier sluggers; you have to be careful throwing high strikes to people like Corey Hart.
And go ahead and throw in the generous foul territory. I don't know if anyone's keeping the numbers on a thing like this, but I wonder how many outs our pitchers get to steal when an opposing hitter hits a foul pop.
The idea here is basically an admission that we're not going to be a premier power-hitting team until late in the decade, and that's if everything goes well. We might build a gorgeous new ballpark in San Jose with great marketing and promotion and all the good jazz--and then it just turns out that no one shows up, or not enough people show up, or not enough people buy the luxury boxes, or sponsorship dries up, or players just don't want to play for the A's, or any of a thousand other things. (To be clear, again, I'm not saying this is more likely to happen in San Jose. It could as easily happen with a new park in Oakland.)
But what I think we can say with some authority is that we have very good pitching, and if we play our cards right, we'll have very good pitching for the rest of the decade. I think we can count on a new ballpark, wherever it's built, generating enough revenue to lock that up. So the question becomes, in those close games down the stretch, when we have to beat not just mediocre or above-average teams, but the genuinely good ones, do we want to be a well-pitching team up against a well-pitching and well-hitting team in a bandbox ballpark, or do we want to be a well-pitching team up against a well-pitching and well-hitting team in a ballpark that plays to the strengths of the pitchers? As has been discussed a bit in other threads, there are plenty of top-tier teams that rely on one or two starters, whereas we have a solid rotation up-and-down with SP talent to spare, and our bullpen is finally pitching like the bullpen it's supposed to be. I think the time is right to start the pitchers'-park-screw-the-home-run revolution.