Let’s start by making one thing clear. When the Oakland A’s lost to the Astros on Wednesday, it was not because of the Crawford Boxes. It was because the A’s pitchers issued 10 walks, and their hitters failed to capitalize on a bases-loaded opportunity in the 7th when they had Houston on the ropes. Oakland had plenty of chances to take control.
However, the play that literally decided the game did involve the Crawford Boxes. With the score tied in the bottom of the 9th, Astros first baseman Tyler White hit a fly to left.
It didn’t look like much off the bat, but it carried over the fence for a walk-off homer.
Here’s the thing, though. The ball only went 332 feet, according to Home Run Tracker. To put that into context, the LF line at the Coliseum is 330 feet, and this was well off the line. In Oakland it wouldn’t even have reached the warning track. The same is probably true in most other parks too, though it might have had a chance in Fenway, which is only 310 down the line. Tropicana (315) and Yankee Stadium (318) also have short LF lines but then quickly jut out from there, and probably would have contained this fly.
We don’t have to theorize about the likelihood, though. We’ve got Statcast, and it’s calling BS.
Tyler White's walk off HR was hit 96 MPH at a 44 degree launch angle... Hit probability 1%. Similar batted balls were HRs 0% of the time. #MinuteMaidSpecial— Daren Willman (@darenw) August 29, 2018
Here’s what a zero percent probability looks like. No one hits the ball like White did and has it land anywhere except a glove.
There are Crawford Box specials, and then there's the home run that Jeurys Familia just allowed Tyler White to walk off on. pic.twitter.com/RnIWFf3RUL— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) August 29, 2018
White’s hit was only a homer because it happened at Minute Maid. If he hits it in any of the other 29 parks, it’s almost certainly an out. Such is life in Houston, which sees by far the most cheap homers. In a Statcast study last year, MLB’s Manny Randhawa found that Minute Maid sees the most dingers on weak contact, with 16% of long balls there coming on batted balls that didn’t qualify as barreled nor solidly struck. The runner-up was Yankee Stadium at 9.6%, barely more than half of Houston’s rate.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind some variation in MLB stadiums. Given the differences in weather, and coastal/inland climates, and elevation, etc., even 30 parks with identical dimensions would still play differently, so complete uniformity doesn’t need to be a goal. But I think some parks take it too far, with other examples including the Green Monster in Fenway and the short RF porch at Yankee Stadium. The Crawford Boxes significantly change the game, and personally I think that’s dumb. There are plenty of ways to incorporate unique architecture and aesthetics without affecting the playing surface.
Even beyond this particular incident on Wednesday, as a lover of baseball’s stats and records I do want at least some sense of sorta-equality all around. It will never be perfect and it shouldn’t try to be, but it could be far less intentionally imperfect. It’s a drawback that when we look at results we have to wonder how much was the player and how much was the environment.
We don’t see this in other sports. Imagine if we had to adjust a basketball player’s scoring total to account for the fact that he plays in an arena where the rim is an inch wider than everywhere else, or a quarterback’s touchdown total for the fact that the field he plays on is only 90 yards. That’s how dumb it is that White now has a walk-off homer on his record. Baseball doesn’t need to be as rigid as those other sports, but there is space between complete uniformity and frequently game-altering weirdness.
Clearly I’m not fully alone on this matter. Minute Maid used to have another silly feature called Tal’s Hill. The CF wall went out to 436 feet (standard is around 400), and for the last several yards the ground abruptly jutted uphill. There was also a flagpole in the field of play, just sitting there in front of the wall, and the whole thing was there purely for the sake of being different. In 2016, they got rid of it and moved the wall back in to 409, within the realm of normal. The Crawford Boxes are an abomination for basically the same reason, just in the opposite direction. This is MLB, not mini-golf.
Short hops will always happen and the Astros could just as easily have won this game on a grounder that bounced off the pitching rubber or a pebble in the dirt, or any other number of lucky twists. But instead it was the extra short-hop that was programmed into just one stadium for no particularly good reason. We’re already in a high-offense age that’s seeing more homers than ever before, so we don’t need to be looking for ways to hand out a few extra undeserved ones.
The point of all this isn’t that the Astros are gaining any kind of unfair advantage, since both teams can benefit from cheap dingers, but rather that I disagree with the general concept of letting the stadium play such a big role in the results of the game. The A’s lost on Wednesday primarily because they didn’t make enough good plays for the first eight-plus innings, but they may still have snatched the victory if they’d been in absolutely any other park in the league. With playoff implications on the line, this thriller deserved to be decided by the players.