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Tampa Bay Rays can't explain their huge homefield advantage

PORT CHARLOTTE — The place is drab. The location isn't ideal. It lacks some typical revenue streams.

When you start picking apart Tropicana Field, there are plenty of reasons why a Major League Baseball franchise might consider it necessary to build a more modern ballpark in another spot in the marketplace.

On the other hand, there is this:

The Rays kick butt there.

And though that may not be a scientific designation, the numbers do suggest that Tropicana Field provides as much homefield advantage as any stadium in the majors. Either that, or the Rays really stink on the road.

You might have gotten that idea last season when the Rays had a .642 winning percentage at home and a .395 percentage on the road. That's a pretty glaring discrepancy. The largest in the big leagues last season. One of the largest in the past decade.

But maybe that was simply a case of happenstance. A fluke. A one-time statistical oddity that has no real relevance.

Except, when you combine the past two seasons, the Rays still have the biggest discrepancy. Ditto for the past three seasons. And four. And five. In other words, this doesn't feel like a coincidence.

Even if you take for granted that, throughout the league, the home team is going to win a majority of games, the Rays have still been either unnaturally good at home or unnaturally poor on the road for a long period of time.

So what are the possible explanations?

It could be that the Rays have a roster built to take advantage of Tropicana Field. It could be that a domed stadium with artificial surface has become such a rarity that opposing teams struggle when they come to Tampa Bay. It could be that the Rays are goofing up away from home.

All of those reasons, and a few others, were mentioned in the Rays clubhouse Sunday morning. But there was no consensus, and no one felt strongly enough to argue his point too loudly.

"You can bounce all over the place with different reasons, but I really don't have one strong answer," manager Joe Maddon said. "It could be that there are several factors that combine to go into this."

The numbers say Tropicana Field is not a particularly unusual ballpark. Based on figures in the 2010 Bill James Handbook, the park has been more favorable toward pitchers the past three seasons, but not to a dramatic degree. Home runs are a little below average. Not a lot of errors. Plenty of triples. Which may be why players say the real difference could be in the level of comfort.

Now that the Twins are moving to a new ballpark, Tropicana Field is the last fixed dome in the majors. And, along with Toronto, is one of only two stadiums with artificial turf. That makes Tropicana something of an anomaly, even if it doesn't play as small as the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati or as large as Petco Park in San Diego.

"We're used to the turf, to the dirt, to the lights. We feel comfortable there," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "And, this is definitely no knock on the fans, but we've sort of taught ourselves to be intrinsically motivated at home. It's easy to play in front of a packed house. We've grown accustomed to motivating ourselves on those nights when there aren't a lot of people in the stands."

Even in some of their poorer seasons, the Rays were unusually productive at home. In 2006, they went 20-61 away from Tampa Bay, which matches the worst road record in the majors in the past 40 years. Yet that same season, the Rays were above .500 at Tropicana Field.

So does that mean Tropicana Field made a terrible team look good? Or were the Rays a pretty decent team that bombed on the road?

"In the past, I thought it was more of a youth thing. We were so danged young and inexperienced, I thought that played a factor in how we did on the road," Maddon said. "But that doesn't explain last year. There is no excuse for what happened to us on the road last year.

"I want to believe, knowing this group, that we have a much better chance of playing well on the road this year. I believe that. How do I quantify it? I can't. I just believe we'll be a better road team based on my knowledge of these guys."

When the Rays won the pennant in 2008, they set a franchise record with a 40-41 road record. That's all Maddon is asking for in 2010. Play close to .500 on the road, and Tampa Bay should be contenders by season's end.

Because no one doubts the Rays will play well enough at Tropicana Field.

It may not be much, but it is home.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

. fast facts

Comforts of home

Greatest disparity in winning percentage between home and road.

2009

Tampa Bay .247

Pittsburgh .219

Boston .210

Detroit .198

2008-09

Tampa Bay .229

Boston .210

Minnesota .178

Pittsburgh .177

2007-09

Tampa Bay .185

Boston .165

Toronto .148

Pittsburgh .142

2006-09

Tampa Bay .204

Pittsburgh .166

Boston .154

Toronto .151

Tampa Bay Rays can't explain their huge homefield advantage 02/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 10:07pm]

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