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Wil Myers: Home Warrior

Why can’t he hit on the road?

MLB: San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants
Get this guy some ruby slippers, ‘cause there’s no place like home. Right? Right? Get it?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is full of weird but charming oddities. Why do we make septuagenarian managers wear the same uniform as their twenty-something players? Why does half the league play by a different set of rules? Why – for the love of God – does the All-Star Game determine home-field advantage in the World Series? Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t so charming. In fact, you’re right, it is so stupid. I’m sorry for bringing it up.

Let’s get back on track. Here’s another weird baseball thing that is actually charming: the customization of stadiums. This is something that – again – is wholly unique to baseball as compared to other sports. Every field is the same for the 90 x 120 dimensions that make up the base paths, but beyond that? It’s free game.

Want to put a weed-infested brick wall in your outfield? Go right ahead. How about a hill and flagpole nearly 500 feet from home? Up to you. Imagine this freedom in other sports. Where would the Golden State Warriors have their three-point line, if given the opportunity to place it anywhere on the court? Would the New Orleans Saints have a 160-yard field?

Baseball would undoubtedly be less entertaining if teams were unable to design their ballpark in whatever way they wanted. There are stadiums whose dimensions are rather bland, of course, but those parks whose fences and layout create extreme run environments on either end of the spectrum add a different layer to the game that you won’t find in any other sport.

When you think of parks whose dimensions (so not Coors Field) lead to an offensive-heavy environment, you probably think of a place like Fenway Park or Rogers Centre. And on the flip side, who do you think of as having a pitcher’s park?

Even if it’s not the first place your mind goes, I bet Petco Park in San Diego has crossed your mind. And it’s a totally fair thought. That’s been Petco’s reputation since it opened: where flyballs go to die, especially for left-handed hitters.

However, that’s not as true as it used to be. Not since the Padres moved in their outfield fences prior to the 2013 season. Both our own Kevin Ruprecht and FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan have written about the effects these changes have had on San Diego’s run environment, moving it from pitcher heaven to roughly league average. In fact, in 2016 Petco was more hitter-friendly than pitcher-friendly, according to ESPN’s park factors.

However, it was barely hitter-friendly, and a one-year sample could be a total fluke. Still, you certainly wouldn’t expect a Coors Field type of effect where a player’s home stats are so cartoonishly inflated that it’s hard to figure out whether that player is actually good, or whether he’s just benefiting from a weird home-field advantage.

But then you come across San Diego first baseman Wil Myers’ 2016 home/road splits, from Baseball Reference, and you’re not quite sure what to think:

Home 348 11.5% 19.8% .954 .263 .341 159
Away 328 8.5% 27.7% .633 .139 .265 69

Just 12 qualified hitters had a higher home OPS than Myers. When he was at Petco, he was one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. But as soon as he stopped sleeping in his own bed, he started to hit like the 2016 version of Jason Heyward.

It was most pronounced in August, from FanGraphs:

Home 53 9.4% 26.4% .886 .170 .438 147
Away 53 5.7% 43.4% .410 .120 .160 4

4. His road wRC+ – in the exact same number of plate appearances as he had at home, where he hit for a 147 wRC+ – was 4. It’s bizarre.

Usually, when we talk about splits, there’s some discernable pattern showing why a player succeeds in one area, but is less effective in another. There’s typically some kind of plausible explanation why a guy hits lefties so much better than righties, or why a player had a big first half before coming back to earth after the All-Star break. Whether it’s something mechanical in his swing, or a way he’s being pitched to by opponents, there is almost always something we can point to and say, “Aha, that’s (probably) the reason.”

But again, unless a player’s home park is on extreme end of the run environment spectrum, it’s difficult to make sense of large home/road splits. We’ve established Petco doesn’t fall into either extreme anymore. Does travel, and all the things that come with being away from home really make that big of a difference?

The league as a whole does hit better at home, as you would expect. According to FanGraphs, non-pitchers had a home wRC+ of 103 in 2016, compared to 97 on the road. Hitting for the away team was good for a penalty of about 25 points of OPS this year.

But as we’ve shown, Myers’ split is much, much larger than that — it’s one of the biggest in the league. So was this just a fluke, or is this something he’s always struggled with? Let’s take a look at his career home/road splits, again from FanGraphs:

Home 728 10.8% 23.1% .797 .180 .326 126
Away 756 8.7% 24.6% .722 .163 .301 97

Smaller than 2016 for sure, but still a pretty large difference! Myers is well above-average at home, but slightly below average on the road overall.

Here’s the tough part about writing this article: I have no idea what the problem is. I do not get it. Myers doesn’t have some nervous tic that appears only in road games. It’s not like he gets pitched to drastically different when he’s away from home — that would be weird.

In a story on the Padres website in August, Myers showed that he was aware of his road struggles, and attempted to provide an explanation:

Myers’ manager, Andy Green, thinks it might be all in his player’s head. From that same article:

Maybe the fact that Myers is conscious of how much worse he’s been on the road is the problem. This might be some version of the yips, where as soon as you realize there is a problem you begin to press, which only make things worse.

Just for fun, I wanted to see whether Myers’ performance improved the more time he spent at an away team’s ballpark. Below is a table of Myers’ basic stats in each game of a road series. These are very small samples, of course, so take them with a grain of salt:

Game of road series PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Game 1 115 .158 .252 .277 .529
Game 2 106 .301 .387 .462 .849
Game 3 90 .214 .256 .381 .637
Game 4 17 .000 .000 .000 .000

My thought was maybe the more time Myers spends in an opponent’s ballpark, the more comfortable he gets, and the more his performance improves. As you can see from that data, that hypothesis isn’t really true, or at least not supported by these samples. There’s definite uptick from game one to game two of a given series, but it dips in a big way after that.

These road woes weren’t a problem Myers had in his first season in San Diego in 2015, when he was actually better on the road (.854 OPS) than he was at home (.685 OPS), albeit in only 253 plate appearances. You can certainly see why he would be benefit from Petco’s renovations, which moved the fences in in right and center field, which benefits a spray hitter like Myers. But it’s still hard to tell what’s going on once Myers is forced to get on a plane to another city.

That leads me to believe it’s one of two things. Either Andy Green is right and this a problem with Myers’ mentality, or it’s just randomness manifesting in a big way. Either answer is interesting, but the former is certainly more concerning. This is something to watch in 2017 regardless, but if you’re a Padres fan, you’re certainly hoping for the latter.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin. where he primarily bemoans the current state of Mizzou athletics.