added 10/11/2016 by Greg Thurston
Earlier this week the destruction of Tal's Hill officially commenced. The controversial incline that has been a signature feature of Minute Maid Park since the stadium opened in 2000 (as Enron Field) will give way to seating, concessions, and other fan amenities next season.
The front office unveiled plans to demolish “the berm where fly balls go to die” way back in June of 2015. But when the Astros unexpectedly qualified for the 2015 playoffs, the project was put on hold. Although a shortened window of construction time was cited as the reason for the change of plans, one can't help but wonder if the young team's tremendous success under the existing conditions factored into the decision. I mean... why upset the apple cart?
While a handful of topics were amongst the banter surrounding the reason to make such a change, player safety and a more “fan-friendly” experience were the two that seemed to gain the most traction. But I'm inclined to think an organization at the forefront of decision sciences would view wins and losses as the number one priority when considering a reconfiguration of the playing field. For that reason, it came as no surprise to me that the project was shelved.
When one of your pitchers goes 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at home, you don't reconfigure the playing field.
When your offense slugs the second-most home runs in the league and your pitchers allow the fewest number of home runs in the league, you don't reconfigure the playing field.
So, you can believe what you want to believe, but I feel pretty confident that the Astros 2015 performance was the basis for the decision to keep Tal's Hill in play for the 2016 season.
Now, fast-forward into the 2016 season and things aren't going so well. Dallas Keuchel is getting lit up at Minute Maid and Astro hitters rank in the middle of the pack in the home run category. New data now suggests that perhaps 2015 was simply an anomaly. Suddenly, the $15 million renovation project is back on.
Keeping the configuration unchanged for the 2016 season seemed like a shrewd move. Unfortunately, the Astros were unable to repeat the success they enjoyed the previous year. Whether or not removing the hill as scheduled would have helped or hindered the club in the win column is strictly guesswork. And, at this point, it is hard to say how the new configuration will affect the 2017 squad.
There is one thing we do know. The last time the Astros upgraded their venue, the immediate results were disastrous. The team closed down the Astrodome after the 1999 season having won three straight division championships. But in 2000 the club struggled to adapt to the new environment of Enron Field and finished in fourth place with a record of 72-90.
Astros pitchers were ill-prepared to deal with the Crawford Boxes in leftfield, sitting only 315 feet from home plate. The Houston pitching staff surrendered a league worst 234 home runs, an 82% increase over the previous season in the comfortable confines of the 'Dome. Despite smashing a league record 249 homers of their own, (a 48% increase over the 1999 club) the offense simply wasn't able to keep up.
The Astros weren't the only team to move into a new stadium that season. The San Francisco Giants simultaneously opened Pac Bell Park. After losing the first six games in their new home, the Giants did an about-face, winning 55 of their remaining 75 home games and capturing a division title. The Astros took a little longer to adjust, rebounding in 2001 to make a playoff appearance. As the years continued to pass the Astros' new stadium became less of a home run haven – and there are a number of theories as to why that happened. Pitchers changing the way they attack hitters is one of those theories.
History tells us that adjustments need to be made when parameters change. How long it takes to make those adjustments can be paramount to a team's success. The new ballpark configuration will be one of the many challenges facing the Astros as they embark upon the 2017 season looking build on recent success and get back to the postseason.