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Has pitcher friendly Busch Stadium become a competitive disadvantage for offense? Cardinals are wondering

Has pitcher friendly Busch Stadium become a competitive disadvantage for offense? Cardinals are wondering

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Detroit Tigers vs St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina strikes out with Nolan Arenado on second base to end the eighth inning during a game between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

MILWAUKEE — The reaction of Yadier Molina in the ninth inning Friday night at American Family Field was as revealing as any of the numerous statistics that reveal an internal and growing concern for the Cardinals.

Molina spiked his bat in frustration, saying later that he thought he “missed the ball,” and yet that ball sailed over the wall for a grand slam.

Forgive Molina’s initial reaction.

He does call Busch Stadium home.

The Cardinals are exploring internally how their downtown ballpark has become detrimental to their offense and what changes to its dimensions or their approach could correct a competitive disadvantage, an official confirmed Saturday.

“The numbers don’t lie,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “What we’re trying to understand is what’s changed at Busch. We’re taking a look at this, we’re studying this, and we’re looking for what we can do to perhaps improve the offense in the future.”

A ballpark that favored pitchers since it opened in 2006 and still could house the NL’s top scoring team in 2013, Busch III has become increasingly hampering to hitters in recent years. The Cardinals entered Saturday’s game with home runs in nine consecutive games — eight of them on the road. That’s no coincidence. With six homers Friday night at the Brewers’ hitter-friendly confines, the Cardinals have 96 on the road compared to 57 at home in only three fewer games, 68 to 65. Three of the six homers hit Friday would not have been out of Busch, including Molina’s grand slam, which would have been a homer in three parks, two of them in the NL Central.

One of Nolan Arenado’s two homers could have been a flyout at Busch.

“Arguably, I go from one of the top three greatest hitters ballparks to the top three worst, numbers-wise, ballparks for hitters,” said Arenado, who the Cardinals acquired from Colorado on Feb. 1. “I think the biggest adjustment as far as that, where I’ve failed in a sense, is focusing on the end result. When you hit the ball well you don’t always get rewarded, not necessarily. Where at Coors Filed or here (Milwaukee) you get rewarded.”

Factors that have muted the offense at Busch are under review. This is the first season with a humidor in use at the ballpark, and the theory behind its use is regulating the baseball's storage from season to season, sweltering summer to a Missouri fall. A wind study of the new ballpark was conducted before Ballpark Village’s construction, and there’s an idea within the team that the high-rise in center field may have changed how the ballpark plays. The facets in the outfield wall — it’s not a smooth arc — have long been part of how it caters to pitchers and used to be a playground for doubles.

The shift baseball has seen in how hitters are defended and how hitters approach the game may also be contributing. Hitting coach Jeff Albert recently described how some Cardinal hitters have modified their swings at the plate for Busch. It just isn’t a launch-angle launchpad.

“Everything is all about damage, right?” Mozeliak said. “It’s exit velocity and it’s launch angle, and those are great things when it comes to getting production — if the ball carries and leaves the ballpark. If not, it’s a fly out. That’s what we’re seeing. Not just for our hitters but for all hitters. Is it the right strategy then to have one approach at home and on the road let it fly?”

The numbers are striking.

The Cardinals’ have the third-fewest homers in the majors at home games. Busch Stadium, by ballpark factors that measure production at home compared to road for both teams, ranks in the bottom five for scoring and home runs. It’s the most unfriendly confines for offense in the division, where the Cardinals play most of their games.

The Cardinals’ .245 batting average at home ranks 15th in baseball, and their road average of .234 ranks 18th.

Yet, they are a top-10 offense on the road.

Their .414 slugging percentage ranks ninth, their 96 home runs rank fourth in the majors. A team’s ISO uses slugging percentage and subtracts batting average to give a sense of “raw” power, and on the road the Cardinals’ .179 ISO is the sixth-best in the majors.

At Busch, their .135 ISO is the second-lowest in the majors.

Several teams in the majors have addressed ballparks that swallow offense by moving the walls in. San Diego did at Petco Park almost 10 years ago. The Mets have moved the walls in at Citi Field – twice. That is one of the options the Cardinals intend to explore.

They feel the scale has shifted from the initial design that Busch would heighten a run-prevention style. Now, the ballpark is arguably more detrimental to hitters than it is beneficial to pitchers.

“That’s really where the rub is,” manager Mike Shildt said. “Love our stadium. We get the advantage on the pitching side of it. But from an offensive standpoint where you look at the numbers, it’s pretty clear.”

Miller nears return

As a final step before returning to the active roster, reliever Andrew Miller (toe blister) will prepare as if going into a game when he throws a bullpen session Sunday at AmFam Field. The lefty will simulate an in-game warmup and then an inning assignment so that the Cardinals can then judge if he’s ready to come off the injured list when eligible.

The scheduled bullpens for Saturday at Busch were postponed, and in Wade LeBlanc’s case it was pushed back several days. LeBlanc (elbow) will intensify his flat-ground throwing program to see if his arm responds well enough to advance to a bullpen. Justin Miller (elbow) and Jordan Hicks (elbow) will throw their advertised bullpens Sunday.

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