One of the interesting moments of every California League season for me is to stand around the cage the first time High Desert takes batting practice at John Thurman Field.
Stater Bros. Stadium, which the Mavs call home, is the most homer-friendly diamond in all of full-season minor league baseball. Not only is it at elevation (about 2,900 feet), but it features bone-dry desert air and a stiff prevailing wind that blows straight out to center.
In the California League, Thurman Field – with its generous dimensions – is at the other end of the spectrum.
Here are some numbers. Between 2010-2013, there were 843 home runs hit in the 280 California League games played at High Desert, or almost exactly three per game. During the same timeframe, the Mavs hit 474 homers in 280 road games.
If you’re into ballpark factors, which measures the relative ease at which home runs are hit in each ballpark, the numbers are equally eye-opening. A rating of 1.000 means your ballpark is not an advantage to either pitcher or hitter.
High Desert’s ballpark rates 1.804. Thurman Field, which yielded 88 home runs in 2013, is the most pitcher-friendly home run ballpark in full-season minor league baseball with a rating of 0.543.
So if you’re High Desert hitting coach Max Venable and you know your home stadium is a paradise for home run hitters, how do you keep your lineup from trying to launch with every at-bat?
“We talk about it a lot, but it all comes down to discipline,” said Venable, a product of Cordova High and a 12-year (1979-91) major league outfielder. “Sometime you let the guys have fun. Our batting practice routine keeps them from just looking to hit home runs. We go opposite field, then situational, and by the time we get to the last round, guys tend to let it go a little bit, but that’s acceptable.
“The elements at our home games are going to be what they are, but the guys stay with a solid approach and stay away from back-legging everything, looking to hit home runs. That’s another thing we talk about all the time, and we’re pretty disciplined about that.”
For long-time baseball fans in this area, Venable is best known as the fast, young outfielder with the San Francisco Giants from 1979-83. Younger fans might know him best as the father of Will Venable, now in his seventh season as an outfielder with the Padres.
But in his role with the Mavericks, Venable is getting the chance to mold another outfielder with deep big-league roots. High Desert right fielder Gabriel Guerrero is the nephew of former big leaguers Vladimir and Wilton Guerrero.
“Gabby,” as he’s called, is 20 and has the size, bat speed, body type and free-swinging approach as his uncle Vlad. He even bats commando, eschewing batting gloves. He’s hitting .318 for the Mavs this season with eight homers and 50 RBI, but has struck out 72 times in 280 at-bats.
“With Gabby, it doesn’t matter how good your swing is unless you see the ball, and we’re always telling him that,” Venable said. “The league throws him a lot of breaking balls. He’s a free swinger and he’s going to strike out a lot, but he’s only 20 and he’s gotten a lot better.”
On Thursday night, Modesto starter Devin Burke tried to sneak a first-pitch fastball past Guerrero, and he responded by sneaking a line drive off the scoreboard.
“He’s pretty good with the fastball and he’ll hit that pretty good,” Venable said. “We try to get him to slow down, see the ball and then react to it.
“One of the things about Gabby is that he’s a good player and a good teammate. He has a love for the game and he’s always cheering-on his teammates. He plays hard and he’s fun. Guys like that you root for to do really well.”