The picturesque Interstate 190 beyond the left-field bleachers, the makeshift bullpen in section 113, the circus tent known as the away team clubhouse. Sahlen Field was a dream destination for the
Toronto Buffalo Blue Jays in 2020.
No, really, it was.
After a late-July scramble to find a 2020 home because of Canadian government restrictions, the Jays relocated to Buffalo’s Sahlen Field. Normally the park of Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate, Sahlen was retrofitted with workout facilities on the main concourse and locker rooms in hallways. It housed the first Blue Jays playoff team since 2016 and the first truly earned postseason appearance of the Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins leadership tenure. Buffalo witnessed the breakouts of Teoscar Hernández, Rowdy Tellez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and even, at least briefly, Randal Grichuk.
Toronto’s 17-9 home record was four wins better than their sub-.500 road record and their home/road splits were third-best in baseball, behind only the Twins and Yankees. With organizational sights set on a 2021 playoff appearance, with or without an expanded postseason, the pandemic-induced border restrictions that may force Toronto to play in Sahlen for another full season may be a blessing in disguise.
When rumors arose the Jays could be playing 2020 out of PNC Park in Pittsburgh or their spring training home in Dunedin, Fla., first baseman Tellez said bouncing around would be “tough on the psyche.” Playing out of Sahlen, where Tellez logged more professional baseball games than any other stadium (including Rogers Centre), was clearly comfortable for the 25-year-old.
Before having his season end via right knee injury, Tellez enjoyed a breakout 2020, slashing .283/.346/.540 and posting an OPS+ 46 points higher than in 2019. In Buffalo last year, Tellez posted a 1.136 OPS, 400 points higher than his road mark, and nearly doubled his road home run and RBI totals at Sahlen, despite fewer plate appearances.
— Buffalo Bisons🦬 (@BuffaloBisons) August 14, 2020
Tellez was one of 11 Blue Jay regulars whose exit velocity and average hit distance were higher at home than on the road. Hernández, who posted a career high in nearly every offensive rate statistic, won his position’s silver slugger and received the first MVP votes of his career, saw his xwOBA jump 233 points to .585 between his home and road splits. Even Vlad Guerrero Jr., who “struggled” to a .791 OPS in his sophomore campaign, posted an OPS 279 points stronger than his road mark in Sahlen and doubled his away RBI total at home.
|xwOBA||EV (mph)||LA (°)||AVG Dist (ft)|
Why Buffalo played as the eighth-most offensive park in baseball in 2020 is a bit of a mystery. Sahlen produced the fourth-fewest runs of the 14-team International League and the distance to center field is actually further than the MLB average of 403.5 feet. After the Marlins topped the Blue Jays 14-11 in Buffalo last August, Miami manager Don Mattingly said the park had the potential to be “some kind of bandbox,” but Tellez disagreed.
“Mr. Mattingly played a long time, but I don’t think he played in Buffalo as long as I have,” Tellez told the Buffalo News. “This stadium is not the easiest place to hit in, especially for a left-handed hitter.”
In an MLB Network interview with Charlie Montoyo after he was named a candidate for manager of the year, the Toronto skipper said one of the biggest reasons for the Jays 2020 success was they “didn’t complain about not having a home.” But really, it seems Sahlen actually helped them. While the left-field freeway, low scoreboard, and makeshift bullpen were not MLB-grade, for many 2020 Blue Jays, there was a familiarity advantage. Of the 18 Blue Jay hitters who played at least five games in the shortened season, 12 had played for the Buffalo Bisons, Sahlen’s usual residents.
“It’s pretty normal for me. I played there before. I know the field,” Guerrero told the Buffalo News before the season.
Despite the clear offensive benefits of Sahlen, it is no major league ballpark. While 2020 happened as a matter of circumstance, players know what they are signing up for next year.
Playing out of a Triple-A park, or, worse, not knowing where you’re playing at all, could affect Toronto’s pitch to the free agent market they seem very much invested in. Multi-year targets like George Springer or JT Realmuto may be willing to play in Sahlen for a year, but short-term targets linked to the Jays like Kolten Wong or Michael Brantley could, rightfully, want to live in a major league city and play in a major league ballpark in 2021.
Even more worrying is Sahlen’s impact on Toronto’s draw to pitchers. Long-linked to the Blue Jays, would Canadian James Paxton with recent home run and health problems want to relocate to Buffalo to rebuild his value? Even Trevor Bauer, projected to earn twice as much as any other free agent arm, could be scared off by Sahlen with his career 1.1 HR/9 despite potential desire to sign a short-term, high AAV contract.
The Jays did, however, convince lefty Robbie Ray, who fits the exact mold of player dissuaded by Sahlen, to rejoin the squad on a one-year deal. During his introductory press Zoom, Ray even made a pitch to other free agents to disregard the status of their 2021 home and join the Jays anyway.
“Don’t be concerned about where we play, just be concerned about the guys in the clubhouse,” Ray told the media. “This team is really good.”
Photo by Jfvoll (wikimediacommons) | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)