Wednesday, April 2, 2014 | 2 a.m.
It was a typical spring day Tuesday afternoon at Cashman Field when Las Vegas 51s minor league baseball players had their first local practice of the season.
The wind was gusting in every direction, further fueling the theory that Cashman is a hitter-friendly park. That argument holds true for most cities in the Pacific Coast League, where high-altitude translates to thin air and inflated scores.
“It’s the thinning air. The ball travels better,” said Zach Lutz, a 51s infielder who battled .293 last season with 13 home runs and 80 RBIs. “But if you get a hold of it, it’s going to travel anyway.”
The 51s open the season Thursday against the Fresno Grizzlies to start an eight-game homestand. If the weather resembles Tuesday’s practice, Las Vegas starter Noah Syndergaard might not be as dominant as expected.
Syndergaard is one of the top prospects in baseball and is projected to join the New York Mets, the big-league team affiliated with Las Vegas, by June. His stat line in Triple-A could be deceiving.
Last season, highly touted prospect Zack Wheeler was the Las Vegas ace to start the season. But he struggled early in the PCL, walking six batters in one game and being promoted with a 4.14 ERA. He settled down in New York, posting a 7-5 record with a respectable 3.42 ERA.
Syndergaard doesn’t buy into the horror stories.
“This is a tough league to pitch in, but there are a lot of tough ballparks in the big leagues to pitch in,” said the 21-year-old Syndergaard, a 6-foot-6 right-hander ranked as the Mets’ consensus No. 1 prospect. “It can’t be much different.”
Last season was the Mets' first affiliated with Las Vegas, which was an odd arrangement considering most clubs have their Triple-A teams regionally, not a few times zones away. It was also the Mets' first season with a team in the PCL.
The New York media frequently exaggerated in writing about the poor pitching conditions in Las Vegas. New York manager Terry Collins spent time as a player and coach in the PCL, refusing to use the crutch of it being a hitter-friendly league as an excuse for bad pitching.
Rather, being in Las Vegas will help make pitchers tougher, especially mentally, he said.
“I’ve spent 12 years in this league. You just have to go pitch,” Collins said two weeks ago. “We used to have some great, great games here. I’ve seen some balls get out of here.”
Of the 16 pitchers on the Las Vegas roster, seven spent time in the major leagues last year. That includes Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kyle Farnsworth, two veterans with plenty of big-league innings under their belts who won’t be intimidated taking the mound at Cashman.
“(The pitchers) have to learn to pound the strike zone,” 51s manager Wally Backman said. “That’s what we tell them because every walk can turn into a two-run home run. The solo home runs aren’t going to hurt you.”
Claims of Cashman being a hitter-friendly park may give the 51s a slight home field advantage. Lutz has seen opposing players fall into the trap of swinging for the 20-foot fences.
“When you think of it as a hitter-friendly, like our park here, you’ll see guys try to pull off the ball to hit a home run,” Lutz said. “That’s when they make an out.”