Commentary

Hitters' lament: Please, fence me in

Will the angst of the sluggers over ballpark dimensions carry the day?

Originally Published: May 10, 2012
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

CartoonDrew Litton for ESPN.com Every slugger's dream fences. Will it come to this? Maybe if the hitters have their way …

In the San Diego Padres' clubhouse one day last season, after another in a long line of failures by the team's offense, Petco Park started a fight. Reliever Mike Adams, tired of hearing hitters complain about the field's considerable dimensions, lashed out in a postgame rant. According to multiple sources, Ryan Ludwick and Chase Headley were among the targets of the tirade, and a scuffle broke out.

[+] EnlargeJames Darnell
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesThe expanse beyond the infield in Petco Park includes room for an outfielder, a flock of seagulls and maybe a housing development or two.

Adams' message was direct: Padres hitters needed to be less concerned with the ballpark -- and their personal home run totals -- and more concerned with getting base hits and scoring runs to help the team win. The message was not delivered gently, nor received warmly.

Clubhouse altercations aren't unusual, especially on struggling teams, but this incident was noteworthy for the glimpse it provides into the effect a ballpark can have on a team's psyche. Since it opened in 2004, Petco Park has been a source of consternation for hitters and frustration for those attempting to construct an offense potent enough to contend.

The Padres' situation is not unique. Ballpark dimensions are becoming an increasingly loud topic of conversation around baseball. Of the 13 ballparks built since 2000, five have undergone some sort of renovation involving their outfield fences, with some distances lengthened (Citizens Bank), some shortened (Comerica, Petco, Citi) and some walls raised (Minute Maid). And this year, the opening of cavernous Marlins Park has created such a vociferous response from hitters -- starting with Giancarlo Stanton's roughly 1,200 feet of outs in the park's first game -- that it seems destined to be added to the list.

[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesIt's safe to say Giancarlo Stanton isn't a fan of the dimensions in his new home ballpark.

Stanton, a 22-year-old with prodigious power and a marketable personality, is the player who figures to be most affected by Marlins Park. At the start of the season, he ranked behind only Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in career home runs before the age of 22 by players who have debuted in the past 40 years. But he didn't hit a homer in Marlins Park until the 10th game, and it took a 418-foot bomb to center -- a fence-scraper, at that -- to break a 31-at-bat homerless streak. He has six so far this season, but only the one at home.

"You're going to have to make sure it stays out of your head," Stanton says of his new home park. "The first bit, you're kind of soaking it up. You're thinking maybe it's not that bad. But the more we play in it ... it's worse than we thought. Balls that you feel should go way out are barely scraping. You can still get some out, but you've got to get all of it."

The Marlins, who open their first home series of May this weekend against the Mets, have played only 11 games in their new digs so far and have yet to experience whatever effects the sultry summer South Florida air might have on the flight of the ball. Despite Stanton's angst (more on that later), it's probably too early to draw many conclusions about the ballpark.

No such issues with Petco, though, which has consistently rated among the bottom four parks in baseball in home runs and runs scored, and this season is no exception. Petco is large, of course, and night games are greatly affected by the San Diego marine layer, which rolls in around sunset and proceeds to smother anything hit in the air.

The fences at Petco have already been altered once. After the 2005 season, then-team president Sandy Alderson -- the man who presided over the reconfiguration of Citi Field this past offseason -- shortened the fences in right-center, chopping 9 feet off the distance from home plate (turning 411 to 402), a move that served to decrease triples more than increase home runs.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez
Andy Hayt/Getty ImagesThat right-field fence at Petco looked like forever for Adrian Gonzalez, especially at night.

And after this season, it might happen again. Padres interim CEO Tom Garfinkel has publicly expressed his desire to shorten the fences, and he has at least one unlikely ally: Padres manager Bud Black, a former pitcher and pitching coach who has seen enough fly balls die at the warning track to go against his inner pitcher and advocate for more offense than he's getting in a dead-air stadium that goes 402 feet in the power alleys and 382 to straight-away right.

A former member of the Padres' front office says, "If you combine the marine layer with the dimensions of Yellowstone, you've got a problem. They can't attract hitters to that park. Why would you want to go there, hit .240 with no bombs and kill your chances to get a big contract? I doubt an arbitration panel is savvy enough to take into account ballpark factors."

The problem is heightened by the Padres' struggle to attract fans. Paying customers like to believe the home team has a chance to come back late in games, but Petco makes the prospect of the Padres -- especially these light-hitting Padres -- popping a three-run, late-inning long ball an illusion.

"Right now, a four-run lead is pretty much out of reach," the former Padres staffer says.

Consider this remarkable statistic: In 2010, Adrian Gonzalez hit 31 home runs, and not one of them came in Petco after 8 p.m. In his career as a Padre, Gonzalez averaged a home run every 15 at-bats on the road and one every 24.7 at-bats in Petco. (Since he joined the Red Sox at the start of the 2011 season, Gonzalez's home run production has decreased in general. He hit 27 with Boston last year, his lowest HR output since he hit 24 in his first year as a full-time player in 2006. He has two home runs so far this season. In his season-plus with the Red Sox, Gonzalez has homered every 34.3 at-bats at Fenway Park.)

Former Padre and current Marlins reliever Heath Bell sympathizes with the hitters but says, "The one thing I always say about a big ballpark: There should be a lot of hits. There's more space, but right now everyone thinks they have to hit home runs. Whatever happened to a guy trying to hit .400? What's wrong with 200 hits? Hit the ball on the ground, hit line drives in the gaps."

That said, Bell smiles and says, "But I agree about right field. Right field at Petco should be shorter. You have to crush a ball out there."

It took three years of paltry power numbers at New York's Citi Field for the Mets to shorten the fences for this season. The move was seen, in part, as a concession to David Wright, the Met most frustrated by the left-field dimensions and what was called the Great Wall of Flushing. Wright, the team's best and most marketable player, is approaching free agency and presumably will include his future home ballpark on his list of considerations this offseason.

Coincidence? In Citi Field's first three seasons, when the left-field wall was 371 feet away, Wright averaged roughly one home run for every 33 at-bats there. In his first 36 at-bats -- granted, a small sample size -- facing the reconfigured 358-foot straight-away left-field fence this year, Wright has two home runs, one of which wouldn't have been out of the park last season.

It goes further: In three seasons, not one Mets left-handed hitter cleared the Great Wall. (Nine opponents did.) This year, with the wall moved in, it took two weeks for left-handed hitting Kirk Nieuwenhuis to hit one out to left. But it isn't as if the new dimensions are turning Citi Field into Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. The Mets' home still ranks above only San Francisco's ballpark in park factor for runs scored. (Here are the current sortable rankings for a number of park factors.)

[+] EnlargeCiti Field Chart
ESPN Stats & Information GroupAdvantage: Hitters. At least in revamped Citi Field.

(The Mets, who didn't finish above .500 in any of their three pitcher-friendly Citi Field seasons, probably aren't the best example to use as a lead-in for this note, but one study indicates it's more difficult to build a winning team if it plays in an extreme hitters' park. Here it is.)

Speaking of AT&T Park in San Francisco, a similar home run dynamic exists there, where longtime Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow says fewer than 50 right-handed hitters have hit opposite-field home runs since the stadium opened in 2000. (Krukow's observation is backed up by the ESPN Stats and Info Group, which reports that only 25 home runs have been hit to the opposite field from the right side of the plate in the history of AT&T Park.)

But Marlins Park has become the issue's flashpoint. From the night the park opened on April 4, the Night of the Long Fly Outs, the park has been the source of laughing disbelief among hitters. The Marlins, with an expensive lineup to accessorize their expensive new digs, rank 24th in runs scored.

Kyle Lohse of the Cardinals pitched the first game at Marlins Park, and after Stanton hit two 400-foot outs to center, Lohse stood on the mound and said to himself, "OK, I might want to make them hit it to center." On the first, Lohse was so sure it was gone that he didn't even turn around. There's a good chance both would have been home runs in just about any other big league park. After that opener, the Cardinals' Lance Berkman told ESPN's Jayson Stark, "If they don't move the fences in after this year, I'd be surprised."

[+] EnlargeMarlins Park
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesThe home run sculpture in Marlins Park has bells and whistles and lights galore. We think. It hasn't been used very much yet.

The left-field wall at Marlins Park rolls like a wave from 344 feet down the line to 422 in deepest left-center. It's 392 to right-center before angling sharply to 335 down the right-field line. Asked whether there is a spot -- an alley, down one of the lines -- where the park plays small, Stanton shook his head and raised his palms to the sky. "There really isn't," he said. "The ball LoMo [Logan Morrison] hit the other night was 417 to right, and it was barely 10 feet over the wall. Now every other park looks small."

It's worth noting that Stanton said this while standing in the visitors clubhouse at AT&T, the lowest-ranked park in the big leagues in runs scored. In a three-game series against the Giants that ended last Thursday, he hit two home runs and barely missed a third. It takes a big park to contain Stanton, and it seems the Marlins built it.

"I know this is going to come across as complaining, but it's really not," Stanton says. "It's reality. It's what we've got to deal with. Every guy who comes in says the same thing: It's terrible for hitters. They get to first base and they say it, second base and they say it, third and they say it. If everybody's saying it, it's reality."

Whether Marlins Park possesses the ability to start clubhouse fights remains to be seen. However, the Adams-Ludwick-Headley fracas provides greater context to the discussion taking place in San Diego. There's little doubt it could help explain the words of Padres general manager Josh Byrnes. Over the course of advocating for shorter fences, he told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "I think Petco Park leaves a scar with some players."

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com