Hitters' lament: Please, fence me in
Tim Keown [ARCHIVE]
May 10, 2012
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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.

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.

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.

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...
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