I do not intend to defend or support the movement of the Petco Park fences in this piece. It’s been done. Both sides
have shared their thoughts on the matter. Nothing is getting resolved. But there is little denying the fact that the distances of ballpark fences from home plate across baseball, not just San Diego, are a topic of concern for many fans and players. ESPN had a brilliant article discussing the growing problem – perceived or otherwise – of excessively large ballparks. According to the article, “In 2010, Adrian Gonzalez hit 31 home runs, and not one of them came in Petco after 8 p.m.” There is little denying the marine layer problems facing ballgames played at night in San Diego, but the fence issue is more of a toss-up among managers, front office personnel, pitchers, and hitters. However, there is one solution that will eliminate that discussion altogether; Uniformity.
Baseball celebrates its uniqueness. Unlike other sports, there is not a clock. The games, in theory, can go on forever.* There are not overtimes or sudden deaths. There are extra innings. If nine isn’t enough, play as many as you need. The rules are not uniform either. In every other sport, the two leagues or conferences play the same game. In baseball, the American League plays by different rules than the National League. The game is simply built on differences. And it makes the game wonderful. Two sets of rules in the leagues makes the leagues distinctly different, thus enforcing the idea that when the American League and National League clash in the World Series, it is really a test of which rules are better. The fact that I can watch a game go thirteen innings before a team scores in the top of the inning and know it’s still possible that the game could go on for ten more innings is brilliant. The differences across baseball make it special, but it’s time to make one thing uniform. The dimensions of every ball park need to be mandated.
*Bud Selig may be the one person who does not want a baseball game to go on forever if it has to as evidenced by his calling of the 2002 All-Star Game. The 7-7 tie was the first and only time an All-Star Game was allowed to finish in a tie for reasons other than weather.
Throughout the history of the game, owners and cities have had sovereignty over the design of their ballparks. They could build them however they wanted considering they were paying for the thing, right? There were days when some parks had outfield walls and others didn’t. Fans could line the foul lines in some where in others, there was ample foul territory to make an out. The Polo Grounds had one of the deepest dead-centers in all of baseball, but it also had incredibly short porches in right and left. Are we thumbing our noses at baseball history by moving toward uniform park dimensions? Absolutely not. Baseball does not need to be like football or basketball or hockey. They do not need complete uniformity in their fields of play. But the distances to the walls should be similar, if not exactly the same, in every park.
Minute Maid Park in Houston has a distance of 315 feet to the wall in left field. In dead-center, the distance grows to 435 feet. Comerica Park in Detroit has a left field distance of 345 feet and a dead-center distance of 420 feet. In Petco, the Padres hitters are dealing with a right field alley (the area between true right field and center field) distance of 400 feet – the distance many parks use for center. However, in center field, the distance is just 396 feet. Citi Field, since moving in the fences, has a dead-center distance of 406 feet and a right field alley distance of 375 feet (there is an off-shoot in deep right field that pushes the distance out to 396).
The point is that every ballpark in the country has such vastly different dimensions, teams must build to specifically suit that park. A park with neutral dimensions will add to the ever-coveted competitive balance of the league. Teams should still be allowed to design their outfield walls how they’d like. The sprawling Green Monster in Fenway would not be eliminated by uniform dimensions. The unique grassy ramp in center field at Minute Made Park could remain. Teams could raise and lower walls however they’d like to created that uniqueness we all love. I do not want every ball park to look the same. I don’t want boring designs integrated into such an exciting game. Instead, the league should simply mandate the distances down the right and left field lines, the alleys in right and left, and dead-center.
Neither extreme hitter’s parks or extreme pitcher’s parks truly help the home team. This was discovered (I won’t say proven) by analysis done by Bill Petti of Beyond the Boxscore. In fact, extreme hitter’s parks (which we usually don’t discuss here because of the situation in San Diego being of the pitcher’s park variety) hinder the home team according to the data. Basically, there is a negative correlation to home team success in extreme hitter’s parks, and there is almost no correlation between home team success and extreme pitcher’s parks. To be fair, there is even less correlation between neutral parks and home team success.
So where does this leave us? Eliminate the hitter-friendly parks, but keep the pitcher-friendly ones? That doesn’t seem to make sense, and I can promise you the MLB Player’s Association would not be in favor of that. They would, potentially, be more inclined to accept a change that made all parks neutral.
The problem with uniform dimension, aside from the cost associated with every Major League team altering their fences, is the atmosphere in which teams play in contributing to park factors. As I alluded to earlier, the marine layer in San Diego essentially smacks fly balls back to earth. This is something teams will not be able to avoid. The Rockies use a humidor because of the atmosphere in which they play, but the offense in Denver is still unusually high. The Giants and Cubs must contend with wind. It’s unavoidable, but it does offer up a chance to keep baseball unique.
Neutral parks will help teams attract free agents more easily. Pitchers will be less afraid to pitch at the Ballpark in Arlington if it is neutral. Hitters will fear the cavernous Safeco Field much less with uniform dimensions. This is not a Padres issue. This is a baseball issue. Baseball has managed to maintain a level of competitive balance unseen in other sports. However, the sustainability of any particular teams success has been volatile at best. One year the Rockies make the World Series. The next, they don’t even make the play-offs. Then before you know it, they’re in last place.
Every team deserves a shot at success. Every fan base deserves a reason to hope. Anything the league can do to increase that balance should be welcome, but uniform dimensions across baseball could help lead the game into a Golden Age never seen before in the sport. Sure that may be hyperbole, but the truth is, baseball needs to evolve. It needs to change to help keep fans coming to the park. The game itself has remained unchanged for well over 100 years, and it should stay that way. But the outlying parts of baseball can be altered, have been altered, and should continue to be altered to make the game better. The very fact that there is a stat called “Park Factor” is indicative of the need for change. Uniform dimensions provides that change.