|The new wall in Queens prevents Adam Jones from catching Ike Davis' grand slam on June 15. (US Presswire)|
Don't look now, but baseball's extreme pitcher's parks might be headed the way of flannel uniforms, Ladies' Day and, if not the Dodo bird, then at least George "Dodo" Armstrong (Philadelphia Athletics, 1946).
The Padres are expected to move Petco Park's fences in this winter -- at the very least, in right field and in right-center. The Mariners internally are considering modifications to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, though there are no indications yet that they will move to do so.
The Mets did it this season at Citi Field and are thrilled with the results.
"It's changed the mental attitude of our hitters, made it a far less of an issue," says Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who, while CEO of the Padres from 2005-09, studied the same issue in San Diego and was moving toward significant changes there before he left. "It certainly hasn't been a topic of conversation since early in the season, which means it's probably gone pretty well."
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The Mets shortened the fences in left field, right-center and right field, most significantly in left field chopped the home-run line from 16 feet high to eight feet.
The results, while noticeable, have not been outrageous -- which should hearten not only Mets pitchers, but those who oppose shortening the fences in San Diego and Seattle.
Last year, surrendering an average of 1.33 home runs per game, CitiField ranked 14th in the National League. Only San Francisco's AT&T Park (1.00) and Petco Park (1.23) ranked lower.
This year, Citi Field is surrendering an average of 1.90 homers per game, which ranks ninth in the NL.
"The thing that helps out the most is, you go up there your first at-bat and you hit a ball 400 feet to left-center, right-center, and the guy catches it, all of a sudden you're frustrated," Mets All-Star third baseman David Wright says. "So the next at-bat, you try and hit the ball a little harder.
"You see results in that first at-bat, you go into the second at-bat with a refreshed mind. You're confident. You're 1 for 1 going into your second at-bat. Baseball is so mental, it puts your mind at ease knowing, hey, if I go up and have a good at-bat, really step on one, I'm going to be rewarded."
While Wright's home run totals haven't necessarily ballooned (16 in 105 games this season, 14 in 102 last year), his strikeout totals have dipped noticeably (75 through 105 games this year, 97 in 102 last year).
The implementation of the plan at Citi Field is a distant cousin of an idea Alderson had been studying when he was in San Diego.
"We made some modifications," at Petco Park, Alderson says. "They were modest, but they were modifications. There were larger, more significant changes we considered, but we were probably a year away from making a final decision.
"In New York, it's worked out really well. Home run production has gone up, generally speaking we've got probably I'm going to say, 25 percent more home runs than we would have had otherwise. ... Overall production's gone up quite a bit.
"I think it's a fair ballpark. It's still not an easy park to hit home runs, but it's much different than it was. I think it's worked out pretty well."
Padres president Tom Garfinkel says that the club is still studying the issue, but he believes that the information himself, general manager Josh Byrnes and manager Bud Black are looking at is swaying them toward modifying Petco Park for 2013.
"What the Mets did was instructive for us as well," Garfinkel says. "The part that's harder to measure is the psychology, how the players approach hitting and how the pitchers approach pitching."
Hitters from Phil Nevin to Ryan Klesko to Ryan Ludwich have hated Petco Park from its inception. And though Black mostly has been successful in keeping his Padres from squawking about it, reminders are delivered almost nightly.
Such as in an April game this season when, with Philadelphia in San Diego, Jimmy Rollins crushed a fly ball into deep right-center ... only to see it caught. As he returned to the bench, he looked into the Padres' dugout and said, "That's all I got, boys. That ball is 10 rows back in Philly."
Part of the Padres' study is attempting to uncover any perilous unintended consequences before implementing any final decisions. One of the "modest modifications" Alderson made to the park before leaving, for example, was to move the right-center field fence in a few feet. But what the Padres have found that has done is reduce the number of triples, which has at times made things even more advantageous for pitchers.
As new parks have opened over the past two decades, it has not been unprecedented for clubs to make adjustments on the fly. Before their fourth season in Comerica Park, the Tigers moved the left-field fence in to 370 feet, from 395. Some in the industry think the Marlins will wind up modifying their new park, where it takes a tremendous drive to knock a ball out in right-center.
Part of why the Mets moved to dramatically alter the left-field fence this year -- both in height and distance -- is because their study found that in the three seasons from 2010-12, only nine opposite-field home runs had been hit by left-handers. And all of those were by opponents.
"Now, I have a chance to hit one out over there," Mets lefty-swinging first baseman Ike Davis says. "Before, I didn't."
Davis echoes Wright in that the changes have been a big boost psychologically for Mets hitters, even if it hasn't inflating their statistics to eye-popping numbers.
"Your first at-bat, you hit a 410-foot fly ball that's caught, you're coming back to the dugout saying, 'Well, I'm 0 for 1 instead of 1 for 1 with an RBI," Davis says. "That changes everything. It changes your whole day.
"You're only going to hit one or two balls hard on a good day."
Padres third baseman Chase Headley sees that same type of effect happening if Padres executives modify Petco fences.
"I think it would be a more enjoyable experience for fans to watch games," Headley says. "And I think it would be a much more fair place to play. As a player, that's all you can ask for.
"I don't think it would change the dynamic of the stadium. I think it would still be a pitcher's park. Just less drastic."
In six seasons, Headley, a lifelong Padre, is a .300 hitter on the road -- literally, he's at .300 on the nose right now -- and a .234 hitter in Petco Park.
His career home/road splits: In 318 home games, Headley is hitting .234/.323/.345 with 20 home runs and 115 RBI. In 320 road games, he's at .300/.370/.450 with 31 home runs and 149 RBI.
"I think it makes you a better hitter when you don't feel like you have to add a lot to hit a home run," Headley says. "It affects you not only having good at-bats, but in your swings at other pitches."
Mets pitchers have pitched differently this season while working under Citi Field's new dimensions, but only in certain situations.
"Late innings, the way you call games when it's a one- or two-run game," catcher Josh Thole says. "When it's late and close, you're more apt not to throw a fastball inside for a strike.
"It's been a nice adjustment, I think. I know, offensively, we feel that we're one swing away in the late innings if we're down by one run. Last year, if we were down by three runs in the eighth inning, we were like, 'It's going to take six hits in a row.' "
From Alderson's perch, he thinks Mets fans like the changes.
"I think the fans who were familiar with Citi Field felt it was a little big," he says. "From the outset, there was a positive reaction to our decision to change the dimensions. And then it was just a question of how they actually turned out.
"The other thing is, in addition to actually changing the dimensions, the changes don't look tacked on or temporary. They've been integrated into the overall architecture and feel of the ballpark. They've really turned out well from a construction and aesthetic standpoint. I think that's important as well."
What could be one small step for the Padres -- and, if they decide to do the same, the Mariners -- could be one giant leap for their hitters.
"I'm just now starting to figure my swing out," Reds outfielder Ryan Ludwick, whom the Padres dealt to Pittsburgh last July, was saying during a conversation in Dodger Stadium just before the All-Star break. "I'm hitting the ball the other way now.
"When I got traded to Pittsburgh, I couldn't even hit the ball the other way during batting practice. That's how messed up my swing was. Now, I'm feeling awesome. Finally, I'm starting to feel like my normal self again."
Since the All-Star break, Ludwick has knocked in 23 runs (third in the majors) and slammed seven home runs (tied for seventh).
He is in need of a hitting psychologist no more.