Consider the Safeco Field facelift

Shortening the fences may boost power numbers; or, like cosmetic surgery, produce unexpected results

Staff writerApril 8, 2013 

The first thing I noticed about the modified outfield wall at Safeco Field is that I didn’t notice it until I was asked if I noticed it.

“Be honest,” Randy Adamack, Mariners vice president of communications, said last week as he pointed to a left-field fence that’s been relocated closer to home plate. “You can’t tell, right?”

“I can’t tell,” I answered, “about what?”

To the naked eye – or even the fully clothed eye – Safeco Field looks little different as a “fair” ballpark than it did as the unforgiving abyss where apparent home runs were doomed to a slow, methodical death on the warning track. This is good news for anybody familiar with the consequences of cosmetic surgery on an aging but naturally beautiful face.

Then again, Safeco Field, which turns 14 years old on July 15, wasn’t in need of a facelift. What it needed, the team’s front office concluded, was a way to make Mariners hitters as comfortable in Seattle as they seem to be away from Seattle.

Because Safeco Field was built at sea level, and because the sea-level air in the Pacific Northwest tends to be cool and moist during the spring and early summer, solutions were limited: Either move to Ellensberg, or move in the fence.

Some of us favored another idea: Just let it be, and regard the dearth of big bangs as a quirky home-field advantage. But fans dig the long ball, and the Mariners, whose attendance has plummeted by almost half since they consistently played to capacity crowds in 2001 and 2002, dig fans.

Bringing the fences in to favor power hitters – or moving the fences back, to take advantage of a slap-hitting team with speedy outfielders – is nothing new.

During the late 1940s, when Bill Veeck owned the Cleveland Indians, the grounds crew at cavernous Municipal Stadium tinkered with the temporary fence series by series. If, say, the Yankees were due in town, Veeck’s grounds crew, respecting the Bronx Bombers’ reputation, extended the fence by as many as 15 feet. The work was done at night and, uncharacteristic for Veeck, not intended as a promotion. Nevertheless, the Tribe’s flexible-fence ruse was outed and soon outlawed.

A right-field screen was installed at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field to alter dimensions. In 1946, the screen went up, shortening the distance between the home plate and the wall from 366 feet to 342. In 1950, the screen was removed, and it was back to 366. The screen went up again in 1953, then down again in 1957.

(The Reds’ obsession with their right-field screen seems curious, but, hey, this was Cincinnati during the 1950s. What else was there to do?)

More recently, fences have been brought in at Detroit’s Comerica Park for the Tigers, at San Diego’s Petco Park for the Padres, and New York’s Citi Field for the Mets. The changes revealed an intriguing pattern: Although home-run frequency increased, overall scoring either remained steady or slightly decreased.

More reachable fences, it turns out, mean fewer line drives into the gaps – fewer doubles, fewer triples – and fewer prolonged rallies forcing pitchers to work from the stretch.

Another consideration is personnel: In 2002, with a typical batting order that had Robert Fick third and Dmitri Young fourth, the Tigers hit 61 homers at Comerica Park. In 2005, three seasons after moving in the left-center fence from 395 feet to 370, the Tigers hit 89 homers at Comerica Park. By then Ivan Rodriguez was batting third, and Magglio Ordonez was fourth.

The modified dimensions contributed to the Tigers’ power spike at home, but so did the acquisition of power hitters. That’s worth remembering if – and more likely, when – the home-run frequency at Safeco Field jumps from the bottom of baseball to someplace in the middle. Put it this way: A lineup with Kendrys Morales batting third, followed by Michael Morse, should be expected to do more slugging than the season-opening lineup of 2012, when No. 3 hitter lchiro Suzuki was backed up by Justin Smoak.

As for the changes at Safeco Field, one is subtle and the other is substantial. Let’s start with the subtle: The manually operated scoreboard in the left-field corner, which was 16 feet high and used to be in play, has been elevated and is now out of play, replaced by an eight-foot high fence.

The more significant alteration is to the gap in left-center, where the fence has moved in as much as 17 feet. Right-handed hitters who tend to pull the ball – and we’re talking about 70 percent of all hitters – will be the beneficiaries of the realigned dimensions.

The old Safeco Field didn’t merely deflate stats. It sapped spirits.

“I always thought the most fun thing about baseball was hitting a ball, not striking it perfectly – maybe even missing it – but still getting the bat on the ball and putting some backspin on it, and then watching the ball go a long way,” Jeff Pentland, a former hitting coach for the Mariners and Tacoma Rainiers, said the other day from his home in Arizona. “Hitters at Safeco Field rarely had that fun, and it would get in their heads.

“There’s so much negative about hitting,” Pentland continued, “it’s nice to get a break now and then. It’s good for your pscyhe. Nobody got any breaks at Safeco Field. The place just ate up guys like Adrian Beltre.”

A right-handed hitter signed as a free agent after his MVP-calibre season with the Dodgers in 2004 – he hit a league-leading 48 home runs, with 121 RBI – Beltre’s power production fell to 19 homers and 87 RBI with the ’05 Mariners. Beltre’s defense at third base was superior, and he put together four solid seasons before his injury-riddled walkaway year from the Mariners in 2009, but he was an offensive force until he showed up in Seattle, and he’s been an offensive force since he left.

Like others, Beltre’s frustration with Safeco Field bordered on phobic: A ball that seemingly jumped off his bat – “swung at and belted!” the late Dave Niehaus would bellow from the broadcast booth – soared toward the left-center bleachers.

A jack? Almost anywhere but Seattle, where the shot lost momentum in mid-flight and was caught a few steps short of the warning track.

Pentland can still see Beltre shaking his head and grumbling upon returning to the dugout.

“I’d ask him: ‘Why the hell did you sign here? Didn’t you know about this place?’ ” Pentland recalled. “My advice was to stop complaining and go to work on making some adjustments.”

Easier said than done. Although fan surveys routinely rank Safeco Field near the top of the ballparks built during the sport’s conversion from multi-purpose stadiums to facilities built specifically for baseball – it began in 1992, with Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards – right-handed hitters came to think of Seattle’s $517 million gem as a graveyard for deep flies.

“Just getting rid of that distraction, deterrent, excuse – whatever you want to call it – is a very positive thing,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said during spring training.

On paper, Safeco Field’s new distances should appeal to any big-leaguer wielding a bat: 331 feet down the left-field line, 378 to the left-field power alley, 401 to dead center, 381 to the right-field power alley, and 326 down the right-field line. (No changes were made between the right-center gap and the foul pole, the only part of the outfield where the carry on fly balls never has been an issue.)

The dimensions are similar to Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, a famous launching pad. But outfield-wall distances must be evaluated in conjunction with the climate: A ball that’s going over the fence on a hot night in Cincinnati is not going over the fence on cool night in Seattle.

“Safeco Field still will be a pitcher’s park,” said Pentland, “especially when it’s drizzling in May. The pitchers will be fine.”

How many more home runs will the fence-modification produce? A committee of Mariners statisticians, overseen by assistant general manager Jeff Kingston, researched the recent dimension changes made elsewhere and, allowing for weather patterns specific to Seattle, determined an increase of as many as 40 homers a season can be expected.

Presuming that number is split with opponents, the decision to bring in the fence figures to be worth one more homer by the Mariners every four games at Safeco Field. That’s not earth-shattering, but the idea behind reconfiguration wasn’t to shatter the earth.

The idea was to the relieve the sense of futility Mariners hitters had whenever their home-run trot was suspended by a routine catch.

When a baseball is swung at and belted, the consequences should be immediate, impressive and, yes, fun.

The ball should fly away.

Safeco Field changes

The fences at Safeco Field were moved in – and lowered from as high as 16 feet in left and left-center field to 8 feet all around – in the offseason. How the new dimensions compare to the old:

Left field lineLeft-centerDeepest pointDead center Right-center Right field line

Old 331390409405385326



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