Finally Friendly

2013-04-01 Finally Friendly

San Diego Union Tribune – March 30, 2013 – By Dennis Lin –

Padres hope shorter fences mean hitters won’t be so frustrated at Petco Park

Last April, Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins was just steps into his home-run trot when he put on the brakes.

The baseball he’d crushed had been caught on the warning track at Petco Park.

As Padres clubhouse legend has it, Rollins was jogging back to the bench when he called out to the home dugout, “That’s all I got, boys. That’s five rows back in Philly.” Then he laughed.

He was met with silence.

“I don’t think our guys thought it was funny,” Padres President and CEO Tom Garfinkel said recently.

That sequence, along with so many other run-squelching events, convinced the Padres to make multiple changes to their downtown ballpark in the offseason. On April 9, in the home opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the club will unveil Petco Park’s new look.

The distance to the outfield fences has been shortened by approximately 10 feet for just over 30 percent of the ballpark. Right field underwent the most dramatic modification, with the fence moved in 11 feet and lowered to match the height of the sub-eight-foot wall in left and center field.

“What we’ve tried to do is take the extreme nature out of the ballpark,” Garfinkel said. “We still believe it’s going to be a pitcher’s park.”

In that regard, Petco Park has been unmatched since its opening in 2004. The Padres have ranked last in the major leagues in runs scored in four of the last nine seasons. They’ve finished 29th in two other seasons.

Since the ballpark’s debut, Padres hitters have a .236 batting average at home, compared to a .256 mark on the road. They’ve averaged 4.64 runs per game on the road, but just 3.74 at home.

All while playing in a venue where the right-field power alley — originally 411 feet from home plate until after the 2005 season, when the fence was moved to 402 feet — gained an unflattering nickname: “Death Valley.”

“It’s like a golfer playing in the most severe U.S. Open conditions all the time,” Padres General Manager Josh Byrnes said. “It can get to be too much.”

Last spring, the Padres began conducting a study that led to the recent changes. Josh Stein, director of baseball operations, headed a group that researched such variables as climate, velocity off the bat and launch angle, comparing their findings with results in other ballparks.

“One of the real telling things for me was watching video of 130 or so hits over the last four years … that were hit exceptionally hard but didn’t go out,” Garfinkel said.

In those videos, opposing players shook their heads and laughed in disbelief. They weren’t the ones playing 81 games a season in that setting.

The Padres players were.

“They weren’t laughing,” Garfinkel said. “They were frustrated.”

That wasn’t what Petco Park’s original planners intended, said Erik Judson, a former Padres executive who oversaw much of the ballpark’s design and development. Weather studies taken at the time underestimated the effect of the marine layer in early-season night games.

“We came up with what we thought was going to be a fair ballpark,” said Judson, now the principal of San Diego-based JMI Sports. “I think it’s fair to say it turned out to be more of a pitcher’s ballpark than we anticipated.”

Garfinkel expects that Petco Park’s new dimensions will skew play at least slightly more toward the mean.

“It’ll still be a pitcher’s park,” Garfinkel said. “It’ll still be in the lower third as far as run production, maybe still the bottom five.

“But the players know what’s fair. It’s making sure that when they get a hold of one that’d be out in 29 other parks, it should go out here, too.”

With the new dimensions, an uptick in home runs should come with fewer doubles and triples — something for outfielders to think about.

“Because right-center field is so deep, we really end up shading to that area,” said Will Venable, who will again platoon with Chris Denorfia in right field. “That’s something that’s not going to happen as much. I think we’re going to be able to play a little more shallow, take away some cheap hits and also be able to get back to the wall.”

And then there are the pitchers, the ones who stand to gain the least from the changes, even if Petco Park will remain pitcher-friendly. Over the last nine seasons, the Padres have compiled a 3.48 earned run average at home, compared to a 4.59 ERA on the road.

“Both teams are going to play there,” said Clayton Richard, who will start the home opener, “so it doesn’t make a difference.”

That, like everything else in this ballpark-altering experiment, remains to be seen.

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