The San Diego offense has suffered enough over the years, and the Padres are aiming to change that at least a little
Petco Park has been something of a portal to a different time in baseball history since it opened, back to an era when runs were scarcer, and homers were scarcer still. It's been great for the pitchers, but something of a nightmare for hitters. Petco reduced one of the game's greatest bats from the peak he should have had to a more underrated one, and has left plenty of more middling hitters struggling to get to even that level. That's a lot of damage for a stadium that's been open for less than a decade, but that's why the Padres are now moving the fences in at their home park.
''I think more than anything, when you hit a ball that you know probably should be a home run, it will reward you. Having something at least less drastic, I think, is going to improve everybody's approach and confidence. You're not going to be walking back to the dugout after hitting one that's a home run in 29 other ballparks saying, `This is dumb.' It's not going to turn it into a hitters' park, but most of the balls you've really hit well, you'll be rewarded for.''
Park effects can help to tell you which stadiums see more or less offense in them, but one thing they can't grasp entirely is how it changes the approach of players. If a hitter knows driving the ball deep isn't going to do the job, they might attempt to hit more singles or doubles, possibly taking advantage of a pitch they think they can go the other way with rather than wait for that ball they can crush. Pitchers can challenge hitters much more within the strike zone, knowing that, even if a ball is tattooed, it might still end up in a defender's glove. A recent example in the Padres' favor is Jon Garland, who elevated his four-seam fastball more often with San Diego than he did with other clubs he pitched for -- when successful, it helped lead to career highs in both strikeout rate and total punch outs. When unsuccessful? Well, that's where the insurance policy that was Petco's fences came in.
The changes to Petco will not be drastic -- they aren't about to turn this into a hitter's park. But even slight changes can have an impact. Petco will have its fence in right field alley moved in from 402 feet back to 391 feet, with the height of the fence also lowered, so as to match the rest of the outfield wall. On the left field side, the distance will drop from 402 to 390 even. The distances down the line will remain consistent, though, at 334 feet in left, and 322 feet in right.
It's those power alleys (and center field) that have been the problem for years, though: what's a power alley if power isn't allowed there? Take a look at where homers landed at Petco Park in 2012, courtesy of Hit Tracker Online:
Homers are essentially restricted to left field, down the line and in regular old left. The "power" alley, though -- there are less than a dozen dots representing homers there. Right field, all the way down, has a similar problem. Moving things in by 11 to 12 feet should, in theory, boost these totals up; not to the point where Petco loses its status as the league's least-friendly park for hitters, but enough for Padres position players to no longer need a support group after home games.
"Just Enough" home runs are those described by Hit Tracker as balls that "cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, OR that it landed less than one fence height past the fence" Generally, about one-third of all homers fit this category. Of the 4,934 home runs hit in 2012, 1,561 of those (or 32 percent) were of the "just enough" variety. In 2011, it was 33 percent, and in 2010, 34.
You'd expect homers at Petco Park -- at least, in the areas the fences have been moved -- to see a bounce similar to this. Of course, one-third of a small number still isn't much to go with, but more certainly beats the current situation. Assuming you're a hitter, anyway.
Imagine what Adrian Gonzalez would have done in Petco with even 10 fewer feet to work with. While with the Padres, from 2008 through 2010, Gonzalez hit .285/.387/.523. It's great, but it's not a reflection of the kind of hitter he was during his age-26 through age-28 campaigns. Gonzalez mashed to the tune of .310/.390/.599 on the road, and hit all of .257/.384/.439 at Petco in the same stretch. The park killed left-handed power, as a look at the image from above will remind you of, and even someone with power as prodigious as peak-level Adrian Gonzalez couldn't escape that.
Will Venable, a Padre since 2008, has a career line of .253/.324/.415. That's unimpressive, until you notice the lefty has been held back at Petco (.229/.303/.372). Free of the spacious outfield there, Venable has produced a .276/.344/.455 line on the road. Chase Headley is a switch-hitter, but that means roughly three-quarters of his plate appearances come from the left side. He was held to .272/.357/.455 at home in 2012, and .300/.395/.541 on the road. Were the fences in already, he might have earned a few more MVP votes this season.
The pitching is likely less thrilled, but there's still plenty of pitcher's park to work with. They might not be able to get away with some of the tricks that hurlers like Jon Garland and notorious flyballer Chris Young did over the years, but pitchers, like hitters, adapt to their surroundings. The hitters could not adapt to fences put out of their physical reach, though, so Padres management is simply bringing a little reality back into the mix with this shift.