SAN FRANCISCO – Out of the most innocuous environment, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford created controversy.
It happened at the end of a youth baseball camp he held on a sunny day in late July at Rancho San Ramon Community Park. The day was a success. Kids laughed and had a good time while receiving personal instruction from a two-time Gold Glove Award winner. The last event on the schedule was a Q&A session. The campers were aged 5 to 14. It was going to be breezy and fun.
But between the question about when Crawford started playing baseball and the one about who has the most fun personality in the Giants clubhouse, there was this:
How big are major league fields?
“They vary in size,” Crawford told the kids. “Ours is one of the bigger ones, 421 feet to right-center, which should be changed…”
Crawford’s response appeared in his blog, which is hosted by MLB.com, and while it never truly went viral, it attracted enough attention to result in some blowback.
The Giants have played 18 seasons at AT&T Park. They have never altered the dimensions. They have no plans to alter them now. And they tend to bristle at the suggestion.
“We do not anticipate changing the dimensions of the ballpark for 2018,” Giants CEO Larry Baer said via text message.
“It’s a non-starter,” Giants executive vice president Brian Sabean said.
But should it be? Does it merit consideration, at least? Does the ballpark play intolerably unfair? And if the Giants were to entertain altering the dimensions, how should they go about it?
A recent anonymous poll of 12 current Giants hitters yielded two solid yet seemingly conflicting opinions: Eleven of the 12 players agreed that the ballpark is unfair, yet when asked if the Giants should alter the dimensions at AT&T Park, 10 of them said no.
A sampling of their side comments:
“Every park has its advantages or disadvantages. If you change it, you’ll upset someone either way.”
“The park is what it is. We all know how it plays.”
“I love the stadium as it is with all my heart.”
“Both teams have to deal with it on a given day.”
“I try not to think about it.”
“It’s definitely not fair for left-handed hitters. You’re not rewarded the way you should be. But nobody should use it as excuse.”
“I don’t want to sound like I’m making an excuse…”
“Is it fair? No. I don’t care.”
“Life’s not fair.”
One hitter declined to participate in the poll, saying he was already trying to get his mind right to compete there next season. That’s probably the response that will find the most currency with Manager Bruce Bochy and his coaching staff, who are loathe to discuss the ballpark because they want it as far removed from their hitters’ minds as possible.
The mental obstacle is one thing. But just how tough are those physical dimensions?
It’s not as if the 25-foot brick wall in right field is insurmountable, or the night breezes make home runs impossible. Even the 421-foot mark in Triples Alley can be reached, although it helps if it’s a rare warm afternoon or Giancarlo Stanton is at the plate, or both.
But since Barry Bonds left the scene in 207, the Giants have struggled to attract power-hitting free agents while also struggling to develop their own hitters capable of finding the seats. And this season, with the home run more central to scoring than any time in baseball history, the Giants appear hopelessly out of fashion as they sought to build a roster that was tailored to win on the shores of McCovey Cove.
It is no surprise that Giants have hit the fewest home runs in the major leagues by a wide margin. They have 119. The Pittsburgh Pirates are next with 141.
That is mostly a function of the Giants’ personnel. If their home park were entirely to blame for their power deficiency, then they wouldn’t rank tied for 28th among the 30 major league teams with 75 home runs on the road this season, too.
They’ve been outslugged at nearly the same rate at home (66 to 44, or 1.5 to 1) as they have on the road (105-75, or 1.4 to 1).
And sure, the home run suppression at AT&T Park has played to the Giants’ advantage in past seasons. They won a World Series in 2012 despite hitting the fewest homers in the regular season. Even this year, when the Giants have the worst record in the major leagues and their pitching staff has taken such a severe step back, they have given up just 66 home runs at home – tied with the Marlins for the fewest in the majors.
When you give up a sizable power advantage to your opponent, there are worse things than to neutralize that advantage in half your games.
But one glance at the Giants’ woeful 3-18-3 road series record this season and it’s clear: building a team that can win at home has left them totally non-competitive on the road. They must add power this offseason, especially right-handed power, and the reputation of their ballpark can make it tough to find at a reasonable cost on the free-agent market.
Right-handed pull power, at least in theory, should translate better at AT&T Park. So it is staggering to realize that the Giants’ top right-handed home run hitter this season is backup catcher Nick Hundley, with four. Hunter Pence has hit three of his 11 home runs at AT&T Park. Buster Posey has hit three of 12 at home.
Overall, the Giants have hit just 21 right-handed homers at AT&T Park all season. Opposing right-handed hitters, with 46 home runs, are out-slugging them on a 2-to-1 basis at home.
But again, the right-handed power blackout speaks more to their personnel: Pence’s decline, Posey’s up-the-middle approach and a total whiff by the front office in securing thump from the right side. (Chris Marrero, Aaron Hill, Michael Morse, Justin Ruggiano and Mac Williamson didn’t work out, exactly.)
For the question of ballpark fairness, it’s more helpful to consider the home/road splits of the Giants’ left-handed hitters, who must contend with that 421-foot crown in right-center and the 25-foot arcade that requires both a higher launch angle and a pull approach to jog around the bases.
No Giants hitter has splits as extreme as second baseman Joe Panik, who has hit all 10 of his home runs this season away from AT&T Park. He has a .287 slugging percentage and .573 OPS at home. He has a .917 OPS on the road.
Panik is aware of the home run stat – he hit seven of his 10 homers on the road last year, too – but said he tries to focus on the positive that he reached double digits for the second season in a row.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to look at every little number,” he said. “For me, it’s more about the cumulative and when you look back, it’s about what you did to help the team win games. Some of my hot streaks have happened to be on the road this year. We play in a bigger ballpark, but honestly, there’s no explanation for it.”
Except … the Giants play in a bigger ballpark.
Other teams have made alterations to bring bigger parks more in line with the rest of the league. The Mets opened Citi Field in 2009 and have brought in the fences twice, resolving to make changes after video analysis and contour studies showed that their most important offensive players (David Wright, Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda) all stood to benefit in an outsized way from a cozier right-center field.
The Padres changed their pitcher-friendly Petco Park after the 2012 season, moving in the fences by 11 feet in right-center while also relocating the on-field bullpens to a space beyond the center field grass.
The Giants, along with the A’s and Tampa Bay Rays, are one of three teams that still features on-field bullpens (the Cubs moved theirs to an underground lair beneath the right field bleachers this season). Relocating the relievers to a space that could reduce the 415-foot Triples Alley was the most popular of four potential choices presented to players for altering the ballpark’s dimensions.
Six of 12 players said that if the Giants were to change the ballpark, they would most be in favor of moving the bullpens to right-center. Two players said they would extend a yellow line at the top of the padded wall from the 415-foot mark to the 365-foot mark in right-center, making any ball to strike the brick arcade above the line an automatic home run. Four others declined to favor any of the four choices, which also included lowering the arcade wall by 10 feet or scrapping the gasoline ad that makes the left field fence an asymmetrical height.
Eight of 12 respondents said the hitting background at AT&T Park is about average, while three said it was worse than average while citing the glare that often reflects off the scoreboard in the early innings of night games. One respondent said the background was better than average.
Players had some difference of opinion about whether the ballpark’s size puts the Giants at a disadvantage when it comes to signing free-agent position players. Seven of 12 said that AT&T Park does not serve as a recruiting disadvantage, while three said that they believed it did. Two others said they didn’t know. All 12 respondents answered that they had never heard a former teammate or opponent specifically complain that they would not consider signing with the Giants because of the ballpark.
“It’s the other way around,” one player said. “I hear guys say all the time that they want to play here. They know what great fans we have and that it’s a tremendous place to be.”
Given how far the Giants have fallen, they might have to move mountains to contend again next season. Here’s the reality: that’s more likely than moving the fences.
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