O's push back LF fence seeking 'neutrality'

First changes to OPACY playing surface in 20 years to be completed by Opening Day

January 14th, 2022

Pitchers -- both at home and away -- may feel a sense of enhanced comfort when they make their next appearance at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

That’s because the Orioles have decided to push back the wall in left field and raise it by nearly twice its original height, hoping to “take this significant step towards neutrality” when it comes to offensive production and home run rates at Camden Yards, one of MLB's most hitter-friendly parks -- especially for right-handed hitters.

The left-field wall, in coordination with the Maryland Stadium Authority, is in the process of being pushed back 26 1/2 feet into the seating area and raised from 7 feet, 4 inches to an even 13 feet. Construction is underway and will be completed by Opening Day 2022.

The changes, which were first reported by The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday and discussed in detail by executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and vice president/assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal on Friday, are the first changes to the playing area at Camden Yards since modest changes were made before the 2001 season. This time, the stadium tweaks come as the club is set to celebrate the 30th anniversary of playing at the park.

“The future of baseball here and of this park and the Orioles franchise is very, very exciting,” Elias said. “It's 30 years old, but it is an absolute masterpiece. … But you’ve got to renovate and reinvest.”

A large factor for the Orioles in rolling out these changes is the sense they get from free agent pitchers who tend to recoil at calling such a homer-happy ballpark their home. Elias hopes that this new reality will lend itself to enhanced interest in the club, at a time when the organization’s rebuild is nearing its next phase towards contention.

“It's definitely a significant factor in our move to do this,” he said. “Again, we still expect that this will remain somewhat of a hitter's park, and we like that about Camden Yards, but the conditions here have been very extreme -- towards the very most extreme in the league. It's not a secret. … Part of having a winning program is the ability to recruit free agent pitchers, and that has been a historical challenge for this franchise. There's just no way around that.”

Mejdal, the club’s top analytics guru, said that Camden Yards is one of the most extreme home run parks for right-handed hitters. The steps taken now are not meant to completely swing the pendulum towards pitchers -- the park dimensions, along with mid-Atlantic summer humidity, should still play in the hitters’ favor -- but aim to make the stadium “more neutral.” Also under consideration was moving home plate back towards the stands, but conversations with those who have competed in Baltimore made moving the fence back the logical choice.

“We have a very strong confidence that the directional nature of this change will pull the batted-ball, fly-ball outcomes in this part of the park more towards the league norms,” Elias said, “but still on the side of being favorable to the hitters.”

The distance to the left-field foul pole will remain unchanged at 333 feet, but the distance to true left field will be pushed back to 384 feet. These changes will create a much more expansive left-field grass with a rectangle of new playing area that runs adjacent to the visiting bullpen. The new distance to left-center will be 400 feet; the distance to the visiting bullpen will remain unchanged at 380 feet, as will the rest of the park dimensions towards center and right field.

Also coming into play are a new pair of walls -- a diagonal wall in the left-field corner and one that runs perpendicular along the visiting bullpen, creating new areas for bounces and caroms. Elias compared the new left-field area with how PNC Park, home of the Pirates, currently plays.

With these changes, the Orioles hope that they manifest “a more exciting, athletic style of play in this part of the park.” Atypical angles and walls can contribute to unpredictable caroms and more extra-base hits -- “something that baseball in general needs more of,” Elias said.

The defense will be a learning curve, but the O’s hope that their outfielders will benefit from playing with the new dimensions 81 games out of the year compared to visitors. It will be a focus of manager Brandon Hyde and his coaching staff in Spring Training, Elias said.

The changes at Camden Yards will come at the expense of around 1,000 seats in left field, Elias added. Plans to disperse those physical seats are underway, likely at a future charitable auction.