With subtle changes, Padres hope Petco plays fair
Club moves fences in, wants to keep ballpark's 'fundamental nature' intact
SAN DIEGO -- Sometimes it's nothing more than an incredulous smile or a subtle shaking of the head.
When Petco Park gets you, it really gets you -- and not just in a spike-your-helmet kind of way after a crushed ball becomes a crushed reality.
One seemingly fleeting moment of glory for a hitter can quickly evaporate into total dejection faster than you can say "marine layer."
"It's funny, you see guys from the Nationals or Braves, guys from the NL East who come here and they will hit a ball really well to right field and it gets run down," said Padres catcher Nick Hundley.
"You can see how frustrated they get. At that point, you just sort of say, 'We've got 81 of them [home games]. Hang with 'em.'"
While disbelief can be conveyed in any number of ways, there's no discrepancy in the overall sentiment that hitters have when it comes to the Padres' downtown ballpark -- known in an unaffectionate way as Petco National Park.
Unless you're a pitcher, of course.
Alterations make Petco fair?
Starting this season, it's been much easier to "hang with 'em," as the Padres have modified the fences at their nearly 10-year-old ballpark after years of grousing -- players, front office, fans, etc. -- unveiling some changes that at best qualify as a move toward neutrality and not completely to it.
In left-center field, the fences came in from 402 feet to 390 feet. Most notably, from the right-field line to the gap in right-center, the fence was moved in from 402 feet to 391 feet, with the fence lowered to eight feet, allowing, for the first time, the chance of someone robbing a home run in that area.
The dimensions down the lines -- 336 in left field and 322 in right field -- remain the same, as does straightaway center field at 396. What might be changing is the perception that this big ballpark might actually play more -- gasp -- unbiased moving forward.
The results, in a minuscule sample size, have produced three home runs in San Diego's first nine home games this season -- all by the opposition -- that likely would not have been home runs in 2012, with two wall-scrapers in right field that landed either atop the wall or in the new Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 party deck.
"I'm sure it'll make at least a minimal difference," said Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, who has hit one of the three home runs at Petco Park this season that wouldn't have been a homer in 2012. "I'm not so sure it'll make a huge difference. It should make it closer to making it a fair, neutral ballpark, though."
But these changes weren't simply made to add home runs to a ballpark that has seen plenty of low-scoring games since it opened. It is, essentially, so that the ballpark plays fair for hitters, plain and simple.
"It's a move away from the extreme, but not getting away from the fundamental nature of the park," said Padres director of baseball operations Josh Stein, who played a big role in the analysis and recommendations for the dimension changes.
"I do think there will be more run scoring in total, but how it occurs might be different. You might see fewer triples, the outfielders getting to the ball quicker and more home runs. But it's not going to turn into Coors Field or Milwaukee [Miller Park]."
That was the thinking at Citi Field in New York, which changed its dimensions before the 2012 season. The results were 21 more home runs for the Mets, 24 for foes. This year, Seattle's Safeco Field moved some of its fences in, though only one home run in nine games might not have been one in 2012.
Stein would not predict how many more home runs will be hit at Petco Park in 2013, though manager Bud Black -- an advocate for moving the fences -- has said publicly the number of balls that could be affected by the new dimensions could run between 20 and 30.
"We've played a lot of close games here and I don't anticipate that changing," Stein said.
Analysis leads to change
The changes are new, but not the analysis. The team has been studying data about the ballpark since it opened. The decision to move the fences has been a thorny topic among those in the organization over the years.
Former owner Jeff Moorad was against such a change, though he relented, but only if the team signed or traded for left-handed power. Former general manager Jed Hoyer was reluctant as well, often noting that free-agent hitters were loath to sign with the team because of the spacious ballpark.
"It's always different outside looking in," said San Diego general manager Josh Byrnes, who previously was the GM of the D-backs. "But people around the game knew this was an extreme park. And coming here, working for the Padres, it was such a part of the daily conversation.
"Knowing what we know now, you ask yourself -- how would we build the park today? We put a lot of analysis into it, but a lot of it was the result of conversations, common sense and eyeballs. But this is where we came out."
The original plan for the ballpark and its roomy dimensions didn't happen by accident, said Erik Judson, who was instrumental in the design and development of the ballpark.
"Dimensions were an important part," Judson said in 2010. "First and foremost, we wanted to have dimensions that played fairly. There was clearly a focus on pitching and defense. Collectively, that was something we felt was important to the franchise."
Coors Field effect
There was another important aspect that weighed on the minds of those who would shape the ballpark -- consider it the Coors Field effect. In 1995, the Rockies moved into Coors Field after two years at Mile High Stadium, and their downtown digs played out more like a launching pad. The Padres didn't want that.
What the Padres got instead was the polar opposite of Coors Field -- a ballpark where the marine layer and wind patterns have shifted and changed over the years, surprising those who were instrumental in the ballpark's design.
"At the end of the day, the biggest factor is the climate," Stein said.
Petco Park has one of the coldest average game-time temperatures in the Major Leagues as well as one of the highest game-time humidity levels in the game. And that marine layer that rolls in off the Pacific Ocean, which sits outside the doorstep of the ballpark, makes it tough to elevate a ball at night.
"I remember Mike Morse, I think in 2011, hit a ball to right field and Will [Venable] went and got it at the wall," Hundley said. "He came up his next at-bat and said, 'I don't know how you guys play here.' He's a guy who can hit home runs anywhere and has power. But that's just the place we're at."
Entering the 2013 season, the Padres have ranked last in the Major Leagues in runs scored at home four times since 2004 ('06-09) and 29th on two occasions ('05, '11). Their best finish came in '12, when they finished 24th.
Dimensions' effect on players
This is the first major change in the ballpark's dimensions since after the 2005 season, when the fence in right-center field was brought in from 411 feet. This was the area former San Diego general manager Kevin Towers dubbed "Death Valley."
The dimensions weigh differently on players. Some handle it better than others. Phil Nevin complained about the ballpark after it opened, leading to words with Towers. Ryan Ludwick hit .182 with four home runs in 88 at-bats after he was traded to the team in 2010. After landing in Cincinnati, Ludwick hit 26 home runs for the Reds last season.
The ballpark has gotten into the head of many a player before. Once that happens, it's tough to fight out of that hole. That's how Venable felt after a few rough turns as a rookie in 2008-09.
"I can remember I was struggling badly and I was facing [Cardinals pitcher] Adam Wainwright, when he was at his best," Venable said. "I smoke a ball and it's a home run anywhere else. And it's caught at the track. I'm running off the field and he's saying, 'Hey, great swing.' He was being very complimentary.
"As a young hitter, if that ball is a home run or if it falls, that can take you a long way. In that sense, it's just tough when it doesn't fall."
To determine the new dimensions, Stein and several members of the team's baseball operations staff pored over data from the last three seasons (2010-12). They looked at every ball hit at Petco Park in that stretch. They gauged the exit speed of the ball off the bat, the trajectory of the ball as well as the movement of the ball, both horizontal and vertical.
On his computer, Stein has video of 189 batted balls from the last three seasons that may have been impacted in the fence modifications. Home runs elsewhere are doubles at best at Petco Park, outs at worst. Incredulity runs rampant, even from unlikely sources.
"It's seeing both the hitter and pitcher react, and even the broadcaster," Stein said.
Time will ultimately tell if this move was a good one. For that to happen, Stein said, you need more than one year of data and analysis, preferably three years. Still, there's a sense on the part of the Padres that this move was the right one.
"As a team, if you're down a run, two runners on base and Yonder Alonso crushes a ball and it's caught at the wall ... instead of taking a lead, it is complete dejection and deflation of all the momentum," Venable said.
"Hopefully, that's no longer a part of Petco Park. The balls that are hit hard ... you should be rewarded for that."