How Comerica's new fences will affect Tigers
Shorter fences may lead to more homers -- and more robberies
At long last, the Tigers are bringing in and lowering the fences at massive Comerica Park, which would have been a great joy to long-time outfielder Bobby Higginson, who once referred to it as “Comerica National Park” thanks to the enormous size of its outfield. It seems like it’s going to be a great joy to Miguel Cabrera, too, who jokingly implied on Instagram that the changes might motivate him to play beyond his previously announced final season of 2023.
The question, then, is clear: How much is this going to matter? We went through the same process last winter when the Orioles deepened left field at Camden Yards, and the Statcast data before the season suggested “perhaps more than 50 [fewer home runs] annually by our count.” Eventual lost home runs in year one? 57.
So we can do the same with Comerica, though be warned right away: This is not going to go how you might think it’s going to go. We project that over the last three full seasons (2019, 2021, and 2022), there were 54 non-homers at Comerica that would have likely cleared the new dimensions – 18 per year, though not distributed evenly – but that’s a number that comes with a huge “home run robberies are awesome” caveat that we’ll have to get to.
It all looks like this:
As a reminder, here's what the changes are going to be, and why they are deemed necessary.
- Center field brought in from 422 feet to 412. (Though the wall labeling had previously read 420, it was actually 422.)
- Left field corner relabeled from 345 feet to 342. (No actual physical change, only a labeling one.)
- The fence height will be a consistent seven feet all the way around, down from 8 1/2 feet in center and right, and 13 feet in right-center.
The most notable takeaway there is that while 412 feet in center is certainly shorter than 422, it’s also still the second-deepest center field in baseball, behind only the 415 at mile-high Coors Field, which means it’s still considerably deeper than average, just not “compare it to a national park” deep.
“We went from having the deepest ballpark to probably still the deepest ballpark in center field,” said pitcher Matt Manning to MLB.com’s Jason Beck, which is not totally correct – Coors is, as we said – but accurate enough in spirit, showing the players know exactly how this is going to play. “It’s still deep out there.”
Indeed it is, and that makes the why of it all the easy part; Higginson may have been the first hitter to grumble about the size, but he was hardly the last. Former Tiger Nick Castellanos was famously open about his disdain for the place – “this park is a joke,” he once said – and last year, Robbie Grossman talked about how he’d disliked hitting there as a visitor. All you really need to see is one video exactly like this 422-foot out from poor Riley Greene last year to understand why.
The numbers, to some extent, back that up. Since Statcast began tracking in 2015, there have only been 24 batted balls projected to go 420 feet or more that ended up becoming outs … and fifteen were at Comerica. Of the others, six were at Coors, one was a Giancarlo Stanton laser beam in Miami, and the last two were at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, but to a part of the field that no longer exists – since the Astros brought in their own fences following 2016.
Looking at the Statcast park factors, you see a similar story. Over the last three seasons, Comerica is the hardest park to hit a homer in, and is the seventh-hardest park overall for hitters. Over the last two years, no regular park has seen the ball travel worse, which seems a larger issue than where the fences are.
(Why seventh-hardest and not the hardest? Because there’s more to offense than just home runs. Comerica is the easiest park to triple in, and as we explored in 2018, there’s evidence the excellent hitter’s eye has helped to suppress strikeouts and increase hard-hit rate – an advantage which may [or may not] be in jeopardy with the new changes. It’s here we must note that Grossman, by 54 points, Cabrera, by 52 points, and Castellanos, by 19 points, all slugged better at Comerica during their Tiger careers than on the road. So did Greene, as a rookie, by 43 points, though it was the opposite for Spencer Torkelson.)
Maybe this tells the story best: Look at barrels, a Statcast metric intended to show batted balls with the perfect combination of launch angle and exit velocity (i.e, hit it hard and in the air). The Major League average in 2022 on those perfect batted balls was .728; at Cincinnati’s hitter’s paradise, it was a best-in-baseball .847; but in Detroit, it was a mere .634, by far the lowest in the Majors. The ball didn’t fly, and when it did, it had a massive center field and tall right-center wall to get past.
Catcher Eric Haase touched more on what it feels like to lose a crushed baseball to the park, and in doing so, hit on a number that we can help him quantify.
“I think it’s more of the psyche that you bring into the [batter’s] box with you. When you’re walking up for your second at-bat and your first at-bat you flew out at 430 feet and it’s a 0-0 ballgame, that’s a lot different. You start feeling like, ‘I stayed with my approach, I had a perfect approach and that’s an out.’ That’s really hard grabbing your bat and going back up there the next AB trying not to do a little bit more,” he said. “I do everything right, and you hit a ball like that where [Statcast] says it’s a homer in 29 other ballparks.”
If we go back to 2019 and find all the non-homers that Statcast projected to be out in at least 25 other ballparks, Comerica was witness to 119 of them – the third-most behind Colorado and Arizona, which has a massive 25-foot wall in center field.
Haase would know personally. On Aug. 1, 2021, he crushed a ball at home that was projected to go 427 feet. The double he ended up with isn’t nothing, of course. But it’s not the home run he probably deserved, either.
All that said, what impact do we think it will see in 2023?
Potential 2023 impact
By our data, these are the non-homers that likely would have had trajectories that would have taken them over the fences of a newly-renovated Comerica Park.
2019 // 19
2020 // 3 (shortened season)
2021 // 19
2022 // 12
That’s 18 hit by Detroit hitters, and 36 allowed by Detroit pitchers, though at least some of that is about the fact that the Tigers lineup just hasn’t hit a whole bunch of balls hard enough for this to even matter over the last four seasons, compared to the rest of the sport. (In 2022, only two clubs had a lower average fly ball distance than Detroit did.)
Many of them look exactly like you’d expect they would. Here’s then-Padre Luke Voit, last summer, hitting one a projected 427 feet to the very top of the center field wall, one that was initially ruled a homer but later reviewed down to a double.
Here’s Cabrera the previous summer, not even getting the consolation prize of an extra base hit, though his sacrifice fly did at least drive home a run.
Look at former Tiger Nomar Mazara, who drove Jake Cave all the way back to the wall and got absolutely nothing for his troubles.
To the extent that those are the types of plays you expect, they’re there, nearly two dozen of them since 2019. But for all the talk about center field’s deep distance, focusing on that at the expense of the height of the walls might be missing the point, as manager A.J. Hinch aptly expressed.
“I think the lower fence is a more exciting portion than really even caring what the dimensions are,” said Hinch. “I’m glad we can talk about Riley Greene jumping up and [reaching] over a fence as opposed to jumping into a fence.”
He’s right, and it’s this aspect – the fences being a consistent seven feet all the way around – that makes some of our data open to your interpretation. Just look at Akil Baddoo, who made a great leap to rob Hunter Dozier in 2021, going over a wall that will drop from 8.5 feet high to seven.
Our data says the ball would have been a home run in the new dimensions, but really, if not for Baddoo, it would have been a home run in the old ones, too – and it’s somewhat of an open question as to whether a lower fence here will make it easier for a fielder to launch himself, or less able to reach up to the same heights to grab a more difficult ball.
It even happens in center, as Cameron Maybin found out during his brief return to the team in 2020.
And while robs haven’t really happened often in right field, what’s it going to look like when an outfielder plays this one against a wall that’s seven feet, not 8 1/2 feet?
All of which can suggest that while we expect we might find approximately 15 batted balls in 2023 that go out that wouldn’t have in previous years, we also might find some of them becoming spectacular home run robberies, not home runs – as eight of our “might have gone out now” 54 balls since 2019 already were. (To say nothing of this Derek Hill home run from last season, which could have been a rob and might not have even made it out if not for the helping glove of Kyle Garlick.)
“I don’t think it’s going to have much of an impact as far as the way we prepare or anything,” Haase said. “I don’t think it’s going to be as big of a deal as it seems to the average fan watching. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot more homers hit. I don’t necessarily know how many homers we’re going to be able to rob [with the lower fences in center and right]. But I think it just makes it a little bit more of a fair game.”
Tigers general manager Scott Harris was on the same page, noting their studies “suggest there will be a modest impact on home runs and runs scoring without changing the profile of the park.” He also said, as Haase did, that the discouraging impact on their hitters factored in, saying “we feel like it’s very dispiriting for a hitter to barrel a ball to dead center and make a 419-foot out, and so, if a few more of those end up being home runs or extra-base hits, we feel it’ll have a positive impact on our hitters’ psyche, and ultimately a positive impact on our team.”
We agree, on all counts. These changes will matter, somewhat, in ways we can count. But if they matter in ways we can’t quantify, in ways that make Greene and Torkelson and the other young Tiger hitters who are supposed to be the core of rebuild stop feeling like they’re taking aim at an insurmountable object, it might be worth it in other ways, too.
Graphics by MLB.com's Andrew Phillips