Ready? Here we go.
Let us first take as a given that today’s baseball players are generally better than those in days of yore. They are more highly trained. Their games are more perfected. There is less margin for error. Let us then also acknowledge that much of what was once regarded as standard in the game became standard when a lesser athlete was on the field. One such standardization was and is ballpark size.
In 1915, before things were really standardized, the average ballpark was 365 feet down the left field line and 332 feet down the right field line. The center field wall was 454 feet away. Compare this to today’s 331-407-328 average and it’s clear that there was a lot more room out there back before Babe Ruth graced us with his presence. Of course, I doubt this is surprising to anybody. It wasn’t long after Ruth, though, that parks started to standardize and the 330-400-330 model has been pretty normal for a long, long time.
The difference is that athletes today are better and hitters have figured out that if they swing hard enough, there will eventually be payoff. No more choking up with two strikes. Instead, they go all-out all the time. That means lots of strikeouts and long home runs. Last year, the average home run distance was 397 feet. That’s just 10 feet short of the average center field wall. Isn’t it supposed to be hard to hit one out to center? In fact, only 122 home runs that cleared a wall were under 350 feet. That’s out of more than 4,600.
So here’s my little plan. Instead of a 331-407-328 average, let’s move it more toward 350-425-350. Think about what that would do. Right away, of course, it reduces the number of home runs, which may be a good or a bad thing, but it also reduces scoring, which shortens games.
I think there’s more to it, though. I think there’s a ripple effect that goes like this:
Right now, a lot of teams stash lumbering sluggers in the outfield corners, but if, all of a sudden, you have that same slow-footed guy out there trying to cover 20 extra feet and if that same slugger is now hitting five or 10 fewer homers, maybe your opinion of him changes and instead, you go with a fleet-footed contact hitter.
There will still be power hitters, of course, but with the walls farther away, maybe it becomes more tempting to just try to make contact when behind in the count. And because of that, maybe those hitters also strike out a bit less.
So what does that game look like? It probably looks like some weird cross between the 1980s and now. Home runs would obviously be way down, but so would strikeouts. Scoring would be lower and games thus a bit shorter, but there would be a lot more extra base hits. Triples and inside-the-park home runs would become more commonplace and there would be a lot more doubles. Defense would matter a lot more.
Pitchers would also likely go deeper into games as their pitch counts probably drop in this scenario. That would mean fewer relief pitchers and more interesting benches with real pinch hitters taking a spot or two on the pine. In short, it would make some movement toward “fixing” just about everything people complain about.
I’m not going to pretend I think this will actually happen, but it would make for an interesting experiment. I doubt very much that the effect on the game would be greater than when the mound was lowered and it’s a simple solution that doesn’t require anything more than MLB setting some kind of minimum distances for the fences.