The price of moving back left field wall worth it for Orioles to eliminate cheap homers

The Orioles got a lot of mileage out of moving back the left field wall about 30 feet.

Every fly ball that approached the warning track would elicit references to previous seasons and how another batter was robbed of a home run by the new dimensions rather than an outfielder.

It got a little tired for me, to be honest, but I understood the obsession. And the importance of balancing the playing field.

The cheap home runs became a joke, except no one with the Orioles was laughing.

An article from CBS Sports in late August noted how the ballpark was averaging 1.87 home runs per game this season compared to 3.36 from 2019-21. Only 8.8 percent of fly balls and line drives found the left field seats compared to 13.5 from 2019-21. 

The final tally has 277 home runs hit at Camden Yards last season, the most in the majors and 155 delivered by the opposing team, and 151 hit this year, with 79 coming from the Orioles and 72 from opponents.

That’s right. The two sides combined didn’t account for as many as opponents produced in 2021.

Jason Bernard, manager of baseball research and development for Major League Baseball, calculated that 57 fly balls to left field would have been home runs in past seasons but were casualties of the change. Ironically or coincidentally, 31 were hit by the Orioles.

Trey Mancini led the pack with six, and in a final slap, he was denied again after returning to Baltimore with the Astros. One of his fly balls hit the top of the wall for a double and he was removed for a pinch-runner.

This time, he found the humor in it, a big smile on his face as he high-fived teammates.

Ryan Mountcastle was next with five, followed by Jorge Mateo and Ramón Urías with four.

Hitters would express their frustration with the wall on occasion, whether in words or with arms flailing and heads lowered. Some would just round the bag and stare at left field for a few seconds before tossing their helmet and gloves.

But if it’s any consolation, plenty of balls fell in front of outfielders who had to play deeper to compensate for the extra territory. Cheap home runs were replaced by cheap singles and doubles. Shortstops had more ground to cover.

Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias explained in January that pushing back the wall, and raising it about six feet, would bring Camden Yards toward “neutrality” and closer to “league norms.” In typical fashion, the Orioles took an analytic approach to it while also speaking with manager Brandon Hyde, coaches and current and former players.  

The home runs per fly ball to left field were “very out of whack,” Elias said in January. “Addressing this area was a priority.”

Elias also said an added benefit would be a more athletic and exciting style of play with balls hit into the corner at the 90 degree angle by the home bullpen area. And of much greater importance was the possibility that free-agent pitchers would find Camden Yards to be a more desirable location.

Wrigley Field has its ivy-covered walls. Camden Yards was treated like poison ivy.  

"Part of having a winning program is the ability to recruit free-agent pitchers,” Elias said, “and that has been an historical challenge for this franchise.”

The subject of the wall came up again at last week’s season-ending media session, when Elias mentioned the possibility of more adjustments to the dimensions as renovations take place in the coming years, but nothing that’s going to impact left field in 2023.

The 2022 change seemed to have the desired effect, with the impact on free agent negotiations to be ascertained later.

“I think part of the argument that we made to do it was there was going to be an unquantifiable effect on the psyches of the guys who are out there pitching at Camden Yards, and when you talk to pitchers that pitched here with the old wall, and even from 20-30 years ago, they’ll tell you that it was something that weighed on their minds trying to pitch here and it affected the confidence they had to throw the ball over the plate. I suspect that it probably helped our pitchers take a big step forward this year,” Elias said.

“I think it’s going to provide us with an interesting nuance to, maybe, the way that we play or the way we deploy our lineups or rosters here. And in a very tough division, I think any kind of inherent, unique angle that you can have may be something that is helpful. But I really like the fact that cheap fly balls that our pitchers induce aren’t home runs at a crazy rate like they have been here for the last 30 years.”

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