Henning: After too many years abusing hitters, Comerica Park to get some added fixes

Detroit News

After more than two decades of living with a mistake that increasingly became an embarrassment, the Tigers have made a second move to fix Comerica Park.

Correct — a second plan. More later on some history that 20 years later tends to be forgotten.

The Tigers announced Wednesday they’ll be making adjustments to Comerica’s two most egregious areas of hitter-punishment. They’ll move the center-field fence from 422 feet to 412. They’ll drop the fence’s height there from 8.5 feet to 7 feet.

They’ll also trim heights in right-center field (13 feet to 7), and in right field (8.5 feet to 7), which helps make Comerica Park something closer to a ballpark, fair to both hitters and pitchers, as opposed to the contraption that from its inception in the late 1990s was designed, purposefully, to punish and thwart the well-hit baseball.

That absolutely was the plan, destroying hitters. It was central to the ballpark’s original, cockamamie blueprint. The Tigers, with John McHale and Randy Smith in charge, determined extreme distances would help a rebuilding team draw free-agent pitching.

The Tigers wanted hitters to, yes, “hate” — McHale’s words — playing at Comerica Park. And that they did.

Juan Gonzalez, the supposed franchise slugger who was envisioned as a cornerstone star to a reconstructed Tigers team as Comerica Park opened in 2000, had such contempt for Comerica he turned down well over $100 million (figures are yet in dispute, but the offer is believed to have been north of $125 million) to remain with the Tigers. He left after a single season, calling Comerica a “horses— ballpark,” and never came close to recouping the tens of millions he lost in turning down the Tigers extension.

The victims have been many. And they are by no means past Tigers figures.

Miguel Cabrera has lost nearly 100 home runs in his years at Comerica Park, according to various distance-studies.

J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez, Nick Castellanos and others from recent Tigers rosters — never mind opposing players — also have justly ripped a ballpark that has bordered upon a monstrosity. Time after time, Statcast, which measures distances on home runs across MLB ballparks, has confirmed that scads of balls turned into outs or that remained in play at Comerica would have been home runs in a vast majority of other MLB parks.

The Tigers last year got serious about mitigating some of Comerica’s worst terrain, as Chris McCosky reported in a Detroit News article last September. They quietly began taking measurements and fleshing out preliminary plans.

The goal now in place is simply to be fair. A hitter who has done the single-most difficult feat in all of sports — hitting a major-league pitch well — should now be rewarded in a more reasonable percentage of situations rather than see a crushed pitch turned into a long out.

The first fix

To repeat, this is not the first time there have been repairs made to a flawed design.

Comerica Park had been open for three seasons in 2002, which was then-general manager Dave Dombrowski’s first year in Detroit.

The outfield distances and the configuration were absurd: 437 feet to the left-center-field fence, just in front of the flagpole.

What now is Comerica Park’s bullpen areas was in play, calling for essentially 400-foot-plus blasts for a home run to left field.

The bullpens then were in right field, which is now home to some of Comerica’s better seating, at least relative to distance.

Thus, the Tigers pulled off one of Dombrowski’s best swaps: The bullpens were moved to that in-play ground in left. Distances there became reasonable. More intimate outfield-grade seating was likewise gained in right field when the ‘pens shifted.

But still … It was 420 feet to center field, 430 to the deepest part of the auxiliary-scoreboard regions in the ZIP code known as right-center.

All it accomplished was to torture hitters whose “offense” was to hit a big-league pitch as well as they could strike it.

Oh, there have been defenders galore — then and now. They based their stances on a lot of numerical gobbledygook as well as self-indicting philosophies about “building a lineup to match your ballpark.”

Flawed logic

First, the statistical ruse:

Yes, you can score a lot of runs in Comerica Park. Not an issue there. You can drop bloop hits because outfielders typically opt to play deep in Comerica’s tracts. You also can gain some extra gap-hits because of all the acreage from foul line to foul line.

But those tend, as any base hit might be regarded, to be a random result. Hitters have little control over distance or direction — their focus is on making contact and hitting the ball with authority. It’s the only policy a big-league hitter can reasonably employ.

Hitters who achieved that happy outcome have learned through the years at Comerica Park that discipline and execution often weren’t rewarded. Rather, hitters would be punished, with the pitcher who might have served a fat pitch reaping the rewards.

Thoughts about “building a team to fit your ballpark” have been equally askew.

The argument here is that the Tigers should have been collecting “fast, line-drive hitters” to contend with Comerica’s contorted layout.

News bulletin: Every team in baseball is hoping, regardless of their ballpark’s dimensions, to add “fast, line-drive hitters.” Those guys, by the way, tend to be called All-Stars.

The flip-side of such warped logic is that if a roster is fitted for 81 games at Comerica Park, what then are its assets as the team travels to other cities for another 81 games?

It made, then and now, this ballpark’s distorted layout an unwieldy, self-sabotaging notion. That, and the idea helpful pitchers would come to Detroit because they had less chance at tossing gopher balls.

Ask yourself this: If a pitcher chooses to throw at Comerica Park because those absurd distances will help offset his deficits, why are you signing that pitcher to begin with?

So, here we are, after 20 years, with another chance to make a regrettably mediocre/bad ballpark a better venue for big-league baseball.

Emphasis here is placed on “big-league baseball.” Building a ballpark, or living with its dimensions, should never be about trying to aid the home team, even if that were achievable. It should be about fairness and integrity to the game, for both home and visiting teams. And, in this case, after too much abuse, it should be about fairness to hitters regardless of the uniforms they wear.

The Tigers are a tad closer to simple justice — baseball justice — with Wednesday’s revelations.

Until a new ballpark arrives sometime in decades ahead, this at least makes Comerica’s original sins tenable.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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