New dimensions should boost Detroit Tigers’ psyches: ‘You just want to be rewarded’

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers catcher Eric Haase, who has been attending games at Comerica Park since the venue opened more than two decades ago, received an unexpected text message from manager A.J. Hinch in the team group chat.

“Hey guys, check your inboxes,” Hinch told his players.

President of baseball operations Scott Harris emailed a briefing about in-house happenings, new additions to the coaching staff and — arguably the most exciting piece of information — changes to the outfield dimensions. On Wednesday, the news became official: The Tigers, finally, are moving in the center-field wall and shortening the height of the walls in center, right-center and left field. It marks the first alteration to the outfield dimensions since 2003.

“I’m driving, but my wife just said that to me,” Haase told the Free Press on Wednesday morning. “I can’t believe it.”

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The Tigers will move in the center-field fence 10 feet, from 422 feet to 412 feet, and drop the height of that wall from 8.5 feet to 7 feet. The wall in right-center field will lower from 13 feet to 7 feet, and the wall in right field will lower from 8.5 feet to 7 feet. The height of the fences will measure 7 feet around the entire ballpark.

For Haase, the height of the walls is the key piece of the puzzle.

“I just think it makes it more fair,” Haase said. “It’s obviously still going to be a bigger park. The dimensions aren’t necessarily that crazy. That wasn’t the biggest thing that the guys were frustrated about. It’s the tall walls, and that gap in the right-field alley was like 15 feet high. I think it’s going to be a more predictable ballpark.”

Even future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera chimed in (on Instagram): “Wow, for finnnnnnn (at last). Now I want to play more years.” The longtime franchise icon, who turns 40 in April, has launched 507 home runs in his 20-year MLB career, including 188 at Comerica Park.

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The goal of the project isn’t to create a new-look Comerica Park. In reality, the profile of the ballpark will be fairly similar to its appearance throughout the past 19 seasons. The new center-field distance, 412 feet, leaves Comerica Park as the second-deepest ballpark in baseball, behind only Coors Field (415).

The league-average distance in center is 402 feet.

“Once we saw that opportunity, we started sketching out different options,” Harris said. “For each option, we built a model that would project home-run rates (and run scoring). We also did a backward study looking at all the batted balls in this ballpark and what the marginal impact on both home runs and run scoring would be if we had these new dimensions. Those studies suggest there will be a modest impact on home runs and run scoring.”

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The biggest impact of the alterations to the outfield dimensions might not have anything to do with the distance, but rather the psychology of the hitters for 81 games each season. In recent history, Nick Castellanos and Robbie Grossman allowed the idea of the big ballpark to deteriorate their on-field performances.

It has happened to other players, too.

“You just want to be rewarded for doing one of the hardest things to do,” Haase said, “and if you’re doing those things and you’re not getting rewarded, you start getting more and more upset. You start trying to do a little bit too much and start pressing. The whole team felt that two months into the season last year. It was a bunch of guys trying to do too much. That’s not a good recipe for success.”

Doubles and triples should continue to come easier than home runs because of the depth of the fences, maintaining the pitcher-friendly narrative, with one subtle difference: Hard-hit balls to the deepest parts of the park will be rewarded due to the decreased height of the walls.

From 2018-22, MLB players produced 5,685 batted balls projected to travel at least 420 feet. Only 23 of them turned into outs, and more than a third of those outs (eight), happened at Comerica Park.

Harris echoed Hasse’s message.

“We feel like too many balls that were barreled to dead center field did not end up being extra-base hits,” Harris said. “We feel like it’s very dispiriting for a hitter to barrel a ball to dead center and make a 419-foot out. If a few more of those end up being home runs or extra-base hits, we think it will have a positive impact on our hitters’ psyche and ultimately a positive impact on our team.”

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The flip side, of course, is the influence on pitchers.

Surely, the Tigers’ offense will hit more home runs and the Tigers’ pitchers will allow more home runs moving forward. In 2023, the dimensions of the pitcher-friendly park should favor hitters more than ever before. But Haase, the team’s primary catcher, doesn’t think there will be a significant disadvantage for pitchers.

“Those guys know they have to execute pitches,” Haase said. “You make good pitches, and you’re still going to have good success. But it’s probably saved everyone on our staff at least a homer or two over the course of the year, and unfortunately, everywhere else that we would play, those would probably already be homers.”

Left-hander Matthew Boyd, who signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Tigers this offseason, previously pitched for the Tigers from 2015-21 and conceded an American League-leading 39 home runs in 2019, then an MLB-leading 15 homers in 2020.

Of those 54 homers during the two-year span, Boyd allowed 32 at Comerica Park.

“Home runs were an issue,” Boyd said Dec. 14, two weeks after agreeing to the deal. “Missing bats was not an issue. It’s weird to say those in the same sentence, but it was like, ‘How can I minimize this?’ I tweaked, and I probably tweaked a little too much.”

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That’s one example of a homer-prone pitcher who could suffer from the new dimensions. After signing with the Tigers last offseason, left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez — who won the 2018 World Series with the Boston Red Sox — expressed his excitement to pitch in a spacious ballpark. Right-hander Michael Lorenzen, who began his career in the much more cramped Great America Ball Park in Cincinnati, shared a similar emotion after inking a one-year, $8.5 million contract this offseason.

Pitchers, for the most part, adore Comerica Park. The ballpark positively impacts them from a psychological standpoint, the inverse of how the ballpark negatively impacts the mindset of the hitters.

But the truth is, Comerica Park remains one of the biggest parks in baseball. Only now, the hitters will be rewarded for hard-hit line drives and deep drives to the new 412-foot center field.

The Tigers, depending on the rostered players, can take advantage of their playing environment for 81 games every season.

“Player feedback is always mixed because we have pitchers and hitters,” Harris said. “The pitchers want to push the fences back. The hitters want to bring the fences in. We wanted to strike the right balance, where we were improving the offensive conditions for our hitters without fundamentally changing the profile of the park, and we felt like we could do that with these changes.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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