The Bandwagon: To cut down on homers, MLB should move the fences back

Yahoo Sports

Bandwagoning gets a bad rap around sports circles as a sign that someone is not a true fan. But what’s a better testament to the pure joy of baseball than falling in love with a team you have no connection to just because they’re so much fun? Each week, on The Bandwagon, I’ll tell all about my new favorite franchise and why you should start rooting for them right now. Plus, a fan-focused rundown of what else is happening in the game, and a humble proposal to fix baseball — not that anybody asked.

There were 10 grand slams hit over three days at the start of this week. That’s a new MLB record; although it’s not an especially meaningful statistic when you consider that grand slams represent a confluence of skill to hit the ball very far with the individually uncontrollable circumstance of bases loaded. (We all agreed to stop taking RBIs seriously as a measure of a player’s worth, right?) But it is personally meaningful, to me, how unmoved I am by this display of power at the plate. I’ve watched video of some of these grand slams, but not all of them, none of which will be especially memorable at the end of a season that will almost certainly set a new record high for home runs.

I’ve been a national baseball reporter for just about two months and I’m worried I’m already starting to repeat myself — worse, that I’m already growing blasé about one of baseball’s purest highlights. I love baseball, despite a professional preoccupation with whether or not it’s gotten worse. I even love home runs, despite regularly railing against them as part of the class of Three True Outcomes that eliminates all dynamic on-field action.

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San Diego Padres outfielder Hunter Renfroe was one of 10 players to hit a grand slam earlier this week. (AP)
San Diego Padres outfielder Hunter Renfroe was one of 10 players to hit a grand slam earlier this week. (AP)

But this year — as fans are treated to an average of two or three moon shots every single game and social media managers around baseball strain to find new ways to marvel that previous benchmarks are repeatedly blown past in posts that are starting to feel like a self-aware farce — we’ve officially hit the point of diminishing returns on the relentless rise of the long ball. The self-evidently — not to mention scientifically proven — juiced ball has not just rendered the homers redundant, it’s changed the game by suppressing other forms of offense and making baseball itself a little boring.

The way the game is played is not actually cyclical by nature. Teams and players are smart enough now to know how to maximize output. We are approaching, if not already at, the zenith of winning efficiently in baseball. Guys are swinging for the fences because doing so works to win games and if the powers that be decide they want fewer home runs (which is not a given but which I am going to presuppose as a thing they should want) they’re going to have to change the parameters.

At this point, Major League Baseball can’t just un-juice the ball. For one thing, commissioner Rob Manfred won’t even admit that decreasing the drag (which even he acknowledges is real and at least partially responsible for all the homers) was done on purpose. Besides, they’ve backed themselves into a bit of a corner now that players have started to adapt. If they suddenly deadened the ball back to the way it was, teams would eventually readjust, but first, we’d get The Year Of All The Popups.

Instead, MLB should address the rise of home runs without completely killing off scoring by moving the fences back.

They won’t. But they should.

Admittedly, this is the exact opposite of what has been happening around the country over the past decade. Just this season, the Giants announced they are considering moving their outfield fences in, erasing Triples Alley in favor of keeping pace with all shorter outfields and league-wide home run accessibility.

The San Francisco Giants are considering moving in the fences at Oracle Park. (Getty Images)
The San Francisco Giants are considering moving in the fences at Oracle Park. (Getty Images)

Moving the fences back would curtail home runs for the obvious reason, but beyond that, it would incentivize different kinds of offense. More gaps to aim for means more balls in play means more hits, more interesting baserunning, and a greater emphasis on defensive range. More “Triples Allies,” that is, by intent. This is difficult to prove as a hypothetical, but in 2013 Fangraphs looked at the impact on run scoring at parks that had moved the fences in. Predictably, home runs were up, but overall runs were down. Jeff Sullivan cautioned that there wasn’t enough data to draw any definitive conclusions, but that shrinking the outfields could have unintended effects, “like cutting down on doubles and triples.”

This is not just some good ol’ days nostalgia peddling to pander to baseball’s core demographic. I just think we’ve maxed out on the entertainment utility of applying advanced metrics to the pursuit of home runs. Bigger ballparks would necessarily shift that calculation, perhaps enough to break the stalemate between strikeouts and going yard.

Moving the fences in is admittedly much easier structurally and logistically than moving them out would be and I imagine most owners would be loathe to lose extra ticket sales.

But have you seen the attendance numbers this year? It’s not like they need the seats.

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