BALTIMORE – Austin Hays knew his old office was getting a revamp. The left field wall at Camden Yards – his turf – was moving back nearly 30 feet, its height raised by nearly 13 feet. But nothing could prepare the Baltimore Orioles left fielder for the sinking feeling when he saw the stadium’s mini-monster for the first time – and the first month worth of anecdotal data that confirmed his new reality.
“It’s exactly what I thought it would be, from the time I stepped on the field and saw how far away it was,” says Hays, a fourth-year outfielder whose career-best 22 homers last year were significantly dependent on the cozier dimensions . It’s playing exactly how I thought it would to left field.
“Very big. Very far away. ”
And it’s arguably the most transformational alteration to a ballpark in the 30 years since Camden Yards’ 1992 opening heralded a new era of cozier stadiums. They’re celebrating the anniversary off the field with special ticket prices and remembrances of the stadium’s greatest moments throughout the park.
On the field, Camden 2.0 has been accompanied by curses and tossed bats.
“There’s a lot of, ‘That was a homer last year,'” says Orioles catcher Anthony Bemboom, who often plays park therapist to opposing hitters in the box.
They have reason to grieve: Going yard at Camden Yards has done a 180 from a hitter’s haven to a home run hellscape.
The data’s daunting enough: Camden Yards ranks 27th in the major leagues in home runs as measured by park factor, at 0.677, well below the neutral rate of 1.000, with anything greater favoring hitters and anything less than that favoring pitchers. One year ago, it ranked No. 1 at 1,574, a 25% leap from the runner-up, Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, which takes over the No. 1 spot this year.
The anecdotal evidence is perhaps more damning than the statistics.
The New York Yankees came to town this week boasting the two biggest, baddest sluggers in baseball, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, who rank 1-2 across MLB in exit velocity; Judge’s 14 homers lead the majors.
It took just two games for both of them to get robbed.
Monday night, Stanton sent a low screamer deep into left field that one-hopped the wall in the nook where the barrier juts out from the corner and measures 378 feet away from home plate. It’s not far from where the dimensions once measured 364 feet and after watching a replay, Yankees manager Aaron Boone concluded it would have been a homer in years past.
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“That’s minus-one for us,” he noted wryly before Tuesday’s game.
It wasn’t so funny a couple hours later, when Judge hammered a pitch deep to left field in the top of the first inning. A guttural murmur rumbled through the crowd; the ball had the sound, shape and look of a no-doubter.
And it banged off the top of the wall, a 100.8 mph shot that traveled 399 feet. The popular Twitter account, @would_it_dong:noted it would be a home run in 29 of 30 ballparks.
Judge settled for an RBI double and like Stanton the night before, was thrown out at third, perhaps partly dazed by the events.
There’s no fooling Judge twice, though: He went deep to center and right center field in two subsequent at-bats, 410 and 422 feet, leaving no doubt.
Still, a two-homer night that should have been three has a certain sting.
“I knew it did not have a chance, but I was hoping, for good old time’s sake it would go out,” Judge said after another Yankee victory. “But I learned my lesson and went to the right field.
“It’s a travesty, man. I’m pretty upset. It looks like a Create-A-Park now. I did not like it because I always liked coming here and playing here. ”
And that shows you the Orioles are on to something.
As the Orioles’ surprise runs to the postseason receded into a series of ugly, 100-loss seasons and right-handed sluggers like Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo left town, Camden’s greatest power shows almost always came from the opposition feasting on Orioles pitching.
Mookie Betts, now a Los Angeles Dodger, hit 15 home runs in 45 at-bats here for the Boston Red Sox – a stunning homer every three ABs. Mike Trout and former Yankee Baby Bomber Gary Sanchez hit 10 in just 36 at-bats.
And yes, Judge himself slammed 14 in 47 from 2016 to 2021.
With that in mind, the Orioles showed that the best defense is a good ballpark designer.
They requested and received permission from MLB to move the left field wall back, and up, a move that came on the heels of a highly deliberate rebuilding that saw Orioles pitching get pummeled. The staff sported the majors’ worst ERA in 2018, 2019 and 2021, years in which Baltimore lost 115, 108 and 110 games.
So GM Mike Elias opted for the redesign, a pragmatic move given that the mid-market Orioles might never afford the sort of sluggers expected to scale that wall with regularity, unless they manage to develop a bevy of right-handed Judge clones.
In Year 1 of this grand experiment, though, a couple of other things happened.
Leaguewide, the ball started performing like an anvil, adding another offensive suppressant.
And, in a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, Orioles pitchers took another step forward in development, boosted by the free agent acquisition of Jordan Lyles, a reliable veteran notoriously missing from their bedraggled squads of ’18, ’19 and ’21 .
Baltimore now ranks 18th in the majors with a 3.81 ERA; better yet, the adjusted ERA of 101 places them right at league average, and ahead of such pitching-centric clubs like Tampa Bay and Seattle.
It helps that a gaggle of mid-rotation types are a year older and wiser, and that rookie Kyle Bradish has emerged as a potential top-end guy. But is part of that boosted by the fact the Orioles no longer have a 364-foot power alley and a tiny fence lurking over their shoulders?
“It definitely gives you a lot more confidence,” says lefty starter Bruce Zimmermann. “There’s really no other way to put it, when you do not have to worry about jam shots or hard line drives sneaking out – if you give up a home run, you give up a home run.
“It’s always been a small park and it’s definitely a big equalizer. I know the hitters probably aren’t too excited about it. But it is nice to have a park that plays a little more level compared to the past. ”
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Zimmermann, who has a 2.72 ERA in seven starts, grew up in nearby Ellicott City and was in high school when Machado, Adam Jones and JJ Hardy attacked the short porch with a vengeance and led the Orioles to the first of three playoff berths in six years. Machado, he said, was the ultimate Camden Yards hitter, belting so many “low screamers that got out by six or seven rows.”
Now, the low fence that connected fans to players is gone. It’s a disorienting and, to some, jarring sight for longtime visitors.
“Feel like it’s taken away a little of the charm of this place, which is a pretty special venue,” says the Yankees’ Boone. “I do not think it’s any secret it’s one of the most beautiful parks in the league. It still is. To me, that makes it a little less. ”
Aesthetics are one thing and on-field challenges are another. The towering wall – not as tall as Boston’s Green Monster but also not nearly as close – and Baltimore’s sentient pitching staff have created a vibe not seen here for most of the park’s existence. Used to be that coming to Charm City was not such a tactical quandary.
“It’s a real challenge coming in here right now,” Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said earlier this month. “They’re throwing the ball really freaking well.
“The ballpark is definitely a part of this. We hit a couple balls this series you expect to be gone in this ballpark, even in most ballparks, and they’re not even close. It’s going to be a chore to put up runs. You kind of have to stack hits up quickly, instead of plan for them one at a time. ”
Baldelli’s Twins received a scare when left fielder Nick Gordon slammed into the pointy corner of the wall in left-center, a potentially dangerous spot for outfielders in full sprint for a fly ball. Hays says there will be scenarios where outfielders “have to pull up so you do not kill yourself.”
The tricky corners and the power outage might make the place a Bermuda Triangle for left fielders. The bigger part of the equation, though, is developing, retaining, perhaps recruiting a pitching staff. That effort should soon get a boost with the arrival of top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez, who is flourishing at Class AAA Norfolk, with lefty DL Hall not far behind.
Even the right-handed sluggers know that much, bittersweet as it is.
“It should help attract more pitchers to come here in the future, which is definitely a good thing for the organization,” says first baseman and DH Trey Mancini. “But as a right-handed, offensive player, it’s a big jump from what it was to what it is.
“It stinks whenever you hit a ball in that area that you think should be a home run, but at the same time, there’s nothing you can do about it. You gotta go for the power alley or center or oppo. That hasn’t changed. It’s not ideal when it happens, but you also can not go to the plate thinking about the new left field wall, or you’ll have other problems. “
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Camden Yards’ new dimensions leaves sluggers steaming in Baltimore: