Errors in the Outfield
Friday, July 22, 2005
Two weeks ago, in the second inning of a game against the New York Mets, Washington Nationals third baseman Vinny Castilla ripped a ball on a line toward the left-center field fence at RFK Stadium, took a couple of steps toward first base, and flipped his bat. A veteran of 15 major league seasons who has hit 309 home runs, he knows how to begin a home run trot.
"I crushed that ball," Castilla said. "There was no doubt."
The ball traveled toward the fence, near a sign advertising an airline. It hit the top of the wall, left of a mark that gave the distance from home plate: 380 feet. Suddenly, Castilla had to pick up his stride. It wasn't a home run. It was a double.
Afterward, Castilla was incredulous.
"That mark is wrong," he said. "It's 395 feet -- at least."
Close. This week, two Post reporters measured the distance to the wall in the left-center field power alley at RFK Stadium. Using a 300-foot tape measure and beginning at the tip of home plate, they measured out 300 feet, marked the spot, and continued to the wall, right at the spot marked 380. The conclusion: 394 feet.
Club officials asked the reporters to stop before other measurements could be taken, but the team agreed to bring in a surveyor who took measurements yesterday morning. The results confirmed what the players had suspected -- the marks in the areas midway between the foul poles and center field were incorrect. According to club officials, the actual distance -- measured with a laser -- to the mark that said "380" in left-center field was 394.74 feet; the actual distance to the "380" mark in right-center was 395 feet.
"It's been something that's been in people's minds," said Andy Dunn, the Nationals' vice president of ballpark operations. "The dimensions were on pads that make up the outfield fence, but the pads with the 380-feet marks were in the wrong locations."
Thus, prior to last night's game against the Houston Astros, club officials moved the "380" marks closer to the foul lines, so they represent, accurately, the distance from home plate. The club contends that the surveyor found measurements down the foul lines to be, essentially, accurate at 335 feet. The wall in center field, marked 410 feet, is actually 407.83 feet, Dunn said.
The debate about the fences has raged over the past few weeks in the Nationals' clubhouse, with players -- particularly Castilla and Jose Guillen, the right fielder -- openly suspicious that the fences were farther back than they were marked. Whatever the markings, the statistical evidence supports the theory that RFK Stadium vastly benefits pitchers over hitters.
"We thought that's how it would be," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "But we didn't know it would be like this."
In 46 games at RFK prior to last night, the Nationals and their opponents combined to hit 46 homers, an average of exactly one per game, the lowest in baseball. The next lowest is Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, which averages one-third more homers per game; the highest rate is Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, which serves up 3.13 homers per game.