Before next season, the Washington Nationals must move in the fence at RFK Stadium to the distances that were used during the Senators era rather than the ludicrously deep and inaccurately distances of the current distorted ballpark.
This change would require that the power alleys be moved in 15 feet from their current, laser-measured 395 feet to 380 feet, the same distance that was used in all but one season between 1961 and 1971. This season it was pure accident that the Nats installed fences that bellied out much more deeply in the alleys than the old cyclone-wire fences of the '60s. Nobody intended to create a radically different park than the old RFK Stadium. But that's what happened. Put those fences back where they belong! No, not to make Jose Guillen happy. But to make the Nationals a better team -- instantly.
In part, the change should be made out of respect for simple fairness and baseball esthetics. The current configuration produces a low-scoring version of the sport that is as unappealing as the nightly slugfests on display in baseball's smallest bandbox ballparks. All things being equal, baseball fans have always preferred the sport when a normal number of runs are scored -- about nine a game. If anything, higher scoring sells. Abnormally distant fences and perversely low scores can only be justified if such a park confers a large and demonstrable advantage to the home team. If it doesn't, it's just nuts.
More important, however, the Nats need to move in their fences because their huge home park is killing them on the field. Last season, it probably ended up costing Washington several victories -- at least. Despite playing spectacularly well in RFK in the first half of the season, the full 162-game schedule ultimately told the truth about the marriage between the Nats and RFK.
This is a baseball mismatch between team personnel and ballpark geometry that desperately needs a quick divorce.
By season's end, the Nats were almost as good on the road last season (40-41) as they were in RFK (41-40). That's terrible. The large majority of big league teams play much better at home than on the road. For example, look at the rest of the National League East where every team (except the Nats) had a far better record at home than on the road. As a group, the Braves, Phils, Marlins and Mets were 152-172 on the road (.469) versus a blistering 192-132 at home (.593).
If the Nats had played as much better at home as their N.L. East rivals did (+.124), they'd have ended the year with 90 wins.
For the entire sport, not just the Nats' division, the average team won five more games at home than on the road. Again, if the Nats had conformed to this norm, they would have won 85 games.
No matter how you study the numbers, the central point remains the same. Having a home crowd in your corner, especially throngs as large as the Nats' average of 33,728, should ensure a psychological and emotional advantage. Familiarity with the field's playing characteristics as well as a team's ability to shape its roster's style of play to the dimensions of its ballpark should almost guarantee that almost every team play better at home than on the road. And, of course, batting last helps, too.
Yet the Nationals had a worse run differential at home (301-322 = minus 21) than on the road (338-351 = minus 13). If all things were equal, the Nationals would win more games at home and have a better run-differential at home, too. Why? Because that's how baseball has been for most teams for 100 years. If you play .500 on the road, goes the old saying, you should win enough at home to be a contender. The Nats carried out the first part of the maxim, but not the second.
A team only plays below expectations at home, as the Nationals did, if there is a distinct reason. Sometimes, that cause is hard to find. For example, Arizona would love to know why it won five more games on the road than at home (41-36). In the Nats' case, there's little doubt. No other factor in the '05 season had as obvious an impact as RFK's distant fences.
"Leave the fences alone," said Frank Robinson after the final game. "We played great at home in the first half."
Sorry, Frank, that's wrong. The Nationals looked like a .500 team -- at best -- in spring training and they ended up a .500 team. The first half was the aberration. The full season was the statistical sampling worth measuring.
Marlon Byrd may have the situation analyzed best. "Almost all our best hitters have power to the opposite field," said the outfielder. "That's where Brad Wilkerson's best power is. Also, Nick Johnson and Guillen. But they don't have quite enough power with the fences so deep. They were all losing home runs and extra-base hits to the opposite field. It kills 'em."
Some Nats, including Guillen and Wilkerson, even tried to adopt different hitting styles -- trying to draw more walks and not even trying to hit for power -- in RFK. Whether they did it consciously or not, the stats scream it out loudly.
Many will say, "But the Nats pitched so well in RFK." Actually, John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza may have been helped, but few others. Considering how little run support he got, even Loaiza might welcome fences of normal distance in RFK. Most of the bullpen had such high quality stuff that they hardly noticed where they were playing.
Back in the Senators era, RFK was considered a neutral park when its dimensions were 335 feet down both foul lines, 380 to the allies and 410 to center. These days, with so many new "retro" ballparks, the old RFK would now be considered a "pitcher's park," though only slightly.
A team that plays 41-40 at home in perhaps the most extreme ballpark in baseball, yet plays 40-41 on the road, has absolutely nothing to lose by bringing its fences back to normal distances. On the other hand, such a team may suddenly discover that it wins several more games a year at home while simultaneously providing more entertainment for its fans. Besides, how is the lowest-scoring team in baseball ever going to attract free agent hitters if RFK is seen as the sport's Death Valley?
These days, if you stand in the first row of the outfield upper deck in left or right field and look straight down, you will realize that, if you dropped a ball, it would land on the warning track. In the old days, it would have fallen 10 feet behind the fences.
That's how out of whack RFK has gotten. And that's what needs to be fixed.