State Your Case: Move Back the Fences

Why moving back the home-run fences in all MLB ballparks would benefit the game of baseball

(AP/Ross D. Franklin)

Pace of play has become an issue in the game of baseball. Since 2003, when the average time of game reached a millennium-low 2 hours and 49 minutes, the average time of game has steadily increased, reaching 3 hours and 8 minutes in 2017.

Stats from Baseball Reference

Baseball has also seen a rise in three-true outcomes in recent years. While BB% is once again reaching post-Moneyball levels, K% has never been higher.

Stats from FanGraphs

What this means is that baseball games tend to last longer but contain less action than they have in recent years. The result has become a more boring product, which commissioner Rob Manfred is desperate to fix.

For the record, I am pretty much in favor of any measure that will reduce the time of baseball games and speed up the pace of play. Off the top of my head, I would implement the following initiatives if I were commissioner:

· Pitch Clocks

· Batters must keep one foot in the batter box, except after foul balls and to avoid interference

· Disallow all mound visits (managers, pitching coaches, catchers, infielders, etc.), except to make a pitching change and when there is a pinch hitter

· Abolish Instant Replay

I understand that, if implemented, these initiatives would range from the slightly controversial to the extremely controversial. Nevertheless, desperate times call for desperate measures, which is why I am also in favor of another hypothetical initiative: move back the home-run fences in all MLB ballparks.

With dimensions (in feet) of 344/386/407/392/335, Marlins Park was the third-toughest ballpark to score a run in and the sixth-toughest ballpark to hit a home-run in in 2017. What if all ballparks had similarly-large dimensions?

There is a loosely-enforced rule in the MLB rule book that states that the left-field and right-field foul poles must be at least 325 feet away from home plate and that the straightaway center-field fence must be at least 400 feet away.

What if MLB increased the required dimensions (to, say, 350/425/350) and strictly-enforced the rule (with a few exceptions, such as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field)? I believe that such a rule would be good for baseball for a few reasons:

  1. Both batters and pitchers would become more contact-oriented.

Theoretically, moving back the home-run fences would make it more difficult for batters to hit home-runs and, thus, disincentivize batters from trying to hit home-runs. Also, doing so would, subsequently, increase the value of high-contract hitters and decrease the value of all-or-nothing (high-power, high-miss) hitters that are en vogue today.

Furthermore, pitchers would respond by pitching more to contact, for the penalty of giving up contact would decrease as the likelihood of hitting a home-run decreases. Subsequently, pitchers who pitch to contact would become more valuable relative to swing-and-miss pitchers.

As both batters and pitchers become more contact-oriented, the league-wide contact-rate would increase and both walk-rate and strikeout-rate would decrease, thereby increasing the “action” within a typical game.

Since 2003, league-wide contact-rates have been as follows:

Stats from FanGraphs

As you can see, as the league-wide contact-rate has decreased, the average time of game has increased. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that, as the league-wide contact-rate increases, the average time of game will decrease.

2. There would be fewer pitching changes.

As league-wide contact-rate has decreased in recent years, pitches per plate appearance has increased and, subsequently, so has pitchers used per game.

Stats from Baseball Reference

Thus, increasing the league-wide contact-rate should decrease pitches per plate appearance and pitchers used per game, which should serve to decrease the average time of game by reducing the number of pitching changes.

3. Stolen bases would become more valuable and, thus, increase.

As home-runs and power hitters become less prevalent and contact hitters and, theoretically, singles become more prevalent, stolen bases would become more valuable and, thus, increase. This is because stolen bases are most valuable in front of singles.

Think about it: assuming the runner is fast, a steal of second will not increase the likelihood of scoring a run in front of an extra-base hit or a walk because the runner would already score from first on an extra-base hit and a walk would not move up a runner on second. However, a steal of second would increase the likelihood of scoring a run in front of a single.

4. The number of Web Gems would increase.

Naturally, as the league-wide contact-rate increases and the number of balls in play increases, plays made by the defense will increase and, thus, there will be more plays like this…

… and this…

… and this…

… and this.

In the end, the question that needs to be asked is: are an increase in “action” (via batted balls, stolen bases, defensive plays, etc.) and a decrease in the time of game worth decreases in home-runs, strikeouts, and walks? If so, then move back the fences.