Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has pitched an idea to improve Major League Baseball: Move the fences back.
Baseball has become obsessed with the “three true outcomes,” which are home runs, strikeouts, and walks. Looking for walks is boring. If guys swing, they swing for the fences. In 2020, 36 percent of at bats ended in one of the three true outcomes, which is 14 percentage points higher than in 1980, and nine percentage points higher than in 2005.
Home runs aren’t the problem, per se. The problem is the mentality of hitters who look for home runs, walks, or strikeouts at the expense of every other part of the game. As it stands, that mentality makes sense statistically, and the reason it does is because of the payoff of home runs. One way to change the behavior is to reduce that payoff, and the most straightforward way to do that is by making home runs less likely.
Moving the fences back accomplishes that goal. Carney lists the second-order effects as follows:
The second-tier sluggers would become a bit less valuable, as many of their homers would become flyouts, and some would become doubles.
Batters with more foot speed would become more valuable, as triples would become more of a thing.
Outfielders would play deeper, which would result in more singles dropping in front of them. Deeper outfielders also means larger gaps between them, thus more gappers, more doubles, more diving catches, and more dudes gunned down going for a double or triple.
Outfield defense would become more valuable because of all of the above.
Pitchers would be bolder because they would fear homers less. Batters who saw homers more out of reach and singles more in reach would “wait for their pitch” less, thus go deeper in the count less, and thus strike out and walk less.
Those all seem to make sense, and that version of baseball would be more fun to watch. You always tell kids to put the ball in play, not just because it helps to score runs, but because it’s more fun. Pushing the fences back forces that outcome at the major-league level.
This isn’t just a hypothetical exercise, either. We know that deeper outfields produce more triples, for example. The parks with the most triples in 2021 were Comerica Park in Detroit (420 feet to center), Coors Field in Denver (390 to left-center and 415 to center), Chase Field in Phoenix (which has a straight center-field wall that’s between 407 and 413 feet away from home plate), PNC Park in Pittsburgh (410 to left-center), and Oracle Park in San Francisco (399 to left-center and 415 to right-center).
One of the oddities of baseball that separates it from the other major team sports is that the field of play is not the same size in every game. MLB shouldn’t standardize the field of play, but it should encourage teams to move their fences back, however they see fit. Another thing that can help is making the outfield fences more irregularly shaped. Fenway Park in Boston, for example, had the tenth most triples last season even though none of its fences is unusually far from home plate. That’s probably because there are many chances for balls to take odd bounces off the angled outfield walls in right-center, not to mention the Green Monster.
Moving the fences back wouldn’t make home runs impossible. Home runs are fun, and we shouldn’t want to get rid of them. It would just make them a little less likely, which is all you need to change behavior. Professional baseball is a game in which the difference between getting out 70 percent of the time and getting out 75 percent of the time is the difference between a potential hall-of-fame career and mediocrity. Even a slight change in the probability of hitting a home run will affect the way batters approach the game, and consequently, the way pitchers approach the game as well.
Baseball doesn’t need dramatic rule changes or gimmicks to spice it up. Adjusting the depths of outfields is as old as the game itself. Moving the fences back would help to make the game more watchable by making the three-true-outcome mentality less statistically profitable.