Will the Cardinals Move the Outfield Walls In?

By Tyler Melvin, Staff Writer

One of the great intricacies of Major League Baseball is the wildly different style of each park. While the MLB has standards in place for the infield dimensions all the way down to the size of the pitching rubber, the outfield walls have always been left to the team’s discretion. Basic guidelines for modern (1958 & younger) stadium’s outfield depth can be found in MLBs rulebook, but several exceptions have been made. Notably awkward dimensions include Fenway Park’s “Green Monster”, set just 310 feet down the left field line but standing four-stories-tall; or the ball-consuming layer of ivy clinging to the brick boundary of Wrigley field; and who could overlook the comically expansive foul territory at Oakland Coliseum? 

Each of these unique traits help create a “home field advantage” for those who know the park’s quirks best. It’s common practice for visiting players to run pregame simulations, attempting to scale and throwing baseballs at the outfield walls during warmups in an effort to understand the foreign park’s dynamics. The host team, on the other hand, is the beneficiary of knowing their venue inside and out. 

There are no two ballparks with the same size or shape outfield. In a game that operates so strictly by the book, the playing fields are literally never even. This unique aspect of the sport creates an interesting debate among General Managers; Do we build our team around our park, or do we build it to beat the competition?  

Since its inception, Busch III has been considered a relatively “fair” place to play. Some would argue it leaned towards being pitcher-friendly, but numbers proved year after year that St. Louis was a pure ballpark. Even after 2005, when Busch II was torn down to make way for number three, the change in play was hardly noticeable. For the next decade, St. Louis remained a similarly neutral field. 

Recent developments to the north side of Clark’s 700 Block have had some unintended consequences on the playing field though. BallPark Village’s close proximity to the outfield bleachers has directly impacted wind patterns at the Cardinals’ Home Stadium. 

In 2014, ground broke on the massive BallPark Village project. Located on top of the old Busch Stadium’s ground, this collection of restaurants, entertainment, and Cardinals-themed retail space occupied one-hundred and fifty thousand square feet at first. Originally, the structure sat no more than three stories high, just enough to offer exclusive “Cardinals Nation” seating perched across the street from left center field. This project, funded in part by the city of St. Louis through tax breaks, had been in the works since the early 90s. 

The finished product was an instant success, heralded by the city of St. Louis as the “most important development in a decade” for the downtown area. Soon to follow would be “Phase 2”.

The second developmental phase of Ballpark Village is the most impactful and noticeable renovation to the area. Over seven-hundred thousand square feet were added in the past five years, including but not limited to a twenty-nine-story residential building that overlooks the stadium, a “Live by Loews” hotel, and the first newly constructed class-A Office building in Downtown in nearly thirty years. 

These additions have completely reshaped the skyline’s appearance from home plate. Where you used to see a parking garage is the new, sky-scraping apartment building, “One Cardinal Way”. Where there was once a little league field is now home to a multitude of businesses and places for dining. The view has become increasingly crowded, making the ballpark feel slightly more closed in while arguably adding to the beauty of the backdrop.

All this new development serves to create a “village” in which St. Louis’ most devoted baseball fans can eat, drink, and shop, spending exorbitant amounts of money. In other words, everything has gone exactly to plan for the owners of the club and the city, who jointly invested in the project.

Nobody bothered to consider the physical effects of BPV though. Wind and altitude are some of the more crucial factors in determining how a ballpark “plays”. At one point in time, you could call Busch an open-air stadium. However, these massive structures block most of the flowing air streams and create a “dead zone” for wind. 

According to ballparkpal.com, The Cardinals’ Stadium contains average wind speeds of seven mph, ranking them just a few spots from the bottom of the league in those terms. The several lower-rated parks are either domes or have retractable roofs. Combined with the intense summer humidity on the banks of the Mississippi, Busch’s third iteration does little to help the ball carry.

Another factor limiting offense in St. Louis is the near perfect symmetry of the field. As previously mentioned, outfield irregularities such as sharp angles, wall height variations, and large gaps are directly related to expected hitting output. Busch possesses none of those uniquities, making it a difficult place to even be a gap hitter, much less a power threat. 

A steady trend has been evident for a few years now, causing some audible concern from the Front Office. This past season they implemented the use of a humidor for storing game balls. It dehumidifies them in the summer to contrast our high air density environment, causing greater bounce off the bat. Nonetheless, the effects were apparently too minimal. The Post-Dispatch Cardinals beat writer, Derrick Goold reported the organization is strongly considering moving in the walls, as the continued diminishing effect has become a “competitive disadvantage” for the club. 

This perspective may be shortsighted though, especially when you consider the current roster’s identity as a contact-inducing pitching staff. The Cardinals have long prided themselves on their arms, and tinkering with the wall depth certainly won’t be conducive to that long-standing lockdown mentality. It’s also worth noting that shortening the depth doesn’t necessarily change the field’s basic shape, making it unlikely that we’ll see much of an uptick in doubles or triples.. 

The comment also ignores the fact that the opposition is dealing with the same offensive restrictions when visiting St. Louis. Such a dramatic drop off in offense from one park to the next is, in essence, a home field advantage, not a weakness. Proposals like this are nothing new though. The Mets, Marlins, and Giants are among a few of the teams who’ve opted to shorten their fields over the past five or so years. The Mets Owner, Sandy Alderson, may have explained his club’s stance best, stating, “We’re talking about creating a little more entertainment at the ballpark, which I think goes hand-in-hand with scoring.” He even went on to say, That’s not going to appeal to baseball purists. But we need more than baseball purists to fill the ballpark.”

This whole debate parallels another off-season move in the firing of Manager, Mike Shildt. Let go due to “philosophical differences,” reading between the lines will tell you that the front office is ready to move on from the old school approach we’re so accustomed to seeing in St. Louis. Shildt, in a way, bridged the gap from the old “Cardinal way” to this new school of thought. Now the organization has seemingly made that next step towards a strategy based on advanced data.

These changes tell us a lot about the direction the Cardinals are headed. The analytical revolution in baseball has caught on slowly, but more clubs continue to incorporate it. Most of these “sabermetrics” are geared towards offensive production and the idea of moving in the walls has a lot to do with them. John Mozeliak and company will likely be implementing an updated approach across the board, looking to draft a certain player profile with the kind of power numbers that play at a shorter porch. 

So, is it a bad idea to mess with Busch Stadium’s boundaries? It’s hard to say, but the move will certainly have ripple effects in the organization if it comes to fruition. Proponents might further argue, “the long ball is fun, it’s what the young people want to see,” and they make a compelling point. The desire for more offense, particularly home runs, reflects the Cardinals’ future, and it’s symbolic of the fact that ownership is ready to embrace the modern game. In a city that values tradition and knows their baseball, it will be interesting to see how fans react to the inevitably different style of play.

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