For all the feet added to the dimensions of the new left-field wall at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, it came down to a matter of inches on Sunday. First baseman Ryan Mountcastle’s batting start hit 13 feet high, on top of the green padding.
And instead of bouncing for a home run, the ball stayed in the court for an RBI double.
There were several stray balls in the new dimensions, potential homers that resulted in outs or extra hits during two homestands. But there’s never been one so close – or so frustrating from a batter’s perspective, leaving Mountcastle shaking his head at second base rather than carrying the chain of home runs into the dugout.
“An extra inch,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
The ball left his bat at a 23 degree launch angle, traveling at 104.6 mph. It would have flown 407 projected feet if it hadn’t hit the top of the fence. Mountcastle’s swing would have resulted in a homer in 29 baseball diamonds – the only exception being Camden Yards, with its suddenly not-so-hitter-friendly limits in left field.
With that double, “the mountain,” as Hyde called it last week, claimed 11 potential homers. Eight of those have been for the Orioles, with two doubles, five flyouts and a sacrifice fly that would have been a grand slam. No visitor scaled the wall, but Mountcastle and left fielder Austin Hays each hit one over the top – a rare occurrence in the new ballpark.
“It’s not ideal as a hitter, I’m not going to lie,” said first baseman Trey Mancini, who has twice experienced what the extra distance from the wall can mean. “Especially with all the conditions this year, it’s been a really strange month. It was really weird. But you just have to keep on going. That’s all you can do.
However, homers aren’t just hard to come by at Camden Yards. Teams are averaging 0.90 homers per game this season compared to 1.22 last year and 1.39 in 2019. Changes to the ball could be one of the main reasons. In response to skyrocketing home run rates, MLB announced plans to begin modifying the ball in 2021, citing an independent lab that found the new balls would fly 1 to 2 feet shorter on balls hit over 375 feet. A recent report from Baseball Prospectus revealed that this season’s balls have higher drag and, for the first time, all 30 clubs are using a humidor in an effort to create consistency. That led to a huge drop in scoring, as MLB teams averaged 4.0 runs per game in April, the lowest one-month average since 1981.
Before the season started, and before Baltimore players had seen the new wall in person, hitters had apparently relished the challenge. The wall had been moved back 30 feet and the wall had grown from just over 7 feet to 13 feet.
This was to counteract the happy homerun nature of Camden Yards, which has seen the most home runs of any stadium since it opened in 1992. And between 2019 and 2021, 655 home runs have left the yard, a short fence from left field an inviting landing spot. The next closest park during this period was Yankee Stadium, which had seen 583 homers, 72 less than Camden Yards.
The sample size is just two homestands, but Camden Yards entered Sunday with 17 home runs allowed this season – and that included six long balls between the Orioles and Minnesota Twins in Baltimore’s 5-3 win. Thursday. It’s tied for fourth-fewest of all stadiums entering Sunday, although as left fielders play deeper, more hits have a chance of landing.
For some, this change is welcome. Former Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy, who gave up 65 career homers at Camden Yards, enjoyed the sight of a deeper left field when he returned to the Twins last week. Still, that didn’t stop him from giving up nine runs in 3 2/3 innings.
“I think it’s something that needed to be done for a while, but they finally did it, so that’s a good thing,” Bundy said. “It’s far out there. They didn’t move it a few feet, they moved it a good amount. It would have been good [to have the new dimensions while he was an Oriole]but it’s like that.”
During batting practice, the Orioles sometimes hold contests to see which player can hit the ball the farthest. For pull-up right-handers, the results are telling. Even in this controlled setting, the ball struggles to leave the court to left field.
“Now it’s tough,” shortstop Jorge Mateo said. “You hit him and he’s not going anywhere.”
Mateo said it encourages hitters to think about side-pull power, finding lanes in the outfield for extra hits rather than focusing on side-pull power. This has always been his approach, even if the wall only amplifies the need.
As Mateo thought back to two of his potential home runs short of the new “mountain” in left field, he couldn’t hide his frustration, shaking his head and saying, “Oh, my God.”
But Mateo quickly changed his tune. He knows there is no going back to the old fence. So lamenting the missing bullets now is pointless.
“Hits better,” Mateo said. “It’s different. Every year is different. You have to hit better.
Rain halted the Orioles’ weekend streak against the Kansas City Royals, setting up a doubleheader on Sunday and a Monday matinee to complete the three-game set. This will wrap up a three-series homestand that included matchups with the Red Sox and Boston Twins.
After Monday’s first pitch at 12:05 p.m., Baltimore will fly out to face the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, playing in a park that first opened in 2006. Then there’s a meeting with the Detroit Tigers and first baseman Spencer Torkelson, the first pick in the 2020 MLB Draft.
Torkelson reached the majors ahead of Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 receiver taken by the Orioles in the 2019 draft. But Rutschman could join soon after that road trip to Detroit.
What was good?
Beginning in the sixth inning Thursday, when Hays hit a line single to center, the left fielder did nothing but get in base. He made nine consecutive plate appearances from that single, including a home run that went over the left field fence and a 4-on-4 display in Game 1 of Sunday’s doubleheader.
Hays was the Orioles’ biggest bright spot over the past week, going 10-for-21. He also showed his left arm when he threw the Twins’ Max Kepler to the plate Thursday.
What was not?
The work of Anthony Bemboom and Robinson Chirinos behind the plate is consistently praised by pitchers and Hyde, and for a catcher, that’s the top priority. But offensive production has been almost non-existent from Bemboom and Chirinos over the past week.
After Sunday’s doubleheader, the Seekers finished Week 1 of 22, with a Chirinos single late in the last drink, finally breaking a no-hitter streak for the pair.
If there’s anything accelerating Rutschman’s arrival, it could be the lack of offensive firepower the backstops provide.
At the farm
With Rutschman’s arrival at Triple-A Norfolk, the two top prospects in Baltimore’s farm system are once again working in tandem. Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez and Rutschman were the battery pair for the 13th time in their minor league careers, and the results have been remarkable when the two are together.
In 13 starts, Rodriguez is 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA, allowing 15 earned runs in 58 2/3 innings. Rodriguez struck out 85-20, and those 85 strikeouts represent 24.4% of Rodriguez’s strikeouts (348).
Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.
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