He certainly doesn’t consider it among the wonders of the world, but in referring to Camden Yards’ new left field acreage as the “Great Wall of China,” Orioles first baseman Ryan Mountcastle described how impenetrable he and many other hitters found it this season.
Even providing a more local moniker — “Walltimore” is a growing favorite — does not diminish the distance required to clear it. A season into the new dimensions, featuring a left field wall pushed back almost 30 feet and increased more than 5 feet in height in some areas, Walltimore had its intended effect of reducing home runs at Camden Yards.
Using Statcast data, MLB.com found 57 balls that would have been home runs with Oriole Park’s previous design. Of those lost homers, 33 belonged to Orioles.
“I hit some balls hard that normally should go out and were not going out this year, and it was frustrating,” said Mountcastle, noting all 30 parks now having humidors also suppressed offense. “But yeah, that wall is deep back there. So just gonna have to deal with it.”
That leaves 24 fewer home runs allowed by Baltimore’s pitching staff, a group that improved regardless of the wall’s influence. The Orioles tied for 15th in the majors with 171 home runs allowed, but even with those 24 home runs, they would have jumped to 11th, a relatively impressive standing. Baltimore led the majors in home runs allowed in 2021 and set a record for surrendered long balls in 2019, with the change to the ballpark’s dimensions made to reduce home runs amid that historic stretch.
“I think part of the argument that we made to do it was that it was going to be an unquantifiable effect on the psyches of the guys that are out there pitching at Camden Yards,” Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said. “When you talk to pitchers that have pitched here with the old wall, and even from 20, 30 years ago, they’ll tell you that it was something that weighed on their minds, trying to pitch here. It affected the confidence they had to throw the ball over the plate. I suspect that it probably helped our pitchers take a big step forward this year.
“I think it’s going to provide us with an interesting nuance to maybe the way that we play or the way we deploy our lineups or rosters here, and in a very tough division, I think any kind of inherent unique angle that you can have … is helpful. But I really like the fact that cheap fly balls that our pitchers induce aren’t home runs at a crazy rate like they have been here for the last 30 years.”
The format will remain as is in 2023, Elias said, noting the entirety of Camden Yards’ outfield dimensions could change in the future as part of various renovations coming to the ballpark. But that’s looking ahead. Instead, The Baltimore Sun will take a by-the-numbers look back at the impact Walltimore had in its rookie season. All stats, unless noted otherwise, are derived from Baseball Savant and Statcast.
Of the 40 home runs that actually defeated Walltimore, none came off a left-handed hitter’s bat. There were six close calls, but the only hit among them came when Seattle Mariners outfielder Jesse Winker doubled off the wall, only for Orioles left fielder Austin Hays to throw him out at third base.
In all, 21 players managed to hit a home run between the left field corner and the bullpens in left-center. Hays did so six times, the most of any player, ahead of four from Mountcastle and Anthony Santander, three from Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo, and two from Tampa Bay’s Isaac Paredes and Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras.
For both the Orioles and their guests, about 41% of drives toward that area became home runs, with Baltimore going 23-for-56 and visitors going 17-for-41.
Trey Mancini had only seven plate appearances at Camden Yards after he was traded to the Houston Astros on Aug. 1, but the last of those proved significant. With a double off the wall Sept. 25, Mancini lost his sixth home run of the year to Walltimore. That ended up being a tiebreaker with Mountcastle for the most of any hitter; Mancini and Mountcastle finished with the largest and third-largest deficit between their expected home run totals and actual count.
They were also responsible for the two farthest lost home runs. Mancini’s June 1 drive to left-center had a projected distance of 410 feet, but when it hit high off Walltimore, it prompted Jim Palmer to say “You’ve gotta be kidding me” on the television broadcast, and Mancini seemed to echo that when he reached second. Mountcastle’s 404-foot double on May 8 went off the top of the wall but bounced back toward the field; he twirled his finger at second, asking umpires if it was a home run. Both shots came off former Cy Young Award winners.
With seven pulled balls of at least 395 feet staying in the yard, Camden Yards trailed only Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium; 13 ballparks saw all such balls become homers, with nine others having only one outlier.
Seven other Orioles joined Mancini and Mountcastle in missing out on multiple long balls — switch-hitter Adley Rutschman missed out on one from both sides of the plate — with New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton and Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman being the only visitors to do so. Chapman’s pair of would-be homers came in the same game.
Jordan Lyles threw nearly 20 more innings at Camden Yards than any other pitcher, so the indefatigable starter naturally benefited from Walltimore more than any other Oriole. Opponents hit five balls off Lyles that would have been home runs in a previous year, and he ended the season surrendering only six home runs at Oriole Park, with only one going beyond the wall. No other Oriole allowed more than two would-be home runs, though Oakland’s JP Sears had three in one outing Sept. 2.
With 43 innings pitched — 40 fewer than Lyles — right-hander Austin Voth went the most frames at Camden Yards without allowing a would-be or actual home run to the altered portion of left field.
Rather than hitting 1.000/1.000/4.000 on those 57 balls as they would have a year ago, batters slashed .436/.421/.872. Here’s the breakdown of those lost home runs by result: one single, one triple, 22 doubles and 33 outs, two of which were sacrifice flies. On three of those doubles, the Orioles managed to throw out the opposing batter trying to reach third base; in that sense, 36 balls in play that would have been home runs in 2021 resulted in outs in 2022.
Along with Winker, failed attempts to go to third happened to Stanton and Yankees teammate Aaron Judge in back-to-back games in May, part of a season-long stretch of five straight games in which Walltimore robbed a home run.
Not all lost home runs are equal. A two-out grand slam becoming an inning-ending flyout is a lot more impactful than an inning-opening solo shot becoming a leadoff double, which might result in that run scoring anyway. Looking back at the situations, each of the 57 wall-prevented balls struck showed that the Orioles missed out on 42 runs on the drives alone; the extra outs they would have been afforded cost them two more runs, based on the run expectancy for 2022′s approximate averaging scoring environment, according to FanGraphs.
Opponents missed out on 27 runs from their lost homers, with another 2 1/2 missed out via run expectancy. In essence, Walltimore cost the Orioles 14.5 more runs than it did visitors.
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With those lost runs considered, it’s fair to wonder: Did Walltimore cost the Orioles a playoff spot? Like the above, this considers a hypothetical where the would-be home runs go over the fence and everything else that occurred in those games remains the same, which certainly wouldn’t be the case.
The Orioles finished three games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League’s third wild-card spot, a deficit technically one larger because the Rays held the tiebreaker by winning the season series, 10-9. But there were four games the Orioles lost by as many or fewer runs than the wall cost them; one of those was against the Rays, meaning the season series would be flipped.
Of course, there were three other games the Orioles could directly credit Walltimore for a victory, with the wall saving them at least two runs in back-to-back one-run wins over the Los Angeles Angels amid their 10-game winning streak in July. The end result of this alternate reality: The Orioles finish with one more win and only one game out of a playoff spot.
Thirty-three of the lost home runs, or 57.9%, came in a game in which the team of the player who hit it won, meaning it didn’t affect that contest’s final result.
In truth, there are some aspects of the new dimensions that are much harder to quantify, at least with publicly available info. Elias noted one of them in regard to what the changes possibly did mentally for pitchers.
Although would-be home runs proved fairly trackable, it’s much harder to determine the other hits that fell in or became outs because left fielders were playing deeper to cover the added playing surface from the changes. Among the more than 50 left fielders who played that position for at least 1,000 plate appearances, Hays tied for the fourth-deepest average starting position, with that metric notably also including road games.
On a broad scale, there is some measurable influence. Hitters had a .226 average on fly balls to left field with a projected distance between 200 and 300 feet. In the seven previous seasons — those that Statcast has tracked — the highest mark in that regard came in 2019 at .157. Every other season was at least 100 points below 2022′s figure. Of the 28 hits, 22 were singles, mostly seemingly falling in front of left fielders. None of the other seasons had more than 22 such hits total.