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 Sunday. The drive off the bat of first baseman Ryan Mountcastle struck 13 feet high, onto the tippy top of the green padding.
And instead of bouncing out for a home run, the ball stayed in the yard for an RBI double.
There have been several balls lost to the new dimensions, would-be homers that have resulted in outs or extra-bag hits during two homestands. But there’s never been one so tantalizingly close — or as frustrating from a hitter’s perspective, leaving Mountcastle shaking his head on second base rather than wearing the home run chain in the dugout.
“One more 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 a projected 407 feet if it hadn’t struck the top of the fence. Mountcastle’s swing would’ve resulted in a homer in 29 ballparks — the lone exception being Camden Yards, with its suddenly not-so-friendly confines for batters in left field.
With that double, “the mountain,” as Hyde referred to it last week, has claimed 11 would-be homers. Eight of those have been for the Orioles, featuring two doubles, five flyouts and one sacrifice fly that would’ve been a grand slam. No visitor has scaled the wall, but Mountcastle and left fielder Austin Hays have each hit one over it — a rare occurrence in the new-look ballpark.
“It’s not ideal as a hitter, I’m not going to lie,” said first baseman Trey Mancini, who twice has experienced what the wall’s extra distance can mean. “Especially with all the conditions this year, it’s just been a really strange month. It’s been really weird. But you’ve just got to keep on keeping on. That’s all you can do.”
Homers aren’t just hard to come by at Camden Yards, however. Teams are averaging 0.90 homers per game this season, down from 1.22 last year and 1.39 in 2019. Changes to the ball might be one of the biggest reasons. In response to soaring home run rates, MLB announced that it planned to start altering the ball in 2021, citing an independent lab that found the new balls will fly 1 to 2 feet shorter on balls hit over 375 feet. A recent report from Baseball Prospectus found 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. It’s led to a huge dip in scoring, as MLB teams averaged 4.0 runs per game in April, the lowest average for a month since 1981.
Before the season began, and before Baltimore’s players had seen the new wall in person, hitters had outwardly relished the challenge. The wall had been moved back 30 feet and the wall was raised from just over 7 feet to 13 feet.
That was to counteract the homer-happy nature of Camden Yards, which has seen the most home runs of any ballpark since it opened in 1992. And between 2019 and 2021, 655 home runs left the yard, a short left field fence an inviting landing spot. The next closest park in that time frame was Yankee Stadium, which had seen 583 homers, 72 fewer than Camden Yards.
The sample size is just two homestands, but Camden Yards entered Sunday with 17 homers allowed this season — and that included six long balls between the Orioles and Minnesota Twins in Baltimore’s 5-3 win Thursday. That’s tied for the fourth fewest of any stadium entering Sunday, although as left fielders play deeper, more bloop hits have a chance to land.
To some, that change is welcome. Former Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy, who has allowed 65 career homers at Camden Yards, enjoyed the view of a deeper left field upon his return with the Twins last week. Still, it didn’t prevent him from allowing nine runs in 3 2/3 innings.
“I think that’s something that needed to be done for a while, but they finally got it done, so that’s a good thing,” Bundy said. “It’s way back there. They didn’t move it just a few feet, they moved it a good amount. Would’ve been nice [to have the new dimensions while he was an Oriole], but it is what it is.”
During batting practice, the Orioles occasionally have contests to see which player can hit the ball farthest. For the pull-side righties, the results are eye-opening. Even in that controlled setting, the ball struggles to leave the yard to left field.
“Now it’s tough,” shortstop Jorge Mateo said. “You hit it and it don’t go nowhere.”
Mateo said that encourages hitters to think about gap-to-gap power, finding alleys in the outfield for extra-base hits rather than focusing on pull-side power. That has always been his approach, although the wall only amplifies the need for it.
As Mateo thought back on two of his would-be homers falling short of where the new “mountain” in left field stands, he couldn’t hide his frustration, shaking his head while saying, “Oh, my God.”
But Mateo quickly changed his tune. He knows there’s no going back to the old fence. So bemoaning the balls that now fall short achieves nothing.
“Hit it better,” Mateo said. “It’s different. Every year is different. Have to hit it better.”
What’s to come?
Rain interrupted the Orioles’ weekend series against the Kansas City Royals, setting up a Sunday doubleheader and a Monday matinee to finish the three-game set. That will conclude a three-series homestand that featured matchups with the Boston Red Sox and Twins.
After Monday’s 12:05 p.m. first pitch, Baltimore will fly to face the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, playing in a park that opened in 2006 for the first time. 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 before Adley Rutschman, the catcher taken first overall 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-drive single to center, the left fielder did nothing but get on base. He reached in nine straight plate appearances beginning with that single, including a home run that crested the left field fence and a 4-for-4 display in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader.
Hays was the major bright spot for the Orioles during the past week, going 10-for-21. He also showed off his arm in left when he threw out the Twins’ Max Kepler at the plate Thursday.
The work Anthony Bemboom and Robinson Chirinos do behind the plate is consistently lauded by pitchers and Hyde, and for a catcher, that’s the main priority. But the offensive production has been nearly nonexistent from Bemboom and Chirinos over the past week.
After Sunday’s doubleheader, the catchers finished the week 1-for-22, with a single from Chirinos late in the nightcap finally breaking a hitless streak for the pair.
If there’s anything that speeds the arrival of Rutschman, it could be the lack of offensive firepower the backstops are providing.
On the farm
With the arrival of Rutschman to Triple-A Norfolk, the top two prospects in Baltimore’s farm system are working in tandem again. Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez and Rutschman were the battery pairing for the 13th time in their minor league career, and the results have been standout 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 has struck out 85 batters compared with 20 walks, and those 85 strikeouts make up 24.4% of Rodriguez’s career strikeouts (348).
Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.
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