Cincy's Great American Ball Park has become homer central
Todd Frazier isn't a little guy. The Cincinnati Reds' third baseman stands 6-foot-3. He weighs 220 pounds after breakfast. In five minor league seasons, he hit 74 home runs. This year, he has five homers in 76 at-bats. He can hit the ball a long way. He has never hit one like the one he hit Sunday at Great American Ball Park.
In the fourth inning, Frazier turned on a 78 mile-an-hour "fastball'' from Colorado's Jamie Moyer. Three hundred and seventy-nine feet later, the ball was in a fan's hands in the fifth row of the left-field sun deck. Which was interesting, given Frazier took half a swing.
As his bat made contact with the ball, it slipped from his grasp and headed toward the mound. That is, Frazier's swing had no follow through. The homer was the baseball equivalent of Tiger Woods launching a 300-yard tee ball with a 9-iron.
"Usually, those are little dunkers to shortstop,'' Frazier explained.
Yeah, usually. Though there has never been anything "usually'' about Cincinnati's Great American Small Park, when it comes to home runs.
Frazier's half-swing bomb was one of nine homers hit by the Reds and Rockies on Sunday. The game spawned a number of quintessentially odd baseball statistics. More, it forced a question:
What happens when a ballpark's impact is so significant, it dictates how you play the game, and who you bring in to play it?
First, the numbers:
• Since it opened in 2003, GASP -- gasp! -- the Great American Ball Park has featured 2,017 home runs. During that same stretch, homer-haven Coors Field has produced 1,762.
• The nine homers on Sunday was a Park record, as were the 29 hit during Cincinnati's seven-game homestand, which also featured three home runs by Atlanta's Michael Bourn, in four games. Last year, Bourn had two homers in 722 plate appearances.
• Last Monday, a college student named Caleb Lloyd caught two home run balls ... in consecutive at-bats. The first came off the bat of Reds pitcher Mike Leake.
• No Reds starting pitcher had ever allowed five home runs and won, as Mat Latos did on Sunday.
This is compelling conversation for seamheads. But dig a little deeper and you'll see that no team in baseball is defined more clearly by its home ballpark than the Reds are. That was by design: The close rightfield foul line and the gap in right-center were set up to help former Red Ken Griffey Jr. make a run at what was then Hank Aaron's home run record. But the design has become something greater and more ghastly, like a science project gone wild.
For several years, the Reds of Griffey and Adam Dunn were near the top of the league in homers and near the bottom in winning percentage. The team's biggest free agent acquisition in those years was pitcher Eric Milton, in 2005. Milton had allowed 43 homers in Philly the previous season. He'd also gone 14-6. As a Red, he surrendered 40 homers in 186 innings, had an ERA of 6.47 and spent the season mumbling in tongues about the pop-ups that left the yard in right-centerfield.
Milton made 66 starts with the Reds in two-plus seasons, and allowed 73 home runs.
In 2008, erstwhile Cincinnati ace Aaron Harang went from winning 32 games combined the previous two seasons to going 6-17. He allowed 35 longballs in 184 innings. Harang made occasional reference to "good pitches, away'' that right-handed hitters turned into 360-foot home runs. Harang played in San Diego last year and at Dodger Stadium this season. He's 17-10 working half the time in those pitcher-reasonable parks.
This year, the Reds are in first place in the NL Central, even as they play long ball like beer-league softball players at home, and like beer-league ball boys on the road. Of their 53 homers, 35 have come at home. The Reds are 6-16 in games they don't go deep. What do you do with a team and its ballpark when one so thoroughly defines the other?
In Colorado, they introduced the humidor, which raises the seams on the baseball, allowing pitchers a better grip. In Philly, they moved back the fences. In San Diego, they're thinking of moving them in. Homers at Wrigley Field are almost entirely wind dependent. As Reds GM Walt Jocketty said, "When the wind changes, the game changes.''
At Yankee Stadium, they channel Babe Ruth. Part of The Stadium being homer-friendly is dimensions-related. More is bopper-driven: Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, A-Rod etc. Meantime, the Reds have Brandon Phillips batting cleanup.
Every ballpark is unique. Few, if any, impact the home team more than Great American. "It was built for Griffey and Dunn to be there 20 years,'' said former Reds GM Wayne Krivsky.
"The ball doesn't fly here any better than any other place and it's not that it's super windy,'' said Reds starter Bronson Arroyo. "It's that the gaps are small.
"You can have short lines like Yankee Stadium, but as long as the gaps get big, you're OK. Gaps are your safe zone. They keep guys from hitting the ball out all over the place. It's frustrating when a ball that would be caught in 25 other parks goes out here by a couple of rows.
"If the gaps were 20 feet bigger here you'd cut down 20 to 30 home runs to right-center every year and that would make it a little fairer for everyone. But at the end of the day their guys gotta pitch here, too."
The Reds try to tailor their roster to the ballpark's demands. They look for what Jocketty calls "ground ball neutral'' pitchers. They want pitchers whose pitches are "heavy'' with a lot of sink to them. They want left-handed power hitters, and right-handed hitters adept at going the other way.
Problem is, every team wants ground ball pitchers. And the easy homer mentality occasionally seeps into the batter's box. Reds hitters have been known to try too hard to hit big flies. "It's so inviting,'' Krivsky said. "Those rightfield seats look like they're right on top of you.''
The irony is, Great American is not a run-producing presence. Unlike Coors Field, the outfield isn't as big as Rhode Island. Homers fly out of the place. Doubles to the gaps are harder to come by. "I like fields with a little more space,'' says Reds right fielder Jay Bruce.
The team says the ballpark's setting and configuration won't allow for tinkering with its dimensions. So pitchers prep for post-traumatic stress, a.k.a. Eric Milton Syndrome. And hitters bone their bats. Freakishness reigns.
"He threw his bat at it,'' Jocketty said, referring to Todd Frazier's homer on Sunday. "It looked to me like he had maybe a hand-and-a-half on the bat when he hit it, but what are you going to do?''
Hunker down, Walt. Bunker in. And go find yourself some pitchers who can sink a fastball.