By John Boyle Herald columnist
SEATTLE — As players and fans saw Safeco Field for the first time in 2013 during Mariners Fan Fest, one of the most common questions was about something that for the moment does not exist.
So, what do you think of Safeco Field’s relocated fence?
“The fence that isn’t there yet?” said reliever Tom Wilhelmsen.
OK, so the much talked about Safeco Field outfield fence, which is being moved in this year to make the park more hitter friendly, isn’t actually up quite yet. Instead, the outfield is something of a construction zone with piles of dirt, concrete walls, and a new restaurant going in where the hand-operated scoreboard used to be in left field.
“I guess we’ve got to jump off the dirt mounds off of there to rob some home runs,” joked outfielder Casper Wells. “We’ve got some obstacles to go around.”
All kidding aside, players — well, hitters in particular — are excited about the changes at their home park. From left field to right-center, the wall will be moved in, and while the change is fairly subtle in most areas, the difference will be noticeable in left-center where the wall will be as much as 17 feet closer to home plate than it was before.
“It’s a little tough, especially in that gap in left-center field,” center fielder Franklin Gutierrez said of Safeco’s old dimensions. “If you want to hit the ball out, you have to hit it really good. Even when you hit it good — it happened to me more than a few times — the ball, you think it’s out and they catch it.”
A slightly more hitter-friendly look will not, however, mean hitters will suddenly start swinging for the fences.
“That’s the worst thing we can do,” Gutierrez said. “We have to keep the same mentality, not change the approach.”
The point of the change is not to suddenly turn Safeco Field into a modern-era Kingdome, but rather to simply make it less of a beast for the home team. It’s one thing for a player to hit well at a big ballpark when he is there for three days, then off to another city; it’s another matter when young hitters know they have to play 81 games in one of baseball’s most pitcher-friendly parks.
“The fence coming in doesn’t mean we’re going to hit more home runs than any other team,” said general manager Jack Zduriencik. “That wasn’t the reason for it. The reason for it was the psychological aspect of playing in a pitcher’s park 81 times a year. Watching our kids go through that, and talking to players who have been here in the past, and their feelings about the ballpark. We wanted to create a fair ballpark.”
And as much as players have said in the past that the ballpark wasn’t an excuse for not hitting, they can now admit that, at times, playing at Safeco did take its toll. Will hard-hit balls still result in outs here? Sure, but the hope is that players will less often feel like they did everything right, only to be victimized by a big park that often plays even bigger in the cold, damp early months of the season (and yes, that includes June around these parts).
“If anything it’s really going to help the psychological aspect of our offense,” said outfielder Michael Saunders. “There were definitely times last year — I think everyone saw it on some guys faces from time to time — that you get a hold of a ball and it gets caught on the warning track. So I feel like this will help us relax a little bit, not feel like you have to muscle up and hit it 500 feet. As a hitter, if you do everything properly and square up a ball, it deserves to be a hit. It’s hard enough as it is.”
Yet whatever edge moving the fence will give Seattle won’t mean much if the offense doesn’t improve, regardless of where it plays. A smaller field may make a little bit of a difference, but for the Mariners to win more consistently, they know that young players need to improve, and that new additions like Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales have to help add some punch to the middle of the lineup.
“With or without the fences moving in, we were going to have better numbers,” Saunders said. “But certainly with the fences moving in, it will be a better offensive season at Safeco.”
Of course making the ballpark more hitter friendly also means it’s less friendly to Mariners pitchers. It’s hardly a coincidence that a fly-ball pitcher like Jason Vargas, who was traded last month for Morales, gave up 26 home runs on the road last season and just nine at Safeco Field and had a home ERA that was a full two runs better than his road ERA. Vargas is an extreme example, but this year’s changes will inevitably turn a few outs into home runs for Mariners pitchers.
Asked if the changed dimensions are an issue, Wilhelmsen said, “Maybe if you let it psychologically, but ultimately every park has different dimensions. Some are shorter than others and some are bigger than others, that’s the way it’s always been.”
Starter Blake Beaven took a step further, saying the new dimensions could actually help him.
“It’s kind of funny, but I almost feel like I pitch better with shorter fences,” he said. “Not looking at stats or anything, but I feel like when you have that in the back of your mind, you’ve got to, not necessarily be perfect, but you’ve got to understand where you can miss and where you can’t. With a forgiving field, not that you get lazy, but sometimes you feel you can afford to miss a little more.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.