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Scaling the walls: After exploring new dimensions for Busch to spur offense, Cardinals stuck with 'golden' rule

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St. Louis Cardinals opening day 2022

Dylan Carlson slides home safely in the eighth inning on a sacrifice fly by Tyler O'Neill as part of the St. Louis Cardinals 9-0 opening day win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. on Thursday, April 7, 2022. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

A funny thing happened shortly after the Cardinals paused finalizing a report they commissioned and decided to take a step back from moving the walls in at Busch Stadium.

They got a golden reason (or five) to reconsider.

“As we’re getting close to issuing the report, we win five Gold Gloves,” team president Bill DeWitt III said. “We started to think we may have an edge here with this particular configuration. In theory, a bigger ballpark, more balls in play, a defense that catches anything — why don’t we put this on ice and see how things develop? We have an elite defense and we’re contemplating doing something that might minimize the impact of that defense. Let’s not.”

When the Cardinals opened the 2022 regular season on Thursday afternoon, the 16-year-old downtown ballpark had several new features awaiting a sellout crowd. Freese’s Landing, an area of all-inclusive center-field seating named for David Freese’s October feats, debuted, and there was a redesign of the left-field wall to accommodate the team’s retired numbers and offer space for at least three more. The dimensions of the ballpark remained the same — 335 feet and 336 feet down the lines, 385 feet in the alleys, 400 feet to center — and thus so will the frustrations for hitters.

A ballpark that favored pitchers since it opened in 2006, Busch Stadium III has become increasingly difficult for hitters. This past season, the Cardinals’ home field was the least hospitable for run production in the National League and, according to Statcast, tied with Seattle’s T-Mobile Park and Oakland’s Coliseum for the lowest in the majors. Including the Cardinals and their opponents, games at Busch averaged 7.69 runs per game in 2021, the second-lowest in the history of the ballpark, and an 8.7% decline. In an era when home run rates are spiking, Busch’s ability to keep everything contained is more striking.

Manager Oliver Marmol put it sharper than any numbers.

“Does it suck for hitters?” he said. “The answer is yeah. It’s tough on them.”

The question the Cardinals explored is why.

Dan Good, the Cardinals’ vice president of business development, “quarterbacked” the research, DeWitt said, and pulled together data and resources from the in-house analytics department and Major League Baseball’s expansive studies. The Cardinals looked at spray charts for all current players and overlaid the fly balls they’ve hit at Busch to see how many homers, say, they might have hit if they called Cincinnati’s small park home. The Cardinals had the ballpark measured to assure that the distances were “as built,” that 400 feet to center was actually 400 feet to center, that nine-foot walls were actually nine feet tall.

The club asked the commissioner’s office for a “deep dive” into the studies conducted about the leagues’ rise in homers and what’s possibly keeping them suppressed in St. Louis.

There has been speculation that the skyrise in center field, the centerpiece of Ballpark Village’s second phase of construction, has shifted the winds at Busch. DeWitt said he’s “a skeptic of that theory.” But the building is so new and the advanced metrics don’t go back far enough to have a windfall of data to rely on.

The Cardinals did have a wind study done during construction of the ballpark, but DeWitt explained that was not for “playability.” It was to help the architects determine where to put shelters and how to brace for violent weather. Which way the wind might take the ball was not as important as which way fans needed to evacuate.

Through all this, the team explored whether moving in the walls would help, and how they could do that to preserve sight lines and symmetry to the outfield distances. Nudging in the walls in front of the bullpens would be the least obtrusive.

“If you’re trying to address a reduction in home runs, you fish where the fish are,” DeWitt said. “Pull everything down and everything in and you’ll kill a fly with a sledgehammer. If we did something, we wanted it to be targeted.”

The Cardinals’ brass also does not want quirky corners and angles.

The driving force behind the conversations was the lack of force the Cardinals saw from their offense at home. In 2021, the Cardinals ranked top five in slugging and home runs and seventh in runs — on the road. At home, they scored the second-fewest runs in the majors. The difference between their road slugging (.436) and home slugging (.385) was the largest in MLB. Busch Stadium impeded the Cardinals’ offense for 81 games by about the same measure Dodger Stadium amplified the Dodgers’ lineup.

Seventeen of the 30 teams in the majors hit between 46% and 55% of their home runs at home. The Cardinals hit 38.9%, by far the smallest fraction. Tampa Bay was next-lowest at 42.8%.

“We talk about this ballpark quite a bit and how it’s a pitchers’ park,” Marmol said a few hours before Thursday’s 9-0 win powered by three homers. “I think at the end of the day, it’s a mindset. We know what we’re getting into here. … If you’re mentally strong enough to know that going into it you can see the opposing club get frustrated at times. You add drilling the ball and it getting caught at the warning track. That’s normally a home run in 22 other parks. Then you add our defense to that and you can’t get away with anything? It’s a frustrating day.”

So rather than move the walls in, the Cardinals leaned in.

In this launch-angle age, a ballpark that does not reward that approach could be advantage for the lineup that knows it best.

The Cardinals tailored several of their offseason moves to their defense and the ballpark. They’re high on Sunday starter, lefty Steven Matz, because of his groundball-greedy approach and how he’ll benefit from the big ballpark. Reliever Nick Wittgren was bit by homers in 2021. The Cardinals believe his numbers will be reduced simply by transplanting him. The analytics on Drew VerHagen suggest the right-hander will thrive in Busch’s friendly non-confines. During spring training, lefty Connor Thomas impressed, and Marmol used the home ballpark to explain why.

“A guy that is on the ground, throws strikes plays well in our ballpark,” the manager said. “Our ballpark and our defense helps pitchers.”

On pause does not mean off the table.

Through the process of researching whether changes to Busch might produce more offense — or more entertaining games — the Cardinals determined that any changes to the playing dimensions should be determined the season before they’re implemented.

Plus, there’s something else in the air.

Major League Baseball is currently experimenting with a variety of rule changes in the minors and affiliated leagues. The goal of the changes is to put more balls in play, create more action on the bases. At different levels this season, the commissioner’s office is trying larger bases to make steals more appealing, restraints on defensive positioning to eliminate shifts, and, yes, radar-powered robo-umps calling balls and strikes. While trying to understand what has happened to reduce offense at Busch, the Cardinals learned more about what may happen to spur action throughout the league.

DeWitt said that gave them pause, too, and the team did not want to make changes to the ballpark now “and end up on the wrong side of a rule change. Let the dust settle.”

And then decide if some walls come down.

“We finally have a full season to use for more information on when is the right time, what is the right way,” DeWitt said. “It’s TBD. Still there, but it’s definitely on hold right now because if this defensive advantage we have persists — and it should; why wouldn’t it — we do not want to be aggressive on this when we can enjoy that.”

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