Ballpark Playing Surfaces Are Shrinking in a Surprising Way

Back in April, this author argued that the new generation of ballparks is pushing us (well, some of us) away from the game.

The retro-ballpark era has been universally praised for bringing wider concourses, greater amenities, and generally more charm to major-league facilities. However, many of these parks suffer from a significant flaw: by removing obstructed views and adding layers of luxury suites, clubs have pushed fans in the upper decks — that is, the middle class of fan — further away from the sights and sounds of the playing surface.

While the move away from the cookie-cutter, multi-purpose stadiums of the 1960s and 70s is undoubtedly a positive one for the fan experience and while the actual ballparks of the past featured a number of design flaws themselves, not everything is ideal with this new generation of ballparks.

Consider: even as fans in the bleachers and upper deck have been further removed from the action, the installation of lower-deck seats has brought some folks closer. To get a sense of what I mean, consider the evolution of Dodger Stadium through images of the park from 1962, 1969, 2000, and 2014, paying attention in particular to the area along the border of the playing surface.

While the fairness of this trade-off is perhaps questionable, that particular concern is a consideration for another time. What’s relevant about this development in terms of the present post is the effect of that new seating on the game.

Playing surfaces of the new generation of parks have generally contracted in size. There appears to be little argument about that — and the data supports it. The trend is thought to have played a role in the increasing rates of home runs due to tighter ballpark dimensions. Yet the new-age stadiums are shrinking in a way you might not expect — or, certainly in a different way than I suspected.

To see how parks have changed relative to their predecessors in terms of on-field square footage, I revisited Andrew Clem’s excellent website, which I also consulted for the aforementioned article.

Using Clem’s data, I was able to find fair and foul territory for 21 current major-league stadiums and their immediate predecessors (or pre-renovation versions of themselves). Note: all 30 current MLB stadiums have fair and foul territories listed at the website, but not every defunct park has square footage listed.

It was interesting to see how the playing surfaces have shrunk. The square footage of fair territory in the 21 parks considered has diminished by only 1.4%. I would have suspected it had decreased more dramatically. The real change has occurred elsewhere, however: foul territory has diminished by 20.5%, or about 5,500 square feet on average.

Consider the following table (with data from Clem’s site):

Ballpark Shrinkage
Current Stadiums Foul Fair Past Stadiums Foul Fair
Globe Life Park 18,900 112,600 Arlington Stadium 24,900 115,000
Dodger Stadium 19,300 110,500 Dodger Stadium* 27,900 115,800
Target Field 20,700 108,900 Metrodome 33,900 107,500
Citi Field 20,700 109,600 Shea Stadium 21,900 113,000
Minute Maid Park 21,000 107,000 Astrodome 26,900 109,800
Marlins Park` 21,000 116,300 Dolphin Stadium 24,000 108,900
Miller Park 21,100 111,200 Milwaukee County 29,500 114,000
Progressive Field 21,900 105,400 Municipal Stadium 30,900 111,300
SunTrust Park 22,100 109,300 Turner Field 23,100 112,100
PNC Park 22,200 111,200 Three Rivers Stadium 27,300 118,300
Kauffman Stadium 22,900 118,500 Municipal Stadium 35,100 118,300
Nationals Park 23,100 109,100 RFK Stadium 29,700 116,800
Great American Ballpark 23,600 106,100 Riverfront Stadium 22,500 110,400
Camden Yards 23,600 108,100 Memorial Stadium 29,700 108,100
Petco Park 23,900 110,900 Jack Murphy Stadium 28,900 106,900
Safeco Field 24,300 106,100 Kingdome 28,000 104,200
Citizens Bank Park 24,500 105,000 Veterans Stadium 27,800 109,000
Coors Field 24,900 119,200 Mile High Stadium 37,900 117,900
Busch Stadium II 25,200 112,100 Busch Stadium 22,700 112,100
Guaranteed Rate Field 25,300 105,300 Comiskey Park 29,000 113,600
AT&T Park 25,500 110,800 Candlestick Park 34,100 106,100
Rogers Centre 30,500 109,500 Exhibition Stadium 26,100 107,300
TOTAL 506,200 2,422,700 TOTAL 621,800 2,456,400
Foul and Fair denote square footage of foul and fair territory, respectively.
Note: numbers for Dodger Stadium reflect dimensions before and after renovation.

While many suspect both fair and foul territory have contracted, this author thought the percentage change of fair territory would have been greater. But it is actually foul territory that is shrinking dramatically.

We know that foul territory has shrunk — in particular as designers of new-age stadiums have been freed from the demands of multi-purposes considerations. The result, unsurprisingly, has been to push field-level seats closer to fair territory. At places like Dodger Stadium and elsewhere, teams/owners have added additional rows of lower-deck, luxury seating, further eroding foul territory. “Field boxes” have crept closer and closer, which is great if you have netting between you and the action. And with more and more teams taking up MLB on its recommendation to expand netting in front of lower-deck seats, it could allow for more premium seats to be added and for foul territory to diminish. Hey, netting could hypothetically allow for something like courtside-style seating in the majors.

For hitters like Mike Moustakas who have double-digit infield fly-ball rates, this is a positive development: it allows a portion of routine outs to be avoided and for at-bats to continue. At the same time, it’s making the life of a pitcher just a little more difficult. A 20% reduction in foul territory from one generation of parks to another seems significant, while the fair territory appears to remain relatively unchanged.

The new generation of ballparks is pushing some of us away and bringing some of us closer. And it is the new generation of ballparks that is also shrinking the playing surface — which we knew — but maybe not quite in the way we expected.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Just another reason I love the Coliseum.