The Tigers’ Young Sluggers Should Benefit From the New Dimensions in Comerica Park

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

After a promising end to their 2021 season, the Detroit Tigers made a few big splashes in free agency to support a wave of young prospects on the verge of making their big league debuts. Instead of continuing to build on that momentum, however, Detroit took a huge step backwards last year, losing 96 games while scoring the fewest runs in the majors. Their new additions, Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodriguez, combined for just 2.6 WAR, and their top position player prospects, Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, had rough introductions to the big leagues. This cyclone of disappointment led to the dismissal of long-time general manager Al Avila and a bevy of questions about the direction of the franchise.

There are plenty of problems new president of baseball operations Scott Harris needs to address on the roster and in the organization. The early-career struggles and future development of Torkelson and Greene loom the largest, however. As prospects, those two were seen as can’t-miss, heart-of-the-order bats who would form the core of the next great Tigers lineup. Instead, their disappointing rookie seasons were a significant contributor to that league-worst offense in 2022.

Torkelson and Greene are both under 24 years old and will have plenty of opportunities to develop into the kind of contributors that reflect their status as former top prospects. Still, it would behoove Detroit to give them every advantage to succeed in the big leagues, leaving no stone unturned. To that end, the Tigers announced on Wednesday that they would be making some adjustments to the dimensions of Comerica Park ahead of Opening Day:

The center field wall, which at 422 feet to straightaway center was the deepest in the league, is being brought in by 10 feet. That new measurement will still be the second deepest in baseball, behind the 415 foot center field wall in Coors Field. Additionally, the walls in center and right field are being lowered a foot and a half to seven feet high. In the team’s press release, Harris stated that these changes would “accomplish our goal of improving offensive conditions on the hardest hit balls, while maintaining Comerica Park’s unique dimensions and style of play.” This is the second time in the park’s history that the outfield dimensions have been adjusted. Just three years after opening, the left field wall was brought in 15 feet to its current distance of 370 feet in left-center field.

I’m not sure if Torkelson and Greene were consulted by the front office during the research and planning phase of these newest updates, but they’ll certainly benefit from the smaller dimensions in their home ballpark. If you’ve watched the Tigers play since Comerica opened in 2000, you’ve probably seen plenty of batted balls that look a lot like these two:

Both of those blasts were hit in September and were caught for outs in front of the center field fence; both would have been home runs with the new park dimensions. In his comments after the announcement, Harris remarked on how the changes were driven by batted balls like these:

“We feel it’s very dispiriting for a hitter to barrel a ball to dead center and make a 419-foot out. If a few more of those end up being home runs or extra-base hits, we think it will end up having a positive impact on our hitters’ psyche and ultimately a positive impact on our team.”

It’s no secret that Comerica has been one of the most pitcher-friendly venues in the majors since it opened. Over the last five seasons, the overall run scoring environment there has only been a hair below league average, but that’s likely due to the vast outfield that is conducive to producing extra-base hits while also dramatically suppressing home runs. In fact, the only park that was harder to homer in for a left-handed batter in 2022 was Oracle Park in San Francisco. The adjusted fences in left field have helped right-handed batters somewhat, but it’s still the 11th hardest ballpark to homer in for righties.

The underlying Statcast data backs up these calculated park factors. Over the last five years, batted balls in Comerica have underperformed their expected wOBA on contact by 16 points, the third worst in the majors:

Batted Ball Outcomes, by Park
Venue wOBAcon xwOBAcon wOBAcon – xwOBAcon
Busch Stadium .342 .366 -.024
Oakland Coliseum .344 .365 -.021
Comerica Park .358 .374 -.016
Target Field .373 .385 -.012
Kauffman Stadium .365 .376 -.011
Petco Park .357 .368 -.011
T-Mobile Park .355 .366 -.011
Since 2018

Barreling up a batted ball is far less valuable in Detroit than in any other park. The league average expected wOBA on a barreled ball is 1.338; in Comerica the actual wOBA on that same bucket of batted balls is just 1.120, and both left- and right-handed batters are affected equally:

Barrel Rate Outcomes
Venue Barrel wOBA Barrel xwOBA
Comerica Park 1.120 1.321
RHB @DET 1.121 1.345
LHB @DET 1.120 1.278
League Average 1.355 1.338
Since 2018

It should be no surprise, then, that both Torkelson and Greene struggled to produce the kind of power that their minor league performance might have indicated. After posting a .285 ISO across three minor league levels in 2021, the former limped to a .117 ISO during his first taste of the majors. Of course, the disappearance of his power was only one of the issues that plagued Torkelson during his rookie campaign, and new park dimensions won’t address all of them. He posted a 76 wRC+ last year while managing to be both too selective at the plate and not patient enough. His struggles got so bad that he was demoted to Triple-A mid-season to continue his development in a lower-stakes environment.

Once Torkelson was recalled in September when rosters expanded, he looked a lot more comfortable at the plate and even displayed some of that trademark power. When we break down his season into a few key splits based on the timing of his demotion as well as his home and away numbers, we begin to understand why he struggled so much:

Spencer Torkelson, Batted Ball Splits
Split Hard Hit% Barrel% FB% Pull% wOBAcon xwOBAcon wOBAcon – xwOBAcon
Pre-demotion 37.9% 6.8% 38.4% 41.1% 0.295 0.340 -0.045
Post demotion 50.7% 12.3% 46.6% 45.2% 0.339 0.406 -0.067
Home 43.8% 7.8% 43.8% 39.8% 0.233 0.329 -0.096
Away 40.0% 8.9% 37.8% 44.4% 0.378 0.385 -0.007

After returning from Triple-A, Torkelson torched the ball, raising his hard-hit rate by 13 points and nearly doubling his barrel rate. He also elevated the ball to his pull side more often. His actual results on balls in play ticked up, though they lagged behind his expected stats at an even greater rate. His home and away splits were even more dramatic. While batting in Comerica Park, his wOBA on contact was nearly 100 points lower than expectation.

Based on his batted ball distribution, it seemed like he was trying to launch fly balls into the cavernous center field of his home park to rack up the extra-base hits. Unfortunately, staying up the middle with his elevated contact resulted in too many outs like the one shown above. The new dimensions in the ballpark should help in that regard, but Torkelson also needs to start pulling the ball to unlock his power instead of trying to craft his swing to the field he’s playing on.

As for Greene, his rookie year was slightly more successful than Torkelson’s. He posted a 98 wRC+, though his .109 ISO in the majors was a far cry from the .233 ISO he posted in the minors the year before. And like Torkelson, he posted some pretty dramatic home and away splits:

Riley Greene, Batted Ball Splits
Split Hard Hit% Barrel% FB% Pull% wOBAcon xwOBAcon wOBAcon – xwOBAcon
Home 45.5% 13.8% 23.6% 31.7% 0.391 0.435 -0.044
Away 44.9% 5.1% 24.3% 37.5% 0.378 0.380 -0.002

Despite producing some excellent contact at home, including a fantastic 13.8% barrel rate, he underperformed his expected wOBA on contact by 44 points in Comerica Park. That home split probably explains why, among all batters with at least 25 barreled balls last year, Greene produced the lowest number of home runs per barrel at just 21%. His barreled balls underperformed expectation by nearly 250 points of wOBA, the ninth-worst mark among the 150 players in the sample. And like Torkelson, his batted ball distribution skewed towards lofted contact up the middle. As a left-handed batter, Greene should not only benefit from the smaller dimensions in center but also the lower wall height in right-center and right field.

Both Torkelson and Greene have plenty of time to acclimate to the big leagues and find their footing. The new dimensions in their home ballpark aren’t a panacea, and the outfield will still be large, but the new distances should reward their hardest hit batted balls more often. That’s good news for these two young sluggers, especially at a time when the Tigers could use all the help they can get.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

More HRs for everyone! And I really hope Tork isn’t a complete bust. What an atrocious year he had.

1 year ago
Reply to  penile

He got lost. Looked much better after demotion. If he’s a bust Detroit is in trouble because they really really need an impact bat. Basically they have to rebuild the rebuild if torkelson busts.