Is it time to move the fences in at The K once more?
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It's the debate Royals fans – and Royals players as well -- love to have:
Should the Royals move the fences in once again at spacious Kauffman Stadium?
The discussion takes on some added meaning this season no doubt because of the Royals' power shortage. They are last in the American League in home runs with 25, with just 10 of those coming at Kauffman Stadium.
And there has been no question that the Royals look like a more dangerous offensive team on the road, as evidenced by some power surges in more hitter-friendly parks in Boston (five homers in three games) and Baltimore (six homers in three games).
"I think that would be fantastic for everyone if they moved the fences in at Kauffman Stadium," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer chirped enthusiastically. "It's a big, big park. I know everyone has to play in the same field so it's the same for both teams, but with our lineup, it'd be a big help for us.
"I don't know if it would ever happen, but it'd sure be nice. There's definitely some guys in this clubhouse that would be for it.
"I mean, think of the year Billy (Butler) had last year (29 homers, 32 doubles) and the years before, and think of all the fly-ball outs he had at the warning track or the wall. Those are homers almost everywhere else."
Of course, the flip side is that Royals pitchers might not be too ecstatic about shorter dimensions at The K.
Right-hander Jeremy Guthrie, who has pitched in homer-friendly parks in Baltimore and Colorado, signed a three-year deal with the Royals, at least partly because he loves the spaciousness of Kauffman Stadium.
But even Guthrie concedes that without a good defense, a spacious ballpark can actually work against a pitcher.
"I know my previous experience in pitching in Kauffman and other big stadiums is that although they're big and you can keep the ball inside the park," he said, "it often can lead to a lot of extra hits and some triples. So the biggest factor is how well our outfielders play it, not necessarily how big it is."
And Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar believes that in the end, good pitching will always trump good hitting, no matter what a park's dimensions are.
"We've got a good staff so we could handle the fences coming in," Hochevar said. ""And I think this would be a great team to do it with. We have a great young lineup with a lot of potential power. They hit the ball hard and I'm sure a lot of balls fall short here that are homers elsewhere.
"I'd say yes, move the fences in."
Put outfielder Alex Gordon on the yes side of the issue as well.
""Of course I'm going to say move them in," Gordon said, smiling. "Every hitter would want that.
"But you would give up some things, too. We hit a lot of doubles that might be outs if you crowd the outfielders in closer together in a smaller outfield.
"It's a big park, but you can hit homers here. You just have to hit it square."
Hosmer agreed, but suggested it can be a relief to hit in some ballparks where a hitter can take advantage of a short porch somewhere.
"If you hit one at Kauffman, you deserve it," Hosmer said. "You can't sneak one out anywhere. If you hit one here, you earned it."
The Royals' organization went through a debate about Kaffuman Stadium's dimensions back in the early 1990s.
The team was transitioning out of the mold it had used for so many seasons during the glory years – speed and defense – to a team trying to generate more power numbers. The bigger dimensions stood in the way.
In 1992, the Royals hit a paltry 24 homers at Kauffman Stadium -- for the season. They hit 51 homers on the road that season. (Royals pitchers allowed 41 homers at home that season).
In 1993, the Royals hit only 50 of their 125 homers at home (their pitchers gave up 49 homers at home and 56 on the road).
It became clear that the Royals could provide some instant offense – and more fan excitement – simply by moving the fences in 10 feet from bullpen to bullpen, which they did prior to 1995. The realignment gave The K 377-foot power alleys and 400 feet to straightaway center. The team also lowered the fences from 12 feet to nine feet.
The results were immediate. In 1995, the Royals hit 68 homers at home, 74 on the road.
That same year, 36-year-old Gary Gaetti hit 35 homers for the Royals, nearly breaking Steve Balboni's club record of 36.
And the power surge continued to trend up.
In 1997, Chili Davis hit 30 homers for the Royals, and Jeff King hit 28.
In 1998, Dean Palmer threatened Balboni's record when he hit 34 homers.
And it wasn't just the Royals who were digging the long ball at The K.
By 1997, 179 home runs were hit at The K, the most in stadium history at the time, and that put the Royals near the middle of the pack compared with other stadiums.
In 2000, 190 homers were hit in the 81 games played at Kauffman Stadium. By 2002, 197 homers were hit at The K – third highest in the league.
By 2003, eight Royals – virtually the entire starting lineup – hit 13 or more homers.
But even with all the extra offense, the Royals as a franchise were not much closer to the playoffs than they were with the fences back. They had only one winning season (2003) with the fences in.
And the most alarming statistic to Royals management was that in 2003, the Royals actually got out-homered at home by a staggering amount, surrendering 113 homers while hitting 69 at The K.
While the offense sure had fun, the Royals' pitching staff clearly did not, and Royals management had seen enough.
The fences were moved back to their original dimensions in 2004. And just as instantly, Kauffman Stadium became tough to homer in again, ranking 29th of the 30 teams at 0.7 home runs per game, just above Petco Park in San Diego.
"Having the fences in made for entertaining games if you like offense," Royals general manager Allard Baird said at the time. "But it clearly put a large burden on our staff."
To be fair, however, stats alone don't tell the story.
As recently as 2011, The K was still the second-hardest ballpark in which to hit home runs behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. This season, however, The K ranks 16th, even with the Royals' offense's low power numbers and even though the Royals have assembled arguably their best pitching staff since 1994. The Royals have allowed twice as many homers (20) as they have hit.
"There's no doubt it's one of the toughest places to hit homers," manager Ned Yost said. "But other teams come in here and hit home runs. I don't necessarily see the stadium as an excuse for us not to hit home runs."
That, of course, is an argument to leave the fences where they stand, an argument, by the way, that Royals general manager Dayton Moore tends to agree with.
"We had some discussions about moving the fences in when we were having renovations to the stadium back in 2009," Moore said. "There was some talk about it. But it didn't go very far then.
"I think it's a very big park, obviously. It has the most square footage, I believe, of any park. But I think it's a fair park. You can hit home runs here. We can. But it's not all about home runs. It's about winning, and we're trying to build a winning team for this ballpark."
The Royals, in their glory days, won with pitching, defense and speed – traits that Moore hopes to rebuild again with the present-day Royals.
"We've pretty much drafted and developed players to play in this ballpark," Moore said. "We've looked for guys with athleticism and speed over other aspects. We've developed a philosophy based on what the ballpark is right now. I don't know that changing it is the right direction."
But that doesn't mean Royals hitters can't keep wishing.
"It's a great ballpark, and when it comes summertime the ball does travel here pretty well," Hosmer said. "It'd just be real nice if those fences came in a little, you know?"