Comerica’s deep fences cost J.D. Martinez some homers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — J.D. Martinez was dealing Friday with a calendar. Specifically, with a calendar that told him he had 17 days and 17 games to hit three home runs and become the sixth Tiger to hit 40 or more in a season.

Martinez didn’t volunteer thoughts about remaining dates and games. A media person did, although the question more directly dealt with Comerica Park’s expanse and how many home runs his home field might have cost him.

“Five?” he was asked.

That seemed about right as long fly-outs in 2015 that were caught in play rather than deposited in a ballpark’s outfield seats were casually assessed.

Martinez nodded. And shrugged.

“Yeah,” he said, “but what are you gonna do?”

Martinez’s problem, at least in terms of being cheated a handful of times this season, is Comerica’s overall dimensions.

Center field is 420 feet away. It is 427 to the flag pole in left-center. It is 430 to the deepest part of right-center field, where the auxiliary scoreboard tapers away.

Martinez is a power hitter different from conventional pull-swingers. He uses the entire field. His 37 homers in 2015 have been distributed almost equally between left, center, and right fields.

But at Comerica, which by design was built to irk hitters and give pitchers an edge, Martinez isn’t always rewarded for good work. Nor, of course, is another hitter known for hitting the ball hard to all fields, Miguel Cabrera.

Because of the ballpark’s square acreage, it is possible to gain an extra double or triple, or collect a single that falls short when outfielders play deep. But the punishment is severe for a hitter who, as big leaguers like to say, “barrels up” a ball and sends it on a long, distant arc that, even 400 or more feet away, can end up in a fielder’s glove.

Martinez concedes a ballpark of Comerica’s expanse probably costs a power hitter money. It leads to fewer home runs. And home runs tend to be big bargaining chips at the contract table or in the eyes of a salary arbitrator.

Then again, that was the objective when Comerica Park was built. John McHale Jr., and Randy Smith, who collaborated on the ballpark’s construction, wanted a facility that would be enticing to free-agent pitchers.

McHale Jr. was famous for saying he wanted hitters to “hate” playing at Comerica Park.

The field was so immensely large that, after the 2002 season, then-GM Dave Dombrowski arranged to pull in Comerica’s left-field distances. A couple of years later, with agreement from owner Mike Ilitch, Dombrowski and his team moved the bullpen from its old location in right field, filled in that area with seats, and placed the bullpen in an area in front of the left-field stands that previously was in play.

But the remainder of the huge ballfield was not changed. And that meant hitters who would mash pitches 415 or more feet to center field, or as far as 430 feet in deep right-center, were only inviting potential outs.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Friday, ahead of a series opener against the Royals at Comerica Park, that it was “tough to say” to what degree Detroit’s dimensions might have robbed Martinez.

Ausmus also said: “I do think he’s hit a few to right field” that have been helped by Comerica’s comparatively friendly right-field region. It is 365 feet to near right-center, at which point the wall turns sharply until it reaches a pitcher-happy 430.

Martinez isn’t in disagreement. But on balance, he knows what happens if you drive anything into an area code from left-center to deep right-center. It needs to get by a fielder, go over his head, or fall short. Hit it hard and into the air — something a hitter can’t often, if ever, control — and you’re looking at a potential out.

Even if, at another big league park, you might well be circling the bases.