While elevating in the Atlanta Braves system, outfielder David Justice memorably brought a tape measure to batting practice for the Triple-A Richmond Braves one day during the 1988 season.
His left-handed power stroke consistently drove the ball to the warning track at The Diamond, and rarely farther. The frustrated Justice doubted it was only 330 feet down the right-field line, as the sign on the fence indicated.
He measured. It was 330 feet. The Diamond went deep, into Justice’s head.
The Diamond through the years consistently yielded the fewest homers among stadiums in the Triple-A International League, and that relative stinginess continued after the Double-A Flying Squirrels came to Richmond for the 2010 season.
This year, The Diamond is losing the reputation it earned since opening in 1985. Baseballs are being hit over the fences at a record pace by the Flying Squirrels, in part because a portion of those fences are closer to home plate than before.
Distance to each power alley was cut by about 10 feet at the request of the San Francisco Giants, the Flying Squirrels’ parent club.
The Giants heard from their minor leaguers and coaches that The Diamond presented an unfair challenge when it came to hitting homers, emphasized to a great degree the way baseball is currently played.
Evaluation of prospects was compromised, the Giants concluded. New fences — the Giants and Flying Squirrels shared the cost of the project — were constructed in the power alleys following the 2019 season.
The Flying Squirrels’ 2020 season was canceled by the pandemic.
As of July 22, the Flying Squirrels were on track to hit 131 home runs this season in 120 games, about 20 fewer games than usual because of the month-late start related to the pandemic.
The franchise record for home runs in a season is 108 in 2013, when Richmond played 142 games. In 2019, the Flying Squirrels hit 84 homers in 139 games.
During their last six-game homestand, the Flying Squirrels hit 11 homers in six games. More than half (38) of team’s 74 homers have been hit at The Diamond.
The Flying Squirrels players and coaches generally come and go annually, sometimes monthly or weekly in the players’ cases. They are unable to provide a sense of how differently The Diamond plays in 2021 with its shorter power alleys — the fences remain 330 down the lines and 402 to center — compared to multiple previous seasons.
Shawn Stiffler can. VCU also plays home games at The Diamond and Stiffler has been the Rams coach since 2013. He was their pitching coach for five years before then.
“Obviously they play a factor,” Stiffler said of the new fences. “That’s why they were moved in. They were moved in for when you hit a ball good enough to be a home run that you got rewarded for it.”
The approximately 10-feet reductions in the power alleys cut distances that were 389 feet to the fence in right-center and 388 in left-center.
Stiffler on Thursday pointed out a hitter’s psychological adjustment that goes with shorter power alleys. Hitters at The Diamond now swing more aggressively because they appreciate that a well-struck ball has a fair chance of becoming a home run, Stiffler thinks.
“They relax a little more. They feel more confident. They don’t feel so intimidated by the field,” he said.
The Rams hit 66 homers in 54 games this year after hitting 46 in 58 games during 2019, their last full season. Stiffler did not sense that VCU’s homer numbers in 2021 were much different at The Diamond than as a road team. Part of that power increase came from having an older, more physically mature group of hitters, Stiffler believes, but he added that the fence adjustment unquestionably made a difference.
Home run production is affected by numerous factors apart from distance to fences. Who’s in the lineup matters most, and so does the quality of pitchers those hitters face. Swing planes designed to lift the ball are more common. Collegiate and professional batters are more involved in year-round strength training than they used to be. More days off on a regular basis also may be helping Flying Squirrels hitters.
The Diamond’s original fences were set up in 1985 to present about the same field dimensions as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where the Atlanta Braves played from 1966 until 1996. The Richmond Braves were Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate 1966-2008. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was known as “The Launching Pad” because of the great number of homers it surrendered.
The Diamond, before this year, was the opposite.
“The fences are 100% perfect where they are right now,” Stiffler said. “It’s still a pitchers’ ballpark, but if you do [make solid contact] and get it right, the ball will go out. You’re rewarded for it, and you should be rewarded for it.”