When the USC baseball team returned from Winter Break and got back to Dedeaux Field earlier this week, it had a new present waiting — a present that should make games more exciting this spring.
After the fall season of practices, the Trojans turned the outfield over to a construction crew and watched the left field fence be torn down. Much to the delight of the right-handed hitters, the left field fences were moved in.
“It’s no secret that at night, it’s really hard to get the ball out of left field here,” USC head coach Dan Hubbs said. “I mean, c’mon, we hit 17 home runs combined between us and our opponents in every game we played this past year. We played 53 games. There were 17 home runs hit in those games from either side. We hit eight. They hit nine.”
In fact, the Trojans finished No. 267 out of 295 in home runs last season. Oregon’s Shaun Chase hit 14 to lead the Pac-12 last season and a season prior, San Diego’s Kris Bryant led the country with 31 homers. USC hasn’t had a player hit more than five long balls since 2011 — the first year of the new BBCOR bats, which dramatically reduced college baseball power numbers — when Ricky Oropesa hit seven and Alex Sherrod hit six.
Dedeaux Field has always been more favorable for left-handed hitters with pop because the wind is often a left-to-right crosswind that knocks down drives to left field, but can give a small boost on balls hit hard to right field.
“This park has always played favorably to left-handed guys who can get the ball in the air,” said Hubbs, who was an All-American reliever at USC in the early 1990s and coached against USC annually during his 12-year stint as pitching coach at Cal before re-joining the cardinal and gold after the 2011 season.
Both Oropesa and Sherrod were left-handed power hitters. True left-handed power hitters have become rare to find in the college game nowadays. One of the most coveted commodities in Major League Baseball, lefty power hitters are often snatched up in the MLB Draft and signed out of high school, never making it to a college campus.
“You think of some of the kids [committed to USC] who signed professionally,” Hubbs said, rattling off the names of left-handed hitters with pop Rowdy Tellez, Ryan McMahon and Riley Unroe. All three of which were in recent USC recruiting classes, but never made it to Dedeaux Field after signing with MLB organizations. You could also add the names of Dominic Smith (1st), J.P. Crawford (1st) and Rio Ruiz (4th) — all lefty swingers that went in the early rounds of the MLB Draft.
“A lot of those guys [that ended up turning pro] were left-handed power hitters because that’s what the scouts are looking for and they're going to get the most money. The guys that go to school who have power — real power — are generally right handed.”
By bringing in the fences in left field, Hubbs is hoping to attract a new wave of Trojans.
“I think that’ll help us just long term with recruiting and everything else being able to develop some guys with the ability to get the ball out of the yard right handed as well as left.”
While the distance from home plate to the left field fence has been shortened, the move wasn’t excessive. The left field line remains 328 feet from home plate. Centerfield wasn’t adjusted either. Instead of left field arcing out, there is now a straight line from the foul pole to centerfield.
Hubbs said the difference is 10-12 feet in the alleyway where the change is most drastic. He ballparked it: “It goes from 375 in the gap to 365 in the gap.” At 365 feet in the left field power alley, Dedeaux becomes a near symmetrical park with foul poles both around 330 feet, dual 365-foot power alleys and straightaway centerfield sitting 395 feet from home plate.
But how did an overhaul come about for Dedeaux Field’s dimensions that had previously gone unchanged since the stadium was built in 1974, and subsequently christened by a no-hitter from Russ McQueen in the first ever-game played there?
“It was my idea,” Hubbs said. “That might sound weird coming from a pitching guy.”
Hubbs said he came up with the idea at the end of last year’s season when the Trojans sat on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but failed to nab an at-large berth despite having finished the season with a series win over then-No. 1 Oregon State. He took the idea to his supervisor in the athletic department and to Athletic Director Pat Haden explaining his plan and his motives
“Coach Hubbs came to us with his request to move in the left field fences and he had our support,” Senior Associate Athletic Director Mark Jackson said. “Our hopes as a program is that moving in the fences opens up more options in recruiting and landing top-flight right-handed hitters to Dedeaux Field, since it is traditionally thought of as a left-handed hitter’s ballpark.”
After being approved, the wheels were set in motion with the proper channels on campus. “They come out and survey it, put the project together, put everything in place and bid it out and let’s go.” Hubbs made sure he had all the pieces in place, but didn’t want to interfere with the team’s fall practice schedule. All of the measurements had been taken and the field had been marked. As soon as USC’s fall sessions ended, the physical project got underway.
“The day after our fall is when they started,” Hubbs said. “We ended on the ninth of November and then they started that project and it finished right before Thanksgiving.”
This isn’t a move solely aimed at recruiting and future Trojans. Hubbs also thinks it is a huge boost for his current crop of hitters, juniors Timmy Robinson, Blake Lacey, A.J. Ramirez and sophomore Jeremy Martinez in particular. All four right-handed hitters have some pop, each has at least one career home run, but haven’t necessarily been able to show it…and that is something that has sometimes taken a toll for USC batters.
“I think mentally for the hitters it’s just better,” Hubbs said. “They know now that if they get one, they can get rewarded for it. Before they felt like, no matter what they got, it wasn’t going out. And I think what that turns into is guys are trying too hard to do it. They muscle up and they get long and it really limits their ability to develop as a hitter.”
“They know it’s not a drastic move, but I think for their sanity, it was a good move.”
“It’s been a challenge to get it out of the park that direction," said Robinson, referencing left field. "Moving the fences in should make it play true and should give our right-handed hitters a boost in power numbers.”
While the idea brought a quick smile to the faces of the hitters, the pitchers didn’t react the same. They were hesitant to embrace a change to help the offense. Hubbs quickly heard a common refrain from his pitching staff.
“What are you doing?”
“Why are you doing this?”
Hubbs relied on their collective ego — something any good pitching staff needs to be successful — to talk them off the ledge.
“I’m like, ‘Because I’m confident in your ability. That’s why we’re doing it. If i didn’t think we were good on the mound, then I wouldn’t do it. But we’re going to be good on the mound from here on out. That’s why we’re doing it, so you need to have the confidence when you go out there. We’re not trying to give up balls to the wall. We’re not trying to let them get pitches they can square up and hit homers on.’”
“I think they’ve embraced that and they know they are capable of keeping the ball in the yard, regardless of where the fence is.”
Junior lefty reliever Kyle Twomey, who is one of the Trojans’ top returners on the mound after going 2-2 with a 3.11 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 19 appearances last season, has embraced the new shorter porch in left field.
“I kind of like it. We are comfortable here, so as a pitching staff it’s not going to change the way we pitch, it’s going to make games more exciting. I know our offense is stoked on it. The more confidence they have, the better chance we have of scoring one more run than our opponent that day.”
Combined with a new tighter-wound NCAA baseball this season that should also increase offense to some small degree, the moving of fences should make for a more enjoyable product for Trojan fans to watch when they come to games. That’s imperative for Hubbs and something he is really focusing on. Whether it’s introducing things like Taco Tuesday and free hot dog night for students or making alcohol available at the concession stands and having a party deck on the roof of the building that houses the baseball Hall of Fame and offices, Hubbs is trying to enhance the fan experience.
It’s things as small as trying to figure out the best layout and spots for concessions to make sure lines are minimal and fans miss as little of the action as possible. But it’s also drastic measures like moving the fences.
“We’re just trying to continue to think of new ways to make it more of an experience for people to come,” Hubbs said, "and make their experience better."
That doubles for the players. The new left field present is a great start.