Ten Things I Learned from Hit Tracker

Baseball followers have long wondered how long the long ball goes. Even during the days of infrequent home runs, fans would ooh and ahh every long-distance whack. Baseball Almanac has a great article by William Jenkinson about the history of long-distance home runs, and it begins with this recollection from over 120 years ago …

As long ago as opening day 1883, there is information describing the excitement generated by Hall of Famer Roger Connor, who struck an unusually long home run at the original Polo Grounds in New York.

Jenkinson’s history of watching and measuring home runs includes this description of one of the most famous long-distance homers of all, Mickey Mantle’s booming shot in 1963 …

By his own account he hit the longest home run of his career on May 22, 1963 at Yankee Stadium. The ball struck the facade on the right-field roof approximately 370 feet from home plate and 115 feet above field level. Almost everyone in attendance believed that the ball was still rising when it was interrupted in midflight by the roof structure. Based upon that belief, this drive has commonly been estimated at about 620 feet if left unimpeded.

…which isn’t really possible, even for the powerful Mantle. You’ll find a more reasonable (but still extremely impressive) estimate below.

Home runs travel far, but the science of estimating home run length hasn’t traveled far enough. All those home run figures you hear bandied about are usually just guesses. Even “official” records are often based on someone in the stadium doing little more than picking a number from a baseball cap.

Greg Rybarczyk wants to fix this injustice. Greg runs a website called Hit Tracker that records the distance of each previous day’s home run, how far it would have gone if it had landed, and how far it would have gone in “standard” atmospheric conditions. Like Mantle’s home run, it is a very impressive achievement. The following is a description from Greg’s site:

Hit Tracker is a spreadsheet tool that takes as inputs atmospheric information and observation data, and gives as an output the true distance that the home run traveled, along with the initial speed of the hit off the bat and the precise angles at which the ball left the bat. It does this by creating as a starting point an initial “best-guess” three dimensional trajectory for the home run, and then modifying that trajectory, a little bit at a time, until the trajectory matches the observed data from the actual home run event.

For several hours every night, Greg watches MLBAM video of each home run, entering vital stats about the park, atmosphere, trajectory of the batted ball and other high-falutin’ things to calculate the most advanced home run distance calculations I’ve seen. He calculates the “true” distance of a homer (a projection of how far it would have travelled if it fell back to playing field level) and a “standard” distance (based on standardized atmospherics, including wind, altitude, humidity and temperature). You can spend a lot of time on Hit Tracker, and you can learn a lot of new things from Greg’s fascinating endeavor.

Such as…

Small guys can hit them hard.

Greg keeps a list of the average standard length of each player’s home runs and awards a “Golden Sledgehammer” to the player with the longest average homer. At this point, Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillen has “only” hit six home runs, but they’ve traveled 425 standard feet, on average. Contrast that to noted muscleman Austin Kearns, whose nine home runs have traveled an average of 370 feet. None of his home runs have gone as far as Guillen’s average. Plus, the average speed of Guillen’s home runs has been 115 miles per hour when they first leave his bat. For Kearns, the average ball speed has been 103 miles an hour. Kearns is 30 pounds heavier than shortstop Guillen.

Greg notes that Damian Easley “hit one into the Friday’s restaurant level in left field at Chase Field, 464 feet, on May 4.” Easley weighs 20 pounds less than Guillen.

R.A. Dickey was being blasted.

Of course, Greg also tracks a “Golden Anvil” award, for those pitchers who have allowed the longest homers. Texas knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (who cleared waivers and was sent to the minors last month) tied a record on April 6 when he allowed six home runs in one game. The average standard distance of those longballs was 420 feet per home run, giving him the lead in the Golden Anvil contest. Based on one game.

Take heart, Twins fans. Carlos Silva, who’s given up the most home runs in the majors (15), is well down the list at 384 feet. If that helps…

The shortest home run of the year

Jason Lane is right next to Kearns at the bottom of the Golden Sledgehammer list. Only two of his eight home runs have been more than 400 feet (one just barely crossed the line at 402 feet), and he also holds the distinction of having hit the shortest home run of the year.

On April 17, Lane hit a key three-run homer in the seventh inning to put the Astros ahead in their 8-7 win over Milwaukee. You might excuse Matt Wise for feeling a bit cheated on that one; it hugged the left field line and just made it into the stands. The ball would have traveled only 328 feet from a “true” distance perspective and 296 from a standard distance perspective. Those are both lows for the season.

Some guys are just plain strong.

I asked Greg for comments about some of the biggest blasts of the year. Here is his reply …

  • Ryan Howard, April 23 at Citizens Bank Park, 491 feet over the batter’s eye in dead center field. Wow!
  • Reggie Abercrombie; homers (April 19 and May 18) were both bombs, 481 feet and 441 feet, and both lost distance to the wind. I can’t wait for him to catch one with a strong following wind … If he can establish a solid contact rate at the ML level, he will be a threat to home run marks, distance and numbers.
  • Prince Fielder: the name says power, and he’s got it. Hit one to the upper deck in RF at Minute Maid for 462 feet on April 18, and a 473 foot blast off the back wall of Miller Park on May 12.
  • Jason Giambi: 460 foot homer to dead center field at Metrodome April 16, the longest homer by an AL hitter this year so far.
  • Jeff Francoeur, 463 feet to left center field at Turner Field on April 30. The announcers said nothing about how far it went, I doubt they realized; on the same day Giambi hit a 387 foot homer off the facing of the upper deck in Yankee stadium that had the TV crew there in an uproar.

Other Players of note

More from Greg on some specific hitters…

  • Jonny Gomes has the longest home run in three different parks: Tropicana, Camden Yards and Ameriquest. Great power to all fields, never gets cheated on a swing.
  • Jeff Francoeur was leading the Golden Sledgehammer chase until recently, just hits the ball tremendously hard.
  • Jim Thome hits the ball consistently harder than almost everyone. He suffered from tough weather or some of his early season shots would have been legendary.
  • Adam Dunn: so strong, always a threat for a tape measure job. I think his homers are often over-estimated at Great American Ballpark, but still, he’s killing the ball.
  • David Wright: a powerful newcomer to the ultra-power club.
  • Travis Hafner: hasn’t really broken out with a huge distance homer yet this year, but the potential is always there, and he’s hitting lots of balls out.

Ain’t no ballpark high enough

I figured Greg would have some unique insight into how different ballparks affect home runs, so I asked. Of course, the altitude of a park is important …

  • Colorado’s Coors Field is the one everyone knows about. The altitude adds around 30-40 feet to typical home run balls. The fences are deep, which offsets some of the effect on homers. Also some effect is likely due to the humidor for the baseballs.
  • Arizona’s Chase Field is the next highest field at about 1,086 feet; this adds about eight feet to typical fly balls. The fence distances make up for this somewhat, but they also keep the park at 78 degrees for most games with the roof closed, which adds three feet to the distance as compared to the 70 degrees they keep in the Metrodome, and six feet as compared to the 62 degrees they keep at Miller Park for many games.
  • Atlanta’s Turner Field: at approx. 930 feet above sea level, the third highest, +6 feet. Day games at 90 degrees can add another eight feet compared to 70 degrees. High humidity is also slightly favorable for distance (most people believe the opposite), so it is no wonder they call it the launching pad.
  • Kansas City’s Kauffman, Pittsburgh’s PNC and the Minnesota Metrodome also have +6 feet from altitude.

Size does matter

As for ballpark dimensions, Greg comments…

  • Houston’s Minute Maid Park is absurdly small (especially in left field, but also in right field). I can’t believe Major League Baseball allows it. It also has strong winds blowing out frequently.
  • Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark is small all around, plus the altitude adds four feet to every fly ball.
  • Yankee Stadium (right field only): it’s extremely easy to hit one out to RF, and many balls in the upper deck in right field would not even be home runs in Fenway Park.
  • Fenway Park (left field only): it’s easy to hit one out to left field, similar distance distortion to Yankee Stadium, in that many balls that leave Fenway Park entirely would be outs in the Bronx.
  • Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park: still small even after moving the left field fence back. Right field is a chip shot even with the higher wall—for Citizen’s Ballpark, it’s that simple—too small!

Dolphin Stadium blows.

When it comes to wind patterns, Greg has one favorite example …

So far in 2006, the wind in Miami’s Dolphins Stadium has been out to center field twice, right-to-left three times, and in from center field or right field 11 times, with an average in-speed of 16 mph (which takes 44 feet off of a typical fly ball homer). So, most of the time, hitters have to hit the ball an extra 44 feet to reach or clear the wall in center field or right field, which explains why there have been only four homers to center and five to right at Dolphin Stadium in the first 17 games.

Mike Jacobs is really hurting in Miami.

One player has found out about Dolphins Stadium the hard way …

He’s only got five homers, and his average is hurting right now at .217, but when he connects, the ball flies off his bat. The winds in Dolphins Stadium are killing him, he’s only hitting .152 there, and if he were in a favorable right field home run park (like Yankee Stadium), he’d have 4-6 more home runs, and that right there would bring his average up to around .250. (Note: his OBP right now is .331, not bad really.)

His average standard distance for his five homers is 420.4 feet, better than anyone who has six or more (which is how many you need to make the Golden Sledgehammer list right now). In short, the trade winds in Florida that blow steadily from the east most of the time are obscuring Mike Jacobs’ power potential…

How far Mantle’s home run really would have flown.

Greg also has some historic research on his site, including a bomb by Glenallen Hill in 2000 that he estimates would have flown 505 standard feet. Greg has also pulled together research on the Mick’s gigantic 1963 blast (unfortunately, no atmospheric information is available so far) and concluded that it traveled anywhere from 495 to 528 feet. If anyone has information that could help Greg in this matter, please contact him through his website.

There’s probably nothing that feels better to a hitter than a swift, dead-on swing that cracks the ball over the fence. If I were a major leaguer, I’d stand at the plate and watch my home runs too. Just to remember the feeling. To quote Jenkinson one more time,

Fewer than one in a million men are capable of powering a ball 450 feet against major league-caliber pitching. It is for that reason that we find their actions so thrilling, and will always want to identify them for special reward and distinction.

Thanks to Greg and Hit Tracker, we’re one step closer to knowing who’s really got the most on the ball.

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