This annotated week in baseball history: July 24-July 30, 2011

On July 30, 2011 Richard will be running a half-marathon. In honor of his run, he looks at the distance travelled by some notable players.

When not writing about baseball—I know, hard to believe I have an existence otherwise—I spend much of my time running around parts of Manhattan and Long Island in training for various road races. This Saturday, I will be doing a half-marathon whose course, in part, will take me around CitiField. This got me thinking about distances, and baseball distances in particular.

(For another take on this question, I highly recommend W.P Kinsella’s collection of short stories, Go the Distance, which has a really excellent story on this point.)

Unlike some sports—football, notably—baseball is not really a game about distances. Many of them, the base paths, the space between home plate and the mound, are standardized. And the distances unique to each ballpark, the fences and foul ground, while certainly capable of changing a game, are almost exclusively relevant to the flight of the ball, rather than that of people.

For example, last year Roy Halladay threw 3,568 (pretty effective) regular-season pitches. For the sake of argument, we’ll say that each pitch travelled the full mound distance. That means last year Halladay threw pitches that went a grand total of 215,864 feet. That is equivalent to nearly 41 miles worth of pitches, or more than a full marathon and a half marathon combined. And that’s not even counting his work in the postseason.

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CC Sabathia throwing a small part of his 47 miles of pitches in 2009 (Icon/SMI)

(For the record, the distance leader for 2010, postseason inclusive, was Tim Lincecum, who threw more than 45 miles worth of pitches, although that is less than the workload done by CC Sabathia, who pitched over 47 miles in 2009.)

At least in recent memory, the single game high in pitch distance was Edwin Jackson’s 2010 no-hitter when he threw 149 pitches—or roughly a mile and three-quarters.

Or, put another way, Jackson needed more than 300 feet of pitches to retire each batter.

Of course, Jackson was allowed to throw all those pitches because he had allowed no hits.

In normal circumstances, this would reduce the distance traveled by the batters on the other team. In his no-hitter, Jackson walked eight men, and hit B.J. Upton, which made for a relatively busy day on the basepaths. (Indeed, the victorious Diamondbacks actually had fewer baserunners than the no-hit Rays.)

But while individual game distances are interesting, I am more curious about how far a player would travel in a strong offensive season. The modern record for runs scored is 177 by Babe Ruth during his remarkable 1921 season.

Since a trip around the bases is 360 feet, this means Ruth ran—or jogged, anyway, though this was the young Ruth—63,720 feet, which is just more than 12 miles. But of course, Ruth did reach base several times when he did not end up coming around to score.

It is at this point we reach a relatively obvious problem, which probably should have occurred to me sooner—like before I started writing this column and had to figure it out. In any case, counting the runs and then simply the adding the distance covered by base hits would lead to some double counting.

Now, there are two ways to go about doing this, one of which would give us an exact answer but which is extremely difficult—bordering on impossible—and the other way, which I will be doing. The exact way, for the record, would involve reviewing play-by-play (which is limited or missing in many cases for baseball prior to the Second World War) and determining exactly when Ruth scored and how he got on base in those cases.

With that possibility ruled out, we can instead come around to the easier way, in which case we will determine the (approximate) minimum distance Ruth traveled in 1921.

We know that Ruth scored 177 runs (at 360 feet per run), and that accounts for the distance covered in his 59 home runs. That leaves us with 113 hits: 36 doubles, nine triples and 68 singles. Ruth also walked 150 times—no surprise there—and was hit by four pitches.

At this point things get a little tricky—very tricky if, like me, you find calculating a 15 percent tip to be strenuous work—but we will assume, for the sake of finding the minimum distance, that Ruth scored on all his triples and double in 1921.

Since the Babe had a combined 104 extra-base hits that year, this leaves us with 73 trips around the bases yet uncounted. Now we subtract 73 from Ruth’s 150 walks (being easier than doing some wacky math when one subtracts it from his 68 singles) and we are left with 149 times when Ruth reached first. That gives him a distance travelled—at the least—of 77,130 feet in 1921 simply on running the bases alone.

(You’ll notice that I left stolen bases out of this equitation. For the record, Ruth stole 17, but was caught 13 times. I was working on the math for this when I realized I’d gone cross-eyed, so I stopped. Apologies.)

That comes to, roughly, 14.6 miles. That seem unimpressive compared to the totals of Halladay or Lincecum, but it is only fair to remember that Ruth himself was doing the distances in this case, rather than the ball.

Finally—because I’m a masochist—I did the same math for Ruth’s career total. Ruth traveled—again this is roughly the minimum distance—1,035,000 feet on the bases in his career. That comes to just shy of 200 miles and is greater than the distance (as the crow flies) between Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.

Of course, these are just a few of the distances one can calculate in baseball, and Ruth’s 77,130 feet in 1921 is unlikely to replace his 238 OPS+ as the popular measure of its dominance. But it is an interesting way to look at the numbers and give us a new and different sense of a season or player we seemingly knew in every way.

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