Written By: Fred Phillips
Last week I made my way down to Petco Park and took in a game between the first-place Padres and the worst-place Pirates. During this game, Jerry Hairston, the Padres second baseman hit a home run to left field that seemed to clear the 357 sign. Later in the inning, the giant scoreboard flashed the distance of his home run as 354 feet. How can that be? Even with my poor math skills, something seemed amiss. However, it got me to thinking about how home runs are measured and sent me straight to my computer and the much used Google search engine.
To illustrate home run measurement, I will use one of the most famous examples in baseball history. On May 22, 1963 near the twilight of his career, Mickey Mantle hit what he called “the hardest ball I ever hit”. Mantle met a fast ball from Bill Fischer of the Kansas City Athletics and sent it soaring into the grimy Bronx air. As the ball went soaring into space, everyone at the game wondered if this could be the first ball ever hit out of Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t. As it was about to leave the stadium, it struck the facade a few inches from the top and bounced all the way back onto the field. The distance was eventually estimated at 734 feet. Yes, 734 feet!
How did they get that unbelievable distance? A tape measure wouldn’t work for this one. By using geometry and the Pythagorean Theorem. Yes, Geometry; that class most of us slept through. If we had known it could be used in baseball we would have stayed awake. Having faith in Pythagoras, we could say that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. I won’t bore you like your tenth grade math teacher, but using the height of the facade that was struck, you could determine the distance. The mathematicians in 1963 determined that the ball was at its apex when it hit the facade and therefore the distance of the monumental hit was 636 feet. Now, to be certain, this is a titanic blast, but it is still a hundred feet less than the aforementioned 734 feet. Fans at the game were absolutely certain that the ball was still going up when it hit the facade. If this were the case, and it was unanimous among the fans, the distance would actually be greater. How much higher would it have traveled? No one knows for certain, but math geeks in 1963 used a conservative estimate of 20 feet. These twenty feet of extra air added almost 100 feet to the distance making the titanic home run a whopping 734 feet. It this distance fact? Not really, according to baseball experts who like to diminish the legends of yore. Is it merely legend? There is probably more than a little legend and fantasy mixed in with that outlandish claim.
Now back to how home runs are measured. It is all done with computer software that utilizes the math you slept through and is still somewhat of a best guess scenario. The most common method is to utilize mathematical formulas in a program developed by IBM called Tale of the Tape. The process uses the horizontal distance (how far from home plate it was when it hit a fence or a seat or something else), the elevation (how high the object was that the ball hit), and a subjective determination on whether the ball was a line drive, a normal fly or a high fly. A line drive gets a cotangent value of 1.2, a normal fly gets 0.8, and a high fly gets 0.6. Those values are put into a formula ( horizontal distance + ( elevation * cotangent value) = Home Run Distance.
A second procedure has been named True Track by ESPN and was created by SportsVision. The system uses two specialized cameras and produces a virtual 3-D grid to show where the ball lands and how far it is from home plate on the grid. A great web site to visit if this subject interests you is hittrackeronline.com. Oh, by the way, Hit Tracker estimates Mantle’s home run at a more mortal 504 feet.
How they measured Jerry Hairston’s home run at a distance that was less than the fence it went over is a still a mystery to me. Sounds like the methods I perfected to do my math in tenth grade. Perhaps it was increasingly poor eyesight as the birthdays pile up. Perhaps the Padres not only spend less on players than other teams, it is certainly possible that they scrimp on home run measuring devices as well. One things is for certain; Jerry Hairston’s home run will never be called a blast, will never be compared to Mantle’s, and will be remembered by no one except for me.
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