480 Feet? Are You Sure?

As you may have heard by now, Jim Thome absolutely tattooed a baseball off Royals starting pitcher Sean O’Sullivan during Monday afternoon’s game. Thome took a low, inside change-up and hit it off the top of the flagpole that displays the American flag behind the limestone overhang. Whoever is in charge of estimating Target Field home runs estimated the distance of this home run at 480 feet, and shortly after Robby Incmikoski positioned himself just inside Gate 34, where he guess the ball would have landed had it not hit the flagpole. However, Robby wasn’t even sure of this guess, as he repeatedly mentioned that he thought the ball had a chance of landing on Target Plaza.

I definitely agree that Thome blasted that pitch from O’Sullivan, as I knew it was gone the moment he made contact (and I’m not often correct on this gut feeling). As for traveling 480 feet, or leaving Target Field entirely… I remain skeptical.

Perhaps you also believe that Thome’s home run would have gone nearly 500 feet. However, I have my faith in a website that uses math and science to calculate the distance of home runs, known as HitTracker. According to FSNorth (and likely Target Field as well), Thome’s two prior longest home runs in Target Field were hit between 440 and 450 feet (I don’t remember their exact claims), yet HitTracker disagrees. According to this website, these two home runs were hit only 422 and 420 feet. If that’s not shocking enough, here’s the big one. As I’ve already said, Target Field estimated Thome’s home run Monday at 480 feet.

HitTracker said it only went 432.

You may ask, “What? How can that be???” HitTracker – which already explains the methods in finding the most accurate distance of a home run – recently had a post concerning a home run hit by Seattle’s Russell Branyan in Yankee Stadium on August 21st. If you haven’t heard, Branyan hit this homer into the 4th (yes, 4th) deck in right field. Watching the video of the home run, it certainly looks like he absolutely, no-doubt-about-it, hit it over 500 feet had it not been interrupted by a fan that was too shocked by receiving a home run ball to even throw it back onto the field. However, HitTracker determined that the baseball, had it landed at field level, would have only gone 440 feet.

“Where is this website? This is complete and utter BS!” is what you’re screaming at your computer as you pound your fists into your keyboard (coincidentally, the B and S keys probably popped out). If you still don’t believe me, HitTracker published a post about the Branyan blast, giving a brief explanation of the methods and using graphs to explain that the ball did not travel as far as we would estimate.

Because of this post, it was easy for me to disagree with the 480 foot estimate given to the Monday Thome home run. From the post I just linked to, I’ll quote a couple paragraphs to show the similarities between Thome’s and Branyan’s home runs. My comments will be in between each paragraph.

So why did this home run seem like it went farther? First of all, any “first” accomplishment is likely to seem magnified: after all, if no one has done something yet, that something must be difficult, unusual and extreme, right? However, it is worthwhile to recall that at the time of the Branyan homer, there had only been 143 regular season games, plus a handful of playoff games, in the history of the still-new ballpark. Contrast this with Fenway Park, which has hosted more than 7,500 regular season games and numerous playoff games. I expect that home runs to the 4th deck in right field at Yankee Stadium will be infrequent, but not truly rare.

Well, hitting that flagpole may never happen again. It’s not as high as the 4th deck of Yankee Stadium, but it’s still raised above the concourse where the ball would have landed. Plus, that concourse leads out to Gate 34 and Target Plaza, where only about 5 home runs have landed, according to HitTracker.

Just like with the 4th deck of Yankee Stadium, we haven’t seen many home runs hit to the Gate 34 concourse of Target Field. Therefore, we have one reason why we may overestimate the distance of a home run.

Second, nearly all home runs that impact something high in the air (an upper deck, a foul pole, a catwalk) seem longer than they are, because of the way air resistance shapes the flight path of a long fly ball. The flight path of a ball is quite asymmetrical, rocketing off the bat at high speed and a relatively low angle, but slowing down by 50% or more during flight and ultimately descending at a much more steep angle (don’t believe me? Ask yourself, would you rather catch a Branyan home run just as it leaves his bat, or as it gently settles into your bare hands in the upper deck?) All of this is due to air resistance, which takes what would be a parabolic flight path in a vacuum, and “flattens” it towards home plate, as can be seen in the first diagram above. Thus when a ball hits something high in the air, we see primarily the high-speed, flat-angle part of the flight path, and we don’t see as much of the dying, fluttering ending. For this reason, we attribute much longer distance estimates to balls that land high up than we do those that make it all the way back down to the field.

We saw Thome’s home run hit the flagpole and ricochet off, rather than land in a crowd of fans where the ball probably hits someone’s hands before falling to the ground. Working at Target Field and being a bit of a visual person, I can visualize the trajectory of a baseball during its descent. In fact, during Game 163 last year, I feel that I was the first person in my section of the center field upper deck that knew that Orlando Cabrera had hit a home run even though the ball had yet to land (“That’s impressive, Andrew. Not!”). A more believable anecdote is that while working Twins games, I’ve noticed that balls that I feel had no chance of being home runs (and am usually correct on this guess) are often misinterpreted as having a chance of being gone by fans. A trajectory like this…

…is much harder to visualize when the only thing you can see is a baseball without the line ahead or behind of where it’s traveling. This long-winded comment’s point was that if a ball strikes something without completing its flight path, it can be tough for most people to guess where it could have landed. Also, since the majority of fans at Target Field are in an improper viewpoint to watch the flight path of a baseball (e.g. you are not at an angle perpendicular to the ball’s path, so you do not see a flight path similar to the picture above) it’s difficult to guess where it would land. This presumably includes the person/people that estimate the distance of home runs at Target Field.

Finally, I think many people expected a larger number for the distance on this homer because they know Russell Branyan is an immensely powerful slugger, and they know he can hit the ball farther than 440 feet.

Ol’ Jim Jam doesn’t hit home runs, he mashes taters. ‘Nuff said.

Visually, 480 feet doesn’t seem to be an accurate guess when you compare it to the longest home run hit so far this season, which was a 485 foot homer by Josh Hamilton (video here). The ball made it to the far left side of the 2nd deck in right-center field, if you’re having trouble spotting the ball in the video. At least in my opinion – which may be biased due to my previous knowledge, unfortunately – Hamilton’s home run appears to have been hit much further than Thome’s.

HitTracker’s visuals agree with my opinion.

Note: The blue dot is where the ball first made contact with a structure. For Hamilton, it was the seats in right-center; for Thome, the flagpole. The green dot is where HitTracker estimated the ball would have landed. The red dots are one-second increments after contact was made.

Thome has also been credited with hitting the furthest home run in Target Field history, but HitTracker gives that distinction to Brennan Boesch of the Tigers at 448 feet (and Corey Hart is right behind with a 440 foot homer).

Boesch’s home run is red, Hart’s is orange, Thome’s is yellow.

As you can see, it’s close, but no cigar.

During Tuesday’s game, Jim Thome hit a home run eerily similar to his Monday home run. In fact, the smash led me to say this on Twitter:

Oh dear god, that has got to be further than yesterday.

My exclamation was quickly met by this response.

Nope, 452.

I’m guessing this 452 foot estimate came from Target Field/FSNorth. Watch the videos for yourself. Thome’s Monday home run, versus Thome’s Tuesday home run.

The ball was clearly hit to the left of the flagpole Thome hit yesterday, and it appears that it would have hit the pole at about the same height. I’m willing to admit that Tuesday’s home run was probably at the very worst 5 feet shorter, but I’m putting my money on it being almost the same distance, if not longer. We won’t know officially what this distance is until HitTracker adds it to the website, so while we wait, we’ll just have to settle for Jim Thome’s longest home run in 2010.

That’s 466 feet of tater right there.

Edit: The results are in. Thome’s Tuesday home run, according to HitTracker, would have traveled 440 feet.

That’s just 8 feet of difference right there. Tuesday’s home run actually landed on the concourse, which is why the dark blue and dark green dots are so close to each other. That home run didn’t land as high above field level as Monday’s home run, which we know hit the flagpole, thus the light blue and light green dots are spread further apart.

My theory as to why the HitTracker and Target Field estimates are so far apart is that the person (people) that estimate the distance of home runs at Target Field are probably located somewhere behind home plate or on the infield side of the ballpark. Anything hit to the outfield seats probably looks something like this…

… (horizontal lines used to illustrate depth) which can be tough to estimate distance. We know the distance markers for the outfield fence at certain points (foul poles, alleys, and center field), but anything hit past the fence is a wild guess since nothing but the bullpens are at field level.

Using computer software might be time consuming and I’m sure fans would rather know an estimate of a home run’s distance immediately rather than the actual distance several batters to several innings later. Plus, gathering the data for the software HitTracker uses is likely time consuming in itself. You can continue to rely on Target Field and FSNorth telling you how far a home run was hit, but for me, I’m content with waiting a day to see how far it REALLY went.

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3 Responses to “480 Feet? Are You Sure?”

  1. Josh Says:

    Wow… great post, Andrew!

  2. Rachel Eggert Says:

    I was at that Labor Day game. Thank for explaining better how Thome’s homer work.

  3. pull up workout Says:

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    [...]480 Feet? Are You Sure? « Off The Mark[...]…

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