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Homer of the Hits

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The Diamondbacks hit a total of 160 home runs last year, ranging from the 26 bombs launched by Eric Byrnes down to the single tater for Andy Green. But let's take a closer look at some of these blasts, courtesy of the data to be found on the endlessly-entertaining Hit Tracker, a site devoted, as its headline says, to measuring "how far it really went...". Few things are as susceptible to media distortion as home-run distances, but the site turns the cold eye of mathematics onto the subject, by recreating the precise trajectory the ball followed during flight, and extending that trajectory all the way back to field level to allow "measurement" of the home run. You get the "true" distance (how far it would have travelled before falling back to playing field level) and a "standard" distance (corrected to the same wind, altitude, humidity and temperature).

The results make for interesting reading. The longest "standard" home-run hit by a Diamondback in 2006 came in the final game of the season - indeed, the final inning of the season, Conor Jackson's blast off Trevor Hoffman in the ninth, on October 1st at Chase Field. The line on that one was 455 feet, and that's not far from the "true" figure, of 466 feet. However, that is a foot shorter than when Shawn Green hit the ball off Derek Lowe on July 19th. A standard 451 feet, the real flight, per HT, is a season-best 467 feet. Here are the ten longest Diamondback homers of the season, in order of their "true" distance:

Date  Hitter   Pitcher         Opp Inn Park   Dist
===== ======== ==============  === === =====  ====
07/19 S.Green  Derek Lowe      LAD  4  Chase   467
10/01 Jackson  Trevor Hoffman  SD   9  Chase   466
05/04 Easley   Rich Hill       CHC  4  Chase   464
04/07 Gonzalez Dave Bush       MIL  2  Miller  451
09/11 Snyder   Billy Traber    WAS  2  Chase   450
04/13 Tracy    Josh Fogg       COL  4  Chase   446
08/16 S.Green  Aaron Cook      COL  4  Coors   446
06/27 S.Green  Jarrod Washburn SEA  2  Chase   444
05/24 Byrnes   Zach Duke       PIT  1  Chase   444
04/06 Tracy    Jeff Francis    COL  2  Coors   443

This does tend to concur with the belief that Chase Park was a hitter's haven during the last season: five of the six longest hit by Arizona, and seven of the top ten, all came at home. Two more came at Coors, indicating that regardless of shenanigans involving the ball and humidors, altitude is still a help. Indeed, the longest home-run hit anywhere in the major-leagues during 2006, according to the site, was Matt Holliday's September 19th one at Coors - clearly off a non-humidored ball. This one gained more than fifty feet from the standard distance of 443 feet, to measure up at 496 feet.

Looking at the full list suggests that the optimum angle for launch is around 33-37 degrees. Serious entries at greater angles tend to require help, either from external factors such as wind, or sheer "oomph", in the form of top of the line speed off the bat. Reggie Abercrombie proved the most powerful pure hitter there, with a ball he dispatched off former D'back Mike Gosling being measured at a speed of 127.3 mph as it headed towards the bleachers. [Jackson's Hoffman homer, mentioned earlier, was the fastest by a D-back, clocking in at a brisk 120.3 mph.]

A-Rod wins the "Golden Sledgehammer" for power: he hit 35 homers, which travelled an average standard distance of more than 416 feet. Ryan Howard may have hit more, but they didn't travel all that far: 398.3 feet, less than 30 inches further than Chad Tracy (396 ft) managed on average during 2006. [This chart lists the distance and direction of all Chad's homers; only one went to left of center] Meanwhile, in the other dimension, the tallest homer hit last year, was Carlos Lee's blast at the Great American Ballpark, which reached an apex of 208 feet above the ground. On July 25th in Philly, Gonzo hit one that went 171 feet high - but regardless of whether you regard the length as 306 ft (standard) or 340 ft (true), it was the cheapest Arizona shot of the year both ways.

Nothing like that on July 31st, in that famous six-homer game against the Cubs at Wrigley, with the wind blowing out of the park. The Diamondbacks hit almost a half-mile (822 yards) of long ball that day, with five of them travelling more than 400 feet - though the standard lengths varied between 352 and 382 ft. Which brings me to another point: the difference between standard and true measurements at various stadia. Looking at the Arizona homers and comparing the lengths reveals some interesting differences.

As a result of its altitude (the second-highest park in the majors, at 1,086 feet) and warmer than usual temperature, balls in Chase Field appear to fly about ten to fifteen feet further than under standard conditions. Coors Field is more extreme still, with the true distance 20-25 feet further than the standard one - surprisingly, Dodger Stadium appears to have a similar bias. On the other hand, Miller Park and Minute Maid were spot-on: every homer hit by a D'back in either venue had a standard value within two feet of the true figure. Turner Field varies, almost randomly, between -21 and +14, but Wrigley Field may be the worst place of all: one Hudson homer, saw a standard value that was fifty feet shorter than the true one. They don't call it the Windy City for nothing...

It certainly seems an improvement over the method used to announce distances at the ballpark, which rely to a disturbing amoung on pink, fleshy observation. The method described here as prevalent seems to be too vague and rely both on the human factor and over-generalization, with home-runs being in only three categories, line drive, normal fly and high fly. A method like Hit Tracker, which takes additional factors like the wind into account, would seem to have a smaller margin for error and/or built-in bias.

I should also note that even stadium measurements can be wrong: in 2005, the outfield walls at RFK were found to be fifteen feet further back than they were marked. However, things may be improving down the line. SportVision have created "True Track" for ESPN, using a camera grid, and from this explanation, I feel it's a more accurate method. Hopefully, it might become standard, and provide a true record, though this would undoubtedly see the end of mythical blasts like Mickey Mantle's alleged 634-foot homer in 1960, still listed by Guinness as the longest ever.

Speaking of record-setting shots, the program has also turned its mystique-destroying eye on the longest, and perhaps the most famous, homer in Diamondbacks' history, the Jumbotron-shattering blast of Richie Sexson on April 26th, 2004. This struck 75 feet above field level, 414 feet from home plate, but Hit Tracker estimates it would have travelled 469 feet before landing at field level. This is a sharp drop from the official claim of 503 feet, and barely two feet longer than Shawn Green's much less-acclaimed homer from July this year at Chase.

Turning the tables, the longest ball hit off an Arizona pitcher in 2006 was by Russell Branyan, off Jorge Julio at Chase on August 28th. That one had a true distance of 471 feet. As with D-back homers, five of the top six and seven of the top ten all came in Arizona (three of the ten off Enrique Gonzalez, I note). But perhaps the most impressive shot was the third-longest of the year, by Ryan Spilborghs at Coors, who hit one 464 feet, just inside the left-field foul Brandon Webb, master of the weak ground-ball. Only half a dozen other hitters all year even reached 400 feet against our ace. I was also fond of Felipe Lopez's 419-foot one on May 6th, because that was the longest inside-the-park homer anyone hit in 2006, after a weird ricochet left Eric Byrnes stranded like a fish.

Finally, a nod to Andy Green; as noted, he may have only hit a single homer in 2006, but it was a very decent effort: 416 feet off Jeff Fassero at Chase on April 17. That's longer than every one of the eleven shots by Johnny Estrada, and all but one of the fifteen from Orlando Hudson.