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June 17, 2014

Overthinking It

Why That Stanton Homer Broke Your Brain

by Ben Lindbergh

On Monday’s episode of Effectively Wild, I named Giancarlo Stanton to my All-MLB.TV team—a short list of players so compelling that I’d change channels solely to see them do their thing. Stanton’s thing is hitting homers, which he’s done more often than any other National Leaguer in 2014. His brand of dinger is particularly pleasing to the eye, consisting mostly of majestic shots that we have plenty of time to admire before they finally touch down in some remote part of the park where we didn’t know gravity would allow a baseball to trespass. The Marlins’ right fielder is responsible for the longest homer hit this season, as well as the longest launched since 2009, and he also owns 2014’s highest average home run distance. If I switch games to see Stanton, I’m tuning in on the off chance that he’ll hit one out of the stadium or at least destroy the scoreboard.

On Monday, Stanton hit a home run as awe-inspiring as any of the 135 that preceded it, but it wasn’t breath-taking because it took down a light tower or broke the 500-foot barrier. In fact, it brought down his 2014 home run distance by a few feet. In ESPN Home Run Tracker terminology, Stanton hit it “Just Enough,” which means that it “cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, OR that it landed less than one fence height past the fence.”

Okay, enough foreplay. Here’s the homer:

Off the bat, this looked to me like a line drive double down the line. My podcast co-host, Sam Miller, said he saw it as more of a single. Jason Hammel, who allowed the home run (and said he’d never seen one like it), saw it as a “foul ball” that would “hit the base of the wall or something.” Marlins TV analyst Tommy Hutton might not have seen it at all, saying, “How’d that get out of here so fast? In the blink of an eye, it’s 2-0. How’d that happen?”

Given how unlikely it seemed that the ball would clear the fence, I was surprised to find that its height didn’t put it in especially exclusive company. Home Run Tracker reported that the ball was 48 feet high at the top of its trajectory, tied for the seventh-lowest apex of an over-the-fence homer in 2014 alone. (That doesn't look like 48 feet, I'll admit, but the camera angle could be deceptive, and the walls are Marlins Park are higher than they look without a fielder in the frame.) Fifty-nine homers this season have had a lower elevation angle (the angle at which the ball left the bat). According to Home Run Tracker, the home run with the lowest apex—38 feet—during the years for which we have video (2010–) was this Jorge Posada liner off Pesky’s Pole in April 2010, followed by three 39-foot blows: one by Travis Snider in May 2010, and a pair by Carlos Peguero in May 2011 and June 2011, respectively.

Those low homers had something in common: They were pulled. Stanton’s was hit to the opposite field, directly down the line. That’s why it looked so strange: It’s much harder to hit a line drive homer where Stanton hit his than it is to hit one on the same trajectory to the pull side, where the hitter can get the full force of his weight transfer behind the ball. This wasn’t something we’re used to seeing, because it’s not something that many hitters have the strength to do.

So how close has another hitter come to an oppo homer as close to the line as Stanton’s, with an elevation angle as low, in the Home Run Tracker era (which began in 2006)? Home Run Tracker also gives us each dinger’s horizontal angle, where 90 degrees is dead center, 45 degrees is down the right field line, and 135 degrees is down the left field line. Stanton’s homer had a 54.1 degree horizontal angle, so we’re looking for the closest a right-handed hitter has come to that value, or the closest a left-handed hitter has come to a home run with a 125.9 degree horizontal angle (the mirror-image equivalent), with an elevation angle as low as or lower than his round-tripper’s 20.9 degrees, or an apex under 50 feet.

As it turns out, no one has come all that close. The nearest approach was a home run hit by a right-handed batter on July 24, 2010, with a 20.4 degree elevation angle and a 66.4 degree horizontal launch angle.

That right-handed hitter? Giancarlo Stanton. Here’s what that homer looked like, with similarly incredulous commentary by the Marlins’ broadcast crew.

If we relax the restrictions on elevation angle slightly, we get a home run hit by Justin Morneau at Yankee Stadium on September 2, 2006, which left the bat at an elevation angle of 22.1 degrees and a horizontal angle of 126 degrees—slightly closer to the left-field foul pole than Stanton’s was to the right-field foul pole. That was Morneau’s MVP year, so it’s certainly possible that this homer looked a lot like Stanton’s; the MLB.com game story called it a “low line drive to left field.” Unfortunately, MLB.com highlights don’t go back beyond 2008, so we can’t investigate further.

Clearly, this is a case where the stats back up what the eye test told us, which is that this homer looked like an optical illusion. There hasn’t been a home run like Stanton’s right-field laser hit in the majors for at least the last seven seasons (and if you’re strict about the cutoffs, potentially much longer). We knew Stanton could thrill us with pull power. Now we know he can dazzle us with oppo power, too. Sometimes, a homer hit “just enough” is as impressive as a no-doubter.

Thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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