The Myth of the 500-Foot Home Run

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Oct. 4 1997 3:30 AM

The Myth of the 500-Foot Home Run

Do men always exaggerate the length of their long balls?

(Continued from Page 1)

Rex and Hawks agree that any home run hit that far must approximate the "maximum-distance trajectory"--that is it can only be a high fly or a normal fly, not a line drive. McGwire's homer was a high fly, as Niehaus attested, and as was confirmed by his broadcast partner Rick Rizzs, who marveled at the ball's hang time. According to the Major League Baseball system, a high fly will descend at an angle whose cotangent is 0.6. In trigonometry-for-dummies terms, what that means is that for every foot the ball would have continued to drop vertically, it would have traveled another 0.6 feet horizontally. Here's the math: 439 feet + (59 feet x 0.6) = 474 feet.

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McGwire's "538-footer" isn't the only questionable long ball of the season. The MCI Web site claims six 500-footers in 1997, five by McGwire and one by Colorado Rockies star Andres Galarraga, hit in Miami. Galarraga's home run, originally announced as 573 feet, then revised at the park to 529 feet, is listed at 529 feet by MCI. By my calculations, it probably went about 479 feet. And yet another reason to doubt the 1997 numbers: Apparently, the IBM/MCI program recorded no 500-footers from 1988 to 1996.

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D on't get me wrong--all the homers listed on the MCI top-ten list were remarkable shots. And I'm not arguing that 500-footers are impossible. A few have been hit, but all were aided by altitude, the elements, or both. The best-known of these, Mickey Mantle's mythical 565-foot blast on a windy day at Washington's Griffith Stadium, probably traveled about 506 feet, according to The Physics of Baseball author Robert K. Adair.

The MCI Web site spells out the intended method of measuring these home runs. "Distances are measured using a grid system matched to each ballpark's unique parameters and configuration. Each home run is estimated based on how far it would have traveled from home plate on a horizontal line had it not been obstructed by something (seats, fence, roof, foul pole, other stadium parts, etc.)."

If every team worked according to the MCI plan, each stadium would be accurately diagramed with a fine-grained grid related to its seating sections, level by level. This would tell the estimator how far the ball was from home plate when it landed in the seats, bullpen, or other stadium area, and how high it was above field level when it landed. (In today's stadiums, very few home runs touch the ground before hitting something higher first.)

Working with the distance and height, the estimator would assess the ball's trajectory--was it a liner? a normal fly? a high fly?--and use a formula to determine the ultimate distance the ball would have traveled. Click for the formula.

In theory this is not a bad system, but in practice it's not always fully observed. Some teams work from arcs rather than grids, making the estimators' jobs more difficult. Some teams measure only to the point of impact, rather than to the likely field-level landing point. The Rockies don't have height data, and must estimate that dimension. The Red Sox can't see where balls, hit beyond "The Monster" into the street, land. If McGwire had hit his home run in Baltimore, for example, it would have been measured at about 448 feet under the Orioles' point-of-impact house rules. Such departures make the various major-league home-run distances inconsistent, and usually make them less accurate as well.

Major League spokesman Patrick Courtney acknowledges that there have been questions about the MCI program, and says that the measurement issue will be discussed at league PR meetings next month "so everyone will be on the same page for next year."

L et's hope so. Baseball, a game of inches and meticulous record-keeping, deserves accurate and consistent data, and these awful numbers have already tainted one set of record books. Click for the story. The pity is that the home-run-measurement program, as conceived by IBM in 1988, was never uniformly implemented. Now is the time for scientists to review and refine the system and for Major League Baseball to ensure compliance and train the estimators.

After a period of adjustment, during which many long home runs will seem puny, we'll slowly reacclimate ourselves to reality. Weaned off the inflated estimates, numbers that add 60 feet to big home runs, we'll finally appreciate the majesty of a 440-footer.

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