Javier Baez and the Physics of the Home Run

Don’t let the dashing good looks and general awesomeness fool you: I am a nerd. Perhaps not as big a nerd as my colleague Justin Jabs, what with his undying devotion to Star Wars and bobblehead figurines, but a nerd nonetheless.

One of my favorite classes in high school was Physics with Mr. Chinworth. He always held tests on Thursdays in order that the Friday after could be used for his infamous Physical Challenges, little experiments that were fun and educational at the same time.

I’ll never forget one in particular in which we were given a few sheets of standard printer paper, some drinking straws, and a limited length of masking tape. The goal was to conduct a structure of a minimum height (maybe 6″) that could hold as much weight as possible.

Our group cut the papers in half, rolling several tubes which we reinforced with straws and held together with the tape. I’d like to say it was all my idea, but that might simply be revisionist history. But it’s not as if you can go to Snopes and fact-check it anyway, so that’s what we’re going with.

Previous groups’ structures were tested by seeing how many of our textbooks they could support and some of them did quite well. But when it came time for ours to be tested, we soon realized that there weren’t enough books.

Mr. Chinworth had to climb atop the desk upon which our structure was standing to add the final books. He then had to start adding weights from around the classroom until the paper and plastic finally gave way beneath what must have been close to 150 pounds or so.

I don’t use any of the knowledge I gained in that class today, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still intrigued by it. So it was that a little stat I saw about the exit velocity of a ball off of Javier Baez’s bat piqued my interest.

The physics of baseball is a truly incredible topic, from the velocity and movement of a curveball to the parabolic path of home run. Radar guns and super slo-mo replays give us an idea of the speed of the game, but what about the little stats we don’t get from a TV graphic?

We apply terms like Uncle Charlie, frozen rope, and duck snort, Texas Leaguer and seeing-eye single, but those are simply euphemisms for phenomena that we may not fully grasp. Actually, I’m intimately familiar with duck snorts from my own baseball-playing days, but the others still hold.

I’m not alone in making a big deal about Javier Baez’s swing, and I fear that overzealous pursuit of a proper context for it may eventually be my undoing. Nevertheless, I wanted to search for some empirical data to quantify my curiosity and awe.

Naturally, I turned to the unbounded depth of the information superhighway (remember that anachronism?) for more information. I found a great page that laid out some incredibly interesting measurements and facts that added numerical credence to the amazing feats we see on the diamond.

You can visit the site for more info, but I did want to share just a few tidbits with you here:

  • The collision of a ball on the bat lasts only about 1/1000th of a second
  • A batted ball should be able to travel no farther than 545 feet
  • 1000 feet of altitude adds 7 feet to a batted ball’s distance
  • 6000-8000 pounds of force is required to change a 5 1/8th ounce ball from a speed of 90 mph to a speed of 110 mph

At the moment of impact, that millisecond during which those 4 tons of force are transferred from wooden cylinder to leather sphere, matter is shifted and compressed, creating that unmistakable “crack!”

The ball itself is actually distorted to one-half its original diameter and the bat is compressed by one-fiftieth. And when viewed in slow enough video, you can see the bat bending with the force of the swing and the impact, appearing as a springboard of sorts.

And while the velocity of a pitched ball slows by nearly 1 mph for every 7 feet it travels on its way to the plate (an overall loss of nearly 8 mph), the decision of whether or not to swing must take place in 4 hundredths of a second. 1/100th of a second too early and it’s foul to the pull side; that same split second late and the ball is out of play in the opposite-field seats.

So what kind of bat speed does it take to generate the force required to hit a home run? According to Big League Edge, the average bat speed of an MLB player is 88-95 mph. Fitting that the lower end of that range is what’s required to engage the flux capacitor for time travel.

But here we’re talking about forcing a baseball, not a Delorian, through space and time. BLE also lists the average MLB batted-ball velocity as fluctuating from 87-91 mph, while the average pitch velocity is 90-94 mph. So, in general, energy is lost in the confluence of bat and ball, roughly 1-4% on average.

When it comes to home runs though, a ball must generally be turned around at a higher velocity than that with which it was thrown. So let’s take a look at the exchange that spurred my interest, along with some stats on home run velocities.

So that’s about a 17% increase in velocity at the point of impact with the bat, significantly higher than averages we saw above. But that’s just one instance; what about Javy’s other homers, or the rest of the league, for that matter?

According to ESPN’s Hit Tracker, the average MLB home run (of 3,349 to date) in 2014 has a velocity of 103.2 mph and travels a distance of 395.33 happy feet (sponsored by Southwest Airlines). In case you’re wondering, that’s nearly 251 miles of round-trippers.

But I think we can all agree that Baez is no average hitter. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the so-called Golden Sledgehammers, the hitters with the longest average home runs (in terms of “true distance”*). Since ESPN requires a minimum 14 dingers, Javy didn’t make the list of 78, though Anthony Rizzo was 50th with an average of 397.9 feet.

Atop the list is Michael Morse, with a Herculean average of 417.4 feet on his 16 bombs. Names like Giancarlo Stanton (417.1) and Mike Trout (413.4) litter the upper echelon as well, but some of the players might surprise you. Hunter Pence (414.7), Torii Hunter (410.5), and Ian Desmond (413.0) all populate the top 10.

It would certainly appear that the environs of AT&T Park are far more conducive to longballs than the dreary, swirling bowl of Candlestick. Just think of what Willie Mays would have done if he’d had the current setup.

In order to generate the game’s longest homers, Morse has been able to generate an average ball-off-bat velocity of 105.46 mph, a pretty staggering figure. Well, until you consider Stanton’s NL-leading 32 homers have been hit with an average velocity of 108.15 mph.

By comparison, Javier Baez has been able to launch 6 home runs an average of 409 feet at 105.28 mph. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in seeing those figures; I was really hoping to find something in Javy’s numbers that was appreciably different from those of other prolific sluggers.

So am I just projecting my own hopes and dreams to make those Javy Bombs seem like more than what they are? Maybe not. In my search for validation of my awe, I stumbled upon the measurement of a home run’s apex, the highest point it reaches in its flight.

The average MLB home run this year peaks at just over 88 feet; Morse homers get just a bit higher than code (90.7, +2.8%) while Stanton’s swats are more level (85.2, -3.4%). But Javy Bombs reach an average apex of 98.5 feet, nearly 12% higher than the rest of the Majors. So what he may be lacking in distance (2% shorter than Morse), he’s more than making up for in height.

If you really can’t get enough of this stuff, check out this piece by SB Nation’s Chris St. John on the home run apex by horizon angle. It’s really quite fascinating, if a bit dense.

It should also be noted that 4 of Baez’s 6 homers have been negatively impacted by wind, compared to only 2 for Morse and 5 for Stanton. In the end, it’s not much a fair comparison, given Javy’s small sample size and lack of experience.

But when it’s all said and done, as interesting as the physics are, as much as they can explain away the reasons a baseball can do what it does, I still prefer to watch the game with at least a little childlike wonder.

And it’s that wonder that trumps any scientific explanation for why I love to watch Baez play. His swing defines the mystery and anxiety of anticipation. Watching it, I know that the result could be either failure or fantasy, each frighteningly wondrous in its own way.

So there in those thousandths of seconds and thousands of pounds of potential energy exists not only facts and numbers but faith and hope, science and religion sewn up with red twine and smudged with pine tar. That’s the physics of baseball.

*If the home run flew uninterrupted all the way back to field level, the actual distance the ball traveled from home plate, in feet. If the ball’s flight was interrupted before returning all the way down to field level (as is usually the case), the estimated distance the ball would have traveled if its flight had continued uninterrupted all the way down to field level.

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