The Hidden Minimalism of Home Run Distance

The first season of South Park debuted in 1997. I was a freshman in high school. An episode came out in December of that year that involved the school putting on a Christmas program, only all the parents wanted it to be either non- or universally-denominational, so the whole thing ended up being performed in unitards and it was all very cold and strange. One of the jokes circled around the fact that the music was composed by Philip Glass. Out of the group with which I was watching, I was the only one who laughed at that joke, because I was the only band nerd in the group who had any idea who Philip Glass was.

The joke fit the narrative. This was a play stripped of all decoration and pomp being accompanied by minimalist music. It was also an easy joke, because jokes about minimalist music are fairly easy to make. There’s no guitar riffs, there’s no hook, there’s no chorus. It starts with an idea. That idea is built upon, added to, modified, deconstructed, rearranged. Then, at the end, it’s right back to where it started. No matter how different or unique things get in the middle, that original idea is just under the surface — always present. It imitates life more than any other style of music. Life throws us all kinds of garbage, but it’s tragically repetitive. Babies, new jobs, weird guys on the bus, movies — they are all tiny differences, tiny theme changes, from the pulsing march of our lives. Baseball, more than any other sport, mimics that as well. There’s a beginning, there’s a bunch of wonderful and heartbreaking stuff in the middle, and then it ends. The day before Opening Day is the day after the last World Series game. Over and over — rinse, repeat.

It’s the unpredictable, the unknown that makes baseball great. It’s a Clayton Kershaw curve ball or a Manny Machado diving stab. This is what we get wrapped up in, but it’s just surface stuff. The mantle of baseball is the everyday. The usual. The ordinary. There can be beauty in that.

There’s that stat the baseball nerds always try to impress people with — Stan Musial had 3630 career hits, 1815 at home and 1815 on the road. He’s the model of consistency — at least if you put a lot of value in hit totals. But the hits themselves are less important. It could have been doubles or RBI or home runs or stolen bases. That kind of symmetry is rare. We focus so much on signal vs. noise that we occasionally disregard the noise as meaningless or unworthy. It may not be what we are looking for, but the noise can be pretty cool sometimes.

On September 8, Evan Gattis hit a home run off of Cole Hamels in Citizens Bank Park. Its true distance — according to ESPN’s Hit Tracker — was 486 feet. It looked like this.


On July 27, Boston’s Brandon Snyder hit a home run off of David Price in Fenway Park. Its true distance was 312 feet. It looked like this.


Snyder’s homer is only a homer at Fenway, most likely. Gattis’ dinger would have been out in any stadium — maybe even this one. If those look like very different homers, it’s because they are. Those are the longest and shortest home runs of 2013. The difference between the two is 174 feet, about 17 floors of a skyscraper. That’s a big difference. Yet, all home runs are worth the same (I’m disregarding runners on base, obviously). A total moonshot is worth the same as a wall-scraper. Carlos Martinez‘s homer off Jose Canseco’s head counts just as much as one Barry Bonds put in McCovey Cove. Baseball may be a game of inches, but once the ball clears the fence, those inches don’t matter.

ESPN’s Hit Tracker is a great tool. The only problem with it is that it only goes back to 2006, which isn’t really its fault. Still, eight years isn’t the smallest of sample sizes. It equates to 39,023 regular-season home runs. Since 2006, there have been as many as 5,386 homers in a season (2006) and as few as 4,552 (2011). Some were game-winners, some had a minor impact on the game. Some were hit by pitchers and scrawny infielders, others by the biggest mashers in the recent memory. They all have a different story, but underneath them all is a constant — the distance. Look at the length between your elbow and the tips of your fingers. Double that. That’s about how much home run distances have fluctuated over the past eight years.



Two feet, give or take. About the length of two computer keyboards. That’s the biggest vacillation of dinger distance over eight years. That is crazy to think about. In the past eight years, Josh Fogg and Barry Bonds and Jim Thome left baseball. Stephen Strasburg and Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper joined it. Pitchers switched home ballparks, new ballparks were opened, and strikeouts continuously increased. And through it all, players kept hitting home runs more or less the same distance.

There’s something else. If you sort out all the home runs by month, you get an even smaller discrepancy.


The frigid April games at Target Field, the hot August nights in Arlington — it’s all the same. Month after month, year after year, home runs average out to 397 feet.

This is more of an interest grabber than it is analysis — a nugget baseball nerds can replace their Stan Musial story with. But it’s a fun thing to ponder while we wait for pitchers and catchers to report. There has been a lot of fluctuation already this offseason, and there’s certainly more to come. Masahiro Tanaka will join a club. Nelson Cruz will find a home. This and all the other things yet to happen will have a significant impact on different facets of the game. But underneath it all, if recent history is any indicator, at least one thing will stay the same. Philip Glass has to work to create minimalism. Baseball does it all on its own.

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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.