What Wladimir Balentien Did: A More Full Understanding

Many of my younger years were spent living in San Diego. As such, I got to watch a lot of the Padres and the Braves — the Padres, because they were local, and the Braves, because they were inescapable. As such, I got to watch a lot of Ryan Klesko, and of all the things Klesko ever did, one in particular stands out in my own mind. I remember few of the important details — I don’t remember the year, I don’t remember the pitcher, and I don’t even remember for whom Klesko played. What I know is that Klesko hit a pitch for a home run, and the pitch was somewhere up near his eyes. Over time, my reenactments probably grew exaggerated, and my memory now is that Klesko homered off a pitch literally over his head. Wherever the pitch really was, though, it was up. Klesko chopped at it, and it soared 400 feet, over the fence and into my brain.

I thought of Ryan Klesko when I saw the most recent clip of Wladimir Balentien in Japan. The single-season Japanese home-run record, if you don’t know, is 55. At present, Balentien’s home-run total, if you don’t know, is 54. He’s mighty close, and he’s got a lot of time. Many of Balentien’s homers this year have been impressive, but I’m guessing none have been quite like his 54th. That homer is unlike most; that homer is straight-up hard to believe.

The .gif, just because:

WladHighHR.gif.opt

The most meaningful screenshot:

balentien54_un

The result is a home run, to deep center field. The location is even with Balentien’s shoulders, standing almost straight up. The pitch is a fastball at 93 miles per hour, thrown by Kenta Maeda, who has a 1.92 ERA, the lowest among Central League starting pitchers. There were two strikes, and the intent was to whiff Balentien by getting him to chase up. He did chase up, just like the pitcher wanted, and the ball went really far in the other direction. Maeda did what he wanted. Japanese pitchers plan, and Balentien laughs.

It should be pretty obvious what I felt compelled to investigate. Balentien hit a really high pitch for a dinger. Here in the States, we have PITCHf/x data going back to 2008 for major-league baseball. Have there been higher pitches hit for homers in major-league baseball? How rare is this, really?

Immediately, there’s a problem: we don’t have Japanese PITCHf/x. So we can’t easily tell the height of the pitch Balentien hit out. But we do have a workaround that might allow us to approximate. In 2009, when he was with the Mariners, Balentien hit this dinger. According to PITCHf/x, the pitch was 3.819 feet off the ground. That’s very high! Let’s look at a screenshot, and let’s draw some lines:

balentien2009

We know the distance from the bottom line to the top one. That allows us to calculate the distance between the bottom line and the middle one, roughly representing Balentien’s lower half. Working through some pixel measurements and simple math, we get 3.364 feet. Let’s assume that stays more or less the same. Now let’s look at homer No. 54, and draw some more lines:

balentien54

Let’s say the lower half is the same. If we know the distance between the bottom line to the middle one, we can figure the distance between the bottom line to the top one. The result of the calculation: 4.660 feet. Of course, this is an approximation, and the real answer is just “way above 4 and kind of close to 5,” but Balentien stands 6-foot-2, supposedly. This pitch is at his shoulders, and his knees are slightly bent. The approximation makes sense. We’re looking at a pitch about 56 inches off the ground. We’re looking at a pitch that gives Jose Altuve a buzzcut.

So let’s take that to our PITCHf/x record of major-league home runs hit since 2008. According to the spreadsheet, the highest pitch hit out was hit out by Jason Kubel in 2009, with the pitch coming in a hair over five feet. That one has Balentien beat, but only in the numbers — it turns out that must represent a PITCHf/x glitch. In reality, the pitch was pretty normal. Kubel did not homer on a pitch at his eyes. He homered on a pitch at his belt.

So we look down. According to the spreadsheet, the real highest pitch hit out was hit out by Corey Patterson in 2011, with the pitch coming in at 4.538 feet. This one’s legitimate. The meaningful screenshot:

patterson2011

That one, also, came with two strikes, with the pitcher just trying to put Patterson away by getting him to chase. Patterson somehow stood up and got himself extended, and that’s the highest pitch hit out in about six years, at least. By our estimates, the pitch was less high than the pitch that Balentien crushed. But then, officially, Patterson is shorter than Balentien by four inches, so that’s a consideration. By raw pitch height, Balentien probably wins. By relative pitch height, we don’t quite have enough information.

Wladimir Balentien just hit a home run on a pitch that was closer to being five feet off the ground than four feet off the ground. That’s seemingly higher than any homer hit in the majors since 2008. We don’t have complete data covering those six years, because sometimes PITCHf/x just messes up. We obviously don’t have any meaningful Japanese data, either, and if we’re going to compare professional leagues, we don’t have stuff for the American minors, either. I don’t know if Balentien hit the highest major-league home run in at least six years. I don’t know if Balentien hit the highest professional home run in at least six years. I suspect he might’ve, but I can issue no confirmation.

But I know I’m impressed, and while you can say what you will about Japanese ballparks and Japanese pitchers, that was a hell of a pitcher on the mound, and Balentien’s homer wasn’t cheap. Many batters have trouble laying off the high fastball. It’s a win to take the pitch for a ball, or to just foul it off. Balentien recognized the strikeout pitch and decided to turn it into a part of his record pursuit. It’s hard to believe that’s even possible.

There’s been some weirdness around home-run record pursuits in Japan in the past. Balentien is a foreigner, and when previous foreigners have come close, they’ve been curiously and suspiciously pitched around. Balentien has a lot of time left in his season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get pitched around, too. That’s the precedent. Yet the most pressing question for opposing pitchers is just how to pitch around him. It’s probably possible, but I wouldn’t want to be the one trying.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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