MLB and the Texas Rangers Home Runs in 2013

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One of my favorite, if not my very favorite resource available to baseball fans on the internet is PITCH f/x data. Every pitch thrown is tracked for velocity, movement, and effectiveness. It allows for detailed analysis of a pitcher’s performance in an individual game, season, or career. Thanks to sites like brooksbaseball.net, texasleaguers.com, and fangraphs.com, this wealth of data is available to us for free.

What’s not available is a HIT f/x tool to examine the other side of the ball. A HIT f/x version may be even more interesting than PITCH f/x. It would theoretically track the speed, trajectory, and location of batted balls. This would exponentially enhance our understanding of hitters, the way that PITCH f/x has done for the hurlers. It would also allow for more accurate and uniform defensive metrics as well, in combination with a FIELD f/x tool.

One day, we’ll get there. MLB teams already have access to HIT f/x and FIELD f/x (I believe), but it’s proprietary for now, and not yet publicly available like PITCH f/x.

However, thanks to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker tool, we can get a small sliver of an idea of what we can do with HIT f/x. This tool tracks every home run hit in the major leagues, and produces speed off the bat, elevation angle, horizontal angle, apex, and includes adjustments for wind, temperature, and altitude to calculate a “True Distance”. Its only limitation is that it can only be used for balls that were hit that resulted in four-baggers.

Even with the limitation of only looking at home runs, there is certainly a lot that can be learned from the available data.

Disclaimer: I took two semesters of Engineering Physics in college, but yeah right like I remember enough of that to understand the physics of baseball. If you are looking for the physics of baseball, Alan M. Nathan is the guy.

For most of this analysis, I focused solely on speed off the bat and true distance. Distance is how home runs are typically categorized, so it provides a good reference point in the data. But distance is truly only a function of the velocity of the ball, and its elevation and horizontal angle, and spin, primarily. The speed off the bat is the most interesting to me because it should tell us a story of how well-struck a baseball is.

According to this article by Nathan, initial speed off the bat poorly determines a ball’s final landing spot, as wind, drag coefficient, and backspin are all very important. However, I believe it is still fair to say that for a given pitch type, the harder it is hit, the more likely it is that it will travel farther. That seems like a safe assumption.

To provide context, all the results you will see in this article exclude inside-the-park home runs, as they skew both speed off bat and distance results. I began by examining the 2013 season, but ended up pulling data back to the 2010 season, including both regular and postseason. The result was 19,000 rows of beautiful home run data. What follows are what I found to be the most interesting results.

MLB Average

For starters, here are the average results by year for every home run hit in baseball going back to 2010:

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As you can see, the speed of home runs hit has not changed much over the years, fluctuating between 103.3 and 103.5 MPH. Distance has been fairly consistent as well, except for the jump in 2012 to 398.3 feet. So that tells us what an average home run is: 103.4 MPH off the bat and 397 feet.

Unlucky Pitchers

As I began sorting through the data, I became interested in which pitchers may have had the worst luck with home runs in 2013. Pitcher home run rates are subject to somewhat random, unlucky fluctuations. Perhaps using this data, we can determine which pitchers were unlucky.

Below are all of the pitchers who allowed 20 home runs or more in 2013, but had a below average speed off the bat. For comparison’s sake, the MLB Average HR/9 was 1.0 in 2013:

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The players highlighted in yellow are free agents this offseason. Perhaps they (and especially Hiroki Kuroda) would be possible bargains for a club looking for starting pitching this winter. This logic is similar to saying that a hitter with a very low BABIP but consistent line drive rates is due for positive regression to the mean. A pitcher with high home run rates but low speeds off the bat may be in line for a similar positive regression.

Yu Darvish

You also saw Yu Darvish highlighted in that last section, who gave up more home runs for the Rangers than any other pitcher at 26 this year, an increase over his 2012 mark of 14 home runs allowed. Here is how Darvish compared to the rest of Rangers pitchers in 2013:

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Martin Perez is right there with Darvish in terms of the speed of home runs off the bat, but they are both below the MLB average and clearly below the team average for Texas.

Additionally, here is Darvish’s 2013 season compared to his 2012 campaign:

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Despite home run balls being hit significantly slower and traveling shorter in 2013 on Darvish, his home run rate surprisingly jumped from 0.7 HR/9 in 2012 to 1.1 HR/9 in 2013.

If we were to assume that with his below-MLB average speeds off the bat, Darvish were able to achieve an MLB average HR/9 rate (conservative assumption), that would have translated to Darvish surrendering four fewer home runs in 2013, from 26 to 22.

Looking at Darvish’s stat line for 2013, the only two areas that one could point to as a potential for improvement is his walk rate and home runs allowed. If my assumption is correct, Darvish’s home run issues may correct themselves without him doing anything but benefitting from some slightly better luck.

Texas Rangers Hitters

For curiosities’ sake, we can also look at this data from the hitter’s perspective, as well. Below are the home runs hit by Rangers hitters in 2013, sorted first by speed off the bat, and then by true distance:

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The first surprise here to me is that David Murphy’s 13 home runs averaged the fastest off the bat. Given the backspin he produces with his swing, I wouldn’t expect his contact to be so solid as to produce a high velocity shot.

Of no surprise is that Elvis Andrus sits at the bottom of both lists. While his second half “power surge” was a welcome sight to see, this may suggest that we shouldn’t expect it to continue.

Right next to Andrus is Ian Kinsler, which is of more concern. This may be a product of Kinsler’s upper cut swing, and his low rate of line drive home runs. But for a player the Rangers count on to help produce the power on the team to rank so low in home run speed and distance is unorthodox.

The Ballpark in Arlington

With so much data to analyze, it can be difficult to know what direction to dig. So I did what any good person of the internet would do, and crowdsourced. Upon asking my followers on Twitter what questions I could attempt to answer for them, the most common response was regarding the Ballpark in Arlington’s performance as a home run park in 2013.

From the eye test, the usual jetstream in Arlington disappeared in 2013. What did the data say?

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That’s pretty clear. From 2010-2012, the results of all home runs hit in the Ballpark in Arlington are nearly identical. Then, in 2013, it looks like a different ballpark, with both speed off the bat and distance dropping about 1%.

Obviously, the key isn’t that home run distance fell by five feet in 2013 at the Ballpark, it’s that we can project this assumption to speculate that all fly balls were about 1% shorter in 2013. Thus, a lot of warning track outs in 2013 would have flown over the fence in previous years, as we can see by the lower home run totals.

But wait, you say, the Rangers lost Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, of course the numbers would go down. To see if that is really the driving factor, we can look at the same data, but split it based on home runs hit by Texas players and non-Texas players. Below you will see Texas players on the left, and Texas opponents on the right:

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As you can see, both sides of the battle were equally affected by the loss of the jetstream in Arlington in 2013.

Last offseason, the Rangers made construction changes to the area behind home plate to modify the Cuervo Club, now the Capital One Club. In this Fox Sports article on the Ballpark changes, it was speculated that the changes, which were intended to better circulate air in the Ballpark, may reduce the jetstream but “How the construction will impact the jetstream won’t be known until games are played.” Well, now the games have been played and it seems obvious that we can call the jetstream dead. In physics terms, the jetstream is a wind and drag coefficient modifier that has now been more controlled.

Rest in peace, jetstream, giver of cheap Michael Young home runs for so many years.

It would be of such greater benefit to have access to HIT f/x data, and expand this kind of analysis beyond home runs. However, there is certainly a wealth of information to be gleaned from what is available today.

What other questions might we try to answer about MLB or Texas Rangers home runs from 2013 or the past several years? Ask them in the comments and I’ll dig in the data to find you an answer. 

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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