Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/15/14
There are a lot of different ways in which a dinger can be exceptional. It can be the fastest pitch hit for a dinger all season. It can be the slowest pitch hit for a dinger all season. It can be the longest or the fastest dinger all season. There exist plenty of exceptional dingers, and not too long ago, Miguel Cabrera hit one, against Phil Hughes. Hughes threw a pitch to Cabrera that PITCHf/x measured at almost two feet inside from the center of home plate. No matter — Cabrera hit it out, and what’s more is that it didn’t even look like it was a problem for him. The homer wowed everyone who watched, but according to Jim Leyland, that was something Cabrera could top: What’s really stunning, [Leyland] said, is when Cabrera takes that same pitch — a pitch, by the way, that jams most right-handed hitters and results in either a foul or a weak grounder — and pounds it to the opposite field for a home run. Ponder the physics of that for a second. According to Leyland, Cabrera has gone the other way for a homer off that inside pitch off the plate. Maybe Leyland was referring to what Cabrera has done with the team in batting practice. He hasn’t actually done what Leyland claims, at least not in a game, at least not in the PITCHf/x era. Mostly because that would be impossible. We don’t need to exaggerate Miguel Cabrera’s plate coverage; Cabrera’s true plate coverage is already an exaggeration. The fact of the matter is that it’s really hard to hit an inside pitch the other way. It’s harder still to hit an inside pitch well the other way, and you can imagine how few inside pitches are hit well the other way down the line. It’s just a violation of physics, a practical impossibility given the nature of swings and where batters stand in the box. All right, now we proceed. This isn’t what this post was supposed to be about. This post began as aimless research. I wanted to combine home-run data from the ESPN Home Run Tracker with PITCHf/x data, because I hadn’t ever done that before. I didn’t know what I was going to do once the data was combined, but I assumed I’d figure something out, at least to sate my own curiosity. I’ll just walk you through some stuff quickly. The first thing I did was turn lefties into righties at the plate. That is, instead of separating data for left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters, I blended them, and reversed the pitch-location data for pitches thrown to left-handed bats. Basically, I wanted to be able to look at inside pitches and outside pitches and the like, without dealing with two handednesses. With the Home Run Tracker data, I also reversed the horizontal launch angle. From the site’s glossary: Horiz. Angle – the initial direction of the ball as it left the bat in degrees, where 45 degrees is straight down the right field line, 90 degrees is straight over second base and 135 degrees is straight down the left field line. I reversed those numbers for lefties so that pulled home runs for lefties looked like pulled home runs for righties, and so on and so forth. Eventually, I copied the zone chart from Baseball Savant. That chart includes 13 zones: nine squares dividing up the strike zone, and four zones dividing up the rest. This is something ugly I produced without knowing what to make of it: A legend: Zone number Average home-run distance Average home-run speed off bat Average home-run elevation angle Average home-run horizontal angle I was interested in that, but I wasn’t satisfied. There’s interesting information, a lot of it intuitive or obvious. The longest home runs, on average, are hit on pitches in zone 8. The fastest home runs, on average, are hit on pitches in zone 4. That makes sense, because that’s when a hitter’s bat speed would be its greatest, when he’s wrapping around an inside strike. Inside pitches are pulled for home runs. Outer pitches tend to go more up the middle, and beyond. Home runs on outside pitches have lower elevation angles, by a degree or two. There’s a whole lot in that chart, and there’s a whole lot more in the spreadsheet, and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. A problem is that it’s selective for balls that were hit for home runs, so all of them are guaranteed to exceed a minimum threshold. This would be far more useful with HITf/x data instead of Home Run Tracker data. But to go all the way back, this post is supposed to be about a really exceptional dinger. Jim Leyland was talking about Miguel Cabrera going the other way for home runs against inside pitches. Clearly, we can gather from the graphic that this is unusual. Remember that a horizontal angle of 90 degrees is up the middle. Less than 90 degrees means a home run hit at least to the opposite half. The most opposite-field home run in zone 13 was hit by Joey Votto, with a horizontal angle of 72.9 degrees. With a pitch that low, Votto was somewhat able to get his arms extended. The most opposite-field home run in zone 7 was hit by Mark Trumbo, with a horizontal angle of 69.4 degrees. Trumbo, also, was able to get his arms extended. The most opposite-field home run in zone 4 was hit by Trumbo as well, with a horizontal angle of 65.7 degrees. Arms, extended, everything. We move on to zone 1. The most opposite-field home run in zone 1 was hit by Josh Donaldson, with a horizontal angle of 58.1 degrees. These are pitches high and tight, so there’s only so much a hitter can do with his arms. The next-most opposite-field home run in zone 1 was hit by Chris Colabello, with a horizontal angle of 79.4 degrees. So that gives you a sense of how much Donaldson’s dinger stands out. For more of a sense, some images taken from the ESPN Home Run Tracker: That’s Colabello on top, and that’s Donaldson on bottom. Colabello went out to right-center field. Donaldson went out down the right-field line, against this fastball: That’s a tailing fastball at 94.4 miles per hour. In motion: The pitch to Donaldson crossed the front plane just over half a foot inside from the center of home plate, 2.9 feet off the ground. There have been 346 home runs off pitches at least half a foot inside from the center of home plate, and at least 2.5 feet off the ground. Donaldson’s dinger had a horizontal angle of 58.1. The next-lowest for such a home run was 86.1. That’s not a pitch that gets hit out the other way. Donaldson hit it out the other way, down the line, for a walk-off. Leyland, afterward: “We got no complaints about that,” manager Jim Leyland said. “The guy hit the ball over the fence. It wasn’t like we walked somebody. The guy hit it over the fence. You gotta tip your hat to them.” Donaldson, afterward: “I was looking for a fastball,” Donaldson said. “He throws pretty hard. I didn’t want to be overaggressive. … I didn’t know it was out because I never hit one over there.” This season, Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson have been two of the league’s most outstanding regular players. This season, Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson have authored two of the league’s most exceptional home runs. In these ways, Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson are alike. And, think about that sentence. It’s a wonderfully baseball sentence.
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