A writer — even a below-average baseball writer — needn’t worry much about finding a pretense upon which to invoke space. To the extent that night exists, the prospect of that distant, empty hellscape is, basically by definition, never far from one’s experience of the world. Space, as a notion, is inescapable.
During one recent night, I stumbled upon a dumb thought regarding that inescapable notion. Or, to put it more accurately, what I stumbled upon was less a thought and more a fleeting vision — a vision, specifically, of a baseball game being played in space.
There are obviously a lot of logistical concerns that attend such a vision. How are the players able to breathe? By what means do they move from base to base? Who washes the uniforms? Blessed with little in the way of intellectual curiosity and even less in the way of intellectual aptitude, I was fortunately untroubled by most such questions, allowing them to drift away unanswered. For the most part, I survived this reverie without having endured improvement of any kind.
One concern did emerge, however, that I was ultimately unable to escape. As to why it stayed with me, I’m unable to say, although I suspect it’s because, as one of this site’s editors, I’m compelled to work frequently with the sort of tools that might help one to answer it. What I wanted to know, specifically, was this: who, among baseball’s current hitters, would be the home-run leader in space?
Already you might see what’s at work here — namely, that physical strength isn’t of much use in space. Assuming a park environment with zero gravity — and that’s the assumption I’ve made for the sake of answering this question — the need for a batter to hit the ball with any great force disappears. Exit velocity is what allows earthbound hitters to briefly counteract the influence of gravity. In the starry abyss, however, there’s no need to counteract anything. A batted ball in motion will stay in motion — theoretically, to the end of the universe. Any exit velocity above zero is sufficient.
No, this is really a question about launch angle. The hitter best suited to homering in space isn’t the one who strikes the ball with the greatest force, but rather the one who is able, most often, to contact the ball with just enough loft for it to clear the outfield wall.
Here, for example, is the closest thing to a space homer in the majors this year:
That’s Maikel Franco hitting a ball on a line and clearing the fence at Citizens Bank Park. His homer, subject to gravity, had a launch angle of just 14.9 degrees. How much lower could that figure be without the baleful effects of gravity?
Before answering the question, it’s necessary to establish both the height of the outfield wall and also its distance from home place — not at Citizens Bank, just in a generic space park. For the sake of this meaningless thought experiment, I’ve decided those figures are 10 and 400 feet, respectively. Which, having arrived at those numbers, gives one almost all the necessary information to answer the question.
To review all that information, consider this hastily drawn schematic design:
The 400-foot horizontal line in this sketch represents the distance that must be traveled by a ball for it to become a hypothetical space home run. The 10-foot vertical line at the leftmost end of the horizontal one represents the height of the outfield fence. The dotted line connecting the top of the fence to the “plate” area indicates the (infinite) flight of a batted ball in space. One notes the result very much resembles a triangle — and, having already established the length of two sides (400 and 10 feet) and at least one angle (90 degrees at the base of the outfield wall), one has sufficient information to determine the minimum launch angle for a space homer.
Except there’s also one last consideration: batters typically don’t make contact with a ball at a height of of 0.0 feet. Accordingly, it won’t be necessary for a ball to ascend 10 feet between home plate and the outfield wall, but only the difference between 10 feet and the altitude at which the ball is struck. Because the middle of the strike zone is typically 2.5 feet off the ground, I’ve chosen that as the average point of contact, meaning our space homer only needs to ascend 7.5 feet. Using a combination of 400 feet, 7.5 feet, 90 degrees, and math, one finds that the minimum acceptable launch angle for a space homer is roughly 1.075 degrees.
Our objective, then: to identify the batters who have recorded the most batted balls with a launch angle of 1.075 degrees or higher (and lower than 90 degrees, as well). Here, per Baseball Savant, are the leaders by that set of criteria:
On our planet, Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield has recorded just 12 home runs. He strikes out less often than the average hitter, though, and has produced a ground-ball rate of just 34.8%. Among the 152 hitters who’ve recorded 300 or more plate appearances this season, his average launch angle of 16.9 degrees ranks 24th. Merrifield has been worth over four wins this year. In space, he might be an MVP.
Of course, many of the hitters earn their distinction as space’s top home-run hitters in large part because they’ve compiled pretty large plate-appearance totals. What about the rate leaders? How about them? To answer this even less important question, I’ve produced below a table including the leaders by space home runs per 600 plate appearances (SHR/600):
|5||Kevin Pillar||Blue Jays||495||289||350|
By this measure, Kurt Suzuki rises to the top. He hits fewer balls on the ground than Merrifield and makes more contact than almost everyone in the majors. He is, perhaps, the best home-run hitter space has never seen.
Thanks to colleagues Sean Dolinar and Craig Edwards for their assistance in this absurd endeavor.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.