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Gordon Edes | Baseball notes

Fan with a one-track mind

In study of homers, he goes the distance

Email|Print| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / December 30, 2007

Greg Rybarczyk has a day job. But most of all, he digs the long ball, and he has devoted much of his spare time to tracking home runs, creating a tool, the Hit Tracker, that he says calculates the precise trajectory of every home run hit in the big leagues.

"I'm not sure why exactly I got into the home run thing, it's probably a combination of things," said Rybarczyk, who was born in Lowell, grew up in Ayer, and went to Lawrence Academy in Groton. "Certainly I've always been a big baseball fan, there's one. It's a physics problem to figure out how far the ball really goes, and I've had an interest in physics from high school, through college, to my Navy career, where on my ship we had to put shells from our guns on target, and where I taught physics for a year at an ROTC prep school. I had my Marine students analyze the trajectory of thrown hand grenades to help them get the concept."

Rybarczyk said he was prompted to begin Hit Tracker when he read in the paper that the Red Sox no longer provided estimates of home run distances.

"There's just something stirring to me about a really long home run: the crack of the ball coming off the bat, the arc of the ball, the fans rising to catch it (or watch it leave the park over their heads)," he wrote in an e-mail.

Rybarczyk, an engineer with Xerox Corp. outside of Portland, Ore., traffics in a language understood by a relative few. For Hit Tracker, he created an aerodynamic model that relies on such measurements as speed off the bat, horizontal launch angle, and vertical launch angle. Hit Tracker also calculates the impact of altitude, wind, and temperature on the flight of the ball; Rybarczyk argues, in fact, that the primary reason for the 8 percent decline in home runs from 2006 to 2007 was the weather.

His knowledge of home runs - his website, hittrackeronline.com, is a trove of cool information - goes beyond how far they traveled. Here are some things he culled about home runs from Sox games last season:

  • Mike Lowell hit 21 home runs last season, but went deep in only four parks, all in the AL East: Fenway (14), Rogers Centre (4), Tropicana Field (2), and Yankee Stadium (1). "So, in 114 games he played in AL East parks, he hit 21 homers," Rybarczyk writes, "while in 42 road games in non-AL East parks, he did not hit a homer. His pull-hitting swing is undoubtedly a nice fit with the Sox."

  • The longest home run by a Red Sox player was a 456-footer by Wily Mo Peña on April 17 at Rogers Centre that would have left all 30 major league parks. The ball came off Peña's bat at a speed of 118.6 miles an hour; Chris Young of the Diamondbacks hit one that was gauged at 122.9 m.p.h.

  • "The shortest homer by a Sox player was Kevin Youkilis's 321-foot homer around the Pesky Pole on May 20," Rybarczyk writes. "This homer would not have cleared the fence at any of the other 29 ballparks in baseball."

  • On April 22, the Sox hit four consecutive homers off Chase Wright of the Yankees that totaled 1,711 feet of distance, an average of 428 feet. In 2007, leaguewide, only 1 out of every 11 home runs traveled 428 feet or more.

  • The Sox' favorite inning for homers was the eighth. They hit 26 of their 166 homers in that inning, including five each by Manny Ramírez and David Ortiz. The Sox did not hit any homers in extra innings, and hit only 11 in the ninth inning. But four of those ninth-inning homers came off Tampa Bay's Al Reyes in the midst of three blown saves during a five-week period in the season's last two months.

  • Ramírez and Ortiz combined for only two homers at Tropicana Field, after hitting 11 there in 2006, and another 11 in 2005.

  • The Sox hit nine home runs during a three-game series at Turner Field in Atlanta, including three by Coco Crisp and two by J.D. Drew. In nine games at Camden Yards in Baltimore, the Sox hit only five homers.

  • "Some commented on J.D. Drew's power perking up in NL parks during '07, but here's something to consider," Rybarczyk writes. "He hit four homers against NL competition, two each at Chase Field in Phoenix and Turner Field in Atlanta. Those parks sit at the second- and third-highest elevations in MLB, respectively, in the neighborhood of 1,000 feet above sea level, which gives 7 to 8 feet of extra distance to a long fly ball. Furthermore, the average temperature at the time of those four homers was 87 degrees, which gives another 7 feet or so of help to a fly ball compared to a 70-degree day. So it may have been the extra 15 feet of carry on his fly balls, rather than familiarity with the NL pitching, that made Drew look so good in those ballparks."

  • Devil Rays first baseman Carlos Peña, the former Northeastern star who made a cameo appearance for the Sox in '06, tied Derek Jeter of the Yankees for most home runs off Sox pitching with six.

  • Of the 21 home runs allowed by Curt Schilling, 10 were hit by the Yankees. The other three teams in the AL East combined to hit one off him.

  • Johan Santana, the lefty coveted by the Sox, gave up only one home run to the Yankees last season, to Hideki Matsui, but surrendered 33 overall, the only AL pitcher to give up 30 home runs.

  • The homers off Schilling traveled an average of 387.4 feet, the highest average on the team but only 51st among big-league pitchers. The longest home run allowed by a Sox player was the 457-foot blast Mark Teixeira of the Rangers hit off Julian Tavarez in Arlington on May 27.

    Clock is ticking on Clemens

    Ten questions for Mike Wallace to ask Roger Clemens in his "60 Minutes" interview, to be aired next week:

    1. You have described Brian McNamee as someone at the "top of the list" of trainers with whom you have worked for the better part of a decade. What possible motive would he have to link you with steroids and human growth hormone?

    2. If you were in McNamee's position, would you lie to federal investigators, knowing that you were risking jail time if you did?

    3. Why would McNamee have told the truth about another of his clients, Andy Pettitte, and lied about you?

    4. How widespread do you believe the use of performance-enhancing substances to be in major league baseball, and why didn't you, as one of the elite stars of the game, lobby your union to do more to create a level playing field, if you weren't among the cheaters?

    5. Given your one-time regard for McNamee as a trainer and friend, do you approve of the efforts of your lawyer, Rusty Hardin, to do whatever he can to discredit McNamee, even if it means impugning his reputation?

    6. In a 2005 interview with the Houston Chronicle, you said: "I'm going to find anything I can that'll make me stronger and allow me to keep up with the 20-year-olds, but I'm going to depend on physicians to tell me what's OK." If you were willing to try "anything" to give you an edge, why should we believe that didn't include performance-enhancing substances?

    7. Your sons are athletic; your oldest son is a professional ballplayer. What do you say to your sons about the charges in the Mitchell Report and what they have done to your reputation?

    8. Let's assume that you are totally clean, as you claim to be. How can you possibly salvage your reputation in the aftermath of the Mitchell Report? And if you or other top stars are not clean, did you ever entertain the thought that full disclosure might actually be in the best interests of baseball, and help the industry to put behind it some of the excesses of the steroid era?

    9. Do you believe it compromises the credibility of this interview that I, Mike Wallace, became friends with you after an earlier "60 Minutes" profile and am a frequent guest in George Steinbrenner's box?

    10. In retrospect, do you wish you'd never met Jose Canseco?

    Rooting for the Red Sox is their province, too

    Wondering why the Red Sox are taking the World Series trophy to Nova Scotia Jan. 7? Well, you obviously aren't acquainted with Fred Lake, the Bluenose Bosox Brotherhood, or the woman in the US consulate in Halifax who gave her daughter the middle name "Fenway."

    We'll let a "bluenose" explain.

    "The BBB is a diehard group of Sox fans from Nova Scotia, 'Bluenose' being a nickname for residents of that Canadian province," writes Jim Prime, who once published a biography of Lake, a Nova Scotia native who managed both the Sox and Braves (then known as the Doves) at the turn of the 20th century, and has been a lifelong Sox fan.

    Prime, along with a couple of other residents of Annapolis Valley, Dave Ritcey and Don Hyslop, held their first meeting of the BBB in 2005. There were about six members at the first meeting at Smitty's, a breakfast joint in New Minas. They now number around 100 from across the province.

    Prime says Halifax has always had a soft spot for Boston, a relationship that was cemented when Boston rushed to its aid after the Halifax Explosion in 1917 devastated the city and left thousands dead and injured. And until Canada got its own big-league teams, the Sox were considered the "home team" by many Nova Scotians. In addition to discussing all things Sox, the BBB also raised $1,000 to support cancer research in honor of Jon Lester.

    After the Sox won the World Series in October, the BBB launched a campaign urging them to bring the trophy north. Among those who joined the effort was Elizabeth Schwefler, a Boston native who is section chief in the US consulate in Halifax and whose devotion to the Red Sox extends to naming her daughter after her favorite ballpark.

    Etc.

    The Stenson story revisited
    The harrowing story surrounding the murder of former Red Sox prospect Dernell Stenson is told in great detail in an Oxford American magazine piece by Taylor Bruce, who grew up in Stenson's hometown of La Grange, Ga. Stenson was killed in a carjacking and robbery while playing in the Arizona Fall League in 2003; two men linked to a former member of a Chicago street gang were sentenced to life in prison, a third to eight years in prison, for the crime. Many of Stenson's family members and friends were convinced that a former girlfriend who had threatened to kill Stenson and had falsely claimed to give birth to Stenson's child was involved, but the prosecutor in the case concluded otherwise. "Throughout the cross-country investigation, prosecutor Cathy Hughes never fully believed in the murder-for-hire scenario," Bruce writes. "She saw in the evidence two sets of overlapping, sinister circumstances, but only one of which resulted in murder. 'Nothing fits absolutely perfectly,' she said. 'You learn that there are coincidences.' " The full story can be found at oxfordamericanmag.com/content.cfm?ArticleID=302&;Entry=CurrentIssue).

    He was pulled back in
    Gabe Kapler, who is resuming his playing career with the Milwaukee Brewers after signing a nonguaranteed contract, had made just a one-year commitment to managing in the Sox system; he figured the lure of playing might prove too strong. When the season ended for Single A Greenville and he'd fulfilled his contract, he informed the Sox he was not interested in coming back to manage.

    The arbitration delegation
    The 10-day arbitration filing period begins Saturday and continues until Jan. 15. Salary figures are exchanged on Jan. 18, with hearings scheduled from Feb. 1-21. The Sox have three players eligible for arbitration, most notably Kevin Youkilis, plus relievers Javier Lopez and Kyle Snyder. Youkilis and Lopez are eligible for the first time. Snyder signed last January for $535,000 and avoided arbitration. Youkilis was paid $424,500 last season after he and the Sox could not come to contract terms and he was renewed at that figure by the club; he figures to get a substantial bump. There are some big names around the game in line for huge raises in arbitration, most notably Phillies slugger Ryan Howard. Other stars on the arbitration-eligible list include Mark Teixeira of the Braves, Erik Bedard of the Orioles, Matt Holliday of the Rockies, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers, Justin Morneau of the Twins, Chien-Ming Wang of the Yankees, Alex Rios of the Blue Jays, and Carlos Pena and Scott Kazmir of the Devil Rays. An interesting case is that of Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels; K-Rod is a year away from free agency.

    Wrestlemania
    How big a story were the Sox in Japan in 2007? According to the Daily Yomiuri, which publishes in both English and Japanese, Daisuke Matsuzaka winning Game 3 of the World Series ranked 11th among the year's top sports stories. Hideki Okajima didn't even rate a mention. The top story, according to the paper, was the saga of a sumo wrestler, Mongolian grand champion Asashoryu, who caused an uproar when he skipped a local sumo tour because of hip and elbow injuries, only to be captured on TV playing in a charity soccer match in his homeland. Asashoryu received an unprecedented two-tournament ban and then suffered a nervous breakdown, high drama that evidently eclipsed both Matsuzaka and Okajima.

    Extra bases
    According to statistician John Dewan, opposing hitters have been remarkably consistent (and unsuccessful) against Josh Beckett, hitting no higher than .246 and no worse than .232 in any season of Beckett's six-year career . . . Don't forget Saturday's Hot Stove/Cool Music Roundtable, which includes Sox GM Theo Epstein, ESPN commentator Peter Gammons, Celtics managing partner Steve Pagliuca, Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, Hockey Hall of Famer Cam Neely, and Red Sox special adviser Bill James. The Herald's Jeff Horrigan will serve as moderator of the Roundtable, which is sponsored by Greenberg Traurig LLP and will be held from 1-3 p.m. at Fenway Park's State Street Pavilion. Tickets are $100 and are available by logging onto HotStoveCoolMusic.org. The price of admission includes light snacks and Harpoon beer, compliments of the Harpoon Brewery. The Hot Stove/Cool Music concert is the next night. It's all for charity.

    Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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