It’s early in the baseball season, but there seems to be something in the air at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
The rebuilt Toronto Blue Jays are off to a slow start in the 2013 Major League Baseball season, but their cavernous home stadium has become a launch pad for home-run hitters.
There have been only six home games so far this season, a tiny sample size, but there have been majestic home runs beneath the closed dome – at a record-setting rate.
How to explain the power surge? Some of the theories include a livelier baseball or the removal of glass panes at the old Windows Restaurant overlooking centrefield. Or, possibly, nothing at all.
Nobody can say for sure.
“Who knows?” says Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “It’s kind of like global warming, we all have our ideas.”
Through the first homestand last week that saw Toronto win two of six games, the home side and their opponents combined for 23 homers, the most in the majors, and at 3.83 home runs per game, second in the 30-team league. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington saw four home runs per game.
The home run average across the majors the first week was 2.14 per game, so what has transpired at Rogers Centre so far represents a huge increase.
Should the trend continue – a big if, considering 75 regular-season home games remain – upwards of 310 home runs stand to be clubbed at the Rogers Centre, which would set a major-league record.
In 1999 in the thin air at Coors Field in Denver, 1,600 metres above sea level, 303 home runs were hit – the current record.
Tracking ‘true distance’
Greg Rybarczyk is the guru of the long ball, having provided trajectory analysis of every home run struck in the major leagues since 2006.
For the last three years he has operated his Home Run Tracker website in conjunction with ESPN Stats & Info Group, a division of the giant U.S. sports cable network.
Mr. Rybarczyk has devised an aerodynamic model that determines the precise distance each home run travels. Even when the ball strikes a seat, a fan, the façade of the stadium – or simply continues out of the park, as it often does at Fenway Park in Boston – Mr. Rybarczyk figures out how far it would have gone, its “true distance.”
And he is very interested in what’s going on at Rogers Centre.
Of the 195 home runs hit in the first week of the season, five have travelled 450 feet or farther. Four were hit in Toronto.
They include the leading moon shot, which jumped off the bat of Blue Jays hitter Colby Rasmus on Saturday and was still arcing when it struck the 300-level facing in right-centre field, before bouncing back onto the turf. The blast covered 468 feet.
Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia knocked a home run 460 feet on April 4 and Boston’s Mike Napoli sent one the same distance on Sunday. Another of 457 feet was smashed by Cleveland’s Mark Reynolds on April 3.
To put it in perspective, of the 4,934 home runs hit in the majors in 2012, only 96 travelled as far as 450 feet. Through six games at Rogers Centre there have already been four.
“I think you may be seeing a small sample size effect,” Mr. Rybarczyk says. “But on the other hand, the fact that so many balls are going so far has got my antennae twitching a little bit.
“I’m wondering what’s going on there.”
In the mind of Gregg Zaun, there is no doubt.
A former major-league catcher for 16 years and now a Blue Jays television analyst, Mr. Zaun is convinced an off-season renovation, which saw the former Windows Restaurant turned into an open space for fans to watch the game, has led to the upswing in home runs.
“I really believe now that there’s nothing to stop the air going out to centrefield,” says Mr. Zaun, who hit 88 home runs in his professional career. “You’re seeing balls reach places in that stadium that shouldn’t be reached with that much ease.
“The distances that the home runs were flying in that first homestand were absolutely ridiculous.”
Mr. Zaun’s thesis was dismissed by Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Prof. Nathan has a website devoted to research on the physics of baseball.
If there is no wind circulating in a stadium when the roof is shut, Prof. Nathan says the removal of windows should not affect anything. “That kind of reasoning would make a lot more sense to me if the roof were open,” he says.
Murray Beynon, the Waterloo, Ont.-born architect who helped in the construction of the stadium, agrees.
“I haven’t done any detailed analysis or study, but I would find it very difficult to believe that is the cause, or a cause,” he says.
Still, neither man could come up with another plausible explanation for the increased liveliness within Rogers Centre.
Mr. Rybarczyk wonders if the Blue Jays are storing their cache of baseballs in a different location, a drier setting that would make the balls smaller and harder, and spring better off the bat.
“We keep them in the same place we’ve kept them every year, in the clubhouse area,” says Blue Jays spokesman Jay Stenhouse.
All of this matters little to pitcher R.A. Dickey, who allowed three home runs in two starts.
“The ball does travel here a lot more than I ever anticipated that it would,” he says. “But that’s for both teams.”
By the numbers
Average number of home runs per game at the Rogers Centre in 2012.
Average number of home runs per game at the Rogers Centre so far in 2013.
Projected number of home runs at the Rogers Centre for the 2013 season, at the current pace, which would set a major-league record.
With a report from Tom Maloney