Sports Tech

Hit Man

The only man who can tell you how far Barry Bonds’s last homer really went lives here.

By Tom Colligan May 19, 2009 Published in the April 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Amy Martin

WHEN GREG RYBARCZYK read in April 2005 that his beloved Boston Red Sox would no longer bother with willy-nilly estimations of how far home run balls had been hit (because such guesses were wildly inaccurate), something about it just didn’t sit right. After all, the Red Sox, like most Major League Baseball teams, had been guesstimating home run distances for decades (some still do). So, wondered the 38-year-old Xerox engineer, who lives in West Linn, why wasn’t there a more accurate way to measure home runs? "I remember thinking, This is the 21st century," Rybarczyk recalls. "Why can’t we figure out how far it truly went?"

Having once served as a Navy navigator aboard the USS South Carolina, where he was responsible for calculating the trajectory of 54-caliber gun shells, Rybarczyk was uniquely suited to answering that question. It took him a year to collect the vast matrix of data he needed to figure it out, but in 2006 Rybarczyk launched, a site for home-run-obsessed fans like himself.

Armed with aerodynamic models, stadium diagrams and charts—lots and lots of charts—Rybarczyk can now measure the "true distance" (the distance an object would have traveled without obstruction) of every ball knocked out of a Major League park. Factoring in things like wind speed, elevation (balls fly slower through denser air; that’s why hitters love Denver’s Mile High stadium) and ambient air temperature (cold baseballs don’t bounce as far), he can now measure homers to within about one foot. For a fan base already rife with stats geeks, this new bit of numbers-crunching is like manna from Cooperstown.

And there’s more. Even though his current process for tracking homers eats up about two hours each night, Rybarczyk hopes to expand Hit Tracker soon to its natural conclusion: recording every ball hit in the majors, whether it clears the fence or not. There are, however, a few companies threatening to beat him to the punch. For instance, SportVision, the folks who brought us the National Football League’s superimposed yellow first-down marker on televised games, is reportedly going ahead with plans to track the distance of every single, double and triple with cameras.

"If that happens," Rybarczyk says, "I’ll gladly hang up the algorithms and let them do the heavy lifting."

After all, that fantasy baseball team isn’t going to manage itself.

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