Matt Wieters has hit 5 home runs this year. And he very well may have pulled off a historic feat in the process. (* And no, I don’t mean easily passing former back-up outfielder Jesus Tavarez (3) for most career home runs by a switch-hitting Jesus.)
The two home runs to right-center were hit as a right-handed batter. The three to left-field were hit as a left-handed batter. That is, all five of his career home runs have been hit to the opposite field (when considered as only pulled or opposite field, and not including center-field). That’s seems like quite an interesting happening. Let’s take a look at each of the home runs individually, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
Wieters’ first home run was on June 17th against right-handed starter Tim Redding of the Mets at Camden Yards.
First pitch Redding threw him was a 88 mph cutter up and just off the plate. Wieters lifted it high into the air in left-field, just clearing the wall around 365 feet away. The first of many.
His second home run was off of right-handed reliever Leo Nunez in Miami against the Marlins on June 23rd.
Wieters got ahead in the count 2-1, and Nunez left a 94 mph fastball up and out over the plate. It was his shortest home run at just over 360 feet over the high wall in left-field, but they all count the same.
Home run number three occurred July 5th against left-handed starter Joe Saunders of the Angels in LA.
Saunders fell behind in the count 2-0 with a couple fastballs before slipping a curve in for a strike. Then he went back to the 90 mph heater, but left it belt high and in the middle of the plate. The ball was deposited 420+ feet away in the stands in right-center.
Wieters’ fourth homer came over a month later, on August 18th at Tampa Bay against left-handed reliever Randy Choate.
Choate kept throwing Wieters mid 80s fastballs low in the zone, and Wieters kept fouling them off – eventually running the count full. While I was watching this game I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Zaun (the Rays catcher) didn’t call for a change-up or a breaking-ball. I was sure that Wieters would have swung and missed it (as he did in the 9th, when JP Howell threw him three consecutive change-ups for three swings-and-misses to end the game). But no, they came in with another 86 mph fastball a little bit down and in from the middle of the plate, and Wieters did a good job staying inside the ball and driving it out (over 400 ft.) to right-center.
His latest home run was on August 27th against the Indians, when he took right-handed reliever Jess Todd deep (over 400 ft.) to left-field.
Todd tried to work him down with the slider and away with the fastball, and on the 3-2 count Wieters connected with a 87 mph fastball off the plate away and drove it well out of the park.
So overall, it looks like Wieters definitely has the ability to drive that outside pitch out to the opposite field. It’ll be interesting to see how much power he hits for once he starts pulling the ball out of the park.
Anyway, back to the uniqueness factor. I think it’s entirely possible that Matt Wieters is the first player to ever his his first five career home runs to the opposite field. I tried to check this out, but the only dataset that has this kind of info is Retrosheet. This resulted in three problems: (1) the home run location data just has large squares so one wouldn’t usually be able to tell if a homer to center went to the pull side or to the opposite field, (2) even that location data is missing for many home runs, especially from a while ago, and (3) I couldn’t set up MySQL (or anything really) to work with the data. Now, if I had managed to get (3) under control, I could have at least come up with something even if it wasn’t completely definitive. [Anybody out there want to walk me through how to do that (slowly) , then I'd be much obliged. I work with data all the time, but not in the ways usually described in instructions I've found regarding Retrosheet.]
So what is one to do? Theoretically, I could just say that I did the research and, yes, Wieters is the first. That would be completely intellectually dishonest, but really, who would check? I’d rather turn in my saber-blogging card than do that though, no matter how much such an unresolved question irks me. The best I could come up with is a hand-wavy back-of-the-envelope calculation.
Going by this article by Jeremy Greenhouse (who was very nice in answering my questions and was, in fact, the one who told me to use Retrosheet) at The Baseball Analysts from this year and this article by John Walsh at The Hardball Times from 2007, I think it would be fair (if not a little generous) to say that about 20% of home runs are hit to the opposite field. Assuming that each home run is an independent event, the probability of starting ones’ career with five consecutive opposite field home runs would be about 0.032%. There have been (according to MLB.com) approximately 4,213 players with at least 5 career home runs (the set of possibles). Therefore, we’d expect about 1.35 players (4,213 * 0.032%) to have pulled this off. And Wieters – being Wieters – may just be that 1 and 3/5ths of a man.