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Sport Science's John Brenkus breaks down Home Run Derby science, MLB on the moon and hot dogs

John Brenkus breaks down Home Run Derby science

Before the start of Monday night's Gillette Home Run Derby presented by Head & Shoulders, the annual event full of the greatest dingers and drives available (Guy Fieri offers the best diners and dives), John Brenkus of ESPN's Sport Science chatted with by phone to talk a little about the science behind the massive blasts.


Brenkus, who got into the field of sports science by starting a show called XMA: Xtreme Martial Arts on the Discovery Channel, has now hosted more than 1,100 segments of his sportsfotainment show, winning six Emmys along the way. So he knows what he's talking about.

Coming along just as sports data like MLB's PitchFX was beginning, Brenkus was a man alone. The show was "fashioning our own sensors and jerry-rigging everything because there wasn't anything on the market that measured performance in the detail that we needed." But as the growth of data has exploded though, the problem is now "disseminating that data and figuring out what it actually means that's important." 

Like the fact that Garrett Richard's league-high spin rate could be the reason for his success, as Mike Petriello discovered:

Of course, even with all that data, Brenkus can't speculate on tonight's Derby outcome. Thanks to the rule change, in which batters have five minutes to hit as many home runs as possible, "I have no idea how the rule change is going to affect [the hitters]. These athletes are not used to a ticking clock for anything."

That's in part because of a "psychological phenomenon called 'loss aversion' that kicks in." As Brenkus described, "In golf, PGA players make a higher percentage of par putts than birdie putts from the same distance. That's because athletes hate losing more than they like winning." With the clock ticking down on the sluggers, Brenkus points out that studies have shown that "pressure bearing down on an athlete decreases their performance. It will be interesting to see if this has a negative or a positive impact." 

There's one other variable thrown in the mix: Batters may be trying to reach Great American Ball Park's upper deck in left field, dubbed the Flake Free Zone for the night. For every home run hit there, Head and Shoulders will be donating money -- $1,000 for every ball in the first round, $5,000 in the semifinals and $10,000 in the final -- to MLB's RBI program, which promotes the game of baseball for boys and girls living in inner cities.

Reaching it won't be easy, though. Because it's in the second deck, Brenkus' calculations say that balls will have to fly "399 feet to 438 feet, respectively." 

According to Brenkus: 

"A ball is going to have to be leaving the bat at 106 mph, which is 3 mph faster than the average MLB home run. The bat speed is going to have to be 82 mph and that's 17 percent faster than the average bat speed in MLB. Normally, that's on a 90-mph pitch. These pitches are only 40 mph, which puts a lot more burden for the home run on the actual swing itself."

And to reach the farthest point at 438 feet away?

"At an optimal 30 degree launch angle, the ball is going to have to be leaving the bat at 113 mph with a bat speed of 88 mph, which is 25 percent faster than the average MLB swing. The launch angle is only going to be able to vary about 17 millimeters, which is about the length of two stitches on the baseball. When you're putting all of this math together and you see someone hit it into the Flake Free Zone, they really have accomplished something."  

A few batters have managed to hit it into the section -- Nick Hundley, for example, went right down the line off Michael Lorenzen on May 26. With an exit velocity estimated by Statcast™ at 101.96 mph, Hundley's blast traveled 408.58 feet.

And Todd Frazier, a Home Run Derby finalist in 2014 and in the field again this year, has plenty of experience aiming for those seats, given that he calls Great American Ball Park home. His longest shot into left field's upper deck was this shot off Gerrit Cole, which Statcast™ estimated at 427 feet. It left Cole's hands at 98.52 mph, but shot off of Frazier's bat at an absurd 107.59 mph. 

As for the type of athlete best suited to reach these distances, Brenkus explained that it's not necessarily the biggest or strongest.

 "What we look for is really efficiency," he said. "Whether it's pitching or hitting, you're looking at the efficiency of the kinetic chain, you're looking at the transfer of energy from the ground to the end of the hands throwing or bat swinging." 

Although, when asked which player would perform best on the moon, Brenkus had an easy answer: "I think Bryce Harper is the best player on the moon. Seems like the kind of guy who is just game for it, who would really want to win. He's a guy who's like, 'Hey, I'm willing to do whatever it takes.'"


Finally, we knew we had just the right scientist to answer the most difficult of questions: Is a hot dog a sandwich? For this, we had to define whether it was in a bun, "as a hot dog could be by itself." But assuming that it was placed within a bun, Brenkus thought the answer came down to whether the weenie was sliced: "If you're allowed to slice it and put it in a bun, it's a sandwich."

Even that came with its own problems as does a split hot dog count? 

For Brenkus, no. "If it's just split, I think that the actual shape of the meat is important on whether this is actually a sandwich. If it's sliced once, you can still see the curve. You need the curve to be the minority of the surface area. If you slice it a second or third time, the majority is actually flat." 

And that's the kind of sports science we can get behind: A hot dog is a sandwich ... if it's sliced more than once. 

Read More: Cincinnati RedsNick HundleyGarrett RichardsTodd Frazier