All-Time Home Run Location Leaderboards
I’ve hypothesized, along with others, that Ryan Howard might be the best opposite-field power hitter of all time. Thanks to the wonders of Retrosheet (and Colin Wyers), we can get closer to answering that question.
I queried for all home runs in the retrosheet era, and came up with about 185,000 homers. I then tried to eliminate all home runs that didn’t have a field location or were inside-the-parkers. That cut around 20,000 homers. And not all the homers cut were from the 50s. I think the worst year for data on home run location in the retrosheet era (1953-2008) was 1984. The most accurate years are probably during the ‘90s. Anyway, Here’s the diagram retrosheet uses. I coded all three zones left/right of center as pull/opposite field respectively, and the straightaway zone as center field. Onward.
| Bats | Pull% | Center% | Opposite% |
| Left | 76.3 | 11.8 | 11.9 |
| Right | 76.6 | 12.1 | 11.3 |
Somewhat odd that lefties hit more opposite field homers than center field homers. This won't really shed light on the matter, but I felt like looking at splits against pitchers.
| Bats | Pitches | Pull% | Center% | Opposite% |
| Left | Left | 77.6 | 11.6 | 10.9 |
| Left | Right | 76.0 | 11.8 | 12.1 |
| Right | Left | 77.0 | 11.7 | 11.3 |
| Right | Right | 76.4 | 12.3 | 11.2 |
So it appears that lefty pitchers have their homers pulled more often than righty pitchers—likely a result of southpaws being softer throwers. I wonder why lefties appear to hit homers to the opposite field against righties at an abnormal rate.
Alright, let’s look at the top home run hitters of all time.
This was a convenient place to stop, as the next three in line hitters were switch hitters in Chipper Jones, Mickey Mantle, and Eddie Murray. Unfortunately, I messed up coding home run locations for them.
I had a feeling Jim Thome hit a very high percentage of homers to the opposite field. He and Ryan Howard are linked in more ways than one. I have to give credit to Rich Lederer for guessing that Mike Piazza would be among the tops in percentage of homers to the opposite field. But just wait until we get to my man Howard. Sheffield, not surprisingly, pulled twenty times as many homers as he hit the other way. I can’t say that I knew Ernie Banks was that extreme a pull hitter.
With a minimum of 100 home runs in my sample set, here are those with the highest pull percentage.
No, not that Frank Thomas. You can see his splits above on the all-time leader list.
These are guys who don’t have the power to hit it out any other way. I’m impressed that so many batters have hit 100 homers without using an entire third of the field. The only other member of this group is Don Baylor, who hit 277 homers without an opposite field blast. I wanted to check on Ichiro Suzuki, since he fits in this school of hitters, but didn’t reach the 100 home run threshold. He’s hit a single opposite-field home run in his career. I hope it was memorable.
Center Field Percentage
Mike Marshalls have played a large part in my life over the last year. I recently learned that one Mike Marshall was as an outcast Cy Young award-winning former teammate of Jim Bouton, who later became a doctor who developed radical pitching mechanics. Now I know that the year he retired another Mike Marshall, of whom I had never heard, debuted as an impressive home run hitter to center field. They both had their best years with the Dodgers.
These guys all seem to have tons of raw power, as that’s what it takes to hit balls out to center. Chipper Jones belongs on this leaderboard, but was excluded due to my glitch with switch hitters.
Opposite Field Percentage
It’s always a pleasure to see Roberto Clemente top any list. The fact that he was such an extreme opposite field power hitter might be a tidbit not many knew about, so I’m glad I can contribute one of the more trivial pieces of information to his legend. I’m surprised to see Julio Franco here. I saw a game or two of his in my day (who didn’t), and I always thought his unique batting stance would be conducive to pulling balls, kind of like Gary Sheffield’s bat wiggle. I guess holding the bat parallel to the ground delays his swing so he makes contact with the ball as it travels further in the zone. Chuck Knoblauch, who was the opposite of Franco in that he held his bat practically parallel to the ground behind him instead of over his head, pulled 75% of his homers. Also irrelevant: Franco's hit multiple homers against both Oil Can Boyd and Russ Ortiz. I doubt many others can say that.
So Ryan Howard is clearly up there. When I made my claim about Howard, it was after seeing that he was the only player in the last four years to have recorded greater than 15 homers in a season to his weak side. I was looking at Baseball Info Solutions data then, which has Howard’s 177 career homers distributed as 37.29% to left, 32.20% to center, and 30.51% to right. So the center field zone I’m using is a bit smaller than that of BIS. I think we can say pretty definitively that he’s a great opposite-field home run hitter, but Clemente seems to be in a class by himself when it comes to opposite%. I assume that Clemente’s and Skowron’s opposite field numbers are somewhat inflated, since their center field numbers are depressed as a result of the much deeper fences back in the day. Additionally, the right-field line at Forbes Field was 300 feet, which may have padded Clemente's totals.
Was Bo Jackson the beginning of the hype machine? Or was it Brian Bosworth? I believe that Bo Jackson hit a home run to the opposite field so far that it went into orbit, only to be knocked down by a homer Matt Wieters hit last week, which I’m sure will in turn be bumped by Stephen Strasburg and then Bryce Harper.
Derek Jeter’s opposite-field prowess is well known, and I believe he’s the only batter in this group to have added to his tally this year. (I wrote that, and then on Monday, Howard hit a three-run shot to left-center field. We’ll have to see where they score that one.)
On to the single season leaderboards.
Single Season Pulled
Roger Maris is the home run king!
Single Season Center Field
Chipper had 17 in 1999 as well, but he is not included. '99 was an interesting year. 1985 was also an interesting year. Clearly, home run location data from that year are not reliable.
Finally, here's the leaderboard that started this whole ordeal.
Single Season Opposite Field
There you have it. Howard is demonstrating opposite field power the likes of which we have never seen before.
Actually, one more note. Since I regret messing up the coding for switch hitters, I decided to go back and check on the five most notable I could think of in Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray, Chipper Jones, Lance Berkman, and Mark Teixeira. Here are their career splits.
Looks like Murray and Teixeira were similar from both sides of the plate while Berkman has a split personality.
If you've made it this far, here's something that might interest you. In a google docs spreadsheet, I’ve included all batters with 50 career home runs in my dataset and on another sheet all batters with seasons of at least ten recorded home runs. If you want to search for a specific player, I’d suggest that you check out baseball reference's home run logs. Sean Forman does good stuff over there.