When Adele wrote “Hometown Glory” I highly doubt she was a pre-empting the 2019 London Series where Major League Baseballs biggest stars donned their fielding gloves in a stadium more accustomed to Mo Farah, Usain Bolt and indeed Mark Noble, but we can believe it right?
In a move by Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball intended to grow America’s past time on foreign shores for the second time this season (following opening day in Tokyo), The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox came to London town to do battle in the latest chapter of their historic rivalry.
On the face of it, the London Series posted more question marks than the NFL’s annual excursions to Wembley Stadium and soon to be White Hart Lane and of course the NBA’S showcase at the 02 Arena. How tenable was the latest episode of America’s pro sport export? Not only is the fan base plausible but do the Brits have anywhere to even play?
“If you build it, they will come”.
And that’s exactly what happened. With the large majority of England’s cricket grounds occupied by the 2019 Cricket World Cup the only option was the London Stadium. Home of both the 2012 Olympics and latterly West Ham United.
Fast-forward 2 years of planning, 23 days of construction, 345 tonnes of dirt, 141,900 square ft of AstroTurf and 50 food vendors on- London had a ballpark. Their very own ballpark.
Ask any baseball fan, anywhere in the world- they’ll have their favourite ballpark. Fenway because of the history, Wrigley Field for the Ivy, Coors Field for the altitude, Dodger Stadium for the weather, PNC Park for the view, whatever it maybe – you’ll hear it. Every park has its uniqueness, the Monster in Boston, the right field at Yankee Stadium, the mammoth hit to McCovey Cove in San Fran. But what would London’s be?
Coming into the London Series, seemingly no one really knew how the field would play. Bound by the dimensions of an Olympic Stadium, the shape of the field was always going to be a strong topic of discussion. When unveiled, the field came in with dimensions 330ft to both foul poles, 375ft to both power allies and a Major League low, 380ft to straight away to centre. The small centre field immediately and understandably sparked debate and discussion, with notably the New York Times running a headline referring to the London Series as a potential home run derby.
When told of the centre-field dimensions in London, Judge’s eyes widened. “I’ve got to see it to believe it,” he said. “You can’t tell me that.” (New York Times)
But with all of this said and done. How did the field play? Are recent claims of juiced balls just and valid? Or did two offensively sublime teams capitalise on poor pitching?
If we are looking at the offensive performance of two of the best offensive line ups in the Major Leagues, then it seems only fair to argue the case for the opposing pitchers. That can’t be any easy job, pitching at Aaron Judge, JD Martinez, Aaron Hicks, Gary Sanchez & Mookie Betts with a high school centre field.
During the London series, the Boston Red Sox used a total of 9 pitchers which qualified for an exit velocity by having a ball put into play off their pitching. These were Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello, Josh Taylor, Hector Velazquez, Matt Barnes, Mike Shawaryn, Marcus Walden, Ryan Brasier, and very interestingly not one of them recorded an average exit velocity higher than their 2019 or 2018 average.
Given the fact that Red Sox pitching gave up a total of 29 runs and 32 hits in 18 innings of work, it feels vastly odd that despite evidently pitching so poorly- the Red Sox pitching staff managed to reduce their average exit velocity from 88.1mph to a ridiculously low 71.42mph. For some context as to how weak the average contact made was, the 2019 MLB average is 87.4mph and the 2018 Red Sox level was 88.45mph.
Not for one second am I justifying a horrific pitching display from the Red Sox pitching staff, because it was downright embarrassing. But maybe there is a little more to it than the accused juice balls, small dimensions and bad pitching.
For instance, Red Sox manager Alex Cora was quoted on Saturday evening showing admiration for his close friend Carlos Beltran and what a smart hire it was from the Yankees. “This weekend, we did everything. We tipped pitches. Sequence, everything. That’s why I’m saying. I know Carlos. … That was a great addition to their staff over.
On the face of it, it looks like a hollow excuse. But below the surface it makes perfect sense. If the most powerful line up in baseball scores 29 runs in 2 days, you would expect their to be double digit home runs in any ball park. Let alone one with the smallest active centre field. But they didn’t. Instead, just 4 home runs and 10 doubles.
When looking at how the Yankee hitters fared at the plate, only 6 who came to the plate over the course of the weekend and put a ball play finished the London Series with an average hard hit harder than their seasonal average. DJ LeMahieu in 9 batted ball events added 4mph, Aaron Hicks added 3mph in 8 batted ball events and Luke Voit added 12mph. The rest added sub 1mph to their average exit velocity for the season (Aaron Judge & Brett Gardner). The final hitter was Austin Romine who only had 1 batted ball event, a 101.8 mph groundout off Marcus Walden which was 12mph faster than his season average.
In contrast, the Red Sox hit the ball considerably better than the Yankees. During the London Series, the average exit velocity for the Boston Hitters on balls in play was a staggering 90.52mph, a whole mph faster than their seasonal average and 3mph faster than the 2019 Major League Average. Logically the Red Sox hard hit rate followed suit. During the London Series, the Sox averaged a 46% hard hit rate, 12% higher than their seasonal average of 34%. For those unaware a hard-hit ball is anything hit over 95mph.
Over the course of both games in the London Series, there were 10 HRS hit- 6 by Boston and 4 by New York. Looking back at the main talking points before the series regarding the worry that it could and would turn into a home run procession, we decided to take a look at how these 10 HRS would have fared should they have been hit in the other 30 MLB ballparks. Amazingly only 5 of the potential 300 home runs (10HRs x 30 stadiums) would have not left the ballpark. Both JD Martinez and Michael Chavis home runs on Sunday wouldn’t have left Minute Maid Park due to the mammoth 436” centerfield. Christian Vasquez’s Sunday bomb to right field wouldn’t have left either Comerica Park (388”) or Coors Field (382”). Finally, Aaron Hicks Saturday bomb to the same right centerfield wouldn’t have left Comerica Parks RCF 388” wall.
Many viewed the London Series and the stadium holding it to have the capacity to make a farce of the sport we all love. And with score lines of 17-13 and 12-8 you can on the face of it see why. But there was so much more to it than it just being a launch pad (not that it was anyway). Boston pitched badly but were punished by Yankee hitters taking what was given to them and putting the ball into an exceptionally large field of play, not the stands. The Yankees average launch angle was 2 degrees lower or flatter than their seasonal average, showing their propensity to just take their base hit and keep the line up moving.
By potentially choking down on the bat and keeping the ball in play at the expense of their exit velocity, the Yankees were able to surmount an offensive performance for the ages. In stark contrast, the Red Sox actually increased their launch angle by 1.5 degrees. When coupled with their increase in exit velocity, there is certainly an argument in there for the non-juicing of balls and maybe instead a testament to the hot sticky air which covered London for the large majority of the weekend.
The London series was a resounding success both on and off the field. The sport has grown, and a Red Sox Yankees game been played in a part of the world unimaginable a decade ago. Fans flocked to a state-of-the-art temporary ballpark fit to host any of the 30 Major League teams. Already existent fans of baseball fell deeper in love with the sport they become nocturnal following but more importantly new fans left Stratford with a favourite team player and knowing what a double play is.