When Giants first baseman Brandon Belt slugged a solo home run in Sunday’s 4-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies, there was little doubt it would clear the right-field wall — only whether it would become the 86th Splash Hit in Oracle Park history.
It did clear the arcade seating, but fell short of McCovey Cove, instead landing on the walkway, sending fans scurrying for the ball.
But baseball is a numbers game and home runs are king. Just as Belt approached home plate following his sixth-inning blast off Rockies pitcher German Marquez, a stat appeared on the Giants’ television broadcast, just under the score box: “Exit velocity: 108.7 mph.”
While pitch speeds have been commonplace on scoreboards and telecasts, stats such as exit velocity and launch angle have joined the baseball lexicon in recent years as those metrics have become more mainstream. In fact, the Statcast website tracks anything measurable on the diamond and within seconds of it happening in any Major League Baseball game across the country.
You can thank Syd Mandelbaum for bringing such measurements to baseball, football and golf.
Friday will mark 30 years since Mandelbaum, a baseball fan whose day job was as a scientist who analyzed blood cells under a microscope, tested his knowledge on a macro level and unofficially measured a home run for the first time via computer.
It came during the April 16, 1991, game between the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers at Candlestick Park. After consulting with the team and perched in a suite with his computer and a layout of Candlestick’s dimensions, Mandelbaum — accompanied by friend and Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally — sprang into action when Will Clark, the star Giants first baseman, crushed a pitch from Tim Crews over the wall in right-center field.
“Jorge Acosta (now the Giants’ senior vice president of ballpark operations) comes up and goes, ‘Syd, did you get it?’” Mandelbaum said. “I said, ‘I measured 383 (feet).’ And he looks at me and he goes, ‘Damn. We walked it off and it was 381. You were within .001 and looking at it from a suite.’ So they believed the system at that point and I felt real good because we were, we were right there. Years later, almost like a vindication that all these concepts that I came up with came to fruition in all sports.”
It wasn’t just the distance home runs traveled that Mandelbaum — a native New Yorker who has family in the Bay Area — was able to statistically quantify. When he approached the project, he found out through trials at Yankee Stadium that he needed to lock in certain measurements. The distance from first base to third base was the X axis (127.3 feet, no matter which stadium), while the distance from home plate to dead center field was the Y axis (and varied from ballpark to ballpark). Using those two measurements, he was able to accurately plot the home run distance. After writing to more than two dozen teams, the Giants were the only one to show legitimate interest.
Maybe it was a little karma that it was the Giants who took Mandelbaum — who lives in Cedarhurst, N.Y. and was recently in The City visiting family for the first time in more than a year — up on his offer. After all, he was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, was a huge Deadhead (he went to a concert in Menlo Park) and told his eventual wife that if they had kids, they would go to Stanford. And two of them did. One daughter runs a tattoo shop, Studio Kazoku, in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
Mandelbaum, 70, discovered the home run technology shortly after developing an application for in-vitro fertilization that found the thinnest part of the egg’s protective wall, the zona pellucida, and pinpoint that spot for micro-insemination without breaking the egg. Later that same year, 1990, Mandelbaum was watching a Yankees game on TV when slugger Jesse Barfield hit a home run, which led to a spirited debate between announcers Phil Rizzuto and Bobby Murcer as to how far the ball went.
“It hit me like a thunderclap right there,” Mandelbaum said.
In 1992, Mandelbaum expanded the sports use. He was invited by CBS to Greg Norman’s Shark Shootout at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks to measure how far drives went in the exhibition golf event. Later that year, CBS asked him to show off the technology to top NFL announcers Pat Summerall and John Madden before a New York Giants-Philadelphia Eagles game. Mandelbaum drove down to Philly and was in the famous Madden Cruiser the day before the game putting on a demonstration, tracking how far a running back actually ran on a certain play, not just the yards credited to the player.
“And they loved it,” Mandelbaum said. “They called me as I was driving home and said, ‘Could you come back tomorrow?’ … I wound up doing it again the next week when there was a playoff game between the (Minnesota) Vikings and New York Giants.”
Mandelbaum — who now runs Rock and Wrap it Up!, which works with sports organizations and musicians, among others, to recover and redistribute food — has never really been acknowledged as the originator of what has become commonplace in sports, a Godfather of Statcast, you might say. He doesn’t really mind, either. His goal wasn’t to get rich off the sports-related technology as he was making pretty good money from the various medical applications.
“The sports technology I did not sell,” Mandelbaum said. “The medical technology, we made a lot of money. So I’ll leave it at that. It was more important, in some ways, for the IVF and especially for colonoscopies and other things that they really needed to have definitive measurement for medical, life-and-death things. Sports was an enhancement and I never looked at it in any other way. Not that I didn’t need the money, but I didn’t need the money for that.”