The Physics of Pesky’s Pole

It's hard to hit a home run around Pesky's Pole, despite the short distance. (via Kent Goodman)

It’s hard to hit a home run around Pesky’s Pole, despite the short distance. (via Kent Goodman)

It’s a fly ball down the right field line – if it’s fair its gone – it’s fading, fading, but wait, the ump raises his finger in the air – it’s a homer! Now all we have to do is wait for New York to tell us the results of the replay challenge. Here’s a little bit to think about while the brain trust puts on the head phones.

Surprisingly, MLB has no rules pertaining to foul poles with the exception of a comment in Rule 2.00 – “Clubs, increasingly, are erecting tall foul poles at the fence line with a wire netting extending along the side of the pole on fair territory above the fence to enable the umpires more accurately to judge fair and foul balls.”

Some ball parks don’t even have foul poles. In San Diego for instance, a painted line on the Western Metal Supply Company building is the best they can do. At Rogers Centre in Toronto, the Jays only have a hanging net without a pole.

By the way, why do they call it a foul pole when it is completely within fair territory? Probably for the same reason they sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when they’re already there! Anyway, the most famous foul pole in the league is the Pesky Pole in Fenway Park, Boston. It is only 302ft down the right field line – the shortest distance in the majors.

The Pesky Pole is named after Johnny Pesky, a slap hitting infielder for the Red Sox from 1942 to 1952.  According to the tale told by Pesky, teammate and pitcher Mel Parnell named the pole in 1948 after Pesky won a game for Parnell with a homer down the right field line, just around the pole.

However, records clearly show Pesky hit a total of seventeen homers in his career, only six of which were hit at Fenway. Just one of the six was in a game pitched by Parnell, a two-run job in the first inning of a game against the Tigers on June 11, 1950.

The game was eventually won by Detroit in the 14th inning on a three-run shot by Tigers right fielder Vic Wertz (yes, the guy who hit the long fly ball that became “The Catch” thanks to Willie Mays). Parnell collected a no-decision not a win.

In 1965, Parnell became the broadcaster for the Sox and often made reference to the Pesky Pole. The name stuck and in 2006 on Johnny Pesky’s 87th birthday, the Red Sox organization officially designated the right field foul pole as Pesky’s Pole.

The plaque they placed at it’s base reads “A landmark of Fenway Park originally intended by Mel Parnell to kindly tease about the relatively short distance of his teammate’s home runs. The significance of the name grew with the affection accorded by generations of fans over seven decades who were beneficiaries of his enduring kindness and admirers of his unwavering loyalty.”

This is neither here nor there, but any guess what the Sox call the left field pole? That’s right! It’s the Fisk Pole named after catcher Carlton Fisk who waved a long fly ball hit down the left-field line until it hit the foul pole to win the 6th game of the 1975 World Series.

Back to the Pesky Pole. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker there have been 465 homers in Fenway between the beginning of the 2012 season and end of the 2014 season. This includes the 2013 post-season. Only 26 of these home runs were launched within 15˚ of the right field line – six hit by righties and the remainder by left handed batters.

Of the 26 homers, eight landed in fair territory, three hit the foul pole or screen, two went over the pole, and one went under the screen for a homer. That leaves twelve homers that actually wrapped around the pole. They are listed in the table below.

Home Runs That Wrapped Around Pesky’s Pole, 2012-2014

Hitter Bats Distance Speed Horiz˚ Video Path
Luke Scott L 398 105 8.9 Video View
Prince Fielder L 350 95 10.7 Video View
David Ortiz L 403 113 9.0 Video View
Nick Swisher L 384 102 7.8 Video View
Michael Brantley L 362 100 10.4 Video View
David Ortiz L 340 92.2 8.2 Video View
Conor Gillaspie L 378 105.4 6.6 Video View
David Ortiz L 318 95.4 7.4 Video View
Delmon Young R 332 95 7.6 Video View
Dustin Pedroia R 324 91 11.7 Video View
Jeff Baker R 367 100 12.8 Video View
Miguel Cabrera R 329 93 14.9 Video View

The distances are in feet while the speeds are in mph. The horizontal angle the ball left the bat is measured with the zero set along the right field foul line. There are links for the MLB video and the top view of the trajectory for each homer.

Lets compare the averages for the righties versus lefties. The table below shows the average distance, speed, and horizontal angle. The right handed batters have a lower speed resulting in a shorter distance on average. They also have a larger horizontal angle.

Averages by Hitter Handedness

Bats Distance Speed Horiz˚
R 338 95 12
L 367 101 9

Does this make sense based upon the physics of a batted ball? Well, it better! Remember, a lefty is pulling the ball around Pesky’s Pole while a righty is going the other way. As explained in “The Physics of a Foul Down the Line“ a ball hit down the line has two sources of sidespin to push the ball toward foul territory.  One is due to the angle of the bat with respect to the line between home and second base. The other is due to the ball colliding with the bat above bat’s midline.

For the lefty pulling the ball, the two spins tend to cancel while for a righty going the other way, they tend to add. The sidespin for the righty will therefore be larger than for the lefty. So, the ball will bend more strongly toward foul territory for the righties.

The data agrees. Right-handed batters need shorter distances and lower launch speeds to wrap the ball around the pole. They can also get away with launching the ball at angles further away from the foul line.

Well, I see the umps are taking off their headphones. We’re about to get the decision from the Replay Operations Center. The crew chief raises his right hand and signals home run. At least we used those two minutes productively.

David Kagan is a physics professor at CSU Chico, and the self-proclaimed "Einstein of the National Pastime." Visit his website, Major League Physics, and follow him on Twitter @DrBaseballPhD.
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8 years ago

Which way does the wind blow at the pole? I wonder if there are any airfoil effects….

Christopher Taylor
8 years ago

The line of the right field fence and the Pesky pole do not line up – this lead to a confusing situation at a game I was at in 2011:

8 years ago

They do line up.

8 years ago

Awesome piece! I love articles like these– this is the type of stuff that is never covered, but I’ve always wondered about.


8 years ago

How tall are the foul ball poles at Angel stadium?