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There’s no such thing as a cheap home run

A look at the hitters most likely to take advantage of ALCS ballpark oddities.

MLB: New York Yankees at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of the beautiful things about baseball is that sometimes, the difference between a run and an out is simply the field you’re playing on. Riley Greene only hit two balls all season farther than this one, but such is one of the many misfortunes of playing for the Detroit Tigers.

That’s what was on my mind when Steven Kwan opened up the ALDS scoring with an unremarkable dinger that, according to Statcast (which admittedly doesn’t take batted ball direction into account), had just a 19% chance of being a hit based on exit velocity and launch angle.

That ball’s still out in plenty of ballparks, but it didn’t stop groans (or laughs) of “short porch!” from erupting around the country. Because that’s what you do when a ball goes out to right field at the Stadium, right?

Yankee Stadium isn’t the only place with such a feature, of course. As the Yankees prepare to butt heads with the Astros in Houston — home of the infamous Crawford Boxes — for their third ALCS battle in six years, let’s take a look at the hitters who might be most poised to give the opposing fanbase a screaming headache with a home run to the “short” part of the field that can only leave you begging the baseball gods for mercy.

First, what to watch for when Houston visits the Bronx:

Kyle Tucker

This one is a little bit cheap, because Kyle Tucker hits the ball hard and over the wall pretty much anywhere. Almost all of his home run power comes to the pull side, though, and while his 30 home runs were tied for eighth in the American League, he probably would have had quite a few more given the opportunity to play 81 games in Yankee Stadium. His spray chart of batted balls to the pull side overlayed onto the Stadium dimensions should be enough to put anybody sitting in the bleachers on high alert.

That, my friends, is a LOT of outs that aren’t going to be outs if they’re hit some time next week.

Chas McCormick

Discounting the frankly supernatural Yordan Alvarez, McCormick is one of the few hitters in the Houston lineup who doesn’t generate his home run power almost exclusively to the pull side. In fact, McCormick pulls the ball less than just about anybody you’ll see the rest of the way: his 29.5% pull rate during the regular season ranked 379th out of 411 batters who put the ball in play at least 100 times this year.

When McCormick hits the ball, he hits the ball hard — his .407 career expected wOBA on contact (.393 in 2022) is well-above league average — and critically, when he hits it in the air, it’s almost always to the opposite field. Expect Aaron Judge to get plenty of work in the field when he’s at the plate.

David Hensley

A bench piece who’s put the ball on the ground more than half the time over the course of his minor league career, Hensley isn’t likely to have much of an impact the rest of the way, but it’s worth noting that he’s capable of getting his barrel to high-velocity fastballs deep enough in a way that could very feasibly find the first few rows of the right field bleachers. Every single one of these dots in the right field corner was a right-handed fastball between 94 and 98 mph.

Alex Bregman

Even if his 72-homer outburst between 2018 and 2019 was likely a product of the juiced ball, to some extent, there aren’t many hitters with better bat-to-ball ability than Bregman, who might be the most skilled hitter in baseball at making contact to all-fields without sacrificing anything in the way of power. Howard Megdal once argued to me that Bregman’s home run numbers being juiced by the Crawford Boxes was a testament to his approach as much as stadium luck, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he took one out to the opposite field at the Stadium just to ruffle some feathers.

Now, who are the Yankees hitters most likely to deposit one in a space that’s in a seat at Minute Maid Park and nowhere else?

Kyle Higashioka

When Higashioka gets his starts in this series, keep your eyes peeled if it’s in Houston: He doesn’t make a ton of contact, but more than 26% of his batted balls are pulled in the air, second among Yankees right-handed hitters. Eight of his ten homers were to the pull side — the other two were to dead center — and had he played in Houston the whole year, he almost certainly would have ended up with much more than ten of them.

Harrison Bader

Bader has tended to run a sizable gap over the course of his career between his average exit velocity and his maximum exit velocity: he’s not exactly a slap hitter, but as he’s cut down on his once-astronomical strikeout rate in recent years, he’s gravitated towards a more all-fields approach to put the ball in play more and take advantage of his prodigious speed.

But as we’ve seen in recent weeks, he doesn’t hesitate to turn on the ball hard in the air when he gets the opportunity, and when he decides to turn on it, he gets under the ball more than just about anyone in the game: his 35.7 degree average launch angle on pulled balls in the air ranks sixth among the 338 hitters who had at least 25 such batted balls this year. If you’re a righty with a proclivity for getting under the ball to the pull side, Minute Maid Park is far from the worst place to be.

Josh Donaldson

Donaldson’s bat has fallen off this year, but Statcast seems to think his surface-level stats would have belied his worsening underlying metrics had he played more of his games in Houston: Though he finished the regular season with just 15 longballs, his expected home run total in Houston would have been 23, the highest of any other park in the league. His diminished power was evident this season, but it might have remained hidden for a little while longer if he had the benefit of Houston’s dimensions in front of him, as he will for much of the next week.