Fenway Foul Balls: A Semi-Scientific Study

Anatomy of a foul ball.

Attending a Mother’s Day Red Sox game last weekend, and sitting in a sea of other mothers and their children, I remarked to mine that I felt like this was going to be the day I caught a foul ball. I’m not sure exactly what made me think so, but sure enough, in the seventh inning, a little spinner off the bat of Eddie Rosario found its way up to the top deck on the third base side, cleared the barrier in front of me, and I made the play I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid, bringing the ball in with one smooth motion.

In retrospect, I can see why it seemed like the day. The park was emptier than usual—the reported attendance was 29,250, but it was much emptier than that—and it was a relatively windless day, a gentle two-mph breeze blowing out to center. I had room to move laterally, and I wouldn’t have been blinded by the sun, seeing as it was cloudy. None of that really mattered, though: the ball came in low, soft, and right at me.

After I’d ordered a little plastic case to put the ball in, and positioned it on my desk, I started to wonder exactly how lucky I’d been to catch a foul ball, and where the best spots had been to catch a foul ball that game. Strangely enough, I didn’t wonder about home runs—if you want to catch a homer in Boston and you have a couple thousand dollars, I’d recommend the Green Monster, whose limited seating cuts down your competition for a ball drastically. If you want a homer and you don’t have that kind of disposable income, I’d recommend getting really lucky.

No, here we’ll talk about foul balls. The lack of foul ground is a longtime discussion topic about Fenway and other old ballparks like it, but precise data about park dimensions is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Annette Choi did what is probably the leading piece of research in this field in 2019, when she set out to prove that most of the hardest-hit foul balls were landing in seats unprotected by the netting standards of the time. Teams have, voluntarily and involuntarily, added more netting since then, though there are still few scarier things in sports than a line drive stung at the seats.

Here, we’ll talk about fouls at Fenway, on May 12, 2024. Just how lucky was I to catch a ball that Mother’s Day? And just how rare was my foul ball compared to others?

Statcast doesn’t collect location data about foul balls, which is a shame. But, following Choi’s lead and adding some Fenway-specific knowledge, I managed to watch and log each foul ball from the game between the Washington Nationals and Boston Red Sox on Sunday, May 12, 2024. Here were the results.

Ground Ball, 1B Side Ground Ball, 3B Side Straight Back, Uncatchable Straight Back, Catchable 1B Side, Catchable 3B Side, Catchable Tip
2 7 8 0 14 8 3

Groundballs were simple enough to judge, and pretty much anything hit straight back at Fenway is uncatchable, due to the extensive netting. Foul tips, too, were easy to log. Catchable balls to the first- and third- base sides were trickier—in some fringe cases, I had to track the eyelines of people behind home plate.

What does it all tell us, and how interesting is my particular ball?

First, we know not many balls were going to the third-base side, where I was sitting, in a catchable fashion—only 8 of 41. That I caught a ball hit by a Nationals player is a little strange, too; the Nats accounted for only 13 of the 41 fouls that day. Eddie Rosario, whose foul ball I caught, hit only one that day (Connor Wong was the leader, with six.) The only other Nats foul ball to find the third-base seats was a C. J. Abrams foul off Chris Martin in the eighth inning, also to the third-base side. But, clearly, the place to be that Mother’s Day was the first-base side, and paying attention.

Also interesting: not many foul balls were hit at all that day. In 2023, there were 127,939 foul balls hit over 2340 major-league games, which works out to about 52.6 fouls per game. In 2022, there were about 52.3 per game; and in 2021, about 51.8. This game had 41—low. The Nationals’ 13 fouls were low, too—they have hit 1,159 fouls through 44 games this season, averaging out to about 26.3 per game.

That I caught a ball from Rosario is also somewhat interesting. CJ Abrams leads the Nats with 160 foul balls this year, accounting for almost 14% of total team fouls. Rosario has 74, or about 6%.

Other interesting things about the ball I caught: Rosario has fouled off only five pitches that came in faster than Kelly’s 96.5 mph four-seamer this year, and only eight of his 74 fouls have left the bat with more launch angle than mine, which left with 61 degrees of launch. So I got a somewhat cool ball.

The catching and keeping of foul balls is a chimeric science; it may also be one of the unexplored frontiers of analytics. The data set I gathered above is inexact, hampered by my own time limitations and the incomplete angles of the NESN broadcast. It’s not hard to imagine a near future where advanced analytics show us that certain sections are much more likely to receive a foul ball than others. (A dynamic ticket-pricing scheme would surely follow.) But very little in my baseball-watching, baseball-playing, or baseball-writing life has lived up to the feeling of rising from my seat and making a play. I was probably very lucky; it certainly felt that way.

Paul Michaud

Paul Michaud's first memory is David Ortiz's walk-off homer in the 2004 ALCS. Nothing has topped that since. A Brown alum, he's also an editor and fiction writer.

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