SPORTS SCIENCE

When it comes to baseball, sweaty balls make for long balls

Minute Maid Park was built with a retractable roof for a reason. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Recently I stumbled across an article highlighting how executives from an anonymous MLB team reached out to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information to request weather data for all of the cities in which they play.  Given the importance that has been placed on analytics in this era of sports, it should come as no surprise that teams are looking to factors beyond the playing field and thinking outside of the box in attempts to gain any possible advantage.  

This un-named team (but let's be honest, there’s a very good chance it is the Astros) did not disclose exactly how they would be using the data, but based on the information requested it is safe to assume the team is looking at factors beyond just wind and rain.  More than likely these club executives are also taking account of temperature and humidity conditions at each ballpark. Both of these factors share one commonality which affects the flight of a baseball off the bat and out of a pitcher's hand - air density. On a very basic level air density is a measure of how many air molecules are present in a given area.  

As the temperature warms air molecules begin to move faster causing the air to expand. This expansion leads to more space in between the molecules which in turn lowers air density.  Humid air is also less dense, even though most people describe the air as feeling heavy when it is muggy out. The lower density is due to the fact that water molecules are actually smaller than the nitrogen and oxygen molecules that make up the majority of the air we breathe.  When the air is more saturated (humid) water molecules displace more of those larger molecules creating a less dense air mass (Nerd moment – this is the same reason humid air rises to create storms).

Knowing what kind of temperatures and humidity levels to expect at certain stadiums can help teams make tweaks to their hitting and pitching strategy.  In cooler or drier conditions the air is more dense which can lead to a little more movement on breaking pitches due to increased friction, while in hot and humid weather, or at high altitude like in Denver, the air is less dense giving fly balls a bit more oomph towards the fences.

In Houston we have an abundance of heat and humidity for 99% of baseball season which is part of the reason Minute Maid was built with the retractable roof.  Although the overall effect of air density is rather small - when combined with the Astros’ ball-mashing lineup and short outfield corners, the heat and humidity are assets not to be discounted for the home team. So on those hot and muggy summer nights perhaps the Astros should open up the juice box and let the dingers fly.   

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The Texans have a big decision to make. Composite image by Jack Brame

The last few weeks have brought us some very interesting episodes of "As Kirby Turns." Cal McNair has admitted he hasn't spoken with Deshaun Watson and has also doubled down on his affinity for Jack Easterby by saying he's staying around. The franchise's only member of their Ring of Honor, Andre Johnson, came completely out of character by tweeting his support for Watson to "stand his ground" in what most assume is his desire to play elsewhere. Newly hired general manager Nick Caserio has the hardest job in the NFL because he's basically a one leg man in a bleep kicking contest. National and local media are all floating rumors and opinions about Watson's status with the team. Meanwhile, Watson himself has been cryptic and hasn't come out and said one thing either way about his status with the team.

My opinion is that he won't be traded and this is his way of using the leverage he has to get some things done his way to ensure more of his career won't be wasted. Once they hire a head coach he approves of and they talk, he'll be back in the fold and blow things over by saying he never demanded a trade and was only upset about some things due to miscommunication. Blah blah blah. However, where there's smoke, there must be fire. I'll examine some pros and cons to a potential trade of Watson.

Bad news first. This franchise has waited its entire existence for a franchise quarterback like Watson. Finally getting one and having to deal him amidst the bumbling owner and charlatan right-hand man would be a big blow to overcome. This coming year is shaping up to be difficult as it is, but doing so with Watson wearing a different jersey could prove to be a near fatal blow. It would take an additional year or so to recover. The only way this timeline is expedited, is if they get a quarterback back in the trade or with one of the draft picks that they feel can be the man moving forward.

The bright side. Watson is this team's most attractive asset as it looks to rebuild. There are teams in the top five of this year's draft who need quarterbacks, and a couple of them have multiple first round picks. The Jets, #2 and #23 overall in the first round this draft, are the most intriguing destination because they may be bad next season with Watson if you get that pick in the trade as well. Throw in Sam Darnold, who's still young and salvageable, and this could be a hard reset that may not take as long. The Dolphins, #3 and #18 overall this draft, also have a lot to offer. Rumor has it Watson would like to go to Miami in a deal that includes Tua Tagovailoa, who was a guy Caserio liked when entering the draft. Again, another potential hard reset that may not take long if either young quarterback pans out. You could also trade back from those top slots to acquire more picks to help fill some of the many holes you have.

I reiterate, I do not believe Watson will be traded. I'm not even sure his no trade clause is applicable since he's still under his rookie contract and his extension hasn't kicked in yet. The new CBA rules call for stiffer penalties for players who refuse to report, so a holdout is highly unlikely. I'll be glad when they hire a coach Watson likes, and we get the happy family press conference introducing him, so this soap opera can move on to its next episode.

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