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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Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

After rallying in the ninth inning in Game 1 to take the pivotal opener of this best-of-three ALWC series, the Astros were in the driver's seat to try and end the series on Wednesday with another win at Target Field. Here is a quick rundown of Game 2:

Final Score: Astros 3, Twins 1.

Series: HOU Wins 2-0.

Winning Pitcher: Cristian Javier.

Losing Pitcher: Cody Stashak.

Houston gets the first hit and first run in the fourth

Through the first three innings, neither team could get a hit off of Jose Berrios or Jose Urquidy, though the Twins did load the bases in the bottom of the first on two walks and an error, but Urquidy would strand the runners before getting 1-2-3 innings in the second and third.

Meanwhile, the Astros lineup was retired in order in three perfect innings by Berrios. That changed in the top of the fourth when Houston would get back-to-back two-out walks to set up the first hit of the game, an RBI-single by Kyle Tucker to give the Astros a 1-0 lead.

Dusty Baker makes another early call to the bullpen before Twins tie it up

Urquidy was able to keep the 1-0 lead by working around a two-out single in the bottom of the fourth, the first hit for the Twins. He returned in the fifth, allowing a leadoff single before a strikeout for the first out. Dusty Baker would pull another early hook, like Greinke the day prior, dipping into his bullpen early to end Urquidy's day at just 76 pitches in the fifth. His final line: 4.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 76 P.

Brooks Raley was who Baker called on to face the top of the Twins' lineup. He would walk his first batter, putting runners on first and second, get a strikeout for the second out, then allow an RBI-double to Nelson Cruz that almost scored a second, go-ahead run. Instead, the runner was out at home thanks to a terrific defensive play by Carlos Correa, bulleting the ball to Maldonado at home, who made a great tag to save the run and keep it tied 1-1.

Correa homers, Astros advance to ALDS

After Raley completed the fifth inning for Urquidy, Cristian Javier was the next reliever out to begin the bottom of the sixth. He would toss a 1-2-3 frame, sending the tie game to the seventh. In the top of the seventh, Carlos Correa broke the tie with a long, loud two-out solo home run to center-field, putting the Astros back in front 2-1.

Javier held on to the one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh by working around a leadoff walk, then returned for the eighth. He would get through it scoreless, despite allowing a one-out walk to Nelson Cruz, who would be pinch-ran for by the speedy Byron Buxton. After a strikeout for out number two, Javier would catch Buxton between first and second base in a rundown, getting the big final out of the inning.

Houston added insurance in the top of the ninth, getting two on base before an RBI-single by Kyle Tucker, his second of the day to make it 3-1. That left things up to closer Ryan Pressly, making his first appearance of the postseason. He would notch the save, advancing the Astros to the ALDS for their fourth-straight year.

Up Next: The Astros will now have a few days off to travel to the west coast before starting their ALDS with the winner of the A's / White Sox ALWC series. Game 1 of their ALDS will be on Monday, October 5th, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, with start time TBD.

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