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High-flying homers, juiced baseballs and climatologists

July 14, 2017

We played sandlot baseball one day about 55 years ago in a field over in Chestertown. When we tired of making match rockets in a treehouse nearby and playing basketball in the driveway of the funeral home, we spaced out a few pieces of cardboard to make a narrow diamond and got after a game.

This particular game made a big impression on me - specifically, on my neck.

I was pitching. Shady Lane was batting. I can’t remember what side of the plate he was batting on. Shady could hit from either side and saw the ball like it was as big as a cantaloupe. Great natural athlete. Naturally powerful.

But I do remember what kind of baseball it was. A heavy piece of solid rubber molded into the size and shape of a baseball. If ever there was a juiced baseball that was it.

I heaved back and threw as hard as I could. Shady struck it solid. Next thing I knew I was on the ground. He line-drived it right back at me and it caught me square on the side of my neck. Ended that game in a hurry.

My pitch was probably like those hurled this week during the Major League All-Star Game home-run contest. Right down the pipe, big and fat, not too fast and not too slow. Goldilocks pitches. Just right for major league batters to belt out of the park.

According to an article I read recently, major leaguers are on pace this year to hit more home runs in a single season than ever before. Pitchers are wondering whether the baseball is different this year. Juiced, they call it. Some say the ball is harder than in past years, the leather wrapped tighter around the ball’s insides.

That tighter wrapping also does something else, they say. It makes the seams on the baseball less prominent, and that can affect how well pitchers can control the ball with their different pitches.

Climatologists and baseball

This all came to mind recently when I was asking a number of weather forecasters and climatologists about winds this year. It’s been my impression that June was windier than normal but none of the statistics - at least for Sussex County - bear that out.

Still, I wondered whether the winds this year are blowing in such a way as to carry more high-flying balls out of stadiums across the country. Or maybe the pitchers are right. The balls are juiced because major league club owners want the game to be more exciting, and home runs juice the crowds.

Brian Edwards of AccuWeather said they really don’t track wind direction and speed over time. But he was fascinated about the baseball home run theory, and we talked ball for a few minutes.

Then I talked to Valerie Meola at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Valerie said the forecasters there don’t do much wind analysis on a day-in and day-out basis but she did show me where I could find daily averages by the month. She was also clearly interested in the home run theory, and we talked awhile about baseball as well. She further suggested that I talk to Kevin Brinson.

Kevin works in the geography department at University of Delaware and is associate state climatologist and director of the Delaware Environmental Observing System.

That’s the system that monitors all kinds of weather data from positions across the state.

One of the most visible stations is on the Boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach near Stuart Kingston Gallery.

Kevin did some research and confirmed what the others had told me: so far in Delaware this isn’t a particularly windy year. But like the others, he too was interested in the home run theory and was happy to talk baseball.

He said he used to play baseball on a regular basis as a pitcher. “The first thing I checked when the umps gave me baseballs before the game was the seams. I threw a pretty good curve, and I knew that if the seams weren’t good I wouldn’t be able to bend my curveball as well. Fastballs have movement too, but not as much with tighter seams. When that happens, the batters can see the balls better, barrel them up and make more solid contact.”

He said the intensity of hard-hit balls was greater with those balls. “And they’re teaching that stuff now. They’re teaching a swing that results in more strikeouts, but which also results in more high-flying balls that can go out. Instead of contact hitters with speed, you’re getting more guys who hit around .220 or .230 but hit more homers, and they’re finding that to be a good trade-off in terms of winning games.”

Still no conclusions on wind and home runs. But I did find a trend that Kevin definitely did confirm. After we talked baseball for awhile, I told him I found it interesting that all three of the weather people I had spoken with were also baseball fans.

“It’s funny you should say that,” said Brinson. “I was at an American Association of State Climatologists [meeting] in Nashville recently. There were 96 of us in total. It’s amazing the number who sat around and talked baseball in off hours. Many went to a minor league game in Nashville too.”

Was I on to something? Brinson said maybe.

“When I was growing up I watched baseball. I studied box scores and stats. Now, the life we’re in as climatologists, we also study a lot of statistics. I don’t think there’s any other sport that is so data driven. In climatology, we study means and extremes and standard deviations.”

Clearly there’s a connection. But not as solid a connection as Shady made that summer day a half century ago when that juiced rubber ball struck my neck and nearly took off my head.

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