Friday, May 11, 2007

The Science Behind The Splash Hit

The Mets' Carlos Delgado launched a Mike Morris pitch deep to right field Wednesday that quickly found its way over the 24-foot-high right field fence and into the cool waters of McCovey Cove. The Giants radio crew quickly pointed out that the Splash Hit was only the 56th since AA&T Park opened in 2000.

That number was a bit surprising to me and the play-by-play guy – it wasn't John Miller, but the other guy. Of those, 42 have been hit by the home team, and not surprisingly, 34 Splash Hits have come off the bat of Barry Bonds. Still the total of 56 seems a bit low. Before the park opened, there was much hype surrounding the possibility of numerous Splash Hits.

So why are there fewer deposits into McCovey's Cove than we expected? The answer, of course, can be explained by physics and meteorology. Unfortunately, I'm no expert in either subject, so, to learn more, I went Googling.

A 2004 article in the San Francisco Chronicle gives a bit of insight into the subject from high school physics teacher Paul Robinson who was determined to get to the bottom of the physics involved in the Splash Hit. Below are some excerpts from the article.

Before he was done, Robinson would be crawling around the stadium with a tape measure during the offseason, checking distances, discovering among other things that the right-field wall is a little lower than the 24 feet advertised by the team.
He studied classic baseball-physics research by Robert Adair of Yale University and Mont Hubbard of UC Davis. He pondered his own view of the water from his charter seats in Section 317, behind home plate.

Robinson got together with a couple of computer simulation software experts, and …
Together, they analyzed the key factors that account for the distance a batted baseball can reach -- angle and speed of the ball leaving the bat, mostly, but also ambient temperature and the aerodynamic lift produced by backspin. All this data was then loaded into an MSC proprietary computer program, called "Interactive Physics," that was customized for the dimensions and odd outfield angles of SBC Park (Now AT&T Park), including a left-handed Bondsian hitter standing in.

So, what did they learn?

If the program can be believed, a hitter must get the baseball moving at least 105 mph off the bat straight down the right-field line, imparting a strong 1,800 rpm backspin, lifting the ball somewhere between about 30 to 45 degrees, in order to have any real chance of making the water. And that assumes no wind blowing the ball back toward home plate or toward the deepest part of the outfield, which often seems to be the case at SBC (AT&T) Park.

Sharply hit line drives -- a speed of 130 mph and a 15 degree angle -- smash into the outfield bricks. Lofty fly balls hit steeper than 45 degrees can reach an impressive 150-200 feet in elevation above the outfield, but unless they are hit at maximum velocity, which seems unrealistic for such a steep angle, they tend to fall back well short of the cove.

Practically any ball hit toward the gap in right-center, where the wall stands 365 feet from home plate, is doomed to stay dry. Even a 120-mph screamer hit an optimum angle of 42 degrees won't make it without a near- maximum boost from backspin.

That explains the physics behind launching the stitched-up spheroid (I said spheroid, not steroid. Bonds fans tend to get a little uncomfortable when you mention the ladder.), but there really isn't any information concerning the atmospheric conditions that may come into play except for a brief mention of wind blowing off the bay. I'm sure that explains much, but we also need to take in account altitude and humidity.

Further Googling turned up nothing about atmospheric conditions at AT&T, but I did find an interesting article from the Pittsburgh's Post-Gazette. The story was published in 2001 when the Pirates opened PNC Park, and its writer, Chuck Finder, asked similar questions about the Pirates new pad. Finder's article did investigate atmospheric conditions and he wrote about the chances of what he called an Alleghany Splashdown at PNC.

Pittsburgh ranks second in the NL to the Mile High City in altitude, even if we're some 5,100 feet behind Denver. The North Side home to PNC Park is roughly 730 feet above sea level. In baseball, this translates to a 1- to 1.5-percent increase in home-run distance. "So that's as much as 6 more feet for a ball hit around 440," (John) Pastier (of the Society of American Baseball research) said.

Humidity helps homers, too. The air, although it doesn't feel it to us, is lighter for baseball air travel. So the sticky summer here translates to another foot increase in distance.

Finally, there's the variable of wind. The Pirates commissioned in 1999 a wind study that showed breezes around PNC Park would travel from left field to right, up to 15 mph. Such a blow could amount to a decent tailwind. "That could add several feet," Pastier said.

Finder added this about wind coming into play at both the San Francisco and Pittsburgh ballparks:

You might think San Francisco would have a windy advantage over Pittsburgh. But the Giants constructed their park in such a way that it served to mitigate the wind, although sometimes 2 to 10 mph breezes would curl around the right-field-line seats and sneak into play in that short-porch corner.

Notes: Perhaps Carlos Delgado has been studying up on his physics and knows all about the physical mechanics behind achieving the Splash Hit. Of the 14 visiting team home runs to splash down into McCovey Cove, three have been hit Delgado, including the last two and both were hit off Matt Morris. …The Giants web site features a listing of each Spash Hit, and includes video of each hit by a San Francisco player. ...Splash, Starring Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks, was a hit in 1984. …Below is video from YouTube of Gary Faselli after he caught a Bonds' home run while boating in McCovey Cove in April.

No comments: