Going Deep on Goin’ Deep

The impact of Denver on launch angle and distance is apparent. (via bp6316)

The impact of Denver on launch angle and distance is apparent. (via bp6316)

Over the years I have been studying the physics of baseball, I have been totally fascinated with baseball aerodynamics. In a simple Physics 101 world, where the effects of the atmosphere are neglected, baseball trajectories are pretty boring. But we don’t live in such a simple world, and the atmospheric effects of drag and lift play a crucial role in the flight of a baseball.

When PITCHf/x data first became public in 2007, that system produced a veritable bonanza of information that has helped considerably with our quantitative understanding of the effects of drag and lift on a pitched baseball. But after a while those kinds of trajectories get pretty boring too, since they mostly follow a straight line, with just a little bit of deviation due to the combined effects of gravity and spin.

Far more varied, and therefore more interesting, are the trajectories of batted baseballs, which run the gamut from line drives (which are sort of like pitches) to fly balls to pop-ups. If the goal is to understand the atmospheric effects with quantitative precision, it is necessary to investigate all these varied kinds of trajectories. With the advent of Statcast, we now have the opportunity to do just that.

In this article, I will use Statcast data to take a first look at batted-ball trajectories, with the goal of developing an aerodynamics model, including the effects of drag and lift, based on the variation of flyball distances as a function of exit speed, launch angle, and air density. The data used in this study consisted of exit speeds, launch angles, and distances of approximately 80,000 batted balls from the 2015 season.

Although the spray angle was also part of the data set, it was not used in the analysis I present here. Since the home-field and game time temperature for each batted ball were also known, it was straightforward to calculate the air density, assuming standard atmospheric pressure and 50 percent relative humidity, neither of which I had access to.

Let me start with the overview shown in Figure 1.

Nathan-Fig1
For this analysis, I considered only flyball hits for which the air density was close to the major league average. In particular, extreme elevations (e.g. Denver) and temperatures were excluded. In effect, I am trying to get an overview without the added complication of extreme atmospheric conditions. The plot shows average flyball distances and their standard error as a function of launch angle for various values of the exit velocity.

These data show quantitatively what we probably already knew, at least qualitatively. Namely, flyball distance reaches a maximum at launch angles in the vicinity of 25-30 degrees, with the angle decreasing slightly as the exit speed increases. Moreover, distances increase with exit speed at the rate of about five feet for each one mph increase in exit speed.

I have done this kind of analysis previously using HITf/x data, combined with independently measured home run distances, and found that an exit speed/launch angle of 100 mph/26 degrees leads to a mean distance of 405 feet, over 20 feet greater than found in the present analysis. The problem is a well-known issue with HITf/x exit speeds, which are measured at a distance somewhat removed from the ball-bat impact point, resulting in their being systematically underestimated. A 20-foot discrepancy corresponds to an underestimation of exit speed by about four mph.

These data are extremely valuable in developing and fine-tuning an aerodynamics model for the flight of the baseball. The important components of such a model are drag (i.e., air resistance) and lift (which results from the backspin). I use a model with five parameters that can be adjusted to best fit the data shown in the plot. Three of these parameters relate to drag and how it depends on the speed and spin of the baseball. The other two are used to specify the rate of backspin as a function of exit speed and launch angle.

The resulting model is shown by the dashed curves, which faithfully reproduce many of the features of the data. In particular, the model accounts for the slight shift in the peak of the distributions to smaller launch angle as the exit speed increases, a consequence of the increase of drag with speed. A notable exception to the good agreement is at the highest exit speed and angles below about 22 degrees, where the data fall distinctly below the curve and even appear to be discontinuous. Given that most things in nature behave smoothly, the data look suspect to me, but any stronger conclusion will have to await more data.

Figures 2 and 3 show mean distances for fly balls hit with an exit speed in the range 101-105 mph and with launch angle in the range 25-30 degrees.

Nathan-Fig2 Nathan-Fig3

Figure 2 plots the mean distance versus air density along with a dashed line showing the model calculation. Interestingly, in Figure 2, both of those points on the left are Denver, as there is variability in the air density due to temperature. Figure 3 plots the mean distance for each major league stadium, with Denver the clear winner at 430 feet, compared with 401 feet for the average of the other stadiums, indicated by the red dashed line. The Denver effect is huge!

Since the model is an excellent representation of the data, we can use it to draw some interesting conclusions about how flyball distance depends on the various atmospheric effects. Some of these effects are shown in the table below, all calculated relative to 401 ft, which is the major league average distance (Denver excluded) for exit speed 101-105 mph and launch angle 25-30 degrees.

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I next want to examine the Denver effect in more detail. To that end, Figures 4 and 5 compare distances in Denver with those at sea level, where the latter actually refer to air densities in the range 1.15-1.20 per cubic meter (or, kg/m3).

CHANGE IN FLYBALL DISTANCE WITH CERTAIN ATMOSPHERIC EFFECTS
Atmospheric Effect Change in Distance
10-degree increase in temperature  3.3 ft
1000 ft increase in elevation  5.9 ft
50% increase in relative humidity at 750 ft  0.9 ft
5.0 mph out-blowing wind 18.8 ft

Figure 4 shows distance versus exit speed for launch angles in the 25-30 degree range, while Figure 5 shows distance versus launch angle for exit speeds in the range 101-105 mph. As before, the lines are the model calculation.

Nathan-Fig4

Nathan-Fig5
From Figure 4 we learn that the slope of distance versus exit speed is larger for Denver than at sea level, so that the Denver effect increases from about 19 feet at 91 mph to about 32 feet at 110 mph. From Figure 5 we learn that the distance peaks at a bit larger launch angle in Denver than it does at sea level. These results make sense physically, as reducing the air density at higher elevations pushes the trajectories closer to those expected in a vacuum, where distances increases much more rapidly with exit speed and peak at 45 degrees. The aerodynamics calculation nicely accounts for both of these features.

Another interesting comparison is Arizona and San Francisco, shown in Figure 6.

Nathan-Fig6
Arizona is about 1,000 feet higher in elevation than San Francisco and has an average temperature about 17 degrees warmer, both of which contribute to a lower air density and therefore a longer distance, just as shown in the plot. Once again, the calculation agrees with the general trend of the data.

But not everything is as well understood. As an example, consider Figure 7, which compares Tropicana Field with Wrigley Field.

Nathan-Fig7
These two venues have mean air densities that are nearly identical, yet the data show the ball carrying measurably better at the Trop, by an average of over 10 feet. Perhaps we are seeing the net effect of an in-blowing wind at Wrigley, noting that no wind is expected at the covered Trop.

Finally, I want to take advantage of the fact that we have an aerodynamic model that accounts for most of the features of the data to investigate how flyball distance depends on the amount of backspin, here for a fixed exit speed of 103 mph and launch angle of 27 degrees. The results are given in the table below. They show that distance increases rapidly as the backspin increases from zero but eventually saturates, with very little gain in distance for spin rates exceeding about 1,500 rpm. The reason for the saturation is partly because air drag increases with increasing spin, essentially canceling the increase in lift.

FLYBALL DISTANCE BY BACKSPIN RATE
Backspin Rate (RPM) Distance (FT)
0 336
500 368
1,000 386
1,500 395
2,000 400
2,500 403
3,000 403

Before concluding, it is useful to remind the reader that the analysis considers only average distances for given values of exit speed and launch angle and that actual distance may vary. One reason for variation might be wind. Another might be variation in the drag properties of individual baseballs, which is a topic I addressed in a previous article and which can lead to a significant variation in distance.

I very much look forward to continuing my analysis to fine-tune the aerodynamics model. The work presented here was “two-dimensional,” in that the spray angle was ignored. Including the spray angle, both at impact and at the landing point, allows for the determination of the rate of side spin on the batted ball. Moreover, using the spin measured directly from the Trackman device — an integral part of Statcast — as well as the hang time, should allow better determination of the lift properties of the trajectory. There is still lots to do and, hopefully, lots of data to help do it.


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Alan Nathan is professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois. Visit him at his website, The Physics of Baseball, and follow him on Twitter @pobguy.
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tz
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tz

Do the exit velocities themselves vary by ballpark, all other factors being equal? I remember seeing slightly higher exit velocities at Coors from the publicly available data on Baseball Savant from the 2015 season, but wasn’t sure if this was related to the limitations of that data set.

Great stuff as usual!

Eli Ben-Porat
Member
Member

Fascinating read, as usual. Have a couple questions regarding “Figure 3”.

1) Do spin rates have an effect on this? I.e. do pitching staffs in those ballparks have backspin-suppressing abilities?
2) Is it likely that a lot of the variation could just be quirks with the methodology that will get fixed over time? I.e. I assume it calculates based on distances from each camera, which are not uniform ballpark to ballpark and even small variations in the distance estimates can produce consistently biased results.

Alan Nathan
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Alan Nathan
tz: If you compare distribution of exit speeds for Coors vs. everywhere else, there are small differences, with the Coors mean value=88.8 and everywhere else mean value=88.4. If you examine the mean exit speed for every ballpark, you find quite a scatter, from a low of 87.0 in Cincinnati to a high of 90.2 in Arizona. I have no simple model to explain those differences. Eli: (1) I doubt spin rates explain much of the variation in Figure 3, based on the information about how spin affects distance in the 2nd table. Aside from that point, your question about pitchers… Read more »
Peter Jensen
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Peter Jensen
Alan – Interesting article as usual from you. There are weather archives available on the net that give temperature, humidity ,barometric pressure, wind speed and direction on an hourly time period for most if not all major league cities. There are sometimes more than one weather collection site so even though some conditions may not be exactly the same as in the ballpark they should be closer than the data data provided by Retrosheet for things like temperature, humidity and barometric pressure. Wrigley field is famous for its different playing conditions when the wind is blowing in as opposed to… Read more »
Joe Robison
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Joe Robison
Indeed, the NOAA hourly data can give you pretty good inputs for temperature and pressure, as long as you use the right station. Many cities have more than one reporting station, and port cities in particular can have several that vary considerably. Seattle for example has one at SeaTac, which is nowhere near Safeco, and another downtown on top of a skyscraper which is only vaguely correlated with the conditions felt on the field; fortunately there’s also a waterfront “ferry terminal” station that is just a few blocks from the ballfield. (Safeco itself has its own weather station, complete with… Read more »
Peter Jensen
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Peter Jensen

Alan – http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/qclcd/QCLCD this is a link to monthly data from Denver for August 2006. They also provide the same data in comma separated value format for easy loading into spreadsheets.

Alan Nathan
Guest
Alan Nathan
Peter: Thanks. The most important missing ingredient in analysis is the air pressure, and that really ought to be included. I will have a summer research student that I will put on that project. On the other hand, wind is very difficult to take into account, since the speed and direction can be different at different locations and heights in the ballpark. I did not have access to the “last tracked distance” data from Statcast/Trackman. I simply took the distances at face value, hoping that they are correct on average. As we know, Statcast in 2015 sometimes disagreed with ESPN… Read more »
Matt
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Matt

Well if the media gets ahold of this, the Rockies will never have another MVP. I mean Arenado hit .287 with 42 HR (22 on the road mind you) and 130 RBI and I don’t believe he barely cracked the top 10. Yes Harper definitely deserved it, not saying that. Too bad notgraphs isn’t around anymore otherwise one could calculate what it would take for a Rockies player to win MVP lol

MGL
Guest
MGL
Alan, Great stuff as always! (Anyone who needs a lesson on how to write in such a way that you clearly explain complicated stuff to a layperson needs to read Alan.) I sent you an email regarding the NOAA data (air pressure, etc.). I was also surprised at the Tampa data. Since it is an indoor stadium 100% of the time, how does that affect the air pressure/density? I understand that it is tricky to infer the air pressure inside of a building, especially when it is heated or air conditioned (forcing air into the building changes the pressure?). We… Read more »
tangotiger
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tangotiger
MGL: Looking at this first chart, and we see that 4 mph of launch speed adds around 20 feet in distance. I presume therefore that if you have a 5mph wind that it has a somewhat similar effect. That is, a launch of 90mph with 5mph wind, or a launch of 95mph with no wind is somewhat similar? Is that what Alan is suggesting? That would suggest a constant wind flow. Since Alan’s numbers are saying 5mph for 18 feet for wind (compared to 4mph for around 20 feet for human swing), there must be some non-constant wind flow? Just… Read more »
Alan Nathan
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Alan Nathan
Tom, things are more complicated than you are describing. The way wind enters into a trajectory calculation is through the drag and lift, both of which are proportional to the square of the speed of the ball with respect to the air. That’s a mouthful. So, the initial drag on a 100 mph ball with no wind is identical to the drag on a 95 mph ball with a 5 mph following wind. In both cases, the velocity of the ball with respect to the air is 100 mph. But the equivalence of the two situations changes as the ball… Read more »
Tangotiger
Guest
Tangotiger
Alan, excellent, thanks. Based on your numbers you’ve published, while not 1 to 1, it seems about 3-4 mph of exit velocity is equal to 5mph of wind. Granted there’s more variables to it, but just to answer MGL’s surprise at the numbers, I think it gives us a ballpark number to appreciate how much impact the wind can have, even if it’s a light breeze. I think it’s easier to see/believe with golf, where a decent wind is going to add 10-20% of distance to your drive. And maybe it’s easier to believe there because the ball is so… Read more »
Joe Robison
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Joe Robison
Interesting how real-life experiences can inform or distort our expectations. I’m not a golfer, but I would anticipate the opposite — that a golf ball would more easily “punch through” the wind than a baseball. My reasoning: golf balls are denser (golf balls notoriously sink, whereas baseballs float), and have disproportionately less surface area (whether you’re calculating mere frontal area or overall surface area, the relationship is a quadratic wrt radius). So the wind has less area through which to apply a force and proportionately more mass to move, resulting in less overall effect. And that’s before considering the uniform… Read more »
Alan Nathan
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Alan Nathan
MGL: Yes, although I did not mention this in the article, it is true that the carry at the Trop is a little better than the average of parks with similar average air density (assuming standard pressure). I don’t understand why that is the case. Wrigley can be explained by wind but not the Trop, unless there are funny air currents caused by the air conditioning. I presented that comparison because there was a clearcut difference. Wind effects are surprisingly large and somewhat nonlinear (i.e., 25 mph is more like 70 ft). That is a very stiff wind. Mantle’s 1953… Read more »
MGL
Guest
MGL
Alan, do you have any insight into possible air pressure (and thus density) differences between indoor and outdoor, especially in a large, air conditioned dome? Is it possible that the pressure and density are lower indoors than out (in these domes). The Skydome in TOR also has a reputation for the ball carrying further when the dome is closed, although I don’t know if the empirical data support this assumption. BTW, you include humidity in the calculations, and although it only has a very small effect on air density, it was always my understanding that the air density effect of… Read more »
Alan Nathan
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Alan Nathan
Responding to a few of the comments… Joe Robinson: The effect of air drag (i.e., acceleration) scales with radius^2/mass, which is actually about 8% larger for a golf ball than for a baseball. But it also scales with the drag coefficient. Because of the dimples, the golf ball has a smaller drag coefficient than a baseball by a significant fraction. So the net effect is that a golf ball will travel farther than a baseball, given the same launch parameters (speed, angle, spin). Although I haven’t thought carefully about this, I suspect that means that a golf ball is less… Read more »
mcuni
Guest

Alan, would you be more specific on how you calculated the numbers from the last table (distance vs backspin), please?
You mentioned that spin value is modelled via exit speed and launch angle (it’s where you talk about five parameters). Given that I supposed that 103 mph / 27 degrees balls might have had the same rpms. But in the table backspin varies.

mcuni
Guest
By the way, Alan, you said that spray angles were ignored. How did you account for wind direction then? For instance if wind is in from LF and FB goes to LF then it’s a pure headwind and on FB to RF it’s sidewind.. Ignoring that can cost you tens of ft which you have to compensate by altering other factors in the model (like drag and backspin). It can significantly distort the reality. Saying all of this is not to detract from the dignity of the article which is extremely interesting and useful. We definitely need more researches like… Read more »
Alan Nathan
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Alan Nathan
mcuni: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. None of this analysis takes wind into account. It is very hard to do that, given that wind speed and direction are not constant either in time or in space. By the latter, I mean that the wind can be different speeds and directions at different points and different elevations in the stadium. So, the essence of my analysis is to average over all these effects (including spray angle) to get an overall look at how fly ball distance depends on exit speed and launch angle. This will tell us what “average” looks like.… Read more »
Jay
Guest
Jay

Why is it so hard to hit at Safeco Field? Is there anything in your data set that begins to explain that?

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