Who has the advantage in colder weather: the hitters or the pitchers?
Several games this post-season will be played at a temperature that is the dividing line between warm and cold -- and which a study showed is critical for pitchers and hitters.
New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge (L) and Boston Red Sox pitcher Nathan Eovaldi. (AP Photos / Frank Franklin II and Stephen Brashear)
It was playoff baseball and things were about to get real, or maybe just real cold, for a team headed to Cleveland. A pitcher, who would go on to enjoy a lengthy Major League career, approached his manager on the plane ride there.
“I love cold weather, I love pitching in cold weather,” he said.
His manager replied, “Well, you’re going to get a chance in Cleveland.”
The night he pitched, the temperature was “frigid, the wind was blowing, and he couldn’t throw a strike,” longtime MLB coach John McLaren told AccuWeather, careful to not identify the former hurler by name. “The manager wasn’t too happy: ‘He told me he could throw in cold weather and look at him -- he can’t throw a strike.’”
Cold weather has played a role in postseason baseball games since the 1800s, through the 1900s -- including an extreme-weather World Series in 1997 -- and, given Major League Baseball's playoff schedule, which typically doesn't get underway until the first week of October, it probably will always play some role depending on the city and the venue at which games are played.
Lower temperatures, humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and altitude all can affect a baseball’s trajectory, player performance and the outcomes of games, according to research from a variety of sources, including the American Meteorological Society (AMS).
There is historical data to support that even temperatures below 60 degrees F can begin to have a noticeable impact on a baseball game, particularly with overall performance around offense and pitching.
Washington Nationals starting hurler Max Scherzer releases a pitch during Game 1 of the World Series against the Houston Astros Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, in Houston. Temperature and humidity levels can affect how a pitcher is able to grip a baseball. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A study published by the AMS in 2013 concluded that “offensive production is higher in warm temperatures [above 83 F] compared to cold temperatures [below 60 F] ... Runs scored, batting average, slugging percentage and home runs show significant increases … in warm temperatures compared to cold temperatures.”
Runs scored decreased from an average of a combined 10.08 per game in warm temperatures [above 83 F] to 8.95 per game in cold temperatures [below 60 F], the study showed, which is an 11.2% decline. “The batters have an advantage when it is hot,” said AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers, "because the air is more dense when it is cold.”
Major League hurler Logan Allen told AccuWeather that the cold weather influences his strategy for trying to get hitters out.
"In my personal opinion, it changes how much I attacked the inner-third of the plate to righties or lefties," Allen, who has pitched in Cleveland for multiple seasons, told AccuWeather. "Teams get extremely uncomfortable in cold weather, so if you jam them it could take them out of the rhythm not only for the at-bat but for the at-bats to come."
Colder weather also affects how he prepares ahead of a game. "You have to start [preparing] a little earlier, sometimes make sure your body is just a touch warmer," Allen said. "Make sure you’re extra hydrated because you don’t realize [you're thirsty] because it’s cold."
So, when it’s cold, that’s bad for the hitters, according to the research, right? But what about the pitcher who struggled in Cleveland and plenty of others like him?
“I don’t think anyone has fun pitching when it’s cold,” longtime baseball executive Wayne Krivsky told AccuWeather. “Really, nobody likes playing in the cold weather. If you don’t hit the ball on the sweet part of the bat, it vibrates in your hands. It’s a big issue."
Krivsky gives the cold-weather edge to the pitchers. “The advantage goes to the pitcher, by more than a little bit,” said Krivsky, who has worked in the front offices of the Texas Rangers, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets and Minnesota Twins. “Nobody likes to hit when it’s that cold. It’s just so abnormal from what you’re used to during the year.”
Abnormal hardly describes the oddest World Series weather-wise. The 1997 World Series was an extreme case of extreme weather. It was a balmy 84 F at game time in Miami for Game 1 before dipping to 38 F for Game 4 in Cleveland, the coldest recorded game in World Series history. There was snow during batting practice and wind chill readings during the game were as low as 18 F.
Cleveland Indian pitchers Orel Hershiser, left, and Game 5 starter Charles Nagy stand in the midst of snow flurries during warmups before Game 4 of the World Series at Cleveland's Jacobs Field, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 1997. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
“The pitchers always have the advantage in the cold weather because it’s hard for hitters to feel the bat,” said McLaren, who briefly managed the Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners and has been a coach for the Nationals, Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies. “I know most good pitchers would like to throw in cold weather because they know the hitters are not loose, they’re stiff, they have a lot of clothes on to stay warm.
“And even when the batter gets the ball on the good part of the bat, on real cold days it’s usually thick air and moist and the ball doesn’t travel as far,” McLaren added.
Science supports McLaren’s observation. After investigating how temperature, humidity and wind affect fly ball distances at numerous MLB stadiums, two researchers found that “fly balls in cool temperatures (at most 50 F) travel on average 16 feet less compared to warm temperatures (at least 90 F).”
For pitchers, humidity is the legal version of the old outlawed spitball since it's a key to help them with their grip on pitches. That’s also why pitchers like to work up a sweat on cold days, blow on their hands, and lick their fingers to maximize the moisture needed for a good grip.
“Cold and dry [air] exacerbates the slippery-ball issue, making it more difficult to get spin on the ball,” Alan Nathan, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois told FanGraphs. “Less spin means less movement [on their pitches.]”
Turns out when it comes to the World Series and the weather, the forecast may be more valuable than any pre-game sports predictions.
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