Pitching Strategies: How Applying Astrophysics Can You Help You Find Value Starting Pitchers

by Thomas Callahan

Pitchers cannot throw curve balls on Mars!

The threads on a spinning ball throw air to the side and make the ball curve by what is known as the Magnus effect. This effect is non existent in low density atmospheres. As there exist low density atmospheres in major league baseball, this is a handy little fact to tuck into your tool belt.

Today I’m going to run you through some of the basics of air density and astrophysics, so that you can identify target zones for streaming starting pitchers. Target zones are regional areas where there is a statistical atmospheric advantage for starting pitchers.

Streaming two starting pitcher roster spots in the second half of the season is good strategy. It will allow you to trade your starting pitchers who’ve been hot in the first half of the season for any needed offensive help (if you follow my draft strategy, that will be batting average) after the All Star break.

On the planet Mars a curveball doesn’t break. Baseballs and Mars have a complicated relationship. 11 of their friends ‘like it’.

The following are facts:

  1. The air on Mars is 100 times thinner than the air on Earth (less dense). So things that fly through the air produce 100 times less lift on Mars than they do on Earth at the same speed (and the drag forces by the air are 100 times less).
  2. Pitchers cannot throw curve balls on Mars! Once again, the threads on the spinning ball throw air to the side and make the ball curve by what is known as the Magnus effect. This effect is non existent in low density atmospheres.
  3. The atmosphere on earth is thick! It puts 14.7 pounds of pressure (downward force) on everything on earth’s surface at sea level.
  4. Atmospheric and barometric pressure effects the movement of objects on Earth. (It slows them down or allows them to move freely, for a variety of reasons.)
  5. The movement they effect most is spin, which is important because it’s the life blood of effective pitchers.

In other words, the curve induced by a pitcher on earth, would be a change-up on Mars. Sandy Kofax’s curveball would fly like Robin Hoods arrow on Mars. (And Yuniesky Betancourt might even be able to actually hit it! Doubtful, but possible).

Now, let me tie this all together like Martha Stewart ties up her Christmas tree.

At Coors Field in Colorado, home of the Colorado Rockies, the atmospheric pressure is about 18% less than at sea level. As such, baseballs rotate at 82% of their rate then at Camden Yards (altitude of 11 feet). ‘As such’ squared, pitchers pitches don’t break as well. (Super Duper mental note alert!!)

Temperature is another factor, because hot air is less dense than cold air. It’s hot in Arizona.

Humidity is a complicating factor. Humid air is less dense than dry air, but on the other hand, high humidity makes the balls deader (less bouncy).

What we aim to find in a target zone is a high altitude, hot environment with clear skies because there curve balls don’t curve, and breakers don’t break. When we identify those target zones we stock up on offense.

In a low altitude, low temperature and humid environment baseballs respond to the pitchers grip. When we find those target zones we buy up starting pitchers.

Let’s take a look at some altitude readings of major league cities and relate them to temperature and barometric pressure.

The highest altitudes of MLB parks (optimal hitter zones):

City

Altitude in feet

Average temp in July

Average rainfall in millimeters for July (a simple measure of barometric pressure)

Denver

5883

73.4

52

Phoenix

1132

92.8

27

Atlanta

1026

80.0

134

Kansas City

1026

78.5

101

Minneapolis

841

73.2

103

Chicago

619

73.3

94

Arlington, Texas

589

84.2

96

Notice Phoenix, Denver and Texas have a tasty little mix of thin air, high temperatures and low pressure. These are parks where balls don’t spin as they could. What does this mean for you?

After the All Star break next year:

Jhoulys Chacon is going to become more hittable.
Justin Upton should go on a tear.
You should sell Yu Darvish for whatever you can get.
Jair Jurriens becomes a BIG, BIG, BIG liability.
Troy Tulowitzki will catch fire (sound familiar?).
Dump Neftali Feliz to that guy who’s got 4 points in saves – and watch him sink!

(Super Duper mental note – this lack of spin can seriously mess with the psyche of young starters. When I see youngsters just called up going to Coors or Chase Field, I attack them like Adele tackles a roast!)

And, stay the hell away from the South West when you’re streaming pitchers.

Now, the lowest altitude MLB parks (optimal pitcher zones):

City

Altitude in feet

Average temp in July

Average rainfall in millimeters (a simple measure of barometric pressure) for July

San Francisco

11

62.8

0

Miami

11

83.7

165

New York City

13

76.5

117

San Diego

15

70.9

1

Washington, DC

16

79.2

95

Newark

18

77.2

112

Boston

20

73.9

87

Here we can see the sweet combination of sea level altitudes, cooler temperatures and precipitation (obviously, these rainfall charts should give you pause in leagues where you set your rosters on a weekly basis). What does this mean for you?

After the All Star break next year:

Buy Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.
Dump Curtis Granderson, Ryan Howard and Pablo Sandoval.
You want all Padres starters in your arsenal.
National’s hitters cool off.
And Annibal Sanchez should – SHOULD find his mojo.

Interestingly, it’s not the size of the park that matters; it’s how high it is, how hot it is, and how thick the air is. That’s what she said!

So, when looking for target zones to stream hitters next July through the pennant race:
Denver
Phoenix
Arlington, Texas
And Kansas City/Atlanta are your best bets.

And your pitching target zones:
San Francisco (by a country mile)
San Diego
Boston
Washington

It is important that you understand the concepts of how objects fly through different environments, so are you able to apply those concepts to situations you’ve never seen before.

How will you respond to a heat wave hitting the Bay area?
Suppose El Nino whips a cold front over Texas?
How will you adjust when autumn temperatures turn cooler during the pennant race?
What if the Mayans are half wrong (or half right, depending if your tokin’) and an earthquake flattens Colorado like a married mans spirit?

How will you stay ahead of the proverbial game?

Ballparks stay the same. Hitters and pitchers play to their abilities. Bloops fall, drives rip, and speed kills (especially at a casino!). But curve balls don’t curve on Mars, or in Coors Field during the beer stained smile of a long Indian summer.

With this knowledge you can confidently target buy low pitching candidates in trades, dump sell high pitchers to free up roster space, and stream your ass off and make up ground by finding and utilizing your attack zones and the players who are scheduled to inhabit them.

Happy gambling folks.

***** Order the Rotoprofessor 2012 Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide, complete with updates from January through the start of the season, for just $6! To place your order click here. *****

Make sure to check out all of our 2012 rankings:

Spring Training Summary: March 31: Ricky Romero Stays Perfect, Mat Gamel Shows His Power and More
2012 Rankings (NL-Only): Top 25 Outfielders

11 comments

  1. big o says:

    surely this can’t be a major determinate in how you’re going to manage your teams .

    there are just so many other factors , like :
    tea-leaf readings , ghosts , and voodoo … just to name a few .

  2. thomas callahan says:

    O-Man, how are ya sir.

    I do keep these trends squarely in my mind when streaming pitchers in the second half. As that is a bedrock of my strategy, I keep that squarely in my mind when drafting starters and trading at the All Star break.

    When chosing closers however, I rely on an age old tactic passed down from my great grandfather, Reverend Jedidiah Callahan;

    Paper-scissors-rock!

    have a great weekend man.

    • big o says:

      well , if you have time on your hands :
      (and i’m not sure which branch of “astro”-physics puts for the principle that ==> for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) , but maybe you can apply THAT to study the effects on the spin of the ball , coming off the bat , and how it applies to line-drive rates , at various sea-levels , at different ballparks around the country , at different times of the year … excluding dome-parks , i assume … to see if there is any substantial deviation from your 18% loss of spin factor .

      or , assuming you can’t find 2 friends to help you with that assignment or your fail-safe plan of paper-rock-scissors , dust off the old dart board …. like the rest of us .

      • Thomas Callahan says:

        I have a BABIP piece in the works O, and your idea is an excellent angle to that investigation. Thank you.

        Newtons Law of motion states that an object will move with the kinetic energy equal to the force applied to it, until it meets an opposite force (such as gravity, air density, etc…). So this piece was in large part a dissertation of that law applied to different environments. The Magnus effect is but a sub-principal within the field of motion physics.

        Sadly, humidity is very complex or else such calculations could be made with relative precision.

        Like the dart board idea too. Maybe I can use that in leagues where hold are a category:)

        Have a great day man.

  3. Ben says:

    im in a 24 team mixed league i know i have a hole at catcher but what do you think of my team?

    LINEUP:
    C A.J Ellis
    1B Eric Hosmer
    2B Rickie Weeks
    3B Placido Polanco
    OF Carlos beltran
    OF Angel Pagan
    OF Colby Rasmus
    DH Adam Lind

    PITCHING:
    SP Matt Cain
    SP Matt Moore
    SP Stephan Strasburg
    SP Jonathan Sanchez
    RP John Axford
    RP Fernando Salas

    BENCH:
    DH Vladimir Guorrero
    C/DH Yorvit Torrealba
    SP J.A Happ
    SP alexi ogando
    RP Kevin Gregg
    RP Addison Reed
    RP Andrew Cashner

    D.L:
    1B Ryan Howard

    my league has hitters being more valuable than pitchers and closers get me about the same amount as starters and should i trade Ogando and see what i can get for him considering he is going to be in the bullpen this year?

    • Thomas Callahan says:

      Afternoon Ben. thanks for reading and it’s a good question.

      For a 24 team league your roster looks well balanced. I would hold tight for at least 3-4 weeks before making any trades (I would recommend that in most any league format). Let your draft prep and strategy play out for a bit before tinkering under the hood.

      Take care man.

      • Ben says:

        thanks great site and what do you think i should do with ogando? trade him or hang on to him? he takes up a sp spot and there are a couple of starting pitchers on the free agent pool

        • big o says:

          for a 24-teamer , your team is pretty stacked.

          question ==> has vlad hooked up with a team yet ?
          Q2 … where’s oswalt ?

          • Thomas Callahan says:

            Ben, hold tight until his value is more defined. You’d be selling low right now.

            O, agree, think Vlad opens the season for the Yomiuri Giants, probably sitting on a tractor somewhere chewin barley.

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