04/21/2009 4:31 PM ET
Physics: Jury still out on new stadium
Sample size too small to make broad declarations in Bronx
By Michael Salfino / SNY.tv
Right field at the new Yankee Stadium has seen a plethora of home runs during the park's first homestand. (AP)

We're such rubes when it comes to assessing things like the home-run binge in the first few games played at the new Yankee Stadium. This is why we need experts well steeped in randomness, like physicists, who will set us straight below.

I'm not above this human weakness. Watching the games, I too felt the urge to believe that the new home of the Bronx Bombers was playing like a cigar box. But I know that I am a rube, cursed by a brain designed for a world where randomness is best ignored. Better off believing that every rustling sound in the jungle is a tiger and not some random noise because being wrong about the former keeps you alive while being wrong about the latter gets you dead.

Thus, we see patterns in everything. Every outcome has a cause, a reason for being. The home run assault at the dawn of the stadium's rebirth can't be random and must be due to something -- like open concourses and vents near the top of the bowl that create a jet-stream effect -- well within human control.

Mike Francesa is using his 50,000 watts of broadcasting power and NBC TV show to demand changes and baldly assert that there's no doubt now after four games that the new stadium will play like Coors East.

Says one of the world's leading nuclear physicists and baseball enthusiast Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois, "As a fan, it is fun to speculate about these things, even though the sample size is very small. But as a physicist, I am usually more cautious about over-interpreting data based on a small sample size. That is, [the 20 homers the first four games] might just be a statistical fluke. So, I would be cautious about jumping on any particular bandwagon and see how things develop over the next month or so."

Adds the esteemed Lawrence Krauss, Director of Origins Initiative and Co-Director of Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration, "From 20 homers, one cannot infer anything. The random variation one would expect from normal statistics is plus or minus five home runs 32 percent of the time and plus or minus 10 home runs about 10 percent of the time."

Krauss is also a big baseball fan and a man who has made scientific thinking more popular through books such as Beyond Star Trek and Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions.

"The problem is that whenever a statistical outlier occurs, people always tend to ascribe significance to it," Krauss adds. "People who have a million nonsensical dreams then have one dream that resembles reality and think it means something."

The key point here is just because there's a 10-percent chance of something happening randomly doesn't mean there's a 90-percent chance there's some cause for it. It probably means this just happens to be one of those 10 percents of the time. It's like pulling a specific suited card in poker. You're not blessed; you just happened to meet that particular brand of randomness at exactly the right time.

Just what kinds of forces would be needed to move a baseball hit hard enough to travel to the warning track that extra 10 feet or so needed to easily clear the wall?

You'd need about 4 mph of a following wind to do it. The wind at the stadium on Saturday when the Yanks gave up 22 runs was gusting up to 15 mph. I doubt the wind was perfectly following, but that's easily 10 feet right there.

Also, the experts say, every 10 degrees of higher air temperature adds about four feet. The temperature was high on Saturday, peaking at 76 degrees, about 20 degrees higher than what we'd expect. That's another eight feet added to an average fly ball. And again, this has nothing to do with the stadium. (The physics reason for this is that warm air is less dense and thus offers less resistance than cold air, in which the molecules are more tightly packed.)

So the warm, windy day could have added 18 feet to any fly ball relative to what we're conditioned to see on a typical mid-April Saturday afternoon.

Also note that the Yankees have not played a night game yet. Let's wait until we see a few games played in more typical seasonal conditions before we start thinking rashly and acting on those thoughts.

Finally, illustrating Dr. Krauss's point, consider that the new stadium isn't even the most homer-friendly park in baseball at this early juncture. According to ESPN.com, Chase Field in Arizona has seen a nearly 800-percent boost in homers relative to how the two teams playing there have slugged on the road. Yankee Stadium is a relatively puny plus-237 percent on that same scale.

It's early, people. Relax.

Michael Salfino is a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to SNY.tv.
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