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The Safeco Effect

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Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners

Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Marine Layer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Safeco field, pitchers park. That is until the Seattle Mariners organization decided that something had to be done to neutralize a park that was becoming an infamous death trap for offensive players. The organization is under immense pressure from the fan base; realistically something had to be done in order to stave off plummeting ticket sales and an overall lack of interest in the team. The Mariners offense has ranked among the worst in baseball nearly every season over the past five years, and the evidence of backlash continues to mount. The Mariners can no longer attract offensive players via free agency, as the legends of Safeco’s unfriendly confines are no secret to rest of the league. Seattle is no longer a desirable location for baseball players, and while the organization is taking steps to change their favor, some things are out of there control.

Such a step was taken this very offseason. After years of internal deliberation and restless clamoring from a weary fan base, the organization has finally determined that it is time to move the fences in. Since its Grand Opening in 1999, this baseball cathedral has belonged to the pitchers, and the Mariners–due to the aforementioned reasons–have been backed into a corner. It became all too necessary to bring the park effect closer to something that resembled a neutral playing field. Safeco has always been a beautiful piece of real estate, but as any realtor worth his salt will tell you, it is all about location, location, location and this piece of real estate is water front property. However, in this particular instance it has only driven the value of this property and it’s owners down.

Many of us are familiar with this issue; that all-too-pesky, thick marine air that has been the topic of much dismay for fly balls in the vicinity of Safeco’s warning track. A ball that rockets off the bat of many sluggers ends up caught up in this marine air and dies in the leathery coffin of the opponents outfield glove. But really, what does this tell us? The explanation is unsatisfactory, it requires more. What is a marine layer, how does it affect a baseball, how does it all work? It’s something that has never been explained to me, and I am unwilling to just accept it as a unexplainable phenomena that spells the end to potential home runs. If this is something that hasn’t fully been explained to me, how many other fans are out there that have no idea what this means or are even aware of its existence? People deserve to know that the dimensions of their beloved ballpark does not represent the only plaque effecting the Seattle Mariners’ offense.

It’s called a Mariner layer, a distasteful product of the Puget Sound. It is caused when the otherwise warm air comes into contact with the surface of cold water. This process causes the once warm air to cool down and increase its density. After all, water along the west coast stems from Alaskan waters and is much cooler than water you would find mirrored on the east coast. You may have heard this referred to as May-Gray, and while clouds could be present, they are not always an indicator of the presence of a marine layer. So when thick marine air is mentioned with regards to Safeco field, you now can understand where is comes from. However, we do not fully understand how it effects the flight of a baseball. In a vacuum, a baseball traveling the same speed, at the same trajectory will land in the same spot every time. However, cold air is dense and thick. With a simple understanding that cold molecules move much slower than those that are warm, drives the next portion of understanding. I’m no scientist, however this is a simple scientific notion discovered somewhere around the sixth grade. As the suns bright rays beam down upon a baseball field, warming the air and raising the temperature, molecules in the atmosphere expand and increase in speed. Therefor a dry, hot environment allows a baseball to travel further, accomplishing the path of least resistance. After all, heat is an energy source helping to keep the baseball airborne for a longer period of time. Seeing how cold is the absence of heat, it would stand to reason that any molecular activity in cold air would be the exact opposite of that in hot air. Thus a baseball traveling through cold air is going to travel less than that in hot. Take a layer of dense cold marine air, and the ball is not only going to be lacking an extra energy source (heat), but it is going to be dragged down by the moist marine air.

Just last year many a Mariner fell victim to this. Casper Wells certainly felt this effect , as on May 22nd, 2012 Wells smashed what should have been a grand slam off of the Ranger’s Matt Harrison. In case you forgot here is a clip.

GRAND

Evidence in motion. That ball is a goner is nearly every other ballpark in the majors. This is obviously a powerful example of what can happen when mother nature plays her tricks on baseball. This essentially would have sealed the win for the Mariners, who would end up losing this game. This is a problem the Mariners will continue to encounter down the road. The new, neutral dimensions of Safeco Field will undoubtedly help combat this issue, however, the Mariners still have a powerful enemy. The brass has plenty of power to change the position of the outfield walls, but they certainly have no power over science and mother nature.

Hopefully, this will open a few new avenues of thought, and perhaps enlighten a subject that up to this point has just been accepted as an unknown product of Safeco Field. Here’s hoping for a warm summer in Seaatle, WA.

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3 Comments

  1. tony says:

    Good article, however I would much prefer the ball that is crushed, dying into the glove of an outfielder over some of these other parks where a swing that would normally be a lazy flyball end up clearing the fence.. how is that fair… Yankee stadium for example is an absolute Joke to right field.. I think that is what is “unfair” Homeruns should be special, not an everyday occurance with weakly hit balls…

  2. maqman says:

    Another negative factor is the internal airflow within Safeco. I read a study done two or three years ago that showed that within the stadium the air circulates from left field toward home plate. I believe it said this was due to the configuration of the building and predominant external airflow, although the later does change. Another factor is the air pressure at sea level is higher than that found at inland ball parks. Higher air pressure alone will increase drag on a batted ball, when added to the marine layer and internal air flow it becomes a significant deterrent to fly balls. Conversely the air flow in Yankee Stadium flows toward right field which produces homers on what would be a routine fly ball in The Safe. This surprised the Yankees, who had not expected it and indicates stadium designs should be subjected to wind tunnel testing before being finalized. If the M’s built some baffles to alter their internal air flow it might make as much difference as moving in the fences. As the moist local air actually makes the balls slightly heavier and softer (the reverse of Coors Field) if the M’s kept game balls in a hot locker – just a locker or closet with a light bulb in it turned on all the time) – until game time this effect would be reduced.

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