Bad air days: Pacific conditions give hitters fits
The West Coast, with its Pacific Ocean breezes, beaches and breathtaking beauty, is a wonderful place to play baseball -- if you're a pitcher.
If you swing a bat for a living, its natural wonders can lose their allure in a heartbeat, starting with a soup-like marine layer invading cool ballparks in late spring and early autumn.
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with the West Coast that four of the five no-hitters spun this season have come in the pitcher-friendly environs of Seattle, Anaheim and San Francisco.
A sixth no-hitter and potential perfect game got away on Saturday night in Anaheim, where the Angels' Ervin Santana settled for a one-hit masterpiece against the Diamondbacks after Justin Upton singled with two out in the seventh inning.
Safeco Field has been home to a perfect game by Philip Humber of the White Sox and a six-man, community-effort no-hitter by the Mariners against the Dodgers.
Angel Stadium was the site of Jered Weaver's no-hitter against the Twins, while AT&T Park in San Francisco housed Matt Cain's perfect game on Wednesday night against the Astros.
Runs per game in West Coast ballparks
Major League average: 8.59
What these three coastal parks in the Pacific Northwest and California have in common is that they are located within close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, with its marine layer clouds generating a thick, heavy inversion layer hovering just above the ballpark's bright lights. The presence of an inversion layer means that the cooler air at the surface is denser than the warmer air above it.
Fans at San Diego's Petco Park, where extra-base hits go to die, can anticipate a no-hitter or perfect game anytime now. It is one of those mysteries of life that no Padres pitcher ever has delivered one. That had been the case with the Mets as well before Johan Santana turned the trick this season in Citi Field against the Cardinals, the lone no-hitter executed this season off the West Coast.
Over the past five years, the six coastal parks in the west have been among the eight toughest in the Majors to create offense. Seattle is the most difficult place to produce runs and homers in the American League, followed by Oakland. In the National League, no park is tougher to score in than San Diego, with San Francisco even slightly harder on home-run hitters than Petco Park. Bodies of water are found near each park.
The farther you get away from the waves, the easier it becomes -- by degrees -- to find offense. The Dodgers over the past five seasons are 11th in the NL in runs and 14th in homers; the Angels are 11th in runs, 10th in homers. Dodger and Angel Stadiums both rise about 20 miles off the coast.
There is no denying the density of the air in the first two months of the season in the six West Coast yards and how it can impact a game. Hitters feel it, with great frustration, and so do pitchers, who breathe more freely when exposed to those soothing ocean zephyrs.
"You can tell by the stadiums that are closer to the beach, with the marine layer, how the ball doesn't carry as well," said Weaver, whose first career no-hitter came on May 2 in front of family and friends in Anaheim against the Twins. "The cold weather at night knocks balls down.
"You can see how hitters react -- that look that they can't believe it -- when they think they get one and it doesn't go out. In the day, the ball travels a lot better. We're fortunate we have a great outfield, and those guys can run balls down in the gaps."
Weaver's teammate, Mark Trumbo, saw those expressions of mixed frustration and disbelief often last season when he played first base, a position now occupied by Albert Pujols.
"Playing on the West Coast, it's a notable difference," said Trumbo, who is third in the AL in OPS at .991. "The first month of the season, especially, there's a dead zone. There have been two or three balls I hit this year that I thought I got all of it, and it gets caught on the warning track -- or short of the track.
"Being on the other side is no fun either. In April, September, you'll see a guy crush one and have nothing to show for it. I've heard a few choice words over there [at first]. I hit my first home run to right field at home this year against [Ivan] Nova. The ball carries best here to center."
The three West division teams not on the coast -- the Rockies, Rangers and Diamondbacks -- operate in more hitter-friendly parks, notably Colorado and Texas.
In 36 games in Denver this season, a total of 459 runs have been scored, compared to 218 in 35 games in San Francisco. No West Coast park is close to the Major League average of 8.59 runs per game. Angel Stadium, at 7.30, is the highest, with AT&T Park's 6.23 the lowest.
"In Colorado, I hit a ball to left that I thought at best was going to move the runners up," said Trumbo, who leads the Angels with 15 homers after hitting 29 as a rookie in 2011. "It was a normal fly ball, and it kept going and turned into a three-run homer.
"Then we're in Oakland, and I hit one that I know is gone. It's only a matter of how far gone. Then I look out there, and Coco Crisp is catching it one step on the warning track."
Texas slugger Adrian Beltre is all too familiar with the flight patterns of baseballs on the West Coast, having spent all but three of his 15 Major League seasons with the Dodgers and Mariners. After averaging 21 homers a season in Los Angeles and Seattle, the third baseman produced 28 in Boston in 2010 and has unloaded 42 in 186 games in Texas.
"Seattle, it was very hard to hit home runs there," Beltre said. "Dodger Stadium was a little easier. Oakland also was very tough.
"You can hit a ball as hard as you can, just crush it, and then you watch it fall into a guy's glove. Easy play. The air is so thick. It can get to you mentally. I've seen it with a lot of guys, how frustrated they are.
"I'm sure it's tough on guys like Torii [Hunter], [Vernon] Wells, Pujols, when they come here and lose home runs. The other divisions have parks where it's much easier to hit one out. The air is different than on the West Coast. And the parks are smaller."
Hunter, a nine-time Rawlings Gold Glove winner, admittedly wasn't fully aware of how the West Coast air impacted fly balls when he departed Minnesota and joined the Angels after the 2007 season via free agency.
"It was a big adjustment mentally," Hunter said. "You'd think you just hit a three-run homer to win a game, and a guy drifts back and catches it. You have to stay strong mentally when you come out here. It's not as easy as people think out here."
Pujols, who is well below his career norm with 10 homers through 66 games, dismissed the question, claiming that it is "too early" to make any judgments about the air quality impacting his drives.
Down south by the border, Ryan Ludwick is the poster boy for the dangers of Petco Park, the most daunting of parks for hitters. After flourishing for 3 1/2 seasons with St. Louis, peaking with 37 homers in 2008, Ludwick lost his stroke -- and confidence -- after being dealt to the Padres midway through the 2010 season.
A .291 hitter with a .508 slugging mark in Busch Stadium, Ludwick plunged to .218 and .361 at Petco before mercifully being shipped to the Pirates in 2011.
"It's confidence," said Ludwick, busy trying to revive his career with the NL Central-leading Reds. "I think I got beat down a little bit. I got pretty comfortable [in St. Louis] and it felt like a tornado hit [in San Diego].
"Nothing against the Padres or Buddy Black, who's a great manager to play for. I love them all. It was just a tough place for me. Every good ball I hit to right-center, center and left-center just seemed to die. So I started trying to pull, and got into some bad habits. I wasn't myself."
Chase Headley, Ludwick's former Padres teammate, believe the park dictates an intense level of concentration just to compete.
"You know you're going to be playing a lot of low-scoring, close games," Headley said. "You've got to out-execute the other team, with little margin for error. I don't think that's going to change any time soon. They're not going to lure big-time free-agent hitters here."
Pitchers, conversely, should come running to San Diego -- and the five other West Coast yards.