Land and water tend to do two different things when it comes to heat – the land retains it, while water repels it. The land’s retention of heat gives way by the afternoon, causing the rising heat to create a vacuum, which sucks in cooler air sitting on the surface of the ocean. Cool air rushes into the coasts by mid to late afternoon.
Petco Park is less than one mile from the Pacific Ocean, making it susceptible to these afternoon sea-breeze gusts, which tend to pick up in the spring time and fade in the summer. Fortunately, the ballpark is situated east of Coronado Island , which helps to buffer the would-be stronger sea breezes that might affect fly balls. The spring time gusts, the Coronado Island buffer, and the “effect” on fly balls are all hearsay. We’ll look closer at each of these, starting with the sea breezes at the ballpark.
The Wind Matters
Let’s take a closer look at how the wind affects fly balls at Petco Park. Not that the common word of the good people of San Diego can’t be trusted; it’s just a matter of science. Below is a graph of every home run hit at Petco Park over the last two years and the approximate wind speed while the home run was hit. It seems like there’s no correlation between wind speed and distance of home runs.
However, not all wind is created equal, so the directional changes of the wind might have some influence on the flight of the ball. In the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the directional path of the wind for 261 home runs was registered (the wind was either “calm”, “variable”, or “NNE” which registered in only one case).
Most home runs were hit while the wind was blowing in the west-northwesterly (WNW) direction. Given that center field is due north of home plate that would mean that a majority of wind is probably blowing over the Western Metal Supply Co. brick building. My guess (I’m not a meteorologist) is that the wind is drawn in from the ocean, over the top of Coronado Island. Here’s a bird’s eye view of Petco; the arrow indicates where the wind is coming from – it’s the WNW direction from home plate.
So, this begs the question: How does WNW wind affect the distance of home runs? If we only look at the 101 home runs hit while the wind was blowing from the WNW direction, we begin to see something going on (r = – .21, p = .04. For every 1.53 mph faster the wind blows from the WNW direction, 1 foot is lost from every home run hit (R2 = .04, p = .04, n = 101).
No other individual direction of wind registered a significant influence of the distance of home runs hit, nor did the combination of every other wind direction have any effect. So much for the Coronado Island buffer.
It’s a decent speculation that the direction in which a home run was hit (left, right, center) might be more or less affected by the WNW wind. However, the direction that the home run was hit had no effect on the relationship of the distance of the home run, with respect to the speed of the wind. Exit velocity (the speed of the ball off the hitter’s bat) is an obvious predictor of home run distance. Exit velocity did show the weakest correlation with home run distance when hit in the WNW direction as compared to every other direction . It’s likely that lower exit velocity means that the home run hit spent more time spent in flight, and was thus more susceptible to WNW winds that suppressed its total distance, regardless of the direction that it was hit.
Addressing the hearsay
Wind direction and wind speed were recorded ten minutes before every hour of every home game for the last two seasons [3,4]. No surprise, WNW winds dominate during the course of every home game.
Wind speed does seem to be higher in the afternoon a compared to the evening, peaking in the late afternoon.
Additionally, May tends to have the strongest winds, but July and August have produced stronger winds than April. The theory that the spring is windier than the summer isn’t entirely true, but the spring does contain the windiest month of the regular season (May).
Why does this research matter?
Obviously, the pitcher and the batter are going to matter most. But, the WNW wind explains about 4% – 5% of the reason why the home run ended up where it did (R2 = .044). If you’re the Padres and you play 81 home games a year 4% – 5% might mean something to you .
Here’s a crazy idea: let’s say you’re the Padres and you’re playing an afternoon (3pm – 5pm) game and the winds are blowing in from the WNW (there are at least 22 home games this 2016 season that will be played between 3pm and 5pm). If it’s early in the game, start Carlos Villanueva, who has a career 40.4% FB%, and if it’s later in the game, use Jon Edwards who had a 67.6% FB% in 52 innings between AAA and majors last season. Meanwhile, give Matt Kemp a break (who has a career 36% FB%) and platoon rookie Travis Jankowski who showed a 27% FB% in 34 games last year with the Padres.
Why did I only choose the last two years? Wind patterns and sea breezes can change over time . If we rewind the years, we may or may not see similar results. I felt that the last two years were a decent idea about what we could expect from 2016, any further back, and I might have run into a different profile. Don’t agree with these results? Add a few years, and let’s see if the trend holds — I’m all for more objectivity.
Yes, sea breezes could entail the “marine layer” which brings a body of cool and moist air into the ballpark, and I might take a look at that with my next article. However, it’s not the moisture that will suppress home runs — it’s the cool air. Warm air expands and lowers the air density, which results in less resistance on the baseball. Therefore the cooler the air is, the higher the density. Water (H2O) is less dense than atmospheric O2 and N2, therefore if there’s more moisture in the air, we’d see less resistance on the baseball . Temperature, dew point, humidity, and pressure had no effect on the distance of home runs between 2014 and 2015.
 Of the 4 directions that reported significant effects: North Northwest (r = .674, p < .01, n = 16), Northwest (r = .473, p < .01, n = 45), West Northwest (r = .393, p < .01, n = 101), West (r = .591, p < .01, n = 36)
 Quality of batter and/or pitcher was not tested in a multiple regression model, nor were any other predictor variables beyond wind speed.
 See Coors Field effect: http://m.mlb.com/news/article/45755012/with-subtle-changes-to-dimensions-padres-hope-petco-park-plays-fair
PhD in Applied Research Methodology. Proponent of psychometrics in sports. More work at Burkmont.com