Rocky Mountain High

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Let’s talk science.

Going into last night’s game, the San Diego Padres’ bullpen had the best ERA in the league at a rock-steady 3.00. In case anyone forgot that, watching them butt heads against the Rockies last night, note that San Diego gave up just one hit between the time they pulled Jake Peavy (in the 7th) and the time they called in Trevor Hoffman (in the 13th). One hit in six innings.

Ol’ ReliableHoffman, who holds the record for saves, proceeded to give up two doubles, a triple, and then walk the runners into position for Matt Holliday to score the game-winning (and still disputed) run.

Why did Hoffman break down so spectacularly? You can talk about the pressure; you can pin it on an off night. But we wouldn’t be Nerds on Sports if we didn’t at least consider the well-documented “Coors Field Effect.”

Coors Field is located 1 yard shy of a mile above sea level, the highest ballpark – by far – in the Major Leagues. The air thins at that altitude. Will a baseball, which is significantly hollow, tend to travel further in such a park?

Science!Howard L. Penn of the U.S. Naval Academy, in the course of figuring the home-runniness of various ballparks, came across an answer. Using Halley’s rule, a centuries-old formula for determining the amount of powder needed to land a cannonball on a given target, he came up with some interesting figures.

A home run ball hit at Coors Field as an average velocity of 110.82 feet per second, the highest in the league. A baseball hit in Colorado travels 10% farther than it would near sea level.

And it’s not just wicked dingahs, either. In the Spring 2005 issue of Chance, the journal of the American Statistical Association, Jay Schaffer and Erik Heiny isolated slugging percentage by ballpark to see if there was any corollation. They found that slugging goes up 12.5 percentage points at Coors compared to parks at elevations of 500 feet or lower.

Does this have any effect on other sports? Conventional wisdom holds that the Broncos enjoy a home-field advantage due to the thin altitude at Mile High Field. There isn’t as much scholarship on that subject as there is for baseball, sadly enough. But if you look at studies for endurance in general, you find some interesting numbers.

“Have you seen this month’s Journal of Applied Physiology?  FUCK YEAH!”For instance: while your blood retains more oxygen than normal at high altitudes, you can’t train as intensely due to the lack of oxygen. Endurance athletes have known this for years and incorporated a technique called “living high and training low.” Spend your downtime at a high altitude to get more oxygen into the blood, then train at a low altitude to suck all the air out of your surroundings. If you’ve ever seen that Xyience commercial with Chuck Liddell dragging a 200-lb duffel bag through a desert valley, you’ll know what I mean. The Journal of Applied Physiology tested and confirmed this trick in January 2006.

Of course, all the science in the world won’t help you when you settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. So perhaps the altitude effect doesn’t convey as much of an edge for football players. That doesn’t keep sportswriters, sports broadcasters and Mike Shanahan from reminding everyone about how high off the ground Denver is.