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Tech and the Art of Ballpark Design

Tampa Bay Rays Ybor City ballpark rendering 7

Baseball may be played on a grass field using the same tools as existed in the game a century ago. But everything else has changed, and today designing a ballpark is a uniquely high-tech experience.

How high tech? There is virtually no part of today’s Major League Baseball experience that’s not touched by tech, beginning with the ticketing systems you use to buy your seat to the concessions systems that ring up your credit cards and warns the kitchens when hot-dog supplies are running low to the ballpark apps and WiFi to the videoboard displays.

And despite the bucolic nature of the diamond, plenty of high-tech work goes into how the ballpark plays. From wind studies to the effects of shaded canopies to optimizing traffic flows inside and outside the ballpark, lots of tech data is at play when designing a new MLB ballpark.

That’s certainly the case with the design of a Tampa Bay ballpark, featuring a totally unique design, complete with translucent roof. While the whole idea of a translucent roof is not new — remember, the Astrodome originally sported a translucent roof that eventually gave the world Astroturf — the idea that technology can be used to create a better ballpark roof is.

When Tropicana Field and the Metrodome were first engineered, the paramount concern was supporting a roof, not necessarily creating one perfectly suited for baseball. But the support system for the Tropicana Field roof and the somewhat low roofline at the Metrodome ended up intruding into the field of play. We all know about the 160 times a ball has bounced off the catwalks at the Trop (even injuring Adeiny Hechavarria in the process), and an even more famous incident of a roof affecting a game happened at the Metrodome on May 4, 1984.

Let’s call it the Dave Kingman effect.

Dave Kingman was a prodigious home-run hitter: basically, his was a feast-or-famine career, either striking out or launching a tape-measure blast into the outfield seats. When playing for the Oakland A’s in 1984, Kingman used that power to foul a ball virtually straight up, over the infield.

It never came down.

The Metrodome roof was actually comprised of two separate roofs, with cutouts connecting the two. Kingman managed to launch a ball into one of those holes. Kingman was awarded a ground-rule double, and the Twins went on a victory. Those cutouts were not the only feature of the Metrodome roof affecting play — speakers ringing the field were in play, as well, turning homers into doubles.

To prevent the same sort of thing happening with the new Rays ballpark, engineering firm Walter P. Moore has been using MLB Statcast information compiled from 7,736 fair balls hit at Tropicana Field. Then they added in data from every ball hit by the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton — both famous for their tape-measure homers. The result? A roof design that should not interfere with play. From the Tampa Bay Times:

Launched in 2015, Statcast uses radar and video shot at 20,000 frames per second to track a wide range of things that happen when pitchers pitch, hitters hit and fielders field. They include the speed and spin of a pitched ball, the speed of base runners and fielders, how hard fielders can throw a ball, how long it takes catchers to get the ball out of their mitt for a pick-off throw to second-base and more.

When engineers at Walter P. Moore downloaded this data, it filled 90 columns on their spreadsheet. They factored key elements of it – the speed and angle of each ball as it came off the bat – into some complex mathematical equations to project the parabola of every single fly ball. They had previously done something similar but more hypothetical when designing the retractable roof at the Miami Marlins new ballpark, but data from actual hits wasn’t available for that previous exercise….

 “We wanted to make sure we caught any crazy outliers from the hardest hitters in baseball,” said Aaron White, a principal and director of digital practice in the firm’s structures group. And, yes, the models showed that Judge and Stanton do sometimes hit the ball higher and farther than most other players who pass through the Trop.

The last thing a baseball team wants is a ballpark design that interferes with play. Yes, everyone love their ballpark quirks — asymmetric fences, etc. — but elements that interfere with play, like center-field terraces and low-slung roofs, are heavily discouraged. The exercise in high-tech analysis wasn’t even available a few years ago, and it’s now being used to design ballparks.

Rendering courtesy Tampa Bay Rays.

This article first appeared in the Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Ballpark Digest newsletter.

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