Thursday, October 29, 2009

A matter of inches

The first game of the World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees was played last night at Yankee stadium. The game was a gem, especially if you hate the Yankees, which most right-minded people living outside the Bronx do. Phillies starter Cliff Lee had complete command over his pitches and lasted the whole nine innings to get the win. The Yankees ace did not have his best stuff, giving up two home runs to Chase Utley.

For the first seven innings, the home plate umpire had been calling pitches exactly as the rule book describes. This is atypical; major league umpires are notorious for having their own personal strike zones that may or may not correspond with the rule book. Last night’s ump was insisting that at least part of the ball cross home plate.

Something changed in the eighth inning, when Utley came up to bat again with men on base and the score still 2-0. Another hit by Utley – let alone a home run – would pretty much put the game out of reach for the Yankees. On this at-bat the umpire’s strike zone spontaneously became wider. Utley was called out on three pitches that he didn’t swing at. Only the second of the three was a quality pitch that appeared to cross the strike zone. The first called strike was a good four inches outside the strike zone; the third strike was closer, but still a good couple inches wider than any strike the umpire had called on previous at-bats.

There are many possible explanations why the strike zone suddenly changed for Utley, and we can’t be certain why. Perhaps it was because a new pitcher was in the game, whose release point and ball flight made pitches outside the strike zone appear to pass over home plate. Perhaps the umpire was unknowingly standing in a slightly different spot than before, meaning that the angle at which he was now looking at pitches was slightly changed. Perhaps the umpire’s contact lens had become fuzzy. Perhaps Utley had changed his stance in the batter’s box, maybe crowding the plate. Commentator Tim McCarver suggested that maybe the umpire got tired of calling ‘ball’. Perhaps. The timing sure was unusual, though.

My point in relating this story is that sometimes a couple inches make a world of difference. Home plate is 17 inches wide. Put the ball in that 17-inch zone and Utley smashes it out of the park, twice. Put the ball just two inches outside that zone and he heads meekly back to the dugout, the bat never leaving his shoulder.

It’s often like that in nature, too. Take climate change for example, which is expected to affect precipitation patterns in many regions. Say average summer rainfall changes by an inch or two inch over a given region. Does it matter? It depends. In southern Saskatchewan, where average summer rainfall is probably about 17 inches or so, it matters a great deal. Lose an inch or two of rainfall and the crops grown there become stressed, leading to lower yields unless the farmer irrigates like crazy. Add an inch or two to that 17-inch average and yields go up sharply, and farmers can get away with considerably less irrigation.

It’s a similar thing with temperature. Does a change in temperature of one degree Celsius mean much? Again, it depends where you are. In Singapore, where temperatures are in the mid-twenties or higher throughout the year, no one’s going to notice much a one-degree change. But in places with winters, one degree is a big deal, because twice in the calendar average temperatures will approach zero degrees Celsius, the point where water freezes or ice melts, depending on the direction of the trend. When average temperatures go up by one degree, here in Ontario spring comes a week or two earlier and autumn ends a week or two later. That may sound great: longer summers and shorter, milder winters – who could complain, right?

Shorter, milder winters place a significant burden on built structures like roads, bridges, culverts and buildings. Milder winters tend to be accompanied by more days where temperatures fluctuate, moving above zero in daytime and below zero at night. Built structures get wet during the day and freeze again at night. The freezing water molecules expand and contract, causing tiny surface fractures to form and expand, which over the long term weakens the structure and shortens its life. In the case of roads, milder winters require frequent applications of salt or other traction agents that cost money and, in the case of salt, cause metal structures and vehicles to rust and have adverse impacts on microfauna in the water bodies to which the roadmelt drains. These things have costs, and someone pays.

So the next time you hear that global warming has raised average temperatures by a degree or two, picture the umpire changing the strike zone on Chase Utley. Because that’s our situation right now, and we’re going to strike out if we’re not watching.

P.S. The next couple batters adapted to the umpire’s new strike zone, and the Phillies scored more runs. There’s a message in that, too.

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