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Why is Air Density Key to Pro and College Baseball; and Why the VMI?

Posted: 2023-06-13 08:49:16 (ET)    [ 590 views ]

by Clifton Neeley

Most of you already know that I have written many articles on this website (see the list below).  However, for the newcomers, I have not recently revealed my background and where this came from. 

I grew up on a small farm in the mountainous region of Southwestern Colorado in the 1950's through the 1960's.  I began playing fastpitch softball at a small country school between Cortez and Telluride.  Since there were a half-dozen rural schools that played a schedule against each other in fall and spring, we had to fill the roster with as capable players as possible in such a small school and winning was both a challenge and a goal. 

I was tabbed to play outfield as a starter for the team of third graders to eigth graders by the beginning of my second grade year.  By the third grade, I became the starting shortstop and continued through middle school.  So, when Little League Baseball started up in the larger towns in the area, I could hardly wait. 

Hitting against older pitchers was really tough for me as an elementary aged kid, but I never had much trouble catching a ball.  Speed never bothered me catching a ball from then through college baseball and semi-pro fastpitch.  (Semi-pro only because most of the adult men pitchers in those days were getting paid to travel)

However, my first two years as a 10 year old and 11 year old in Little League Baseball was tough on me, because the pitching was new to me and the 10 to 12 year old pitchers were not very accurate.  After being hit a few times, I became wary of the ball.  But something changed when I was 12 years old.  My older brother decided he would pitch fastpitch softball as an adult, and he tabbed me to be his guinea pig catcher. 

He came from work at Cortez Glass Company for lunch to our new home in the town of Cortez most every day through the fall, winter, and spring that year and I caught for him as he learned to throw a rise-ball.  Our home was close enough to my school, I could walk to and from at lunchtime and while our mother prepared a lunch, we worked on his pitching.  Many a pitch sailed over my head, over the little backstop and across the street, as he tried to control the release at high speed of a backward spinning rise-ball.  I chased all those balls until he finally got control of it and won our league championship that first summer in 1963. 

Why did it change things for me?  Because, as he released the ball it traveled away from him quickly enough that he could not see the precise spin from his release to the plate.  Therefore while trying to improve his backward spin on the pitch, he began asking me to tell him what angle was his spin on every pitch.  Of course, as a catcher I could focus on the spin as it approached me, and as he progressed into more pitch-types (drop ball, knuckleball, curve) I was focused totally on those threads. 

Being focused on the spin and telling him how to correct it, helped me to quit focusing on the fear of being hit, but to quickly determine what was being thrown to me in baseball as a hitter.  From then on, I could see the spin and the movement on every pitch in baseball and it served me well through high school baseball and into college. 

A couple seasons iinto my brother Byron Neeley's fastpitch career, he became a top quality pitcher in the Four Corners area of Northwestern New Mexico, Southwestern Colorado, Northeastern Arizona and Southeastern Utah and qualified for many State Playoff appearances in Colorado Springs and Denver.  But, for me, there was more experience to come.

In the summer, as a high school student, there was no baseball for my age-group.  So, I played on Byron's fast-pitch teams.  I played various positions from shortstop, second base, to outfield and catcher, but hitting had become my strength and I didn't even realize it.  No pitcher could befuddle me, except one. 

Barry Roberts, yes the one that eventually pitched pro softball in Las Vegas, NV in the 1960's and 1970's was absolutely amazing.  He could compare favorably to Eddie Faner, the famous King and His Court pitcher from that era, as well.  Barry Roberts threw a rise-ball from close to his ankle that would hover on its path at that height until half-way to the plate and then rise suddenly to my shoulder level.  I kid you not. 

I love the Motto of Katie Bone, the 2023 Women's Champion of American Ninja Warrior who says, "I don't need easy, I just need possible."  That is the way I felt facing 8th grade pitchers when I was in the 2nd grade.  And, then again, when I faced adult men fast-pitch pitchers as a sophomore in high school in Farmington, New Mexico; Blanding, Utah and the mountainous region of Southwestern Colorado between Cortez, Telluride, Durango, and Grand Junction. 

Barry Roberts not only threw a rise-ball that rose from ankle high to the top of the strike zone at least 80 mph, probably 90  or more (we had no radar guns then) at close to Little League Distance (48 feet) but, he also threw a devastating drop (sinker) or a terrific change-up when any hitter started to get close enough to foul off a rise ball.  I don't think our team ever scored more than one run off him any time we played him.  I remember three games against him.  Byron's team, with me at second base, beat him I think 1 to nothing in Shiprock, New Mexico in the summer of 1966 or 67.  But, it was not me who had much to do with the score. 

My greatest success off Barry Roberts was to pop-up a rise-ball to the second baseman for an easy out.  However, as about a sophomore in hgh school, I got contratulations from the adult men in the dugout afterward.  Few others did even that much against him. 

cont'd from page one...

So, now let's move on to the Air Density.  During those late high school years of mine playing weekday schedules in the summer with the men and weekend tournaments, as well, Byron mentioned he couldn't figure something out.  I was all ears.  He could not figure out why no one could hit his rise ball much at all at night, but if it was a hot summer day, he was very vulnerable with that pitch.  He said he thought it might be the humidity, or the temperature or something and he had been told that pitches move more at sea level.

I said nothing to him, as we drove through the mountains back home, because I had absolutely nothing to add, but I remembered it.  The next year in spring baseball, my team faced a tough team out of Grand Junction High School (a much larger school than ours) in a winner goes to State Playoffs game.

Two quality left handed pitchers--who both were later rumored to have been drafted--pitched against us that day in 1966. The double-header sent us to State as we won both games by scores of 2-1 and 1-0.  I hit well, as did another player on our team, but looking back, that hot day at 6,200 feet elevation provided the pitchers very little movement. My performance earned me credit, but on a cold day, those pitchers would have shut us down. 

In the first game of the State Playoff's a Fort Collins team with a good, but not great, pitcher beat us out of the play-offs by a score of 4-3.  I did not hit well.  I popped up a bunt, which I never did.  I popped up to the infield and I hit a lazy fly ball to the center fielder, all of those being 4-seam fastballs.  However, I noticed that this pitcher had about a 3/4 inch more movement on his decent fastball than I was used to seeing from that speed of pitcher.  But, that day was an exceptionally cold day, so I put that experience in my memory, as well. 

In college I faced a pitcher of our own on a cold day, Bruce Vaughn (whom I was told years later, went on to pitch batting practice to the Colorado Rockies, because of his curveball) after I fouled a couple of his fastballs back over the backstop, threw me a curveball like I'd never seen in baseball.  It took me by surprise and I ran laps for not swinging at a third strike, but deep down like a lot of players feel, I knew I could get on his fastball and probably his curve, if only I had a chance to hit against him again, even in that cold air.   I never got that chance. 

After I pitched on a cold tournament championship day where good hitters couldn't touch the ball and I knew I wasn't that good.  After Byron, pitched at Telluride at 9,000 feet elevation on a hot 4th of July day and swore to retire the next day.  And after the Colorado Rockies' world was shattered that Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Bo Bichette, Andres Galaraga and the rest of the Blake Street Bombers could not win above 40% of their road games, and had no idea why; I finally decided to tell the Colorado Rockies that it was not the distance the ball flies in Coors Field, it is the pitching at Coors Field that the players get far too familiar with.   Then, they cannot perform well enough to compete with home teams, in the other road locations where pitches dive, dart and lift more than in some additional locations. 

However, first I had to study and discovered that the media has a different way of expressing "barometric pressure."  They always use "Sea Level Pressure" as a standard instead of the "Actual Barometric Pressure" in inches of mercury that the barometer pushes up the scale to 29.92 inches at sea level. So, I went with actual barometric pressure and created the "Neeley Scale" --see Neeley Scale on this website--on a 100 scale with MLB playing in about 60 as the average air density on the index (ADI).  The ADI provides a gauge of the mix of 1) the altitude of the field, 2) temperature of the air and, 3) the humidity in the air that affects pitch movement for the pitcher and complications in hitting for the batter.  With three variables in flux, the air is never the same from one game to the next for MLB, college, or high school players. 

For the purposes of this website, movement means the last 5 to 10 feet of the travel of a pitch.  This is where the hitter is part of the way through his swing and must have already determined from previous exposure where that ball will be at the point of contact.  In other words, hitting a fastball in the 95+ mph speed range is not simply hand-eye coordination.  Hitting it successfully at that speed must be combined with recent exposure to the amount of tail-off and lift. Thus the hyperbaric batting cage.

I also had to study "The Physics of Baseball" by the late Dr. Robert Adair and collegiate science books, as well as studies done by Universities such as UC Berkley to discover the properties of air that cause the pitches to move more than on some other days.  I studied aeronautical and flight charts for pilots on density altitude and the formulas used to determine amount of lift, drag and movement including Reynolds Numbers for friction. 

Then I had to find a way to explain why some teams had no problems playing in the coldest air at sea level and some other teams had problems hitting even when they were not at sea level but only in the midwest section of the U.S.  Interested parties asked me if being more successful on the road for a batter was a mechanical adjustment, and I answered "No".  Can it be fixed? Yes, but only with exposure.   So, in order to prove the issue with legitimate professional data I created the Visual Memory Index (VMI) to show how familiar were the hitters with todays' game air density and the amount of movement it supplied the pitcher.

As of this writing, we have proven beyond a shadow of doubt with near six million pitches, that no pitcher can overcome what the air provides him on game day.  This is because, once a pitcher releases the ball into the air with his amount of spin and speed and direction, the air is the only force other than gravity upon that ball.  Gravity is consistent, the air density is not consistent by any means.

These days fully informed members of baseballvmi, need only to add todays VMI to their own formulas to get a handle on a teams' weaknesses for todays game, as every team and every player for that team has been exposed to the same air density issues.  Then, members can use todays detailed matchup report to see which pitches may turn out to be a strength for the hitters and which may be a detriment if used by the pitcher.


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