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Will LED Lighting Affect the Game of Baseball?

LED lights are on the same light stanchions but take up less room.

The Cleveland Indians next home game is Friday when they host the Minnesota Twins.   It’s a night game, like most of the games in Major League Baseball.

The Indians won the very first American League night game in 1939 in Philadelphia.  The first of any Major League Baseball game played under lights occurred down state in Cincinnati four years earlier.  

Now as stadiums change their lighting systems statisticians will be watching to see if the game changes. 

Probably the very first of any baseball game played under lights involved two amateur teams in Massachusetts in 1880. Thanks to Cleveland inventor Charles Brush they had arc lamps available.

The professional teams eventually settled on metal halide lamps and for the last 50 years that’s been the standard.  But this year Progressive Field became one of a dozen Major League parks to use lower-wattage LED lighting.  

The installation was dome by Ephesus Lighting, a subsidiary of Cleveland’s Eaton Corporation.  Ephesus president Mike Lorenz says the league is backing the change.

“There’s an organization called the Green Sports Alliance it was founded less than 10 years ago. And their whole vision is to encourage teams to reduce their carbon footprint in a variety of ways. And obviously lighting is a major component of that.”

Lorenz figures the LED’s at Progressive Field will reduce the club’s power consumption by 50%.  And because the LED’s can be quickly turned on and off, savings may be more than that.  Indoor arenas and stadiums that are air-conditioned may save the most money because LED’s give off much less heat. 

How much light and what color they have is largely up to the teams.  Lorenz says each lamp is made up of many diodes that can be tuned to a specific color temperature,

“We try to create as consistent a light as we can so that during the transition from late afternoon to early evening to evening the field of play is as consistent as it can be for the players and the fans and the broadcasting.”

If you’ve looked into an LED flashlight you know it can be painful.   Lorenz says they work to avoid problems for players that need to look up into the lights to catch a ball.

“For players, what they are concerned about is unintended light or glare zones. And because we can be very precise in how we direct the light we can reduce the number of player glare zones.  Obviously these lights are very bright and if you look straight at it it’s going to be intense.  Our goal is try to mimize those areas where players are forced to look up at those lights”  

Lorenz says his company has installed LED’s in hundreds of venues and have heard no complaints from players.  But how will it affect batters?

That Vision Thing

The ability to see a 90 mph fastball coming to the plate may be a key talent of the top hitters.   Professor of Ophthalmology Randy McLaughlin at Ohio State University says it may be true that elite players have elite eyesight.

“They see super clearly.  I think Ted Williams was the first one to ever be, like his vision was so good.  I think Ted Williams had great vision.”

Other great hitters like Barry Bonds and Tony Gwynn are said to have had unusually strong eyesight. 

If a batter can see the red seams of the ball approaching the plate he can guess what pitch has been thrown and how the ball will track.  An Ohio State study on baseball batters and an Australian studyon cricket batters found the best hitters can look ahead of the ball for a better sense of where it’s going.

McLaughlin works with OSU athletes and the Columbus Clippers Triple A baseball team.  He says the sooner a player can see the ball the better.

“The sooner you can pick it up. Whether it’s a tennis team – we have one of the best tennis teams in the country – we try to have them pick  the ball up as soon as the guy tosses the ball up to serve.   The earliest detection they can pick up the seam  -to read it -  it’s always going to help.” 

Some college and professional teams are using software and other tricks to exercise players’ eyes to improve their ability to see pitches. McLaughlin is skeptical that vision training works.  When he’s working with a player in a slump, he’s found that confidence plays a larger role.

“I would check his vision when they would come in and I’d say ‘Boy your vision is perfect.’

And what I would do is just reinforce to him that he’s got good vision.  And lo and behold the next day I’d look at the box scores and the guy has hit 2 home runs, not because I did anything.  All I did was give him the reassurance to trust what he’s seeing.” 

Day for Night

Maybe light doesn’t matter that much.  A 2012 study looked at Major League batting averages since 1947 found a large fluctuation in batting averages between day and night games at first.  But by 1980 there wasn’t much difference.  And today, averages are slightly higher for night games.

Lighting units at Progressive Field.

But could the bright new LED lighting help a batter see those red seams on the ball and raise overall averages?  

“That’s easier to say,” says McLaughlin, “kinda hard to really really prove.”

Ephesus Lighting president Mike Lorenz agrees it is too soon to say.  But it seems to help.

“We have seen slow motion films, footages of our venues and the players’ performance.  And while we’re still lacking the scientific data, the anecdotal data suggest the players’ performance in well-lit venues increases.”

The company installed some its first LED systems in hockey arenas, including the home of the Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We’ve talked to hockey goalies who’ve told us they can see the puck better under our lighting than they could in historical lighting and that allows them to play better.” 

It will take years of numbers crunching to suss out whether LED lighting helps or hurts offense or defense. 

“It’s so hard to prove it’s just the light that’s doing it as the batting average goes up,” argues Professor McLaughlin.  “Because they’re still practicing there are so many variables in having a batting average go up.” 

In the meantime, the next night game at Progressive Field is Friday at 7:10.