Recently, I’ve been taking you on a tour of minor leagues that play in the northern parts of the Nation, with an eye on the types of weather seen in April and May. I have demonstrated that teams in the Northeast may well benefit from a delayed start to the baseball season while Pacific Northwest weather patterns tend to be more favorable for six teams preparing for a longer season. These minor league teams are organized based on the MLB team that holds the rights to their professional players. Other independent amateur leagues attract college players who desire further playing time at the completion of their spring seasons. The collegiate summer league having the footprint that is farthest north, the 22-team Northwoods League, plays in towns across the Upper Midwest starting at the end of May. The league is Wisconsin-focused with 10 teams based there and five teams playing in Minnesota.
The Northwoods League was one of the earliest to release their 2021 schedule. Because most of its teams were able to play a shortened schedule in 2020, operations have been less disrupted by the pandemic than affiliated ball. All teams on the 2020 roster are back for this season and a new team for 2021, the St. Croix River Hounds, takes the field just across the Wisconsin border from Twin Cities Metro area.
Wondering what you’ll need for your 2021 baseball adventures? Get this free checklist
Longest Days Found Farther North
One unique aspect of Northwoods League play arises from the fact that summer days are LONGER the farther north one goes, and that difference is most dramatic during the weeks surrounding the summer solstice each June 21st. By the third week of the regular season, the sunset time in some Northwoods League cities is after 9PM, meaning that many evening games will end before it’s fully dark outside. At Bismarck, ND, home of the Larks, the latest June sunset time is 9:42PM! While not great for postgame fireworks shows, the long days are friendly for those who have a bit of a drive home after the game.
Lake Breezes and Passing Storms
What weather conditions are we signing up for as fans of the Northwoods League in 2021? The season overlays the warmest days of the summer, as it coincides with summer break for the college players who fill its rosters.
One unique geographical feature is the nearness to the Great Lakes of nearly one-third of the teams. This provides significant exposure to the potential for cooling onshore breezes during the late afternoons and evenings. The lake breeze effect tends to be most substantial during the early part of summer when the cool lake temperatures still have the greatest contrast with the air temperature over the adjoining land.
Otherwise, the comfort level outdoors will vary based on cloud cover and humidity. There is the threat of thunderstorms throughout the season, though the most volatile weather is usually confined to the first half of the season. Any storms tend to be more scattered and more slow-moving during late July and early August, and instances of severe weather become less numerous in most years after July 4th. The tradeoff is that mid to late summer humidity tends to be much higher during July and early August – especially for the league’s southern outposts like Waterloo and Kokomo as maturing seasonal croplands maximize their water usage.
In an earlier article, I looked at the benefits of “missing out” on chilly April weather (and in turn enjoying games into mild September) in the northeast United States for a 2021 baseball season delayed by pandemic realities. I gave weather details from last year when there was no spring baseball — using the April 2020 weather pattern. With the long-awaited release of schedules, and all except MLB, AAA, and college teams delaying the start of their seasons into May, it’s time to resume my “tour” of the minor leagues. This time we’ll go to the other coast where the newly- elevated teams of the High-A Northwest League are set to play the season with five teams based in Washington and Oregon, and a sixth team based across the border in Vancouver, BC. I should note that these teams were formerly part of a short-season league that did not start play until June. That means they customarily have missed out on the spring weather.
Wondering what you’ll need for your 2021 baseball adventures? Get this free checklist
April Weather Variations
Last spring showed that April weather in the Northeast US can be downright wintery, but the Pacific Northwest enjoys a more temperate spring climate. First, the average April temperature in Washington State is a couple degrees warmer than that of New York State. Layered on top of this natural advantage has been a string of mild Aprils. It has been a full ten years (back to 2011 as shown on the chart below) in which Washington State had a month of April that was more than one degree colder than the long-term average. Remember, New York has had three such cold Aprils just since 2015!
The six teams of the Northwest League are in a very homogeneous geography compared to the 15 teams in the (former) International League. April temperatures are seldom cold enough for snow at the lower elevations of the Pacific Northwest and April precipitation averages about 10% less in Washington State than in New York.
The Splendor of September
If games don’t start until May, the 132-game class A season will stretch into at least the first half of September (that schedule is to be released the week of February 15th). Similar to the differential seen in the Northeast US, September temperatures in Washington State average 12 degrees warmer than those of April. By virtue of averaging a couple degrees cooler than New York in September, the Pacific Northwest would appear to retain a regional advantage at the back end of the season– less of a tendency for late-season heat waves compared to the Northeastern states. This moderating influence was not fully realized in the past ten years. In fact, during the past decade half the Septembers in Washington State were much warmer than normal. The very warmest Septembers (for instance 2020) have brought highs of 95 to 100 in the first week of the month at places like Pasco, WA, home of the Tri-City Dust Devils. It turns out that this may not have been too uncomfortable for evening baseball with the earlier sunsets of September. Especially helpful is the low humidity of the region allowing most nights to cool into the 40s and 50s. Early autumn weather is typically splendid in Washington and Oregon as normal rainfall in September is less than half of that seen in much of the Northeast US. Shifting the baseball season back a month might be particularly appealing in this part of the country.
In the pandemic season of 2020, it seemed that everything about the game was under review and subject to change – often on short notice. To get safely through the 2020 season changes were made to the length of games (7-inning doubleheaders), the number and timing of off days, and game sites.
In 2021, we can be confident that many of us will be able to attend games in person for the first time since 2019! But a lot has changed, and some “temporary” changes will be slow to unwind. It may well require some creativity to return to baseball in 2021, so I encourage baseball fans who want to join in to think outside the box.
Wondering what you’ll need for your 2021 baseball adventures? Get this free checklist
I appreciate the game so much that watching any game any time is enjoyable. If your appreciation of the game is at a high level, then you need not be limited by the shortage of tickets when social distancing is in place during the 2021 season, even if – as I’m starting to hear is increasingly likely – the 2021 season is shorter than 162 games.
Here’s a question as you contemplate getting back to baseball in 2021. Will you drive farther to see a AAA game if tickets aren’t available to see your favorite MLB team? Such devoted fans will be popular with teams hurting after a year of lost revenue and little chance of full stadiums in 2021. If you could go anywhere to see AAA baseball in 2021, where might you find the best chance of success?
As the starting point for considering the balance of supply and demand for tickets in spring of 2021, let’s look at AAA attendance from the most recently-played season. Of the 27 AAA teams expected to maintain the same affiliation status as in 2019, five teams averaged less than 50% of capacity in 2019. These were Salt Lake of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), and Buffalo, Syracuse, Norfolk, and Gwinnett of the International League (IL). Jacksonville, moving from AA to AAA for 2021, also averaged less than 50% of stadium capacity during the 2019 season. Part of the picture for the low percentages in Buffalo (with the 9th highest average attendance in AAA) and Salt Lake City (near the middle of the pack in AAA attendance) is that they have the largest stadiums in AAA. If you’re near these cities, you might find it easier to get in to a socially-distanced game!
On the opposite end, there were two teams in the PCL (Nashville and Las Vegas), and three teams of the IL (Charlotte, Columbus, and Lehigh Valley) which averaged more than 85% of capacity during the 2019 season. The new Twins AAA affiliate in Saint Paul drew remarkably well when operating as an independent league team, regularly selling out 7210-seat CHS Field. Each of these teams have newer stadiums, (all opening since 2008), and four of the six had winning records. It’s very possible these may be among the harder tickets to get in the restart of the minor leagues! Where does your local team fit into this picture? Below is the list of AAA affiliates and their average 2019 attendance compared to their listed stadium capacity.
Another option for some fans would be to look at games in the lower levels of the minor leagues or even the independent leagues, many of which were able to play a shortened season in 2020. These independent or non-affiliated leagues include the Northwoods League (which boasted the largest attendance of any US baseball league in 2020), the American Association, the Atlantic League, and the Pecos League. Their schedules start later which combines with limited travel and player movement to give these leagues better opportunities to play full seasons in 2021. The Appalachian League (southern mid-Atlantic region) is newly non-affiliated in 2021 and recently released a 54-game schedule (down from 68 games in previous seasons when it was a low-A league).
The pace of change in baseball has not been slowed by the pandemic and a new whirlwind of activity is expected early this winter as realignment of Minor League Baseball is finalized between major league teams and partners. Because of necessary steps taken to help the 2020 season progress as safely as possible, we saw the future of minor league affiliates for a few teams. In 2020, avoiding travel was a major factor in the final setup. The alternate training sites set up during 2020 were as close as possible to the major league home stadiums in order to reduce players’ risks of exposure to COVID.
Anticipating that the minor leagues can play next spring, let’s look at the two ends of the travel spectrum based on the 2019 affiliations and expected 2021 arrangements. The five teams most distant from their top farm clubs have been the Dodgers, Brewers, Marlins, and Nationals — all from the National League and each more than 1000 miles from their AAA teams — and the American League Twins, 788 miles from the AAA Red Wings in Rochester, NY. These long distances, though posing a source of travel delay when a replacement player was needed, did not prevent success. Four of these five teams were among the ten participating in the 2019 post-season!
On the other hand, four teams in each League were fewer than 95 miles from their AAA teams. These were Seattle, Detroit, Toronto and Boston from the American League and San Francisco, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Philadelphia from the National League.
Curiously, only one of these eight were playoff teams in 2019! Recent news coming from the Astros and Twins shows that they will now join the ranks of teams whose AAA teams are within 30 miles of their major league stadiums. The Astros Round Rock team was 150 miles from Houston and is being supplanted by Sugarland.
Some fans will be shut out of the opportunity to attend MLB games with limits on attendance likely in 2021. At the same time, realignment of the minor leagues may open opportunities for creative baseball fans taking road trips to see games in which the stars of tomorrow will be participating. Not only will many Twins fans savor the presence of a AAA team in the same market as the parent club, there may be some fans in the southern end of Twins territory for whom a road trip to see Wichita (new AA affiliate) in action might be an easier ticket than that of the reduced capacity at Target field. Wichita is closer than the Pensacola club (Twins’ AA team for past two years) which didn’t play any of its Southern League games farther north than Jackson, TN.
Players do travel when moving to new teams and from one level to another, but most of their travel involves going from city to city and series to series with one team. Since 1997, the AAA Pacific Coast league footprint has sprawled across three time zones with teams in ten different states. The PCL is likely to be broken up, with the western teams comprising a true “PCL” and a new AAA league being formed consisting of current PCL teams from the central time zone. All of this will shorten travel and could allow more favorable scheduling. There will be some interesting weather and climate angles to these scheduling changes and I’ll be writing more about these in the coming weeks after the final plans are released in early December. For now, I see these advantages to the realignment:
- Minor league players will be more likely to experience similar weather while staying in the same time zone. This will help many organizations as they prioritize better balance and sufficient sleep for players.
- With the adjusted schedule in 2021, fewer players and teams will be subject to the type of early spring cold spells that have engulfed the Northeast in recent years. See my previous article that dealt with this issue! By the start of May, the temperature contrast between Florida and states like Ohio or New York is usually less stark. The farther into spring we go, rain events that do occur tend to be shorter, making it easier to work in games around passing showers rather than the all-day downpours more common in April.
In this article I look at details of the weather we missed in April 2020 in the more northerly minor league cities, and why a later start to the season promises better weather — assuming everyone can play in 2021.
The great experiment of the 2020 MLB season is complete. Several changes made for this season were received favorably, and one reason for success was the meteorological advantage in the scheduling of the 60-game regular season. By not playing the first 102 games of the 2020 schedule (as the season did not open until the end of July), baseball teams located in the eastern half of the United States missed some consistently chilly and rainy early spring weather. This was true of the Central and Eastern divisions of the American and National Leagues, and would have affected three of the minor leagues whose seasons were entirely cancelled.
Wondering what you’ll need for your 2021 baseball adventures? Get this free checklist
It’s a difficult time for minor league teams, with economic uncertainty following the loss of the 2020 season boosted by the lack of clarity for next year. Though nothing is finalized it’s looking more and more as though the start of the 2021 Minor League Baseball season will be delayed by at least a month. I find it ironic that after shifting the Arizona Fall League Season earlier in 2019 — with the weather implications described in this article — moving the regular Minor League season to later dates could now cause the two to overlap.
Big League Chill for Minor League Cities
The AAA International League, the AA Eastern League, and even the Advanced A Carolina League all lie in geographies for which the arrival of spring was slow and somewhat intermittent during 2020. Unlike MLB teams which may fortuitously escape spring chill with a series in an enclosed stadium or a well-timed West Coast road trip, the geographical homogeneity of the minor leagues presents a consistent problem when cold weather lingers into spring across the Northeast and Midwest.
Let’s look at some specifics from the spring of 2020 for the Western division of the International League. In April of 2020, these cities all had measurable precipitation on between 10 and 15 days in the month. Temperatures averaged between two and four degrees below normal.
Though there were a handful of days with pleasant highs in the 70s at both Indianapolis and Columbus, another handful of days in each city only reached the 40s. The remaining days in April reached the 50s and 60s.
Looking at recent history, three of the past five years have had cooler than normal April weather for the eastern Midwest and Northeast, and only one of those five Aprils averaged drier than normal.
Even more weather-challenged was the Northern division of the International League. The three cities in New York each had between 7 and 10 April days with measurable snow among nearly twenty days with measurable precipitation of some type.
The temperature was unpleasant also. It failed to climb out of the 30s on three days in Buffalo and on four days in Syracuse. Another dozen or so days in April only reached the 40s. It seems that the winter coat would have been the most comfortable baseball attire for this region on the majority of days in April, 2020! The next chart shows how variable the April temperature pattern has been for the state of New York in recent years.
Early Fall Weather — Best of the Season
A late start to the minor league season would then cause the 140-game season to extend through the month of September. That shift of the schedule should be great weatherwise for the northern teams. The average September temperature for the state of New York is sixteen degrees warmer than the average temperature in April with only an 11% increase in average precipitation amounts compared to April! The COVID pandemic ends up providing an opportunity to lop off the April part of the schedule, and its potential for really miserable weather, and in turn to “reattach” those games to the end of the season – in what can be the nicest weather month of the year.
Here’s an interesting takeaway from this September chart: it has been more than twenty years since New York state had a September ending up more than one degree colder than the long-term average!
October 23rd Update for World Series!
Chilly in Texas for #WorldSeries @RaysBaseball and @Dodgers, except for brief return of seasonable warmth for Sunday’s #Game5. Chances for rain next week do not favor #Baseballunderthestars at #GlobeLifeField if this Series goes beyond Sunday!
October 19th update – Generally dry #WorldSeries weather for @RaysBaseball and @Dodgers, favorable for #GlobeLifeField roof to be open. The exception could come on Friday. A chance of rain should be gone by evening, but small potential for gusty winds behind a cold front similar to what happened during last Thursday’s #NLCS Game 4.
Warm and humid for #Game1 and #Game2 then fluctuating temperatures for the weekend into next week. If the Series goes six or seven games, there is potential for chilly outdoor temperatures. #RaysDodgers
October 12th update — It looks even warmer than previous expectations for #Astros and #Rays #ALCS series. Starting the week pleasantly warm then turning chilly and briefly windy for the #NLCS between #Braves and #Dodgers which may affect decisions on open vs. closed roof at Globe Life Stadium.
Oct. 10 – Nearly perfect weather is in store for the start of American League Championship Series and National League Championship Series with warm temperatures and near zero chance for rain.
October 8th update: California heat returns next week for ALCS in San Diego. Astros will be there and Yankees / Rays still battling for the chance to join them!
Outdoor baseball continues with two American League Division Series in California. The unusually warm weather pattern finally loses its grip on the West Coast by mid-week. It does look like another dry week in southern CA as temperatures return to more normal October levels by Thursday.
As the charts below are showing, we’ll have a tale of two weather patterns for the seven first-round MLB playoff series being contested outdoors. The three California sites will experience unseasonable heat and smoky skies as September turns to October. Three Midwestern playoff sites will turn unseasonably chilly by mid-week while Atlanta enjoys pleasantly cool weather. Rain showers may pester Chicago and especially Cleveland Wednesday and Thursday, and gusty winds will exert an influence on fly balls, especially during the daytime.
A scheduling shift for Arizona Fall League (AFL) baseball has its teams playing games in summer yet creatively escaping the heat. Cancelled for 2020, this league should return in 2021 with the second rendition of an earlier opening day originally introduced in 2019. This change moved the season three weeks earlier, to start in mid-September and end with the championship game on the last Saturday of October. The chart below depicts the temperature effect of trading mid-autumn days for three weeks near the fall equinox.
Having seen the extreme heat across the Desert Southwest at the start of September 2020, one might well be concerned about the potential weather impacts of an earlier AFL season. What are dedicated fans getting themselves into? Will I still want to travel to these games in 2021? Though baseball is a sport not necessarily halted by the desert heat (note that a rookie-level Arizona Summer League has been playing in outdoor venues through the hottest part of the year since 1988) the AFL is kind to those of us from cooler climates, with the September portion of the schedule containing only night games. In 2019, the early season September nights cooled to the upper 60s and lower 70s. During October, some of the games start over the noon hour and others in the early evening, For those who don’t like the mid-day warmth, it can be as much as 15 degrees cooler by the middle innings of an evening game!
Average temperatures are dropping very quickly during the season, cooling by about ten degrees every four weeks! The average high in Phoenix drops below 100 during the third week of September, and crosses the 90 degree mark around October 12th, which was very close to the former starting date of the AFL. By mid-November, average highs are in the mid to upper 70s.
Monsoon season, featuring not only increased chances for afternoon thunderstorms, but also higher humidity, peaks during August, and retreats during September. These fall months each average a half to two-thirds of an inch of rain, with measurable amounts falling on about four days in each month. So, the area has dry weather most of the time. Hurricanes from the Pacific Ocean occasionally move into the southwest US in much weakened but still moisture-laden form. Several of Arizona’s most prolific rainmakers have occurred with former Pacific hurricanes, and the historical peak of these occurrences seems to have centered on the last week of September and first week of October. There have been sixteen tropical systems to impact Arizona since 2000 (see the list here) but none have occurred later than the most recent system of this type on October 15, 2018 when the remnants of Hurricane Sergio passed through as a tropical depression.
The uniqueness of 2020 has caused the Major League Baseball (MLB) season to be compressed into sixty games. One might think a baseball season starting in July (as we have this year) would bring little worry in the weather department. After all, as I explained in this previous post, April historically sees the most weather-related postponements – with nearly 40% of the total occurring in that month. This makes it possible for most games to be made up well before they produce significant playoff implications. Not only can it be cold in April, but it is more prone to see long-lasting rain (or snow) events which postpone games into summertime.
Summer Rainfalls Delay Games
By contrast, summer rainfalls connected to thunderstorm activity seldom last more than a couple hours. It is less common for these shorter-duration rainfalls to wash out a baseball game unless team officials are very impatient. However, delays due to summertime rain and/or lightning are not uncommon. While these weather issues do not so much inconvenience the fans now limited to attending games virtually, they still cause plenty of headaches for team and MLB officials.
April of 2018 Postponements
In the 2018 regular season, over fifty major league games were postponed because of weather, tied for the second most since good records of such statistics began in 1986. True to form, April of 2018 was the month that produced more than half of that season’s postponements. Many of these were due to unseasonable cold in the Midwest and Northeast (where the month ranked among the top 10 coldest on record in nearly two dozen states), including three consecutive games at Target Field in Minneapolis postponed due to a mid-month blizzard. Of those games that were played, a large proportion had conditions more conducive to football than baseball. According to this Chicago Tribune article, 35 MLB games were played in April, 2018 when temperatures at first pitch were 40 or lower — compared with only two such chilly gatherings in the entire 2017 season!
Wildfires and Named Storms
Another late summer weather issue — seen more often in the past twenty years — is the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes. Postponements due to these named storms could play havoc in the next few weeks. The Atlantic hurricane season has produced a record number of storms through the 15th of August with conditions very favorable for many more storms in the next few weeks when activity usually peaks. If tropical weather threatens, some games might end up being played on schedule only by changing their location. The 2017 hurricane season forced MLB to move several games to locations other than where they were originally scheduled.
Out west, excessive heat and unseasonal thunderstorm activity at the onset of peak fire season has promoted an outbreak of more than two dozen California wildfires. As I write, fires threatening some of the distant Bay Area suburbs were spreading smoke over the region. If the situation worsens, it may be difficult at times to play baseball games at Oakland Coliseum and Oracle Park.
With creative scheduling already fully operational just four weeks into this baseball season, one can expect more unique measures to come! Because decisions on delaying or postponing games are very sensitive to the exact weather conditions, baseball fans can benefit from looking at a very detailed forecast — such as those provided at this site.
So be aware that, though the late start to 2020 baseball allowed us to avoid early season cold weather, the threat of rain, tropical systems, and even smoke from fires will keep teams and fans ever-vigilant for the upcoming games scheduled in outdoor stadiums!
When planning mountain visits or traveling through higher terrain a good weather forecast is very helpful. The ideal forecast will account for the various effects of changing elevation on area weather. The most dramatic difference is related to the cooling that occurs with increased elevation. If no other changes occur to a dry air mass, it will cool at a rate of one degree Fahrenheit for every 185 feet of added elevation (adding up to 5.4 degrees per 1000 feet!). Put in a more practical example, a drive from Yoder, CO (east of Colorado Springs) to Pike’s Peak (60 miles by road) can result in as much as 47 degrees of cooling. If you click on these location names above, you’ll open a window to their local National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts. Be sure to take a jacket, and maybe a stocking cap, even if making such a trip during July!
A second significant difference created by elevation will be potential for rainfall. The cooling of air with height will more easily allow any moisture in that air to condense and fall as rain, especially near the warmest part of the day. That’s why residents of many western cities so often observe thunderstorms over the mountains during summer afternoons.
Across the Border – Canadian Weather
For those living or traveling in Canada, the Environment Canada website is a valuable source of weather information. I recently took some time to explore this site and was pleased with its layout and wide range of current weather and forecast details. Good news for those on the road is that the new WeatherCAN app will provide this information to your mobile device!
The top three features of the Environment Canada site that I recommend are
- Current Radar images and future radar forecasts (up to 3 hours ahead)
- Lightning strike maps, with looping to show trends over the past hour.
- Wildfire Smoke modeling
Hourly temperature and wind conditions and future satellite imagery are also available in the Astronomy section.
Tips for the Journey
Are you planning longer mountain visits or day trips to the high places? Consider these steps to planning a successful excursion.
- Conclude your hiking by early afternoon, before the highest rain chances begin. Most of the rain on such days will fall on the windward side of the mountain ridge. Because warm air is lighter than cool air, that will often be on the side of the mountain will the greatest elevation drop to the nearby valley. For example, in Colorado, this makes the area from Castle Rock to Colorado Springs particularly susceptible to summertime afternoon storms as the hot air from the Plains is lifted along the slope of the Front Range.
- When deciding where to camp, talk with someone familiar with the area weather pattern who can steer you to the “other side of the mountain” from where the rains are most prolific.
- When finding a source of forecasts for your location, make sure it also allows easy COMPARISON with forecasts for nearby locations. Did you know that you can request your NWS forecast for any specific latitude / longitude coordinates or by any location name in the USA? This is important when there is a range of elevations with which to work! Bookmarking that specific location forecast will make for an easy return to that location forecast later. The forecast may not get the details exactly right, but you’re going to have the best idea of what’s possible allowing you to take the appropriate clothing and other gear.