How to cheat your way to victory in baseball

By Christine Rushton

Washington State U. associate professor Lloyd Smith, U. Illinois Professor Emeritus Alan Nathan and Kettering U. professor Daniel Russell published their collaborative study, which mixed baseball and physics in the paper “Corked Bats, Juiced Balls, and Humidors: The Physics of Cheating in Baseball” for this month’s issue of American Journal of Physics. According to the paper, three questions were tested through experimentation: Can a baseball be hit farther with a corked bat, are today’s baseballs juiced and does storing the balls in a humidor affect their performance.

The study found no measurable effect on ball distance when using a corked bat instead of a regular bat, no evidence supporting balls as more lively today than in the 1970s, but there is an effect on ball performance when they are stored in a humidor. Nathan, the main data analyzer and writer, said the corked bat experiment results were expected, but they had no idea what would come of the juiced baseballs experiment. He said that as far as he knows no one has ever done the juiced balls experiment before, and they were lucky to gain the baseballs from the 1970s.

“The difficult part is obtaining baseballs from an earlier time because with used balls all bets are off,” Nathan said. “That part of the process was absolutely serendipitous. The niece of Charles Finley, the Oakland A’s previous owner, offered unused baseballs.” According to the paper, the idea for the experiment came from the incident at Coors Field in Denver, Colo., when the Rockies began storing their balls in a humidor to compensate for the air density difference at the higher Denver altitude. The offensive statistics, like home runs, were reduced about 25 percent after the change. Nathan said the results of the humidity study were expected because of earlier experiments on the subject. He said the effect of humidity on a Major League baseball has twice the effect against an NCAA baseball, and he said it is nice when science can be applied to a real-life situation. “The Arizona Diamondbacks were going to store in a humidor, and I did some calculations and concluded that if they were to do the same in Phoenix the reductions in home runs would be 35-40 percent,” Nathan said. “Shortly after, I learned that they were putting the project on hold. I would like to think that our work had helped with that decision.” According to Smith, who works in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, the motivation for the project came from Chicago Cubs player Sammy Sosa getting caught using a corked bat in 2003. He said they were looking at something similar at the time that contradicted the statements that the cork bat was affecting Sosa’s hitting, so they decided to look at it experimentally. “Alan Nathan is a physicist, so he’s the one that had the idea and kind of formulated the problem,” Smith said. “I’ve got all of the cool toys, so I’ve got the laboratory to do the work.” Smith said Russell wasn’t a major contributor because his part of the project ended up getting cut. He said the project was self-funded with the bat and ball donations from Rawlings Sporting Goods and the use of the WSU Sports Science Laboratory including an air canon that fires a high-speed ball at a bat to measure bat performance.

“It’s a fun lab, and I think it’s unique at the university that we can do something useful and has a worthwhile effect,” Smith said.

According to Nathan, the final touches to the project were finalized in the paper they decided to write. The group reviewed the information to decide how the data would be be presented. “I wrote most of the paper because you can’t really write via committee, so they reviewed it,” Nathan said. “It was completed by September, and we submitted it to the American Journalists.” According to Smith, who is considered a bat-testing expert, they may not be looking at cheating in the future, but they will continue to test other hypotheses in the sports science field. “It’s fun to take topics that are popular and to look at them critically,” Smith said. “For us, it’s kind of like Myth Busters. It was really fun to say here’s a guy that corked his bat, he thought it would help him in home runs, now let’s run an experiment to show that it isn’t correct.” Smith said he has no illusions about the paper having an effect on people who already believe in corking bats because many don’t have any interest in reading it. However, he said that there is a pretty good group that is interested in sports science. “To the extent that we can help those people understand the game and the science, I’m delighted,” Smith said. “As academics, we are providing a useful service to our society.” According to Nathan, he has visited the Pullman campus quite a few times to use the facility and collaborate with Smith. He said they are both consultants in amateur softball, are on NCAA committees together and have worked together extensively since 2002, becoming major contributors to the study of baseball and softball performance.

“We compliment each other quite well,” Nathan said. “The things he’s good at I’m not so good at, and the things I’m good at maybe he’s not so good at.” Nathan said with Smith’s laboratory and his own ability to grapple with the data, they are an excellent collaborative team. Both Smith and Nathan said they love the work they do in sports science “I’ve been a physicist all of my professional life, and I’ve been a baseball fan even longer,” Nathan said. “Part of what gets me into it is the love of baseball. It has been one of the most enjoyable things about my whole career.”

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