Thwack! Boom! Ping! These are the sounds of a hard day’s work at the Washington State University Sports Science Laboratory. With the push of a button, a cannon is fired, projecting a baseball or softball toward a bat for testing. The data gathered in the experiments are then analyzed. The goal: maintaining the integrity of the two sports.
In arid eastern Washington, more than 1,400 miles removed from the fanfare of the Men’s and Women’s College World Series, a small group of engineers safeguard the competitive balance of those games — often without ever stepping foot on a diamond. They blast baseballs from cannons, analyze the reactions of materials and designs, help shape equipment standards and, in the end, directly influence the way the games are played.
Lloyd Smith, director of the lab and a professor in Washington State’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, has worked with his staff of employees and undergraduate and graduate students since the late 1990s to research the dynamics of bat-and-ball collisions, and how those translate to performances on the field.
Because bat manufacturers design new equipment annually, the lab tests about 1,000 models of bats per year, Smith said. The staff studies things that fans would never think to question: the center of percussion of a bat; the dynamic stiffness of a ball; the mass moment of inertia of a bat; swing speeds and the trampoline effects of hollowed barrel bats.
The tests are conducted in the split-leveled basement of the appropriately named Engineering Laboratory Building, which has a traditional dark, red brick collegiate look. But all the peace and tranquility of the campus ceases once you set foot in the lab.
A typical day for Smith and his staff consists of firing balls out of air-pressured cannons, which are designed and built in the lab. The tests compile research on the performance of bats, baseballs and softballs that are eventually used in NCAA championship play. Everything is measured and logged; even the running tally from the lab’s pingpong table is prominently recorded on a chalkboard.
The back of the facility is reserved for an environmental conditioning room, where the temperature is kept at 72 degrees with 50 percent humidity to simulate perfect testing conditions. Two bat-performance-testing machines reside there, along with another machine designed to measure how a ball reacts at the moment of impact.
All of the tests can be captured by high-speed photography to help analyze the results.
Oh, and if you are ever around when the testing is being conducted in this room, one piece of advice: Bring earplugs.
It may seem a little out of place for sports mostly dominated by teams in the Sun Belt to be influenced by experiments conducted among the rolling hills of eastern Washington, in a region known as the Palouse. But manufacturers, the NCAA committees on baseball and softball rules and the NCAA committees for both sports are well aware of the influence of Smith and his staff’s research.
Physics now plays home-plate umpire for the overall game. Standards like the Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution, which was implemented in 2011 for NCAA baseball, help keep equipment performance in check and prevent technology from creating unfair advantages. The BBCOR standard, developed with the help of the Washington State Sports Science Laboratory, is a formula that more closely follows a wood bat’s performance than the previously used Ball Exit Speed Ratio, which didn’t fully account for discrepancies in different bat lengths.
The BBCOR standard also helped the Baseball Rules Committee reach its goal of having non-wood bats perform similarly to wood bats. Smith’s lab helped determine the equipment that could comply with that standard.
“We tested a whole bunch of wood bats to find out where the performance of wood was,” Smith said. “I was pretty shocked when the (Baseball Rules Committee) wanted to go with the standard that was as close to a wood bat as possible.”
Smith knew the decision meant that offensive numbers would drop significantly which was the rules committee’s goal because it felt the game was leaning too much toward the offense.
In 2010, the last year of the Ball Exit Speed Ratio standard, Division I baseball teams batted .305 and averaged 6.98 runs and nearly one home run per game. The national earned run average was 5.95.
In the third season since the BBCOR standard was implemented, the national Division I averages in 2013 dropped to a .274 batting average, 5.27 runs per game, 0.42 home runs per game and a 4.38 national earned run average.
“People really care about our work, and the fact that we’re able to help out the NCAA with something that would not have been done otherwise is gratifying,” Smith said.
Much like the Baseball Rules Committee, the Softball Rules Committee is seeking to improve competitive balance between offense and defense and to ensure a player’s performance is a result of her skill more than of her equipment. While the baseball statistics show years in which the offensive numbers spike, softball statistics have stayed consistent. So the Softball Rules Committee has incorporated anecdotal evidence – such as watching how far home runs were leaving the park at the Women’s College World Series for a couple of seasons leading up to the 2010 season – when deciding to make changes.
The softball community knows that composite bats can be doctored to increase performance. A bat can be rolled by putting it in a machine to stretch the fibers and make it more flexible, helping it hit the ball faster and farther. It can also be shaved by removing the end cap and thinning the inner walls, causing the ball to bounce off the bat and creating more distance when it is hit. These are the most common practices of the many altering techniques that are not allowed. “Bat doctoring is the bane of my life,” Smith said.
To prevent those illegal practices, Smith’s lab performs softball bat certifications for the Amateur Softball Association of America and develops compliance testing protocols for the NCAA.
Those certifications were used by the NCAA to combat cheating starting when, in 2007, the NCAA began testing bats from teams that reached the final sites after the conclusion of the Divisions I, II and III championships. This was done to see if any bats were out of compliance from the allowable 98 mph batted ball exit speed.
Because the performance of composite bats was found to improve as they break in, the program expanded in 2010 to include in-season bat compliance testing and the pre-screening of bats at each tier of the postseason to ensure they remained within the rules. The offensive statistics in softball have remained on a relatively steady pace since the in-season testing began.
A Brief History of the Bat
One recent project Smith and his staff completed involved the lift and drag measured on raised-seamed and flat-seamed baseballs. It was part of regular experiments they conduct on the dynamics of the baseballs and softballs used in competition. Based on their findings, the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee made the decision in January to change to a flat-seamed baseball for the 2015 Division I Baseball Championship. Research Smith’s team conducted last fall showed that a flat-seamed baseball, launched out of a pitching machine – at an average of 95 mph, at a 25-degree angle and with a 1,400 rpm spin rate – traveled around 387 feet. Raised-seamed baseballs sailed only 367 feet.
Smith’s findings piqued the interest of the committee because home runs have been rare at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., since the Men’s College World Series moved to the new facility in 2011. There was an average of only 0.11 home runs per game in 2013. In 2010, when Rosenblatt Stadium was the site of the College World Series, an average of one home run per game was hit.
Gathering definitive answers to ball flight patterns can be challenging, though. Since baseballs are hand-stitched, there are variances in their performance. During the experiment, the raised- and low-seam baseballs landed in vastly different areas when launched from home plate. But when individual balls were compared – whether they had raised seams or low seams – they consistently landed in the same areas when they were launched multiple times.
“There are variations ball to ball, and now we’re in the process of figuring that out,” Smith said.
They have other high-tech tools to help them find those answers. The Washington State Sports Science Laboratory also uses a ball profiler that can measure the nuances of individual balls by using a laser to measure its actual diameter.
Finding answers as to why and how things happen in these sports motivates Smith and his team.
“What can be better in life than designing and building cannons and watching simulation video of impacts at more than 100 miles per hour?” Smith said. “It’s just a lot of fun, and it is challenging work.”