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Bringing science to life

A ball hurtles toward home plate. A batter swings. Contact.

These are rituals of the ballpark. But to Professor Lloyd Smith and the researchers at Washington State University’s Sports Science Laboratory, they’re also matters of science.

Where others watch for curveballs, Smith and his fellow researchers are more interested in a ball’s coefficient of restitution. They measure a bat’s mass moment of inertia and balance point. They look for infinitesimal changes in a ball’s seam height to gauge the effect on drag.

Smith is such a recognized authority in the science of bats and balls that Major League Baseball enlisted his help to discover why there had been more home runs than usual, a trend that raised dark rumors of “juiced” balls.  

You’d be tempted to assume Smith is a baseball superfan who parlayed his passion into a profession. You would be wrong.   

“It was really all coincidence,” he says.

Smith, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering, was working with WSU’s renowned Composite Materials & Engineering Center when a local inventor came calling. The man claimed to have come up with a way to reinforce wood baseball bats so they didn’t break as easily. Smith’s colleagues said, in essence, let the new guy deal with it. 

Bat and ball science

Ball Coefficient of Restitution: The COR is a measure of the energy that is lost during impact. Balls with higher COR will be more lively in play.  

Mass Moment of Inertia: MOI is a measure of the distribution of mass in the bat. A knob- and end-loaded bat may weigh the same, for instance, but the end-loaded bat will have a higher MOI. Bat speed depends on MOI and is an important component of laboratory performance tests.

Balance Point: The location on a bat where all of the mass would be concentrated if the bat had no volume. While it is often close to the geometric center of the bat, it does not have to be. The balance point can be readily found by balancing the bat on your finger. It’s needed to find the Mass Moment of Inertia.

Professor Lloyd Smith and researcher measure a softball.

And so he did. Smith says his background in composite materials and an interest in experimental design helped him devise a way to test baseball bats. Pretty soon the federations that regulate softball and baseball were interested. Then the equipment manufacturers wanted to work with him. 

A baseball split into two halves.
The WSU Sports Science Laboratory carefully tests baseballs to ensure the tests they’re used for are accurate and repeatable.

Now faculty, researchers, staff, and students working in WSU’s Sports Science Laboratory test bats for the NCAA, and for USA Baseball and USA Softball. They certify bats for sports equipment manufacturers. Major League Baseball contracts with the lab to test for ball drag. And lab personnel visit every major league ballpark annually to evaluate the accuracy of the systems that show the strike zone over home plate.

“All of these tests are unique to us,” Smith notes.

The lab uses ball cannons, light gates, high-speed cameras and computer modeling in its tests. Balls are measured for weight and stiffness to ensure the tests employing them are accurate and repeatable, and many are rejected.

“We just bought 500 dozen baseballs, and we’ll probably throw away half of them, not even test them,” Smith says.

He began measuring ball drag for Major League Baseball after the 2015 season, when teams started hitting a lot more home runs compared with previous years. Some people wondered aloud whether baseballs had been altered to make games more exciting.

A sequence of shots overlaid to show a baseball player swinging a bats and the path of the baseball.

Smith says it didn’t take long to figure out that the baseballs were experiencing less drag. But measuring drag was a challenge because traditional wind tunnel tests wouldn’t account for the spinning of a baseball. Coincidentally, one of the students working in the Sports Science Laboratory had come up with a new way to measure drag by firing the ball through speed sensors.

That first report, issued in 2017, concluded drag had changed, but no one knew why. “A team of us flew down to Costa Rica and inspected the ball factory, talked to engineers and measured equipment, but we couldn’t find any reason the ball had changed,” Smith says.

So he kept working on making drag measurements more accurate, and improving seam-height measurements.

“Now we have non-contact lasers to measure the seam height profile of a baseball with over a million data points,” he says. And yes, seam height correlated to drag, but “unfortunately we were never able to determine why seam height had changed.” Now Major League Baseball sends 10 dozen baseballs to WSU’s Pullman campus four times a year so the lab can measure seam height and drag.

“It’s a fun project, and we also happened to have a device that was exactly what they needed,” he says.

Baseball isn’t the only game at the Sports Science Lab, which specializes generally in the dynamics of ball and bat collisions. Notes Smith, “we also do work in ice hockey, badminton, soccer, cricket, golf, taekwondo, and boxing.”

But after decades of working on the science of the ballpark, Smith says he has become a baseball fan, of sorts.

“I certainly find baseball much more interesting now, though when I watch a game I’m looking at different things than your typical fan is.”

Lloyd Smith, Professor and researcher at Washington State University’s Sports Science Laboratory

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