PULLMAN – Lloyd Smith doesn’t have a fervent interest in the game itself, and in an almost self-deprecating manner, he admits he can’t play baseball worth a darn.
“I can’t play to save my life,” he quipped. “Actually, a coach came to me one time and said don’t swing a bat anymore.”
“I don’t like to be dishonest,” Smith continued. “I don’t really enjoy baseball at all, I don’t have a favorite team. I’ll generally watch the World Series when it comes around.”
Ironic, the Washington State University professor agrees, for someone who probably spends more time around wooden bats and rubber balls than Mike Trout, Bryce Harper or Felix Hernandez.
Smith may not be able to rattle off the last 10 World Series champions, but perhaps nobody on the globe is a better authority when it comes to understanding the scientific properties and technological advancements of the game’s two most important tools: the bat and the ball.
A mechanical and materials engineering professor, Smith is more renowned for the work he does as director of WSU’s Sports Science Laboratory, a Pullman-based shop that’s become the epicenter for ball and bat certification in amateur baseball and softball. Smith’s lab has been testing and analyzing bats since 1998 and began certifying them five years later. Now, the WSU lab is the official certification center for 10 amateur baseball and softball federations, including the NCAA, Little League, the American Softball Association and USA Baseball.
Recently, Smith got a call-up to the big leagues.
He was one of 10 researchers hand-picked to serve on a committee, commissioned by Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, to put a closer lens on the recent surge in home runs – a trend that’s irked Major League pitchers and baffled its higher-ups.
MLB teams hit .86 homers per game in 2014, but that number has increased every year since, to 1.01 in 2015, 1.16 in 2016 and 1.26 in 2017, before dipping to 1.13 this season.
The committee’s first objective was to strike out theories that were clearly fictitious.
“The most prevalent one was the conspiracy that many people felt MLB wanted more offense and was juicing the balls, to that end,” Smith said. “Other people thought Rawlings wanted to sell more balls and therefore they were doing something to the ball. I believe if you can trust our integrity we showed without doubt that those two ideas were wrong, that there was no conspiracy from any party to cause offense to increase.”
To “juice” the ball would be to alter its elasticity, Smith explains, or its “coefficient of restitution.” A baseball loses 75 percent of its energy upon impact and even a slight change in the manufacturing of a ball could cause a noticeable difference in its flight.
But the committee, a collection of physicists, statisticians, engineers and one experimentalist – Smith – managed to check off that hypothesis, too, and moved to the next one.
“That property had not been measured before and we measured that here,” said Smith, whose lab itself creates the prototypes for, and constructs the mechanisms and instruments used to test balls and bats. “That’s actually a test we developed, so it was kind of fun to apply that here. But we showed that as well didn’t change.”
Others theorized the long-bomb spike was due to a change in the batter’s swing, and although the group found a few outliers, there wasn’t nearly enough variation to prove it was affecting the game systematically.
Smith’s group moved on to a test that proved more conclusive: measuring the object’s drag. Scientists had not previously tested the baseball’s drag, which Smith would analogize to driving a vehicle while sticking an arm out the window versus doing so with the windows rolled up.
“A ball is hit at 100 miles-per-hour and if you’re driving down the road at 60 miles an hour, which is about the speed of the ball when it’s caught, that’s still a lot of force on your hand,” he said. “So that’s quite a bit of force that’s pushing that ball back, and if your hand is out in the air, if you hold it flat, perpendicular to the direction, it’s a lot more force, then if you rotate it 90 degrees and let it slice through the air.”
MLB briefly froze a program that allows fans to buy game-used baseballs, in turn giving Smith the inventory he needed to conduct the experiments. The balls were kept in a climate-controlled environment, in order to assure they all began at the same “starting point.” Two technicians then spent two months firing the balls – approximately 22 dozen – using an air-pressured cannon designed at the WSU laboratory in order to measure their drag.
“Our goal was to have the report to MLB by the end of September,” Smith said, “and it wasn’t until the end of November that we got the answer that it looks like the drag of these balls is different.”
But the results elicited mixed emotions. Yes, there was a distinct variation in drag. But why? Trying to discover that has driven Smith and his colleagues batty.
“What has happened to the ball that would change its drag?” Smith said. “And we’ve asked every question we can think of.”
The center of a baseball is composed of a rubber pill. That’s wrapped with yarn and cotton, covered with cow hide and then stitched by hand, which can leave some variability from one ball to another – and potentially a slight change in drag.
“If you talk to Rawlings, they’re very concerned about how they make the baseball,” Smith said. “What the raw materials are and the specifications that MLB gives them. There’s no specification right now of what the drag of the baseball is. It’s just how you make the ball and amazingly, for 150 years that’s been enough that offenses remain relatively uniform.”
Smith and others are still digging for answers. He’s planned a trip to Europe, where he’ll measure aerodynamics using machinery that isn’t available in the United States.
“So this is not something that I plan on giving up anytime soon,” he said. “We know there’s a difference and it must be discoverable.”
Meanwhile, work will go on at the sports science hub in Pullman.
Smith stumbled upon bat and ball testing – “one of the tricks of life,” he jokes – after arriving at WSU in 1996 as a professor working primarily with composite materials such as fiberglass, carbon fiber and aerospace materials.
He was interested in teaming with the school’s world-renowned wood lab and was recruited to help a couple of people in Spokane forge a more durable wooden baseball bat. The state of Washington leveraged money to help kick-start the project and Smith immediately grew interesting in bat performance and testing.
Smith eventually contacted Alan Nathan, a baseball physicist who was tasked to head the 10-person MLB committee, and the two began working toward improvements in bat testing. Their early suggestions were largely ignored and Smith presumed it meant the end of his short tenure in sports science.
“We made some proposals, nobody listened to us – this is about 2001 – so I said fine, this has been a fun project, it’s done,” he said. “I shut everything down and then about six months later, ASA softball said we’ve got some problems, can you help us?”
That was the launching pad. Five years later, Smith’s group was approached by the NCAA and two years after that, by Little League.
The lab has also dipped its toes into other sports, including cricket and hockey, and currently has a study group focused on head protection in baseball and softball. Even with metal cages and sturdy plastic shells, catchers and umpires are still susceptible to severe head injuries and concussions, Smith said.
“We’re unique in that we can actually do a full simulation of a human head with a baseball or softball and show what that effect is,” he said, “what the effect of a facemask or helmet has on the brain and how the brain slushes around as it gets impacted.”
Smith says the work conducted in his lab is rewarding. It affects the daily life of 20 people on his staff, something he says he could’ve never foreseen, and on a much wider scale, every amateur baseball and softball player in America. Now the pros, too.
“It’s kind of fun when MLB travels to Pullman, Washington, to see what we’re doing,” he said. “We’ve had every single major baseball and softball manufacturer visit our lab. They are instantly aware of what we do and I think they appreciate the level of excellence we’ve achieved here.”
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