WSU research leads to new NCAA baseballs

PULLMAN – For the second time in four years, the NCAA is counting on a Washington State mechanical engineering professor to change the way college baseball is played. That’s quite a bit of responsibility for a man who a) has never played baseball and b) has rarely watched baseball.

“I don’t like baseball that much,” Lloyd Smith admits. “I love building test equipment.”

It was Smith, following NCAA orders, who oversaw testing that reduced the liveliness of bats to slow down skyrocketing scores after the 2010 season. Now, convinced that hitters have been rendered too ineffective by the deader bats mandated since 2011, the NCAA has approved a WSU-tested baseball designed to boost hitting in 2015 and beyond.

“It’s going to bring offense back into the game,” Smith promised.

The livelier balls, just like the deader bats, were developed after exhaustive testing at the WSU Sports Science Laboratory. Smith, director of the laboratory, works closely with WSU engineers and students on testing that takes place in a nondescript brick building on the lower west end of campus.

Bats and balls are tested in a climate-controlled room with the aid of WSU-engineered “cannons” that usually fire baseballs at speeds of 95 to 100 mph. Funding is provided by equipment manufacturers and various sports organizations, including the NCAA, the Amateur Softball Association and USA Baseball.

Smith first toyed with bat testing in the late 1990’s, but only in recent years has WSU become the sole tester of baseball bats and balls for the NCAA. Previously, Washington State served as a “backup tester” behind the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. That school now works only with major league baseball. NCAA softball adheres to the ASA-backed testing performed at WSU.

Scoring, home runs and batting averages have dropped significantly in NCAA baseball since the deader bats were mandated in 2011. Smith says the NCAA’s decision to switch from raised-seam balls to the flat-seam baseballs used by major leaguers and minor leaguers should boost offenses next year.

“They (NCAA officials) weren’t interested in bringing bat performance up,” Smith said. “They wanted to keep the speed the ball was being hit the same (partly for safety reasons). So then they said, ‘Well, is there a way we can let the ball go further?’ That’s where the seam height came into play.”

Smith added, “If you have a raised-seam ball, it’s going to have more drag, so that’s going to (seemingly) have it go shorter, but it also has more lift, which would have it carry further. That’s why golf balls travel so far; they have a very high lift component.”

Washington State’s Sports Science Laboratory also has conducted tests on hockey sticks, catcher’s masks, football and batting helmets, ties between concussions and equipment (including soccer balls), etc. High-speed video cameras, test dummies and other equipment are utilized to compile volumes of data.

Smith and his associates also re-test bats periodically to make certain they haven’t been illegally altered. Players have been known to shave the inner lining of the metal bats used in NCAA baseball and softball, drive over bats with cars, beat bats against trees … anything to get more “bounce” when bat meets ball.

“The science of cheating,” Smith says with a sigh, “is amazing.”

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