Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Speaking of Science: The science behind the changing game of summer

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

Michael Conforto of the New York Mets hits a grand slam homerun in front of Will Smith of the Los Angeles Dodgers, to take a 6-2 lead, during the seventh inning at Dodger Stadium on May 28, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know that I am a baseball fan — a fierce, gleeful, over-the-top emotional, long-suffering supporter of the beleaguered New York Mets (who, as of last night, have won as many games as they've lost this season). I stay up late to listen to West Coast games on the radio and root for my favorite players like I'm a Little League mom ("C'mon Pete! You got this! Good eye!") and on warm, sunny afternoons I love nothing more than sitting on a sticky seat with my scorebook in my lap, breathing the briny smell of hot dogs and warm beer, cheering alongside thousands of strangers to a soundtrack of fake organ music piped through stadium speakers.

In my mind, baseball, to paraphrase one of my favorite books, is the greatest, slowest contraption to get you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer's day.

It's also an interesting physics problem. A few years ago, ahead of the MLB's home run derby, I spoke to Alan Nathan, a professor at the University of Illinois, about the factors that control whether a baseball makes it out of the park.

There are many. The thin air at high altitude stadiums -- like Denver's Coors Field, 5,200 feet above sea level -- offers less resistance to a flying ball. Rising heat also reduces air density, allowing balls to travel a few feet farther for every 10 degree increase in temperature. A good breeze in the right direction can carry a ball, but side spin -- which happens when the batter swings just a little too soon or too late -- can cause a line drive to curve foul.

But at the most basic level, Nathan told me, there are just two crucial elements to a well-hit home run: launch angle and exit speed -- the velocity at which the ball leaves the bat.

The latter of these is in the news nowadays because pitchers are throwing harder than they've ever been; last week, my sports colleague Dave Sheinin reported that the median pitch velocity has gone up by almost a full mile per hour in the last 10 years. These super fast pitches are harder to hit, but when ballplayers can make contact, the ball goes off the bat that much faster -- leading to more home runs.

How did pitchers get so fast? That's an issue of biomechanics. New trainers, armed with high tech tools for analyzing a pitcher's motion, are figuring out how to maximize the amount of energy a moving human body can inject into a 5-ounce leather ball. It's all about "efficiency," Dave says -- producing as much energy as possible without stressing the body to its breaking point.

The game has changed as a result. This season, baseball players are already on pace to hit more home runs than in any other year in history. But because hitters feel like their best bet for offensive success is a home run, their swings are calibrated for the optimum launch angle -- rather than just putting the ball in play. In 2018, there were more strikeouts than hits for the first time in MLB history.

Solving this problem (if you think it is a problem, as most MLB officials do) will likely take all kinds of science. Some of it involves the social science of incentives: In 2020, the league will require all pitchers to face a minimum of three batters, meaning that even the hardest throwing reliever can't afford to use up all his energy getting just one out.

Baseball is also considering moving the mound back by two feet; the added distance won't change the speed of a fastball, but it will give hitters slightly more time to react to a pitch -- and hopefully a better shot at making contact. Research suggests this could work: when the mound was moved back 10 feet in the late 19th century, batting averages jumped by 35 points.

As a baseball fan, and as a science lover, I'm curious to see where the game goes next.

-- Sarah

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