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Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Are Today’s Home Run Hitters Just Carpetbaggers—A Synthetic Discovery

Don’t worry. Don didn’t didn’t get rug burns researching this article.

The May 2001 edition of Discover magazine has a fascinating article by   Curtis Rist in it that just might explain why so many home runs have   been hit in the past eight years.

The article, entitled "Foul Ball?," will take a bit of the steam   out of conspiracy theorists, who believe that the owners have covered up a juicing   of the baseball in order to jack up offense. (One of the leading proponents   of this theory, Eric Walker, whose fascinating albeit occasionally over-florid   volume The Sinister First Baseman is something of an unknown classic   in hyperliterate sabermetric circles, calls this phenonmenon the "Silly   Ball").

Rist’s article puts a completely different spin on the "silliness"   inherent in the recent home run explosion. It turns out that the changing contents   of carpet fibers may be a significant factor all this.

Oddly, criminologist Dennis Hilliard, director of the crime lab at the   University of Rhode Island, is the key man in this discovery. With admirable   forensic zeal, Hilliard and his team of analysts compared the components of   baseballs from six different years (1963, 1970, 1989, 1995 and 2000) to determine   the differences in them.

The result was that the synthetic fiber content of the 2000 baseball   was close to 22%, which is significantly higher than the major league guideline   (15% plus or minus 3%).

What’s the difference in having more synthetic materials used as part of the   baseball’s inner windings? As Hilliard’s colleague Linda Welters explains   in the article, it’s all about the susceptibility of the ball to moisture.

Wool absorbs moisture (we’re talking about moisture from the air) quite readily,   and humidity can tend to deaden a ball by relaxing the tension and reducing   fiber elasticity. Polyester, on the other hand, cannot absorb water.

Where does the carpet fiber come into this? It has to do with the components   used in the yarn wound into major league baseballs. The Paul Dubin Company   of Centerville, Massachusetts has been producing this yarn for Major League   Baseball since 1976; the fibers used to create this yarn is recovered waste   from carpet manufacturers.

Welters surmises that the decline in all-wool carpets has caused the rise in   the percentage of synthetic fibers in the yarn.

And the rise in the percentage of fibers in the yarn may account for a good   portion of the increase in homers per game over the past decade (1.58 in 1990;   2.34 in 2000).

Paul Dubin, in a statement that will leave conspiracy theorists with something   to believe in, denies the accuracy of the crime lab’s findings. If such is actually   the case, however, it’s clear that the change in the baseball was essentially   unintentional.

Of course, there are other factors that could still account for some of the   surge in homers. (We’ve discussed some of those recently, and reader Scott   Robinson wrote a paper for his college English class on this topic partially   as a result of our discussion here. By the way, Scott, how did you do on that   paper? If my recollection is correct, Scott concluded that the baseball was   the primary culprit in the home run explosion.) Separating these out in a way   that quanitifies each is impossible, of course?but it would be ironic to think   that much of the change we’ve seen could be due to a change in something we   can’t see.

A final note: scoring is down in the big leagues so far this year (about 11%),   but home runs are down only marginally (through May 11th, 2.31 homers were being   hit per game). I’ll leave it to you number-crunchers out there to come up with   estimates as to how much more offense could be lopped off as a result of returning   the synthetic content of the baseball to its proper specifications, but it’s   clear that there’s still some more room for shrinkage.

Thanks to my father, Donald Malcolm, Sr., for bringing the preceding   material to my attention.


Don Malcolm Posted: May 22, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 2 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Rich Rifkin I Posted: May 22, 2001 at 12:06 AM (#603831)
Because so many players for so many years have been saying that, "it's the baseballs," I have long considered (without any other evidence) that a change must have happened in the baseballs around the beginning of the 1990s. Perhaps this is "the other evidence."

However, my guess is that the increased offense also comes from at least 9 other very important factors: 1) the addition of new offense-friendly ballparks into baseball (esp. Coors); 2) the subtraction of some old pitcher friendly ballparks (such as the old Cleveland Stadium and the Astrodome); 3) the modification of some existing ballparks, so that it is now easier to hit in them (such as in Oakland and Kansas City); 4) the reduction in foul territory in almost all facilities where major league baseball is now played; 5) the improved strength-training techniques of major league hitters, giving all hitters improved power and bat-speed; 6) the decade-long advancement in the average age of major league hitters in both leagues, perhaps caused by today's better training methods; 7) expansion and hence, pitching dilution; 8) the better bats used today, where the handles are whittled down to almost tooth-picks and the bat-heads are left large; and 9)the misinterpretation of the strike-zone by major league umpires, where until this year, a ball pitched slightly above the waist was called, "high."
   2. Law Boy Posted: May 25, 2001 at 12:06 AM (#603838)
Bill James wrote an article for this year's stats baseball scoreboard that basically disproves most of your points about stadiums Rich. Well worth a look.

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