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At bat: Baseball's tech arm

UMass-Lowell research center tests lumber for MLB

UMass-Lowell mechanical engineering professor Jim Sherwood in the bat closet at the university’s Baseball Research Center.
UMass-Lowell mechanical engineering professor Jim Sherwood in the bat closet at the university’s Baseball Research Center. (Globe Staff Photo / Joanne Rathe)

You could say Lowell became a real baseball town in 1998 when the Spinners moved to LeLacheur Park and immediately began drawing big crowds.

But another important baseball landmark arrived in Lowell that year, buried in a basement laboratory just across the Merrimack River from the ballpark. And the aspiring pitchers firing fastballs at LeLacheur can't hold a candle to Jim Sherwood's 180-mile-per-hour heater.

The high-speed air cannons that Sherwood uses at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell's Baseball Research Center will never make it onto a pitcher's mound, but the center's findings are having a profound impact on the nature of the game.

Every model of bat that is certified for college and high school games passes through Sherwood's lab, and the professor of mechanical engineering is Major League Baseball's go-to guy for all queries about the physics of bats and balls.

It all started in 1998 when UMass-Lowell graduate student Larry Fallon started doing some work for MLB and the National Collegiate Athletic Association out of ``his basement or his garage," Sherwood said. While working on a project at Tufts University, Fallon became interested in bat design and contacted Bill Murray, who was then the MLB director of baseball operations.

``One thing kind of led to another," Fallon said, and suddenly Murray was sending him bats and balls to test.

``I basically started going down to Florida every spring to test out some new bats with one of the teams down there," said Fallon, who now is working on his doctorate while holding a job at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge.

At the time, baseball had ``no technical people," Fallon said, and Murray liked Fallon's work. To put more credibility behind Fallon's findings, Murray wanted the research to be associated with a university, and Fallon knocked on Sherwood's door. The professor has been the director of the facility since.

``I had been doing modeling of cars crashing," said Sherwood, who grew up a Cleveland Indians fan in Ohio and got his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati. ``I thought a ball hitting a bat is sort of like a crash thing, so I can do that, too."

The professor enthusiastically accepted, ``and it just took off from there," he said, thanks to a $400,000 grant from MLB and Rawlings Sporting Goods Inc., which supplies official baseballs for the Major Leagues.

Sherwood, who said he sometimes can't believe his own good fortune, also has received numerous grants totaling $2 million from sporting goods companies and leagues, testing everything from carbon composites to World Series balls.

Much of Sherwood's early work involved the balls, which many fans and reporters thought were ``juiced" to be harder than they used to be, leading to the gaudy home run totals from 1998 to 2001. In 2000, Sherwood proved that the baseballs were within MLB specifications for hardness. Since then, he has conducted several ball dissections each year and has found no change.

``They just want assurance that Rawlings isn't doing anything with the baseball, and also for building up credibility with the fans," Sherwood said. ``Fans are always suspicious of the ball."

Sherwood and Patrick Drane, the lab's assistant director for the last three years and a student assistant since the lab opened, said they are confident that home run totals are not being affected by equipment.

Bats, for example, have changed little in the majors, since there's not much that can be done with a solid wood bat -- besides corking it, which Sherwood said is not all that it's cracked up to be .

``You could come up with a list of things that could be factors," Drane said. ``The training methods have changed drastically in the background of all of this. So you don't really want to come up with one sort of pointed negative thing as the explanation of all. [Steroids] could be a factor, but it's probably not the only factor."

In college and high school baseball, however, the technology of aluminum and composite bats has had a huge impact on the game -- boosting offensive numbers and raising concerns that balls jumping off the bats at higher speeds could endanger fielders.

During a seminar in Kansas City in 1998, Sherwood learned of the concerns that the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations had about the lack of regulations on bats. ``The high schools and the colleges were saying to the bat companies, `You're making better and better bats every year,' " Sherwood said. `` `We don't have a safety issue yet, but we may have one.' "

A number of high school athletic conferences in Massachusetts since have passed rules allowing only wood bats, and the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is mulling a proposal to ban aluminum and composite bats statewide.

Sherwood called the NCAA's approach ``more scientific," with the goal of dampening the performance of aluminum and composite bats so that they perform no better than the best wood bats while retaining the economic advantage of not breaking. UMass-Lowell's facility was the perfect medium for the research because it has no vested interest in the equipment companies or the governing bodies. So the NCAA told Sherwood its goals, and the professor went to work.

The NCAA already regulated the weight of aluminum bats, but the bats' superiority resulted from the distribution of the weight and their elasticity.

For one, more of the weight of aluminum and composite bats is placed near the handle, making it feel much lighter than a wood bat of the same weight and increasing bat speed. In addition, the high-tech bats are hollow in the middle, creating a springboard effect on a ball.

Aided by Sherwood's research, the NCAA in 1999 imposed regulations on bats so that balls would not travel as fast after they are batted. Manufacturers have since altered such characteristics as the composition and thickness of the materials.

``At the high school and the college level," Sherwood said, ``I honestly believe we have the non wood bats performing very close to the best wood bats."

When a sporting goods company wants its bat to be certified for NCAA or high school play, it sends a model of the bat to Lowell, where Sherwood and Drane put it through a series of tests along the governing bodies' specifications. They would not say what percentage of bats fail, because of confidentiality agreements, but said they test anywhere from 100 to 150 new bats each per year. ``Not all pass. Not all fail," Drane said. ``That's about all we can say."

For the testing, Sherwood and Drane use two state-of-the-art machines. One, used primarily to test the durability of certain composites, is able to fire balls against a bat at up to 180 miles per hour every five seconds, mimicking a 90-mile-per-hour pitch hit by a bat traveling 90 miles per hour.

The professors rarely crank the machine up to full speed, but repeated testing at around 140 miles per hour proves how well the bat will stand up to use. The ball is fired against the sweet spot on the bat hundreds of times, and some materials crack or dent more easily than others.

The other machine, which is more precise, is used for certification. The narrow tube has three sensors along each side that measure the speed of a ball on its way to and from the bat, getting nearly exact readings on the bat's performance.

It's certainly making a difference.

Sherwood said he is proud to turn on the TV to see events like the College World Series, which in 1998 had an average of nearly 14 runs per game and a 21-14 score in the championship contest. The 2006 tournament averaged fewer than nine runs per game, with a 3-2 title game.

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