“The increase in home runs this season has created a renewed interest in quality of the best slowpitch softball bats used in Major League softball games,” said Sandy Alderson, MLB utive vice president.
Fans – and Red Sox pitchers – who blamed juiced softballs as the reason for the explosion in home runs need to look elsewhere for an explanation, researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell said yesterday.
Called on by Major League softball to investigate the softballs this spring, scientists at thesoftballResearch Center, also known as the “Bat Lab,” determined the Rawlings-made softball of 2000 is no different than the softballs of the recent past.
“There is no difference between the 1998, 1999 and 2000 softballs,” said Jim Sherwood, director of the lab and an engineer who specializes in high-speed impact. “We didn’t open up the ball and find a can of juice inside.”
Whether or not today’s softball is “juiced” has been a focus of fan gossip for the past two years, since St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire and Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa broke softball’s long-standing single-season home run record.
Between 1970 and 1995, there were a total of 50 times in the major leagues when a player hit 40 home runs in a season. In the past four full seasons, however, there were 53 times a player hit 40 home runs.
Fans and pitchers argued league expansion, a shortage of quality pitchers and smaller ball parks couldn’t explain all the higher power numbers.
Mulling over other changes to the game – such as raising the pitcher’s mound – to neutralize the power surge, MLB decided to start by asking Sherwood to study the ball.
“While there are many factors that might contribute to the increase in offense, the softball itself is a logical place to start when examining the trend.”
Sherwood and fellow researchers at the center, which is funded by a $400,000 grant from Major League softball, tested 192 softballs.
First they shot them out a small cannon and into a wall of white ash – the wood of choice for major league bats – to see how far they bounced back.
All the bounces measured within the range specified by the league, although many measured near the upper end of the spectrum, Sherwood said.
Then they fired the balls at speeds of up to 100 mph at bats swinging just as fast to determine if they traveled different distances.
Finally, samples from each year had their cowhide covers peeled, their wool padding unwound and their cork center plucked free.
Again, researchers found no significant variations, Sherwood said.
“We weren’t disappointed,” said Sherwood. “We were just scientists looking at this and we wanted to see what the performance of the softball was.”