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Friday, June 14, 2024

Screw(y)ball: MLB Scientific Study of Rising Home Run Rates Showcases Unique Avenues into the Game

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

Chicks may dig the long ball, but Major League Baseball and many of its players aren’t nearly as happy with the drastic rise in home run rates over the last few years. In turn, the huge surge has players wondering what is causing such a spike in numbers.

Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander has been very vocal on Twitter, questioning MLB by posting graphs demonstrating the abnormal rise, while another Cy Young candidate, Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, has said, “if there are changes with the ball, we would just like to know if that’s a factor or not… No one’s going to tell you, ‘yeah, do whatever you want to the ball without telling us…’”

Players and fans of the game want answers — and this state of perplexity has opened the door for expanded roles in sports business.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred ordered a scientific study on the baseball itself and league home run rates that made news back in May. This, in turn, brought Dr. Alan Nathan’s name to the forefront of the game, as the professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was selected by the league to chair the independent committee performing the study.

“It was an absolutely perfect match,” Dr. Nathan said.

While his original background is in vigorous nuclear research, with a particular specialty in experimental nuclear and particle physics, Dr. Nathan has actually been much more interested in studying the physics of baseball for almost 20 years. His role in the home run study and ongoing relationship with MLB provides a vivid example that the sports industry is home to an eclectic cast and crew with diverse backgrounds that you may not typically think of.

“The rising home run rates is actually something I wrote about prior in 2015/2016, even before the study…” – Dr. Nathan

Dr. Nathan’s shift to the rather untraditional specialty of the physics of baseball all started as a way to garner interest in a presentation the professor was giving on the university’s physics program.

“Our physics department has an outreach program where we give talks to the public and high school students about physics. Usually, we talk about our research; I decided to talk about the physics of baseball,” Dr. Nathan explained.


                Notice a Trend…? (Credit: Usatoday.com)


For the first seven or eight years, Dr. Nathan said that his work was all very “academic-oriented” and educationally focused, but over the last 10 years or so the professor has been much more involved with the league.

“With the advent of statcast, pitch-tracking, etc., MLB started reaching out more and more, so I started building up a reputation with the league, and kinda became their ‘go-to-guy,” Dr. Nathan said. So, when Major League Baseball needed somebody to chair a committee investigating the physics behind baseball’s rising home run rates, of course, he was the choice.

“I’ve studied and written about the spike in home runs recently, and with the background and relationship I have with the league, it was just a natural fit,” Dr. Nathan said.

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Commissioner Manfred reached out, the study was proposed, and a scientific baseball committee was created.

“Physics of baseball is definitely a niche,” Dr. Nathan wryly noted. “It’s easy to be the best at what you do if it’s only you doing it.”

Highly regarded physicists with an emphasis in the physics of baseball are not exactly a regular commodity, leaving Dr. Nathan with a rather diverse skill set and area of expertise.

That would be the professor’s advice to students and young professionals looking to craft a career, particularly in a competitive field like the sports industry: Find something useful and unique, pair skills and interests even if they’re not traditionally thought of together, and develop a speciality.

It’s by following that advice that Dr. Nathan has been able to find such a great role that he thoroughly enjoys. “It’s terrific, studying the sport I love, getting to think ‘what do I want to look at today?’ and pursuing it,” Dr. Nathan said. “It’s an area rife with opportunity.”

As for the actual study, those interested can read about the extensive findings elsewhere, but the take-home point is rather anticlimactic: further studies are needed. Dr. Nathan and his committee found that baseballs aren’t being hit harder or at angles more conducive to a rise in home run rates; the balls are just carrying futher — except they don’t know why.

“Quite abnormal … two sets of baseballs that, for all intents and purposes, are the same, yet behave differently, and there’s no clear explanation,” the chairman of the committee stated.

Perhaps that’s why MLB partnered with the Seidler Equity Partners private investment firm to acquire Rawlings Sporting Goods (the sole supplier of Major League baseball), although Dr. Nathan was not so sure.

“Is this related? Maybe, but it never came up in our study or to the committee,” he said. “MLB already exerts such considerable control over baseball production, and has Rawlings on a tight leash as it is (in terms of baseball production…); tough to believe it could get any tighter.”

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The entire “juiced ball” scientific study is certainly a storyline to keep an eye on over the summer, and should serve as proof that there is far more to the sports business than just athletes, coaches, marketing and ticket sales mavens, and television and digital media professionals.

Dr. Nathan and this entire Rawlings Quality Control conversation show there are many unique roles available in this industry. It’s up to you to find your niche, connect the dots, and determine your avenue into the game.  

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