STARKVILLE, Miss.--The three-inch white sphere blasts at the blink of an eye toward the pitcher just 60 feet away.
In college baseball, where balls hit off a typical metal bat can reach "exit" speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, the pitcher has only a split second--literally--to catch it or get out of the way.
According to the NCAA, as many as 20 college pitchers each season don't manage to do either, suffering batted-ball injuries significant enough to remove them from a game. A similar number of injuries is reported for infielders. The injury potential has become such an issue that the National Collegiate Athletic Association has begun to directly address the issue. The organization recently adopted diameter and weight/length difference specifications for bats to be used as early as this year's end-of-season championship games. Those requirements, plus new batted-ball exit speed standards, will be in effect permanently, beginning with the 1999-2000 regular season.
Mississippi State University is one of the places NCAA officials have turned to gather information about exit speeds, as well as reaction times and differences in the "sweet spots" between wood and non-wood bats.
For more than a decade, MSU aerospace engineering professor Keith Koenig has collected baseball-related data. Using a 200 mph air cannon, computers and laser beams, he has been gauging the performance of baseball and softball bats.
In one experiment, Koenig beams lasers onto home plate. "When the batter swings across the beams, we measure the time it takes the bat to cross a given beam or how long it takes to go from one beam to the next," he explains. "That gives us the swing speed, which helps determine the hit speed of a baseball or softball.
"With aluminum, graphite and other non-wood bats and better and stronger players, the ball speed leaving the bat is very high," he adds. "Infielders and the pitcher in particular have almost no time to react to the ball."
To clock the real-world swings of players, Koenig has taken his laser beam instrumentation to MSU's Dudy Noble Field, site of many NCAA championship games and a facility that in 1997 was named by Sports Illustrated magazine as "the best place to watch baseball" on an American college campus.
"At Dudy Noble, we can see better how players' swings are affected by changing properties such as the bat weight or the location of the balance point," Koenig said.
In this year's championship series, bats used in all three NCAA competitive divisions must not exceed a diameter of two and five-eighths inches. The difference between the length of the bat and its weight, not including the grip, cannot exceed three units. That means a 33-inch bat can't weigh less than 30 ounces.
"We've found a fairly noticeable difference in the swing speed for the heavier bats," Koenig observes. "Their use could make the game a lot safer for pitchers."
His studies also found swing speeds of around 65 miles-per-hour for 28- ounce bats and about 63 mph for those weighing 30 ounces.
"The reduction can improve reaction time to a hard-hit ball," Koenig says, adding that improvements "may not be significant" until batted ball speed standards go into effect.
The NCAA currently is testing a variety of bats on a specially designed batting machine located at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. The goal is to drop the exit speed to no more than 93 mph.
Koenig says the new rules likely will be popular with pitchers, but heavy hitters may have some reason for concern. At Dudy Noble, for instance, a ball needs to be traveling at least 105 mph when it leaves the bat to clear the 20- foot center field fence 390 feet from home plate.
And where would a ball traveling at "just" 93 mph end up? "About 20 feet short," he calculates.
Materials provided by Mississippi State University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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