Sports Science Lab works to improve college baseball

By Michelle Fredrickson, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture

PULLMAN, Wash. – “Plug your ears.” Immediately after Jeff Kensrud says this, a cannon fires a 140-mile-per-hour baseball at a composite bat. The ball collides with a resounding clang, and both ball and bat ricochet backward.

This is a common scene in Washington State University’s Sport Science Laboratory, nicknamed the Bat Lab, which is the exclusive testing facility for NCAA baseball balls and bats. The research lab quantifies and certifies balls and bats, attempting to keep the game consistent by controlling equipment efficiency.

The research team strikes a pose in the Sport Science Laboratory, where bats, baseballs and equipment for other sports are tested.

“Our lab contributes the most by ensuring that equipment is compliant and tested in a reliable way,” said lab manager Kensrud.

Last year, the lab found that reducing the height of seams on collegiate baseballs led to a better chance of hitting home runs. In the most recent season, the NCAA implemented the seam changes and home runs soared, increasing about 50 percent from the previous year.

In the lab, cannons – which are created in-house – fire baseballs at bats and measure both ball and bat responses to the impact. A good bat has a large sweet spot and a simple design, which decreases the likelihood of manufacturing errors.

New protocol boosts testing load

The lab was established in 2003 by Lloyd Smith, a composites researcher for WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture who was investigating materials for collegiate baseball bats.

Kensrud joined in 2008 as a graduate researcher and has remained with the lab. He said the lab has grown immensely in the past seven years.

One reason for the uptick was the 2010 Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) protocol, which provided new requirements for baseball bat certification. The lab developed the protocol and certifies all NCAA bats.

After BBCOR was implemented, the lab began testing about 50 bats per month – and sometimes as many as 100 – during baseball season.

“Implementation of the BBCOR protocol really changed the game,” Kensrud said.

Concussion research, too

However, baseball isn’t the only sport the lab tackles. The three graduate students, director and project engineers also have worked on hockey stick performance and body protection for soccer and football, the two sports with the most concussions.

One research method they use to study concussions is placing a motion sensor in a football player’s mouth guard or behind a soccer player’s ear. The sensor measures head acceleration when the player is hit, which helps determine if the player is concussed.

Researchers are seeking funding from the Pac-12 athletic conference to develop equipment to better protect a player’s brain, heart, shin and other areas frequently injured in sports.

The lab uses a complete, complex digital human model to measure the impact of a hit at a certain velocity on both the area struck and the body as a whole. With this information, gear could be designed that dissipates energy from a hit in order to reduce bruising and bone fracturing.

“It’s about protecting the human,” Kensrud said.