Mark's Note: Today's post is a another guest post from Chad Walters. Chad and I share a strong interest in sports â€” me as a fan and Chad as somebody who is working to bring Lean thinking to sports franchises, stadiums, and sports equipment makers. Chad has a few posts featured in my eBook “Lean Sports,” as well. Chad's own blog is frequently cited by ESPN.com and others.
At the conclusion of every college baseball season, many high-potential college baseball players spend their summers playing in collegiate wood bat summer leagues such as the Cape Cod League and the Great Lakes League. These leagues provide an introduction of the use of wood bats in regular game action to these players so they can be better prepared for professional baseball careers – metal bats are permitted in college baseball but the professional ranks are wood only.
Major League Baseball subsidizes these leagues with bats, balls, equipment, and other resource support, in exchange for the opportunity to scout these players and identify who could find success as professional ballplayers in the future.
Unfortunately for the 2012 season, offense is way up. Way, way up. Almost two-and-a-half times up for the Cape Cod League.
“Home runs in the (Cape Cod Baseball) league have increased in a stunning manner, with the teams combining for 140 percent more homers this summer. In 2011 Cape Cod Baseball League batters totaled 159 home runs for the season; the year before that the number sat at 158. This year, with the regular season (each team plays 44 games) having concluded on Tuesday (August 7th), CCBL hitters jacked 382 balls over the fences of the 10 league ballparks.”
As Cape Cod Baseball League Commissioner Paul Galop puts it, “I've been with the league for a long time, since 1980, and I've seen some balls that didn't go that far with aluminum bats…obviously something's going on.”
This offensive explosion is not isolated to the Cape Cod League. Home runs are up in all the wood bat leagues – the Valley League saw home runs jump from 287 in 2011 to 469 this season. The Great Lakes League jumped from 99 to 276. The Florida State League rose from 57 to 158.
It's not just home runs either. Overall batting average for the Cape Cod League jumped from .247 in 2011 to .260 in 2012.
The growth of offensive production this season has created a big problem. According to an article about the surging stats on Deadspin.com, “Some MLB scouts told Galop they don't feel this summer's stats from around the NASCB leagues are reliable barometers of talent.”
So how can this be? Why the offensive outburst not seen in years past?
As it turns out, all of the collegiate wood bat summer leagues fall under the umbrella of the National Alliance of Collegiate Summer Baseball (NACSB). The NACSB has an agreement with Diamond Sports of Santa Ana, California to be the exclusive provider of baseballs to all of these leagues. Diamond Sports places a bulk order of thousands of baseballs to be manufactured in China at the beginning of each season.
With the year-over-year jump, some team representatives took to the “laboratory” to examine baseballs used in 2012 and compare them to those used in 2011.
Jim Martin, GM of the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the Cape Cod League, tore apart baseballs from 2012 and 2011 and said about his own analysis, “The core is definitely different. With the 2011 baseball, the core last year had a very soft feel to it. This year, the piece of rubber, you can barely move it; it's made of a harder substance.”
A baseball is comprised of layers – a leather/stitched cover, wound yarns and thread, and a core of cork encased in rubber. The yarn and thread, while tightly wound around the core, deadens the impact of the bat hitting the ball and also prevents the ball from suffering deformities and becoming misshapen after being hit hard repeatedly.
GM Bruce Murphy of the Cotuit Kettleers did the same examination of the baseballs. “It's a different baseball. It's a harder-core baseball that Diamond provided…They never informed us at all (that the ball would be different).”
In addition to the harder baseball core, there were some other interesting results coming from these experiments.
“It was also found that the diameter of the pills was slightly different. The diameter of last year's core was 1.31 inches while the newer model was 1.375 inches.”
With overall baseball diameters outside the leather covers being more rigorously checked, that means there is less yarn between the core and the leather cover to deaden a bat's impact.
Between the slightly larger core (providing a bigger hitting surface transferred through the leather and yarn) and a harder core material (that doesn't compress and deaden as much upon impact), it stands to reason (and require further testing) that these newer baseballs will travel further when hit.
What this means is that the quality (whether implied or specified) of the baseballs provided by Diamond Sports was not ideal, and the results speak for themselves. It's not clear whether the NACSB or Diamond Sports had set any specifications on the design and manufacturing processes of the baseballs, so either Diamond is at fault for not providing specifications on the core designs or their Chinese supplier is at fault for not following process/product specifications if they were shared by Diamond. In the long run, because the product changed from 2011 to 2012, the resulting statistics changed dramatically too (as inputs change, outputs generally do as well).
This is why specifications (instead of assuming and implying) plus audits are important. Principle #11 of The Toyota Way states “Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.” Make it clear what you expect from your suppliers, and audit them to those expectations.
By not receiving viable statistical data for analysis, Major League Baseball will struggle to accurately assess college player performances in the summer wood bat leagues. “That's a pretty big jump (in the Cape Cod League statistics) and way outside what I'd expect out of normal statistical fluctuation. It would not surprise me at all if the ball was juiced. If I was a Major League team I'd want to know…they need to know that information” said Dr. Alan Nathan, a noted physicist from the University of Illinois and specializing in the science of baseball.
As SBNation's Rob Neyer puts it, “What's the use paying for wood bats if the guys are hitting SuperBalls?”
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