• +1 800 982 4489
  • sales@watertechnologiescanada.com

Monthly Archives:June 2017

Mystery solved: it was the ball after all

Two new studies find that physical changes in the baseball are responsible for a spike in home runs.

AS RECENTLY as 2014, North America’s Major League Baseball (MLB) appeared to be mired in a new dead-ball era, with the lowest level of scoring observed in a full season since 1976. With pitchers throwing harder than ever, an enlarged strike zone putting batters at a disadvantage and big-data-driven defensive shifts increasing the odds that fielders scoop up the balls that hitters do put into play, the downward spiral in offence appeared to have no end in sight. Shortly after taking office in early 2015, Rob Manfred, the sport’s commissioner, said he hoped to “inject additional offence into the game”, and even floated banning defensive shifts as a potential remedy.

In what at the very least looked like a striking coincidence, the trend began to reverse just a few months after Mr Manfred assumed the reins. Starting in the second half of the 2015 season, scoring surged enough to erase the decline seen during the previous six years. The home-run rate rebounded to the highest level of the decade.

But if late 2015 represented a reasonable equilibrium, the trend didn’t stop there. Since then, the power surge has only intensified, and the rising tide is lifting all boats. Aaron Judge, a little-heralded rookie, has set the tone with a steady barrage of majestic blasts of unfathomable distance. Even Scooter Gennett, a journeyman infielder, got in on the action a few weeks ago by becoming the 17th player in MLB history to club four homers in a single game. Overall, home runs have increased by nearly half since 2014.

The league-wide home-run spike has been just as baffling as it was abrupt. In recent years, quantitative analysts have considered a wide variety of possible explanations, ranging from steroids to weather to changes in batting strategy. None of these factors, even when taken together, came close to accounting for the phenomenon.

Only this month has a credible explanation emerged at last for the mystery, as two new studies point to the same culprit: the ball. In one, published in The Ringer, a sport website, two prominent baseball statisticians, Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman, sent several dozen game-used balls to the Washington State University Sports Science Laboratory. It found that, when compared with those from previous season, the more recent balls had minor physical differences conducive to flying further, including a slightly higher coefficient of restitution (a technical measure of bounciness), a lower seam height and a smaller circumference.

The second study, by Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight, used MLB’s own camera-tracking data to measure the effect of air resistance on the ball, by comparing the speed of a pitch at the moment of release with its velocity when the ball crosses home plate. He found that the drag coefficient, which measures air resistance, has declined enough since 2015 to explain as much as a 15% increase in home runs. Although this figure has fluctuated in the past, leading to occasional short-term peaks and troughs in run-scoring, a change of this magnitude has never lasted this long. “We may never have a single ‘smoking gun’ proof” that the ball is responsible, Mr Arthur says. “However, as evidence from multiple sources mounts, it has become very likely.”

MLB has not acknowledged any change in the ball. It recently made a study of its own available to Mr Lindbergh that revealed no structural differences. However, its guidelines for the characteristics of game-worthy balls are extremely flexible: at the extreme, two balls so different that the same impact would send one flying 49 feet (15 metres) further than the other could both pass muster with the league.

So far, there is no way to determine whether MLB has done anything to produce the slicker, longer-flying ball, or whether the league achieved its desire simply by a happy accident. The changes to the ball are so small that they could easily stem from unplanned quirks in the manufacturing process: the change in seam height detected by Mr Lichtman’s study is less than three-thousandths of an inch. For his part, Mr Lichtman is willing to believe it is inadvertent, speculating in an e-mail interview that “these variations are natural variations in the manufacturing process and may be hard to control”.

At the same time, the fact that Mr Manfred got what he wanted so quickly provides reasonable grounds to suspect that the league may not have been a purely innocent bystander. The notorious ad campaign by Nike in 1998 with the tag line “chicks dig the long ball” made the notion that the league favours a homer-happy game into a mainstay of popular culture. There is robust empirical evidence to support this claim: one study in 2008 found that the public, regardless of sex, voted for home runs with their wallets to a striking degree: each longball, it determined, put around 2,000 additional fans in the stands. It also established that home runs in particular are the draw, rather than run-scoring by any other means. (MLB attendance last year was actually slightly lower than in 2014, but it might have been lower still had the power surge not occurred.)

At first glance, the beneficiaries of these minor changes in a baseball-manufacturing plant in Costa Rica would appear to be MLB hitters. However, if all of them are aided to the same degree, then their value relative to each other—and thus their salaries and teams’ fortunes—would remain unchanged. In fact, the shift has helped some players far more than others. The ones who have benefited the most are those who have padded their home-run totals with fly balls that just barely creep over the fence—drives that would have been much less valuable only a few years ago. Some of them wouldn’t have even been fly balls: the livelier ball has driven hitters to swing harder and aim higher, eschewing ground balls and accepting strikeouts in exchange for potential home runs.

Thanks to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, which records the distance (along with several other variables) for every longball in MLB, it’s possible to identify who has gained the most from a slicker ball—and thus who might be at peril of losing much of their value if the ball reverts to its prior form. The site classifies homers as “just enough,” “plenty,” or “no doubt,” and the number of “just enough” home runs—those that just barely cleared the fence—neatly parallels the size of the increase since 2014. In other words, today’s “just enough” was yesterday’s “not enough.”

The most extreme examples of players who have benefited from the lively ball are Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox (pictured, who has hit 24 “just enough” homers out of a total of 51 since the middle of 2015) and Jay Bruceof the New York Mets, with 31 out of 66. Some players more commonly associated with the power surge, such as Mr Judge, are less susceptible to changes in the ball: because he tends to propel the ball nearly into orbit, only 19.4% of his 31 homers have been “just enough,” compared with a league average of 30.8%. Even though a softer ball would reduce his power output, it would probably make him a more valuable player, since he would lose a far smaller share of his homers than his opponents would.

Unfortunately for Mr Judge, the most likely outcome is that the ball will stay juiced. Even if the changes were a pure coincidence, they have fulfilled Mr Manfred’s wish for more offence. And given the historical relationship between home runs and attendance, it’s unlikely the owners of MLB teams will protest. The present controversy may lead to more oversight of the manufacturing process, which may also make it more likely that MLB will get whichever sort of ball it desires.

Whatever changes await, they won’t be such a mystery next time. According to Mr Arthur, getting to the bottom of such alternations “would be much quicker than last time, because we know how to do these studies now”. In the unending quest to isolate player skill from the array of confounding factors, measurement of the effect of the baseball will soon take its place alongside the rest of the sport’s established range of analytical tools.

How Nature Scales Up

Plants and animals deliver energy through branching networks—veins and vessels—that shape the path of growth and determine its limits. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

A simple mathematical relation might explain how everything—from plants to people to cities—develops.

Like a hardcover version of the Veg-o-Matic in those old television commercials, Geoffrey West’s “Scale” is three books in one. The first is among the most fascinating popular-science books I’ve read in a long while, and the other two are consistently provocative. But like that Veg-o-Matic on the shelf, it’s unclear how useful the whole package will be in the end.

Mr. West is a particle physicist whose career was disrupted in 1993 when Congress, with the acquiescence of President Bill Clinton, canceled the Superconducting Super Collider, an enormous particle accelerator that had been in the works for years. The end of the SSC marked the end of U.S. dominance in physics; thousands of Ph.D.s saw their research programs turn to ash. Mr. West, then director of the particle-physics program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, switched to biology and after that, more boldly, to the study of society.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Mr. West and a raft of collaborators argued in a series of articles that a single phenomenon called “scaling” could explain many of the fundamental properties of living organisms. In some sense, this is no surprise. As far back as 1932, the Swiss physiologist Max Kleiber had noted that the metabolic rates of creatures of every sort—the amount of energy they need to stay alive—exhibit what Mr. West calls “an extraordinarily systematic regularity.”

The regularity is shown most commonly by drawing a special kind of graph, in which every increment on the x- and y-axis is 10 times bigger than the previous increment—instead of running from 1 to 2 to 3 and so on, the increments run from 1 to 10 to 100 and so on. When organisms’ metabolic rates are plotted on the vertical axis and their mass on the horizontal one, the result is a dead- straight line—a relationship that holds true for animals as tiny as a mouse (typical weight, .02 kilograms) and as enormous as an African elephant (typical weight, 6,500 kilograms).

This is a scaling law: a relationship between two quantities that holds true at many orders of magnitude. In this case, every species’ metabolic rate “scales” with increasing size. After Kleiber, researchers found that his rule holds true for fish, amphibians, insects and plants—indeed, for every creature from the smallest microorganisms to the biggest whale. “Overall,” Mr. West says, this relationship “encompasses an astonishing twenty-seven orders of magnitude, perhaps the most persistent and systematic scaling law in the universe.” And the correspondence is no isolated phenomenon. “Similar systematic scaling laws hold for almost any physiological trait or life-history event across the entire range of life,” Mr. West writes, including quantities as disparate as “genome lengths, lengths of aortas, tree heights, the amount of cerebral gray matter in the brain, evolutionary rates, and life spans.”

This is remarkable. It was as if Mr. West and his colleagues had discovered that the number of doors, bathrooms and chimneys in every building in the world—a Mongolian yurt, a Cairo apartment and Tom Brady’s moat-surrounded castle in Los Angeles—were described by a single mathematical rule that specified details down to the number of doorknobs. For real estate, the idea is ridiculous. But not, it seemed, for biology.

With two colleagues, Mr. West proposed an explanation in 1997. Roughly speaking, they said that our bodies, like those of every other living creature, are bags of cells. These cells are in some ways surprisingly similar; all must be nourished and directed, and most of them are about the same size, no matter what species they belong to (a few exceptions exist, like brain and fat cells). Thus living things must contain networks—blood vessels, plant veins and so on—that distribute energy, materials and information to cells. Because the cellular endpoints of every network are all about the same size, the “terminal units” of the distributive system must also be about the same size. That is to say, the capillaries (the smallest blood vessels) of all mammals are roughly the same size, as are those of every fish and insect, as are the endpoint veins of leaves and a host of other things.

Big species need more nutrients and energy than small ones, so the network centers—the heart, for mammalian blood systems; the big xylem at the roots, for vascular plants—vary in dimension. Because the endpoints are always the same small size, the network needs to consist of what Mr. West calls a “hierarchical branching network structure,” with big branches unraveling tree-like into smaller ones. But when the big tubes divide into smaller tubes, the branch points will cause eddies or otherwise interfere with the flow—unless they obey certain precise physical properties. Unsurprisingly, evolution keeps nudging organisms toward those properties, which again are similar for every species, because they depend on physical laws that are independent of biology.

As physicists do, Mr. West and his collaborators looted this new understanding to produce all kinds of eyebrow-raising results. That blood pressures in the various branches of the network are the same for every mammal, regardless of size. That the lengths of successive blood vessel branches in every species must decrease by a single constant factor. That the volume of blood in every species is a constant proportion of the body volume, regardless of size. That measures ranging from lung volume to the pumping action of the heart to the frequency of breathing are all covered by scaling laws.

A certain type of reader (me, for example) will find this stuff fascinating—I kept underlining phrases and putting exclamation points in the margins. And this kept going as Mr. West showed how fractals (structures like snowflakes, in which similar patterns repeat at progressively smaller scales) and network dynamics govern birth, growth and development, again in species of every sort. But then, around page 200, “Scale” takes a radical shift. Mr. West begins what amounts to a second book about social science, and here my exclamation points turned into question marks.

There is a long, rich tradition of physicists contributing to biology. Physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s “What Is Life?” (1944) was a major inspiration for molecular biology; DNA pioneers like Francis Crick, Max Delbrück, Walter Gilbert and Sidney Altman began their careers as physicists (all won Nobels). When it comes to physicists’ contribution to the human sciences, such as sociology and anthropology, the record is scantier. There’s a reason for this disparity, and the later portions of “Scale” highlight the limitations of the physicist’s approach. Physicists attack problems by stripping them to their most fundamental parts and throwing away inessential details. In the case of metabolism, Kleiber and his successors ignored huge differences among mammals, birds, fish and bacteria and treated the whole lot as, in effect, having just two properties—metabolic rate and mass.

The approach was successful at explaining many observed physiological features of plants and animals. But the success isn’t as clear-cut when Mr. West tries to create what he calls a “Science of Cities.” The author points out that modern cities, like bodies, depend on transportation and supply networks—roads, gas lines, water conduits, electric cables. Because these networks must reach every home, they scale in a manner analogous to networks in the body. Ancillary quantities like the number of gas stations and power substations per capita also scale. So exact is this scaling that it leads Mr. West to contend that, “despite appearances cities are approximately scaled versions of one another: New York and Tokyo are, to a surprising and predictable degree, nonlinearly scaled-up versions respectively of San Francisco and Nagoya.”

Intriguingly, infrastructure per capita decreases with increasing city size—that’s the “nonlinear” in the previous sentence. Thus larger cities use fewer resources per person than smaller cities, and so Mr. West argues that “on average the bigger the city, the greener it is.” Secure in their superior sustainability, New Yorkers have another reason to sneer at denizens of smaller places.

More than that, Mr. West says, urban scaling laws appear in “quantities with no analog in biology such as average wages, the number of professional people, the number of patents produced, the amount of crime, the number of restaurants, and the gross urban domestic product.” Again, the exactitude of the scaling is remarkable. The relationship of urban GDP to population follows a scaling law, but so does something as seemingly unpredictable as the average walking speed of pedestrians in a city.

Unlike the case of infrastructure, in which bigger cities end up with proportionately less, larger cities end up with proportionately more crime, pollution and disease. On the other hand, Mr. West says, “the bigger the city, the more each person earns, creates, innovates, and interacts.” In general, he argues, bigger is better.

Really? Mr. West is apparently suggesting cities get better indefinitely. Surely this cannot be correct—it implies that diminishing returns do not apply. Congestion by itself drives up resource use. As buildings get packed together, for example, they need ever-larger systems to pump in fresh, conditioned air. Meanwhile, heating and ventilation systems pour out hot exhaust, creating the “heat islands” that are a familiar urban plague, and themselves drive up air-conditioning use even further—a dyseconomy of scale of precisely the kind Mr. West seems not to take into account.

El Paso, Texas, and Washington, D.C., have similar populations (about 680,000), so they are presumably similar in the physical attributes Mr. West measures. But the experience of living in each city is dramatically different. Washington (median household income, $70,848) is almost twice as wealthy as El Paso ($42,772). But FBI statistics show that El Paso has a murder rate of 2.5 per 100,000, and is one of the safest big U.S. cities, whereas Washington, D.C., with a murder rate of 24 per 100,000, is notorious for its unsafe areas.

Environmentally, too, the cities are different: El Paso emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide as Washington. Yes, Washington has a big subway and El Paso has a struggling bus system. But that difference can be explained not by networking behavior but by politics, economics, geography and history—factors that also contribute to the cities’ different levels of crime and income. Does it make any sense to treat the cities as fungible?

Despite the questions it raises, Mr. West’s Book No. 2 is almost as interesting as Book No. 1. And toward the end of “Scale,” Book No. 3 suddenly heaves into view. Not even 50 pages long, it consists of an abbreviated discussion of businesses, firms and corporations. Again, he asks a scaling question: “Is Walmart a scaled-up Big Joe’s Lumber?” Again, the answer seems to be “yes,” but he is tentative about it. Still, in contrast to his science of cities, his proposed “science of companies” seems promising. Companies, unlike cities, share a single goal: profit. And, like organisms, they are subject to relentless selection pressure, nudging them toward efficiency.

One can imagine using scaling laws to evaluate the role of management or corporate structure, but the ultimate conclusions are still to come—the subject, perhaps, of a sequel. I’d look forward to reading that book. In the meantime, we have “Scale”—an overstuffed, often exhilarating, sometimes frustrating introduction to a new way of looking at life.

Charles C. Mann reviews “Scale” by Geoffrey West. June 23, 2017

—Mr. Mann is the author of the forthcoming “The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.”

Appeared in the June 24, 2017, print edition as ‘Nature’s Rules for Growth.