One on One: Roger Tobin Studies Steroids' Effects on Home Run Stats
Regardless of where they stand on the steroids issue in Major League Baseball, fans are likely to think Roger Tobin is an idiot. Some have e-mailed the Tufts University physics professor to tell him exactly that in response to his latest research project, which uses physics modeling to claim that 10 percent more muscle mass equates to roughly a 4 percent increase in bat speed, a 3 percent increase in ball speed off the bat and a whopping 30 to 70 percent increase in home run production. "There are the people who think it's nonsense and the people who think it's obvious," says Tobin, whose study nonetheless met with the acceptance of the American Journal of Physics. "Then there are the people in between who find it interesting and have questions about it." MLB's investigative Mitchell Commission, which contacted Tobin in October, fits the latter group. So does AB's Paul Steinbach.
Q: Why home runs as a research focus?
A: About 10 years ago, I taught a course on the physics of sports, and that got me thinking about this. The thing that struck me about the whole steroid issue in baseball was that the purported effects on home runs in particular were so large. You had Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, who hit 60 and 61 in a season, and then all of a sudden you had Mark McGwire hitting 70 and Barry Bonds hitting 73. That's a huge effect. You don't see effects of that magnitude in other sports. You don't suddenly have people running eight-second 100-meter dashes, even though we know top sprinters have been on steroids.
Q: What were you looking to determine?
A: If you take a player who is already an extremely skilled home run hitter — someone who hits it out of the park 10 percent of the times he puts the ball in play — and give that person 10 percent more muscle mass, how much of an increase in home run production might you expect? The result I found is that the enhancement is quite large, because someone who's hitting home runs 10 percent of the time is hitting a lot of near home runs, and it doesn't take very much to get a substantial number of those over the fence.
Q: How do you respond to those hitting philosophers who say hand-eye coordination still trumps brute strength?
A: It's absolutely true that it doesn't do you any good to have strength if you don't have the judgment, the hand-eye coordination and all the other incredible talents that these players have. But if you have all that, and then you can swing the bat 4 percent faster, more balls are going to go out.
Q: Your findings aren't going to serve as much of a deterrent for young athletes, are they?
A: I suppose that's true, although I do want to emphasize that while this 30 to 70 number sounds awfully impressive, that's the kind of enhancement you get if you're already someone like Hank Aaron, a player who performed at the highest level without steroids.
Q: Is talking about home runs more fun than talking about your everyday work?
A: Oh, a lot more fun. And I get a lot more attention for it. I don't get a lot of media attention for my work on the physics of condensed matter.
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