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Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007

Is Your Data Based on Myth or MythBusting?

By Robert Gorell
August 9th, 2007

Corked bats = totally busted

“You lose, you smile, and you come back the next day. You win, you smile, you come back the next day.” –Ken Griffey, Jr.

Q. Does “corking” the hollowed center of a baseball bat increase your odds of hitting a home run?

A. No way. Not even close.

It seems many of baseball’s favorite heroes and villains were just vindicated, thanks to the Discovery Channel’s reigning science vigilantes, the MythBusters. With a simple combination — at least they made it look simple — of A/B and multivariate testing, the myth of the corked bat is now officially, totally busted.

Amazing, isn’t it? Amid the hype surrounding Barry Bonds — whose controversial-yet-stellar career was sealed in the history books this week as he broke Hank Aaron’s record for most career homers — a crew of special effects nerds set the record straight about cork.

Can Sammy Sosa finally sleep well at night? (Perhaps millions in the bank sooths the joints, but anyone who recalls Sosa’s 2003 corked bat scandal knows what I mean.) And what of baseball history’s other notorious sluggers? Here’s a brief list of men who can now be called “superstitious” instead of the variety of other adjectives that have been used:

  • Albert Belle (OF, DH, Indians, White Sox, Orioles, 1989-2000)
  • Norm Cash (outfielder, White Sox, Tigers, 1958-74)
  • Billy Hatcher (OF, Cubs, Astros, Pirates, Reds, Red Sox, Phillies, Rangers, 1984-95)
  • Wilton Guerrero (2B, SS, OF, Dodgers, Expos, Reds, 1996-present)
  • And, of course, the innovators of the corked bat myth, the 1919 Chicago White Sox

Photo by Reallans.comThe 1919 White Sox remain a bit of a stretch. Cork was the least of it; they had mob ties comin’ out of the cannoli. But maybe that’s the point. Were they using cork to throw games, not to win them?* Did the “cheating” ball players take their cues from the White Sox rather than focusing on how they could optimize their own game? And what about Bonds’ own steroids scandal? Should his detractors put a cork in it, or should Major League Baseball just write in to MythBusters to settle the score?

Speaking of which, back to the MythBusters. Here’s how they did it: First, it should be noted that they got the idea by listening to their audience. Then, using a mechanical bat rig to maintain consistency in hitting speed, they hit a variety of balls that had been kept at a constant humidity — important, since they’d already determined that drier balls go further than humid ones — switching out corked bats for regulation, 100% wood bats. They then measured the distance for each ball, compared the average of the two sets, and found that, believe it or not, the unmodified baseball bat was optimized decades earlier by a company called Louisville Slugger.

Now the baseball forums are going nuts. One was even kind enough to catalog the results of all of the MythBusters’ baseball tests:

1) Corked bats actually reduce the power to hit the ball.
2) Balls kept in a humidor do travel less distance.
3) Sliding is faster than stopping on the base.
4) Throwing a rising fastball is impossible.
5) Hitting the cover off the ball is also impossible. (It took something like 470 mph off the bat to do it.)

Now that we’ve gone 90 years, convinced that our mean, as it were, prejudice about cork had been proved beyond the pale grip of theory, isn’t it time marketers stopped copying the 1919 White Sox, so to say?

Keep swinging for the fences. Just be sure to test your assumptions before thinking you don’t already have what it takes to hit a home run. This is especially true when testing your website’s performance. Keep your eye on the ball. Make sure you’ve accounted for all known variables that might affect the results of your online tests. Once you’ve got the fundamentals down, you’ll be in great shape to do it all over again tomorrow — with a smile.

(*I’m no Geraldo Rivera, but I’m guessing we won’t find the answer in Al Capone’s vault.)

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Comments (6)

  1. I would also like to see a counterfactual analysis being applied to Hank Aaron’s home run totals in year 12 of his career onwards had he switched to hard maple bats, as Bonds did. :)

  2. “the myth of the corked bat is now officially, totally busted” ahh.. I forgot about this one. MYTH BUSTERS are my best! It was awesome what they do. I seen a lot of disccus about it aat baseball forums.

  3. Before we completely dimiss the idea that a “corked bat” can benifit a hitter; let’s remember that speed isn’t everything. The Mythbuster’s completely dimissed surface area versus weight. Yes, you can, under MLB Rules, go to a lighter bat but wouldn’t that bat also have less surface area, thus making it harder to hit the ball?

    Maybe I am way off base and someone can tell me why I am wrong… (IE: weight of bat adding to power???)

  4. Of course a corked bat and non corked bat would yield practically the same results swinging at the same speed…the whole point of using a corked bat is to quicken your BAT SPEED, which the mythbusters failed to realize for some reason.

  5. BL,

    Did you see the episode? I recall them accounting for differences in speed. But I’ll have to revisit it. By your rationale, the faster-swinging corked bat would only have to hit the ball further than the slower-swinging uncorked bat. That makes sense, but again, I thought they addressed that in the episode.

    Did I miss something?

  6. I loved the myth busters they did about duck tap, did you know that that stuff is strong enough to tape a person to the ceiling! Could probably use it to repair the bat! lol

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