Members of MIT Baseball Team Conduct Research on Safety Equipment Materials

With the first game of a late March doubleheader scheduled for noon, members of the MIT baseball team and a Rawlings representative meet at 8:30, gathering in a back corner of the school’s Aero/Astro hangar. Lefthanded reliever George M. Vasquez ’08 stands behind an air cannon, launching baseballs at a mannequin wearing a chest protector. Righthanded starter Jay M. Turner ’08 records electronic sensor data each time a ball makes contact.

Not your typical pregame routine. But as a result of their work, Vasquez and Turner could “make it” to the major leagues.

By this time next year, professional catchers such as Washington’s Paul Lo Duca, St Louis’s Yadier Molina, and the Chicago Cubs’ Geovany Soto could be wearing new and improved padding. Since November, six students — under the guidance of sports equipment company Rawlings and the MIT Sports Innovation program — have been developing a testing system for chest protectors. The goal is to help equipment designers determine the best mix of materials and best thickness for padding, giving catchers greater mobility and making it easier for them to throw.

“It’s all about finding your passion,” said Vasquez, the group leader and a Material Science and Engineering major. “All the guys on the [project] team love sports. It’s more fun than what you typically think of with an MIT research project.

“There are very few sports companies that put value in good engineering, in terms of projects that make engineering sense rather than just marketing sense. When you get to see how your research can actually be used, it’s pretty cool.”

The testing prior to the doubleheader marked an important milestone for the project. For the first time, the students saw preliminary results from months of brainstorming and creative problem solving. With balls traveling 6 feet at speeds of 20-25 miles per hour, the sensors and high-speed video recorded the force at impact, how long balls stayed in contact with the chest protector, and the trajectories of rebounds coming off different parts of the padding.

“If Jason Varitek is blocking a ball with a guy on third and two outs and the ball hits him on the chest, the ball’s not going to fly 30 feet down the first base line and let the guy on third score,” said Turner. “Hopefully, the ball will just stop.

“But it’s not going to stop because it’s hitting Varitek. It’s going to stop because the whole chest protector gives in such a way that it dulls down all the forces and absorbs everything. So he’s not hurt and the ball’s not flying away.”

The project appears on track, with a few weeks of experimentation remaining. That is no small feat considering Rawlings makes only occasional visits to campus and most communication among the students, the company, and Sports Innovation program director Dr. Kim Blair takes place by e-mail and teleconference. Whether scheduling group meetings, ordering mannequins, or interviewing sensor companies, the students take charge of all aspects of the project.

Even with the MIT baseball season in full swing, the undergraduates will continue construction on a grid of 32 sensors and affix it to the mannequin’s chest, develop software to better analyze data, and launch balls at speeds approaching 70 miles per hour in testing sessions between now and mid-May. Rawlings will use the results to establish the happy medium between protection and performance.

Hands-on research

Turner describes himself as “a fastball pitcher who throws the knuckleball for comic relief.” The Computer Science and Electrical Engineering major gets as good a laugh as anyone from confusing batters. But the project team needed Turner’s knuckleball more for science than comedy, recording the pitch to test the resolution of its high-speed video equipment. Considering Vasquez carries a copy of the book “The Physics of Baseball” for recreational reading, the students know textbook.

The MIT Sports Innovation program, though, was designed to give undergraduates hands-on research experience away from textbooks and classrooms. Working in a Building 17 laboratory cluttered with experiments, where the hum of the wind tunnel can make conversation difficult, the undergraduates brainstorm and build different components of the test setup.

Inside the laboratory and Aero/Astro hangar, the MIT baseball research project looks like a combination of shop class and horror flick: Power tools, quick-drying cement, PVC pipe, handsaws, and mannequin parts are scattered around.

Making his usual rounds one chilly, midwinter night, an MIT campus police officer spotted a couple students on a landing outside Building 17. One student held a handsaw. The other steadied a decapitated mannequin. After the students gave the officer a nod that seemed to say, “Everything’s OK here,” he moved on as the students resumed sawing the bottom of the torso. Such is the strange progress of sports innovation.

“Everything that seems easy is not easy,” said sophomore second baseman Stewart Park. “There’s always little things that can go wrong and it takes a lot to fix even a little problem. We assumed we could just put sensors on the mannequin and it would work, but we realized the mannequin doesn’t act like a human body and doesn’t deflect balls the same way.”

With all the time spent sawing the mannequin, filling it with sand and cement and smoothing out its six-pack abs to ensure better contact with the sensors, the students seem far from stereotypical science geeks. The undergraduates are also far from stereotypical college baseball players, often discussing problem sets before practice. They never worry about the difficulties of designing their own software and never contemplate spending some of the $20,000 Rawlings budgeted for sensors on beer and pizza.

“A major Division 1 kid is at school most of the time to play baseball,” said MIT baseball coach Andy Barlow. “They’re sitting in class thinking about baseball. Here, it might be a little different. They’re coming to the baseball field and they might have their minds back in the classroom.”

But as jack-of-all-trades Turner and project leader Vasquez switch their attention from drilling holes to reviewing the pros and cons of various sensor systems, the project clearly benefits from the students’ engineering and baseball backgrounds.

“We’re getting real data rather than going by guesswork and feel,” said Vasquez. “Pro players are a little different because once they find something they like, they tend to stick with it. Most people are traditionalists. If a bat or a glove feels good, they don’t really care what’s behind it. We’re trying to create more awareness of how things work, how it will protect them, and maybe keep them off the 15-day DL.”