June 06, 2003

Corked Reasoning

The whole Sammy Sosa flap over his use of a corked bat has seen the use of some poor reasoning in the sports press. For while it has long been thought that corking a bat leads to better hitting, many physicists have studied the issue and found that it really doesn’t make any significance difference in how well a batter hits (for example, see here and here):

Every professor in America is rushing to tell you that corking a bat serves no purpose. We spoke to five current big-leaguers Thursday, and every one of them says corking does help because the bat maintains the density but is an ounce lighter, allowing the player to swing "a heavy bat'' much more quickly

Source: Baylor can't imagine Sosa cheating.

However, many in the sports press have claimed that the physicists are full of beans. For example, I have heard the following statements:

  • Rob Dibble on the Dan Patrick radio show claimed on Thursday that he used a corked bat in BP once, and there was no doubt in his mind that it made a difference, and so he dismissed the studies that show that such modifications do not matter.

  • Bill Madden, of the New York Daily News, appearing on the Tony Kornheiser show on Friday argued that because of a player (whose name escapes me) admitted that he had used a corked bat in the one season in which he had a phenomenal hitting year, that clearly corked bats matter. Madden therefore declared the “case closed” on the argument that corked bats make no difference.

  • Others have claimed that corked bats have to make a difference, just because it is obvious that they do (probably because they have always thought that to be the case/because it is illegal, it has to be the case that it makes a difference).

    Now, I honestly have no clue what difference a corked bat makes when hitting (I know what it would do for me: squat—I can barely hit when playing softball), but I do know poor reasoning when I see it. Just because one hitter, or a lot of hitters think that the bat makes a difference, doesn’t make it so. It could as easily be a placebo effect as an actual case of the bat making a difference.

    And in regards to Madden’s claim that one guy having a good year during the year he used a corked bat, I have two responses: 1) the afore-mentioned possible placebo effect, and, more significantly, 2) it is entirely possible that the guy simply had one good year. Surely there have been other major league players who have had one outstanding year hitting in a sea of otherwise mediocre seasons.

    The entire situation demonstrates how difficult it can be to get people to reshape their thinking even when the evidence suggests that what they have thought for years is actually incorrect.

    And, my take on Sosa’s use of a corked bat: even if this was exactly as Sammy said it was (it was a bat he used in BP), I think that this tarnishes his career. The very ownership (and I don’t mean having one at home as a oddity, but having it with your other bats at the ballpark) of an illegal has the affect of raising questions about Sosa and whether or not he was willing to cheat or not. Since I already have been wondering about the use of performance-enhancing substances, this simply makes vague suspicions stronger (i.e., if he might cheat in one way, might he in another?).

    Basically, if one’s career is based on hitting and one knows the effect a corked bat can have on one’s reputation, then even owning on, let alone using it for BP to impress the fans, is a highly questionable thing to do. It would be like me writing a column and plagiarizing part of it, saving it on my hard drive and showing it to students to impress them, but never submitting it to a paper, and then accidentally sending it in because I got confused. It would utterly destroy my reputation as a writer, even if was the only “corked” column I had written.

    And I tend to subscribe to the: He Knew the Bat was Corked, and Used it Because he was Desperately Trying to Get Out of a Slump Theory.

    Posted by Steven Taylor at June 6, 2003 01:03 PM | TrackBack
  • Comments

    There's another methodological problem. People who use corked bats and have worse years (in batting avg.) are not likely to report their anectdote. Thus, the anectdotal evidence is further skewed.

    Posted by: John Lemon at June 6, 2003 02:26 PM

    Good point.

    Indeed, there are substantial reporting errors here, since most corked-bat-users don't report their uses anyway.

    Posted by: Steven at June 6, 2003 02:35 PM
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