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baseball and steroids

baseball.jpg

How much do drugs affect the performance of athletes and more interestingly how can we quantify such enhanced performance? That was the question that Roger Tobin, a condensed matter physicist from Tufts University, posed in his talk on ‘Sox and Drugs: Baseball, steroids and physics’. Quantifying enhancement is an interesting question, if someone takes drugs and it increases their performance to, say, score one more goal per season or hit a golf ball a few centimetres farther is it really worth it to make a fuss?

The sport in question in Tobin’s talk was of course baseball. In other sports such as weight lifting, taking steroids can have an obvious effect. But what about other sports where strength is an advantage, but cannot easily correlate with results.

He characterized two eras, namely before and after steroid use became well documented (which he put as around 1990s onwards). If one looks at the record home runs in a single season, this explodes in the late 1990s when Sosa hits 66 and Bonds hits 73 home runs in a single season. This increased effect for baseball is around 20% (from the previous efforts of Ruth). Imagine a 20% increase in the 100 m sprint, this would mean a sprinter taking around 8 seconds to run it. If steroid use is the culprit, how can steroid use affect baseball so much but not other sports?

Tobin says that the only advantage of using steroids in baseball comes in the bat speed. It’s pretty straight forward — steroids build muscles, or increase muscle cross section, which allows the player to exert more force on the ball, which then gives the ball more speed. He calculates that steroid use could increase the ball speed by about 3%. Which if one thinks about it is not a lot…

However, here comes the catch. If I took steroids (don’t worry I am not planning to do the experiment) and started playing baseball, it wouldn’t automatically mean that I am going to beat Babe Ruth’s previous home run record, but as Tobin says the player must already “be pretty special.” So what happens? Well, if you look at the hit distribution of a top player, he may hit 10% of all shots as home runs in a season, but he will hit many that are near home runs, in fact the distribution will have a peak at the place which are nearly home runs. What Tobin says is that steroid use shifts this peak so that all those previous near home runs, now become, well, home runs, so this shift alone increases a players 10% home runs to around 15% in a season — all with the help of a few more percent in ball speed…and some steroids.

Seems like condensed matter physicists are spreading their wings, he also plans to extend his work to other sports, so footballer and golfers beware…

This entry was posted in APS March Meeting 2008. Bookmark the permalink.
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3 comments

  1. wow, you point out some interesting reports / studies in regard to actual result orientated advantage of steroids, this topic has so little documentaition, we are often left to speculate, and this topic is unfortunately sensationalized in the media.
    regards gear199.

  2. if everyone uses drugs why should something change anyways ?

  3. the drugs make a massive difference to players they just don’t want to admit it.

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