Baseball players understand the importance of the perfect pitching mound. Everything from the pitcher’s plate to the mound material can affect the game. Gerald “Tripper” Henson of Warrenton, Va., a 2011 Virginia Tech graduate in civil engineering, combined his education and insight from Recreational Sports Club Baseball to research the ideal pitching mound. His study was published in Sports Turf under the title “Qualitative and quantitative comparison of baseball mound clays.”
“I wanted to be involved in sports turf as opposed to the more popular golf sports industry,” Henson said. “I decided to try and create my own educational experience focused on baseball field construction and maintenance.”
Henson began working with the Virginia Tech Department of Recreational Sports and Chad Kropff, the sports turf and outdoor facilities manager, in March 2011. Because he was working toward a minor in turfgrass management from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Henson focused his research on the materials used to make a pitcher’s mound.
Four manufacturers donated their products: Mar Mound, Turface, Diamond Pro, and Pro’s Choice. “Stability, firmness, and give are the major differences in the products,” Henson said. “Pitchers prefer varying attributes of each characteristic.”
Kropff helped Henson mix the clay and construct the mounds. In the four-week study, members of the university’s club baseball team practiced on the mounds at the Upper South Recreational Area, off Tech Center Drive. Pitchers threw 205 pitches from each mound. Henson interviewed the players about their experience and solicited feedback about firmness, shape, consistency, moisture, and cleat indentation. Henson took measurements of deflection at the end of each day. The mounds were repaired after each use during the first week, with decreasing repairs over the four weeks.
By the last week of the study, upkeep decreased to once a week. Different rebuilding techniques simulated a range of budgets, from a professional budget to a parks and recreational budget.
“Every morning he [Henson] was out there taking measurements and preparing the mounds for the day,” Kropff said. “He stayed focused and on top of things. He did great.”
Henson discovered that each product had strengths and weaknesses. He said the biggest finding was that a product’s popularity depended on personal preference. The majority of the pitchers chose Diamond Pro as their favorite.
Henson then evaluated the mounds from a field manager’s viewpoint and recommended certain products based on budget and maintenance. He suggests that teams use this research strategy to determine which clay is best for their situation.
The mounds were kept in the same location for the club baseball team to continue using after the study was completed. While he said he was pleased to get credit for doing something he enjoyed, Henson said he was also motivated to provide a place for the club baseball team to practice.
“The pitchers used the mounds to help keep their arms healthy throughout the season and in turn, this helped [Henson] conduct his study,” said the team president, Max Hilbert of Bethesda, Md., a junior majoring in chemical engineering. “Pitchers were able to get comfortable pitching on different types of surfaces, and the mounds are still being used.”
Kropff said the study could change how groundskeepers choose material for their fields. It has already impacted some fields around Virginia Tech. “We chose to start using one of the clays in the batter’s box on one of the softball fields,” Kropff said. “This study helped us find out what worked best with our fields based on weather and cost.”
Working with Recreational Sports on academic studies gives students opportunities and resources they might not have had otherwise, Kropff said, such ashands-on training.
“I think it really says a lot for the school,” Kropff said. “Instead of just going to classes, students get to be involved with these kinds of studies.”
More than 100 students a year get hands-on training from Virginia Tech’s Turfgrass Research Center, where they are able to practice with 20 acres of turf research plots and 10 acres of wooded and sloped areas.
Many undergraduate classes use the center at 615 Southgate Drive as their main field laboratory. The students learn about turfgrass identification as well as proper mowing, fertilization, irrigation, cultivation, and pest control techniques.
“At any time, but especially during the growing season, April to October, we will have up to 100 turfgrass research trials happening,” said Erik Ervin, professor of turfgrass culture and physiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Six officers lead the student-run organization, which is associated with Virginia Tech Recreational Sports and competes in the National Club Baseball Association. The team of 25 members plays more than 50 games per year against other schools in the Mid Atlantic North conference.
“Club baseball gives us an opportunity to keep playing baseball after high school,” said Max Hilbert of Bethesda, Md., a junior majoring in chemical engineering and president of the team. “Along the way we have fun and get a little bit better at the game. Hopefully this year  we will make it to the NCBA World Series.”
Look through previous Spotlight stories