Is Wainwright's curve ball just an illusion

Since a lot of us are just sitting around in limbo, waiting anxiously for ST to get under way while with little else to do but talk about the Cardinal’s prospect for the coming season and the expectations of this player or that player etc. I thought a few people might have an interest in a kind of offbeat post on a piddling subject, so with that in mind, here goes.

For four or five days after the Beltran signing, someone would invariably every day, re-post the old video of Wainwright’s game inning strikeout of Beltran in the 2006 playoffs and every time it’s been posted, I’ve always paused to watch it for a minute or two. I have never tired of watching that clip.

After studying for a few minutes the other day, I was reminded of a news story from back in the 1950’s when some American university (and I can’t remember which one), published A scientific paper after conducting extensive experiments on the question of: how is it possible that a baseball can be made to curve by a pitcher throwing it the distance from mound to home plate on a baseball diamond and their conclusion was; it wasn't possible. In short their findings were as I remember: no human arm had the strength, torque or wrist movement to make a round object the size and weight of a baseball, curve within a distance of 60’ 6." Therefore a curveball was only an optical illusion perceived by the human eye, when a baseball was thrown with a certain amount of spin on it.

The AP picked up the story and it was printed in a number of papers around the country and was treated with some scorn by the baseball world and knowledgeable sports fans in general. The Sporting News, which was still a baseball only publication at the time, printed a large article including an interview with the Professor that had headed up the experiment and he was quite adamant in that their findings were valid. I took the whole matter with only mild amusement because I was old enough at the time to have played HS and some semi-pro ball and had seen some pretty good country curve balls thrown by me and they seemed real enough to my thinking.

The faint memory of this occurrence has however, always remained embedded in the (ROM) read only memory of my brain, and from time to time surfaced, when observing an especially good curve ball snapped off by some major league pitcher. So, after studying Wainwright’s beauty for a couple of minutes last week, I decided to try a Google to see if I could find something on the incident I had remembered and to my surprise found much more. Although, I could never pin down an account of the incident I was seeking, the issue had obviously been an ongoing argument for some time among Physicists and only until more recent years had theory and evidence been presented to settle the matter somewhat among them. Also, I found that the reported findings that I had recalled was by no means the first controversy with the protectors of the law of physics and the issue had evidently gone on since Abner Doubleday, or whoever it was, had first managed to serve up a twister to a befuddled batter.

I discovered the matter had surfaced also back in the 1930’s when Dizzy Dean was pitching and somebody asked Dean what he thought about the theory and Dizzy commented: (there have been a number of versions of what Dean said, so I’ll just take the liberty of passing on my favorite) "Well, I don’t rightly know, but if you’ll give me a baseball and stand over behind that tree yonder and kinda’ peep around, I’ll show you a real nice one of them optical illusions." I was about to abandon my little venture into research on an insignificant subject when one Google link caught my eye with the mention of a theory called "the magnus effect" which it seems had become widely excepted as proof positive by a portion of the scientific community, that a baseball indeed could be spun into a curve by a human arm from 60’ 6".. but with a slight hitch. It would be on a gradual curve line (or an arcing curve line) and not with the break that we normally see. The break really is an illusion they purport.

The magnus effect:

note: I tried for at least thirty minutes insert this image into the post for better clarity but for some unknown reason, could not. So if you will just read on you can go back click on to check. Also, there is some more g good information on the page. Anyway to mush on:

The figure depicted in the link above is used to explain the curve arc as caused by the Magnus effect. The proponent’s Hypothesis is, that as the ball leaves the pitchers hand ( with a forward spin toward home plate, (from left to right in the figure) the raised seams of the ball will act somewhat as small fins, directing a certain amount of air downward and under the ball and leaving a partial vacuum for the air above the ball to fill in, therefore creating downward pressure on the ball. This downward pressure causes the ball to sink more on it’s flight to the plate than what normal gravity would cause on a ball thrown at the same speed but with less spin. A typical major league curve ball travels at about 75 mph, and spins at an oblique angle at about 1500 rpm, with about 0.6 seconds travel time from the pitchers hand to home plate. The ball undergoes about 13 complete revolutions in it’s travel to the plate. Pitchers who can launch a directly overhand pitch with required spin will get close to a downward arc and this is commonly known as the 12 to 6 curveball. Also for maximum effect (and because of the lower speeds of the curveball), the ball should be released from the pitcher’s hand with a slight upward travel to prevent the ball from dropping low and out of the strike zone or possibly into the dirt before it’s intended destination.

And now for the kicker: the break that the batter sees as the ball nears the plate is the illusion, sometimes referred to as "feature blur." This supposedly is a phenomenon that occurs when the flight of the ball changes from a peripheral view to a more focused view to the hitter. That is the break. Some contend that, what the batter actually sees is the sum of the gradual curving of the ball from the time it leaves the pitchers hand (and is in his peripheral vision) to the time he manage to put focus on the ball as it nears him, and he sees the sum (total) all at once, so to speak. Obviously, if this is true, this is what a spectator who is watching a pretty much direct flight of the ball from behind the pitcher or catcher also sees, because this is what I see watching Wainwright’s hook on TV.

Now at this point let me summarize by saying the wording used in this post to describe what physicists have contend happens, is my own and might be right, close to right or somewhere in left field. I just Googled, "is the curve ball real or an illusion" and scanned a number of articles. There is a lot of material on the subject out there but most of the physicists that have done experiments in the matter obviously hired lawyers to write the reports of their findings, so I just tried to put into my own words and as simple as possible what I thought the lawyers were trying to convey. Feel free to correct me on anything you feel is wrong. I won’t argue. There are probably a number on VEB that are more knowledgeable on the subject than me but in the time that I have followed the blog I have not seen a post on the subject, or that much mention of it, actually.

In the paragraph above in which I presented the "feature blur" or illusion theory, was taken from an article about the experiments and conclusions of four physicists at four different universities that worked collectively to provide evidence to support this theory. They devised a small flash player application to demonstrate the phenomenon and I have provided a link to the page at the end of this post. Notice when you view it that there is a blue dot on the right of the screen. Focus on the blue dot and when you see a spinning ball out of your left peripheral view, shift your focus to it and it will do a sharp downward turn. Notice if you focus to a point somewhat near it, will break less. If you slowly dart your eyes from left to right of it when it is spinning down, you can make it wiggle. There are several controls to adjust speed, spin etc. but I didn’t mess with them much, and also two large tabs labeled REVERSAL and PDF file. Make sure you click the REVERSAL button, It is of interest, and clicking the PDF file will link you to a page with information on tests and the physicists involved in these experiments.

Now for some questions I was left to ponder after absorbing this information: Since spin seems to be the key element involved in creating movement on a baseball and the stitching and seaming also play a large factor, How is it possible that in over a hundred years of history, just Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan and only a few others have learned to put enough spin on a 96 MPH fastball to make it break like a curve ball and everybody else left to throw what would be called normal sliders and sinkers?… And how did Greg Maddox learn to put enough spin on everything he threw, no matter the speed, to make it move all over the place. Did he watch Mike Scott a lot when Scott was pitching for the Astros?

And what did Beltran see when he watched that Wainwright pitch go by? We know what we saw but Beltran had a better angle and a professional eye and he must have seen one humongous fall off the table as it went by him. Which leads to my next question, can a hitter have too good of an eye and focus, causing him to have trouble with the curve, while a mediocre hitter with less eye and focus, have better success with the curve because his eye detects less break? Would Ryan Theroit have knocked the shit out of Wainwright’s pitch?.. And all the reports of a juiced up baseball over the years when home runs an extra base hits go up. Has baseball just monkied with the stitching of the ball from time to time; using smaller gauge thread to sew the seams, making them less raised and lowering the fin effect and reducing the curved arc, resulting in pitchers giving up mammoth drives because they can’t put enough movement on the ball?..And what happens if you increase the size of the thread used to sew the seams, raising the seams. Would we then see mass low scoring pitching duels and back to "Whitey Ball?" The questions just go on and on.

Like back in the late 1840’s, when a young kid (Ellis Drake) ran into his dad’s shoe shop one day after school with two figure eights cut out of paper and said, "hey dad, will you cut me a couple of pieces of that old horsehide you got in the back, just like these two pieces of paper I cut out and then help me stitch them around this thread ball. I don’t like them old one piece covers on the baseballs we got at school." Now that leads me to wonder, did young Ellis know what he was creating and had already figured out something that would have pysicists scratching their heads for a hundred years to explain…or was it just circumstance on his part and the GOB had already started fiddling with the game.

I tell you folks, This opens up a brand new can of worms for me and I don’t know if I want deal with this confusion any longer, so I’m just going to quit thinking about it and forget the whole damn thing. Thanks for reading.

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