Without a doubt baseball has had more serious study behind it than any other major sport. It’s hard to say why this is, but we don’t see academic studies on the flight trajectories of footballs or the effect of “soft rims” on basketballs but we do see plenty of research on baseball. Scholarly research papers on baseball have titles like, “An Experimental and Finite Element Study of the Relationship amongst the Sweetspot, COP, and Vibration Nodes in Baseball Bats” and “Determining Baseball Bat Performance Using a Conservation Equations Model with Field Test Validation.”
Very rarely do these scientists, mostly physicists, offer practical advice for players to take into the field, but they do come up with some interesting observations. And almost all of them have to do with the baseball-bat “collision sequence.”
Consider the story of Rip Sewell’s “eephus” pitch. A physicist told him that a ball that travels 400 feet in normal conditions would go an extra 3 ½ feet farther if the pitch is five miles per hour faster. So, pitcher Sewell lobbed the ball twenty-five feet in the air, with so little speed (ie: energy) that the batter had to provide all the power. Only one major leaguer ever hit a home run off Sewell’s pitch; Hall of Fame hitter Ted Williams did it in the 1946 All-Star game, and he gave his swing a running start by charging at the ball.
In 1987 Dr. Robert Adair, the Sterling Professor of Physics at Yale, was named the official “Physicist of the National League.” Former Yale President Bartlett Giamatti— who was then the Commissioner of Major League Baseball— gave him the title.
Among the finding of Dr. Adair are:
It takes 1/2,000th of a second for a major leaguers bat to deliver nearly 10,000 pounds of force. The ball compresses almost an inch, storing energy. Some of that energy accelerates the ball. The rest heats the ball to about 1 degree warmer. So yes, a batter really can have a hot bat.The backspin that makes a sailing fastball appear to rise actually just keeps the ball from falling as quickly as the batter expects. The difference from a normal trajectory can be 5 inches by the time the ball reaches the plate and about 2 1/2 of those 5 inches come in the last 15 feet.
University of Illinois particle physicist Alan Nathan is intrigued about revealing the secrets of a baseball bat’s “sweet spot”. That spot is the impact point on the bat where hurtling ball sends no sting or resistance to the batter’s hands.
Dr. Nathan has developed elaborate equations to capture that instant when the ball strikes the wood, causing the bat to vibrate in complex patterns like a violin string. Such work suggests the sweet spot most batters notice is different from the point on the bat that sends the ball sailing the farthest—a finding that could warrant subtle changes in batting strategies. The best spot appears to be 6 inches from the tip on a 34-inch bat, with efficiency dropping off quickly in either direction.
The sweet spot problem reminds Dr. Nathan of his main professional pursuit: experiments in which high-energy electrons are shot at an atomic nucleus to determine its structure. Also, it turns out that the complex calculations needed to understand the sweet spot problem resemble those used to analyze the vibration of airplane wings and bridges. The sweet spot studies have also revolutionized the introduction a new generation of farther driving golf clubs and better performing tennis rackets.
If you need more evidence that science can’t get enough baseball you might want to visit the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Baseball Research Center. The center has done extensive study on many baseball-related issues including corked bats and “juiced” baseballs.
Porter Johnson, a professor of physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology says that the study of baseball is full of deep scientific mysteries, “They say that two big problems in physics have resisted solution,” Porter said. “One is the unified theory of everything that would account for all the forces in nature. The other is finding a quantitative description of the motion of a baseball through air.”
All of this study of the physics of baseball date back to the 1950’s when wind tunnel experiments proved that curve balls really do curve. It turns out that it’s due to an imbalance of air pressure created by the spinning ball moving the ball to the outside part of the plate. The exact details are still a mystery and are exceedingly complicated to model.
Physicists aren’t the only ones who have been attracted to baseball. Harvard evolutionary biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould said that baseball studies might shed important light on poorly understood aspects of the natural world. Gould argued that the disappearance of the .400 hitter in baseball stems from decreasing variation in talent, not diminishing player quality— a distinction he also applies to evolution, where apparent trends of improvement or decline often prove unfounded.
But why is baseball the subject of these studies and reports and not other sports? It might be because baseball motions are easier to reproduce in the laboratory and the sport is less dependent on other nebulous influences like play calling. It might also be a demographic function as most studies are done in the Northeast United States where the sport is more popular. Baseball is also a statistic-dominated endeavor with over a century’s worth of numbers.
Somehow baseball has a mystical hold on scientists who would normally insist on empirical evidence. Harvard’s Gould, who was a fanatical New York Yankee fan, would maintain that at least one baseball moment defies any rational explanation: Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk’s seeming success in waving a home run into fair territory to win game six of the 1975 World Series.
Gould insisted, “He stood up there and by sheer body English he transcended the laws of physics and made that ball curve inside the left-field foul pole.”
Even science, it seems, has its limits.