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Curveballs: The Break(down)

Posted January 11, 2012 12:34 PM by HUSH

(See what I did with the title there?)

The yakker. Uncle Charlie. The hammer. The deuce.

Only one of the most beloved and scientifically controversial pitches could garner so many synonyms.

The curveball is a pitching staple. Without this pitch or one of its many variations it's virtually impossible to pitch at any level of elite baseball. Do you know what else is reputedly impossible? The curveball. Yep.

In a 2010 study, physicists concluded that curveballs don't curve as dramatically as it may appear, citing the illusionary effects of a spinning baseball. We'll get to that, and of course my utter disbelief feelings on the subject.

Without further ado…

"Fidel Castro had a heck of a curveball. No really, Fidel Castro had a heck of a curveball." via Mop Up Duty

There are two noticeably different types of curveballs: the 12-6 and the slurve.

Recall from Turbulent: A Golf Game the result of the Magnus effect on a dimpled golf ball. Similar principles apply to a threaded baseball.

In order to understand the Magnus effect on a curveball, let's examine it on a fastball first. The fastball is thrown overhand, with fingers intersecting the baseball's threads at their largest gap.

Fastball grips via The Complete Pitcher

When the ball is thrown significant backspin on the ball churns the air around it, pushing air to the bottom front of the ball creating a high pressure zone that helps the ball maintain a straighter flight.

via Aviation Glossary

A curveball has the opposite spin of a fastball, meaning that the topspin of the ball creates high pressure behind and above the ball and embellishing gravity's natural drop.

A ball thrown with top spin and released directly over the shoulder?

via Wikimedia

It results in a 12-6 curve, like the animation above.

And a ball thrown from an arm angle between 90° and 180° results in a curveball with lateral motion, or a slurve. Each type of breaking ball pitch uses some variation of top spin with the knuckleball a notable exception.

Then where is the controversy? Curves are known to "drop off the table" if the ball is on a straight path until it gets closer to the hitter, where its direction changes wildly and fools the hitter; recent studies suggest otherwise.

When a batter first identifies the delivery of a ball from the hand of the pitcher he or she has about 220 milliseconds to determine the trajectory, pitch type and velocity of the baseball. Typical professional curveballs speed to home plate between 70-80 mph providing the batter as little as .48 seconds to make a decision and connect with the baseball. As the batter evaluates the baseball, he or she must make an estimate on where to swing to connect with the baseball. The last 15 feet of the baseball's flight path is guesswork for the hitter as he or she is looking at where the ball and bat are expected to collide. Until this last 15 feet, the hitter has maintained central eye focus on the baseball, carefully examining the ball's flight. But changing the hitter's gaze to where the bat and ball are expected to meet moves the ball to the hitter's peripheral vision and creating an optical illusion. A ball that appears to break more than 14" rapidly has likely only curved 3" or 4" rather gradually.

Disparaging remarks towards Mr. Met will be dealt with punitively. via New York Mets

It seems silly, but it's probably accurate.

In my experience though, I'd have to say this cannot be true. I'm not of authority to speak scientifically on the curve of a baseball, but anecdotally I find it preposterous. A curveball is not a plodding arc but a sharp snap close to the hitter. Each year I play amateur baseball and it's usually the last pitch I can hit. I consider its unpredictability key to undermining my usual batting prowess. And if it's a down year, I'll blame my defense on curveballs too (this is my blog and I can do what I want here.)

While it's probably true that the break of a curveball is mostly illusionary, if people can still be skeptics on global warming, I think I can maintain my position on curveballs.

What say you loyal CR4ers? Is the curveball real like Sandy Koufax or is it a magic trick like Santa Claus?

"Both," he says. via Gstatic

Resources

Sport Science via Youtube

eFastball - Reaction Times

NBC Sports: Real or Illusion

Steve the Ump - Aerodynamics and Curveballs

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#1

Re: Curveballs: The Break(down)

01/11/2012 10:50 PM

It is mostly an optical illusion. When I pitched in high school, my bread and butter pitch was a side-arm screwball. Very tough for young untrained hitters and amatuer umpires to pick up the ball's path. I had one umpire apologize after an inning for missing a couple of pitches that came back in to catch the corner of the plate.

To the untrained eye, my sidearm delivery made the pitch look like a normal curve, moving left to right. In reality, the screwball was actually moving right to left, and was moving back to the plate. At that level, in the small school conference I actually pitched a shut out relying mainly on that pitch.

The main point though, is the break is not at the last second before getting to the batter. The break is continuous from the moment a pitcher releases the ball. And hoping the batter does not pick it up in time to adjust to it.

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Curveballs: The Break(down)

01/12/2012 6:03 AM

I'm not a baseball player, though I love watching it (my game was cricket). What you say makes entire sense. The pitcher/bowler has no influence on the rate of rotation of the ball once it leaves his hand. The force of gravity and the effect of atmospheric friction cannot conspire to produce a sudden late curve either. In cricket, though, the bowler has a further opportunity to confuse the batsman, because the spinning ball generally contacts the ground before it reaches him. The change of direction will be late and may be unexpectedly sharp (the off-break or leg-break).

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#3

Re: Curveballs: The Break(down)

01/12/2012 6:36 AM

Two similar techniques are used in cricket,one is "spinning"-once the ball touches the ground in front of the batsman(hitter) it changes direction confusing him and making hitting difficult and sometimes hitting the wicket declaring him "out",the other is "swinging"-making the ball changing direction in flight confusing the batsman.

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#4

Re: Curveballs: The Break(down)

01/12/2012 1:25 PM

Fastballs can also have movement on them as well depending on the type of pitch that is thrown. The four-seam fastball, the grip of which is shown in the picture above, usually has a very straight path of travel due to the spin of the seams and the release. The two-seam fastball on the other hand, has a varying amount of movement on it due to the off-center spin on the ball when it is released.

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#5
In reply to #4

Re: Curveballs: The Break(down)

01/12/2012 2:19 PM

That's a good point, RTPP.

Some players have build HOF careers on off center fastballs. Mariano Rivera throws a cutter and some players believe the recent pitching dominance of the last few years is due to the rise of the cutter. Roy Halladay throws the cut fastball 1/3 of the time.

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#6
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Re: Curveballs: The Break(down)

01/12/2012 4:58 PM

Please sir, what is an off-center spin? Whatever you do to its periphery, an object can rotate only round its centre of gravity.

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#8
In reply to #6

Re: Curveballs: The Break(down)

01/13/2012 9:19 AM

Good point.

I should have been more explicit by saying "off center gripped fastballs."

+1.

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#7

Re: Curveballs: The Break(down)

01/13/2012 12:06 AM

Even in soccer you might have observed the ball "curling" from its straight path cheating the goalkeeper and hitting the net.

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#9

Re: Curveballs: The Break(down)

01/29/2012 6:41 AM

The apparent visual curvature of a thrown ball depends on the location and motion of the observer. (e.g. A ball thrown in a straight line between two individuals on a moving merry-go-round will appear to curve for a person not on the apparatus. Study the "theory of relativity".) However, during a baseball game, most observers are in the (approximate) same visual reference, but any movement will affects the observer's visual reference.

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