Recently, I’ve found myself attempting to hone my pitch identification skills while watching games. I detested physics class in high school, but working with PITCHf/x has brought out the inner physicist in me. To be honest, watching pitches move and batters attempting to square them up is sometimes more interesting than the scoreboard or the teams playing. It was Saturday when I was sitting at home and watching Freddy Garcia pitch to the Red Sox in the first inning. A pitch to Pedro Ciriaco caught me off guard. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying pitches, but what I saw absolutely stumped me. YES was nice enough to take a second look at the pitch that David Cone called a splitter with sliding action. Although it was thrown with a splitter grip, the pitch moved in the opposite direction of what was expected, acting more like a hard curveball. I should also mention that the spin of the pitch was so far off from the results, that I suspected Freddy Garcia broke one of the laws of physics.
Go ahead and take a look for yourself.
I scrambled to identify the pitch, and Lucas Apostoleris of The Hardball Times was kind enough to point me in the right direction. Lucas wasn’t quite certain on the physics, but that is acceptable when the pitch also confuses PITCHf/x expert Mike Fast, who last May contacted physics Professor Alan Nathan. In January, Nathan published his take on the pitch with the help of work published in the American Journal of Physics by Professor Rod Cross, who studied the effects of multiple forces on baseballs, soccer balls, and cricket balls. He found that Freddy Garcia was using the same force that is responsible for the swing effect in cricket.
Through my PITCHf/x series, I’ve discussed the forces of gravity, drag, and the magnus effect, and how each of these creates the movement of nearly every pitch in the modern game. The spin angle and spin rate create a higher pressure and lower pressure pocket at a point on the spinning ball. If the higher pressure is at the top of the pitch, the ball will be forced downward like the vertical movement of a curveball. If the higher pressure is on the bottom, the ball will be forced up like that of a fastball. This is the magnus effect, and batters have grown accustomed to identifying the spin angle of a pitch and then predicting how the ball will move based on this force. The only problem is, the pitch above moves in the opposite direction of the expected magnus effect movement.
It was previously believed that the large area of the figure-eight seam pattern on a baseball, as well as the high rotation of a pitch, neutralized any irregularity in movement from the ball’s seam. The knuckleball, which has very limited spin, was the only pitch known to significantly move due to the seam. Freddy Garcia’s pitch above destroys this assumption.
In cricket, a bowler can create the same type of movement with a cricket ball that uses a single seam through the middle, or through scuffing one side of a ball. Imagine a ball traveling and cutting through the air. As the ball displaces the air in front it, this air clings to either side of the ball as it passes. When a ball with no seam or imperfections is thrown, the air clinging to either side of the ball should have an equal amount of force on the ball, thus having no effect on how the ball moves. On a swung cricket ball, the seam is oriented at an axis, such that it continuously cuts the clinging air on one side of the ball. This creates turbulent clinging air on this side, and smooth clinging air on the opposite side. The smooth clinging air has a greater force on the ball than the turbulent air, thus deflecting the ball in the direction of the turbulent air. You can see a video demonstration by Professor Cross here.
If you watch until the end of the video, they show one pitch thrown by Freddy Garcia that is nearly identical to the one above. Looking at the spin of the baseball, Garcia is able to create an axis on the pitch that allows the baseball to always have one forward-facing smooth side and one forward-facing seam side throughout it’s flight, with the center of the spinning seam side around the 1 O’Clock position. This creates a swing force deflecting against the seam side/turbulent air side, which moves the ball down and away from a right handed batter. In this case, the swing force is stronger than the magnus force, thus blowing Pedro Ciriaco’s mind with one hell of a pitch.
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