Mad About Science: Baseball

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist
Sponsored by the Sandpoint Library

If you’re reading this article in utter shock and disbelief that a nerd could like sports, I have a simple question:

What rock have you been living under?!Baseball-WEB

The sports world is dominated by nerds! It’s kind of our thing.

But Brenden, all of the sportscasters are all hunky meatheads and ex-athletes with bravado and charisma!

Yeah, but do you think they crunched all those percentages and averages on their own?

In the world of sports, much like role-playing games, stats are very important. You can get a pretty good picture of a player’s skill based on his on-base percentage or seasonal hit average.

Along with this, baseball is an intense thinker’s game on several levels: It’s a silent duel between pitcher and batter, like two gunfighters at high noon sizing each other up. A single miscalculation, even by a fraction of an inch, will see one walk away a hero and one… not so much!

It’s a very tactical game. Hitting a ball hard won’t guarantee victory if you can’t put guys on base. Even the presence of a player on base can affect the pitcher’s ability to strike out batters reliably. A fast runner on first base is like your pet cat: always watching, always waiting for that perfect time to ruin your day.

The physics of baseball are deceptively intense. It’s a game that’s easy to pick up but incredibly difficult to master.

Pete Rose once famously said: “It’s a round ball and a round bat and you got to hit it square.”

Go ahead, try it. Now you’ve also got nine guys trying to stop you from doing that.

Did I also mention that you have to outrun a ball that can fly towards you in upwards of 100 miles per hour?

Seriously, Carlos Gomez once chucked a ball from the outfield to Home Plate at 103.1 mph.

Picture that: You’re trying to hurl a ball over 120 feet (I think he was closer to 160) and land it in an object smaller than a cantaloupe before another guy can sprint 90 feet.

Physics: baseball does it hard.

Let’s look at the pitcher. He’s what the entire game revolves around. If there is no pitcher, you have no ball to hit, no runs to score, no game to play. There’s a reason the pitcher gets so much attention in just about every game. This is where the inertia begins.

The pitcher stands 60 feet and 6 inches from home plate, and as you know, it’s his job to hurl ball after ball toward the batter.

Let me stress how talented pitchers are to even appear reliably in a game.

They have to hurl a ball 60 plus feet and nail a moving target in a two foot zone.

Up to 120 times in a single night (sometimes many, many more).


This is definitely not one of those cases of “Any idiot could strike this guy out!”

To compound this, the pitcher needs to know the ins and outs of his opponent: his stance, where he likes to hit, what the range of his swing is, is that ball coming back at him at lethal speeds?

While they’re sizing up their opponent on the mound, they aren’t able to reliably communicate with anyone about their opponent’s weaknesses or strengths. They have to memorize them as they come up to bat.

Luckily, pitchers have a lot of tools at their disposal. Pitching isn’t just about pitching fast. A fast ball can turn into a long ball if you hit it right, and hitters train consistently to learn how to hit it right. Fastballs can range from 95 to 105 mph, which will get a baseball pulled over in Kootenai.

Breaking balls are pitches designed to very rapidly decelerate and drop into an arc, fooling a hitter into poorly timing a swing. Sometimes they’ll call it a sinker, but basically it’s a slow pitch that gets slower by the time it reaches the plate. Some pitchers can specialize in a form of this pitch called a change-up, where it comes out fast then slows way down and changes direction.

Sound mystical? It’s about three primary factors:

Grip. A pitcher’s grip alters the directional momentum of the ball, making it spin more or less to change direction or hold steady.

Power. None of this means anything if the pitcher has spaghetti arms and couldn’t toss a pebble eight feet if his life depended on it. A pitcher is like a surgeon that throws things, with the phalangeal dexterity of a pianist and the muscle of a professional fighter.

Air pressure. It’s an invisible force, but perhaps the most important of all. The ball isn’t alive, it’s simply following the path of least resistance. The fact that you can’t see the path of least resistance adds another layer of difficulty to an already difficult game.

Hitters have one distinct advantage over a pitcher. While the pitcher needs to stay out on his island for the half inning, a hitter can get his hacks in, then go tell everyone else on his team “He kept throwing X. If you swing Y, maybe we can score!”

Imagine playing a game of chess with someone.

Now imagine that you can’t see your own pieces, but your buddy, Tim, can tell you where they are once every three turns.

Your opponent is a series of nine different people that can see your pieces and their pieces, so each one can tell the next one what tactics you’re using and what to do to counter you.

Now if all of this were moving at darn near 100 mph, you’d have tabletop baseball.

There are a ton of other factors here: I mean, I didn’t even get into the other players on the field. Baseball is a team game, and even a pitcher that’s getting his glove fed to him can walk off the field at the end of the night with a W because everyone behind him has his back.

Anyone that’s ever played baseball, though, has to admit that the hardest job isn’t in front of the plate, but behind it.

Ever wonder why the catcher has more armor than a samurai?

For one thing, the catcher is having a ball chucked at his midsection and groin for hours at a time. Likewise, he’s really close to the guy swinging a piece of lumber with enough force to turn a watermelon into a smoothie. And trust me, he gets hit sometimes.

Most importantly, have you ever seen when a guy is on third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth?

That runner is going to be going full bore, with 90 feet of momentum and well over 200 pounds of muscle and bone behind him. That catcher can NOT move, he has to intercept this guy.

Trust me, you want a little padding between you and David Ortiz when Big Papi is coming your way. Catchers are hands down the toughest guys in baseball, I’ve got nothing but respect for them.

Now if only my M’s would get into a W-shaped groove.

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