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Baseball Physics Constant; Strategy Shifts Constantly

Baseball has seen many changes over its history. The rules are in a constant state of flux, as are team strategies. The ball itself is now covered with cowhide, not horsehide as in earlier times. Even the history of the game has changed. It is now generally agreed that Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general, didn't invent baseball, in spite of a legend to the contrary. This myth was started in an effort to prove that baseball originated in the United States. It actually evolved from British games, including cricket.

But the laws of physics that apply to baseball haven't budged. Curve balls still curve as the result of higher air pressure on one side caused by the ball's spinning. Gravity still makes the ball drop as soon as the pitcher releases it. The weight of the bat and the speed of the swing account for how much energy is transferred to the ball when it is hit. Enough energy could result in a home run. Another factor in hitting home runs is the sweet spot. The bat vibrates at several frequencies when it hits a ball. Hitting in just the right place on the bat sets up the ideal balance of frequencies to maximize the transfer of energy to the ball.

Daniel Carbonell probably wasn't thinking about these scientific principles when, on his first night playing for the Richmond Flying Squirrels recently, he hit a two-run homer. Batters don't have much time to analyze a pitch, according to Sam Ravech, the Squirrels' radio and television broadcaster. "The majors now average 95 miles-per-hour fastball pitches and some are approaching 100," he said. At those speeds there's not much reaction time.

One pitch, commonly called the rising fastball, seems to defy the laws of physics. Some batters report that a blazing fastball was headed straight for the plate when it suddenly jumped higher, resulting in a missed swing. Ravech calls this an illusion. He explained that batters are accustomed to seeing the slight drop of the ball, caused by gravity, as it speeds toward the plate. An exceptionally fast fastball drops less than a slower pitch, and the drop isn't detected. The batter's brain compensates. and the ball appears to rise.

Myles Schroder, a Squirrels infielder, and Matt Gage, a starting pitcher, both agree that the ball doesn't really rise. Schroder calls the effect "accidental." Gage says batters expect the ball to drop, so it appears to rise. High-speed photography and video cameras never have authenticated a rising fastball, Ravech said.

Few changes have been as important to baseball as those brought on by technology advances. One of the most dramatic is the widespread use of spray charts, according to Ravech. A spray chart is a highly detailed computer analysis of an opposing team's statistics that is used to adjust strategy during a game. Ravech cited a spray chart showing how and where the opposing team's batters tended to hit the ball. Shifting fielding positions is common when an opposing player often hits to one part of the ballpark. Spray charts allow for even more dramatic shifts, for instance, moving the shortstop to cover second base while the second baseman moves to the outfield.

More emphasis is placed today on a player's home run record than his batting average. "Just getting a hit doesn't score a run, but a home run does," Ravech said. Jeremy Fogleman, team video coordinator, said that, while analysis and technical data are important, "Go with what you know. It's great to have the numbers, but the guy in the uniform has to have it."

Political columnist George Will, who has written two books about baseball, complained in a recent newspaper column that too much analysis hurts the game by slowing it down. He argued that the increased emphasis on home runs also is bad for the game. "Baseball is a game of emotion, curses, legends and myths," Ravech said. "Science, in some ways, takes the mystery out of the game."

Modern technology also creates concerns for fan safety, Ravech said, pointing to his cell phone. "They spend too much time texting and on social media instead of paying attention to what is going on around them." A fan could be hit by a foul ball or could trip while walking down the ballpark steps, he said.

The Richmond Flying Squirrels are featured on Flying Squirrels Insider every other week on the Community Idea Stations. Check listings for program air-times on WCVE PBS / WHTJ PBS and WCVW PBS.