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That curveball you just K'd on never happened - it's all in your mind

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If baseball were nothing but fastballs, we'd all be in the Majors at some point. No matter how hard someone throws, with enough work and time in the cage, building up batspeed to attack a fairly straight ball is within reach of the average human.

What inevitably puts the spikes in the throat of the collective dream is the breaking ball. It's often said that trying to hit a round ball with a round bat is the hardest thing to do in sports. While that's certainly open for debate, there's no denying the difficulty of catching a pitch with a wrinkle square on ash or metal.

And for many a hardballer, the curveball is the pinnacle of frustration. Oh sure, you're slider, changeup and splitter can cause an ill-fated attempt to smash bat over knee on the way back to the bench, but the one pitch that can really make a great hitter look like a T-baller is the curveball.

Known by many names - The Hammer, Uncle Charlie, Yakker, Bender, etc. - there's nothing worse than feeling of being frozen, or worse - twisting in the wind with buckled knees, as a big 12-6 local skims across the plate for a called third strike.

Wait, it turns out there is something worse: it's all in your head.

According to Zhong-Lin Lu, who holds the William M. Keck Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, that filthy hook never happened. It's impossible. All in your head. What you just got punched out on and were made to look foolish by was nothing more than a straight ball and what amounts to an optical illusion caused by spin and the red and white blur of seams and hyde.

While you try to figure why this guy hates America and the rules of the universe, check out this rather amazing bit of visual evidence he presents. Sadly, it's not embeddable, but here's the explanation behind the illustration:

In baseball, a curveball creates a physical effect and a perceptual puzzle. The physical effect (the curve) arises because the ball's rotation leads to a deflection in the ball's path. The perceptual puzzle arises because the deflection is actually gradual but is often perceived as an abrupt change in direction (the break). Our illusions suggest that the perceived "break" may be caused by the transition from the central visual system to the peripheral visual system. Like a curveball, the spinning disks in the illusions appear to abruptly change direction when an observer switches from foveal to peripheral viewing.

Got that? It's all in your head, meat.

"Physically, there is no such thing as a breaking curveball. It's mostly in the hitter's mind," claims Lu.

Major League hurler Mike Marshall in a piece in US News' HealthDay begs to differ with the distinguished Lu:

"I can't believe the guy is saying something that was disproved almost 50 years ago. It's absolutely ridiculous. Baseballs move. They really move," Marshall said.

And Marshall knows of what he speaks. Aside from his mound credentials, which include 12 seasons in the majors and a 3.14 ERA, he majored in exercise physiology while earning a doctorate at Michigan State University. He says the devastating movement is no trick of the eye, but rather is due to air pressure forcing the spinning ball downward.

Now, take a look at this nearly illegal curve Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw drops on Sean Casey in Spring Training in 2008. With all due respect to Lu, when Professor Vin Scully gets that excited about a hook, it's a great pitch. Just look where it starts and where it ends and see if you think it's optical illusion or straight up filth:

For more visual observation on the art of the curveball - and whether it bends - take a look at what many students of the game think was the best ever thrown, from the hand of Sandy Koufax (toward the end of the video):

The debate aside, when it comes to a curve's power - perceived or achieved - perhaps the best answer is, "does it matter?"

"There seem to be arguments on both sides," Freddy Berowski, a researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, said. "But what really matters is that the batter thinks it curves."

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Interesting article, but I don't think that Mr. Lu is implying that a curveball doesn't actually curve. He states this when he says that the "physical effect (the curve) arises because the ball's rotation leads to a deflection in the ball's path." However, although the physical curve is gradual, the perceived _abrupt_ change in direction (which he defines as "break") is attributable to the illusion.

Note that in the two videos posted, we are _only_ witnessing the physical curve in the path of the ball. In order to perceive the illusion (the abrupt change in direction), we'd have to 1) see the rotation of the seams of the baseball, and 2) watch the baseball as it moved from our central vision (such as when a batter looks at the pitcher before a ball is thrown) to our peripheral (from the perspective of the batter, as the ball makes its way from the mound to the plate).

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This page contains a single entry by Craig Newman published on October 30, 2009 1:52 PM.

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