Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Speaking of Science: The baffling science of baseball

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

New York Mets' Michael Conforto bats during the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros on Monday in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

It's been a couple of years since I last attended a spring training game, but I can still feel the pressure of Florida's February sun and hear the "pfft-thwak!" of a baseball zooming into a catcher's mitt. The Mets' tiny stadium in Port St. Lucie doesn't have a bullpen, so pitchers warm up along the first base line — right in front of where my best friend, Victoria, and I were sitting. The pitched ball moved so fast I could barely see it, but there was that sound — that whiz of tiny leather sphere disturbing the molecules of muggy air, so sharp and swift I wanted to flinch even from 10 feet away.

Whatever fragments of a dream I may have harbored about becoming a professional baseball player were swept away right then and there. All I could think was, "How on Earth does a human being hit that thing?"

It's not just me. Professional scientists ask themselves the same question. Around the same time that I was getting an early season sunburn in Port St. Lucie, Stevenson University Psychologist D. Ryan Shurtz, analyzed the impressive cognitive feat of hitting a baseball in the Baltimore Sun.

For one thing, he said, by the time a ball gets within 5.5 feet of home plate it is moving faster than a person can move his or her eyes, meaning that batters can't even see what they are swinging at. In fact, the average pitched ball spends so little time in the air that a batter must begin his or her swing almost at the moment the ball leaves the pitcher's hand.

Popular Mechanics reported that a 90-mph fastball reaches home plate in about four-tenths of a second, giving the batter 100 milliseconds to see the ball, 75 milliseconds to home in on its spin, speed and location, and another 50 milliseconds to decide whether to swing. The swing itself takes 150 milliseconds. All of that thinking must go on in roughly the amount of time it takes you to click your mouse twice.

So was Yogi Berra right? Maybe you really "can't hit and think at the same time?" Or maybe not. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience found that people's brains can make split-second distinctions between the trajectories of fastballs, curveballs and sliders.

Either way, I'm grateful to be able to observe this feat safely from the stands.

Happy spring training to everyone!

— Sarah

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