Science Or Myth? Breaking Curveballs In Baseball
By News Staff | October 13th 2010 05:00 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

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Baseball players will tell you that a fastball can rise - and elementary physics says it can also, the same way an airplane rises because the teardrop shape of a wing causes air to go over the top faster than below the flatter bottom, 'sucking' it into the air.    Sure, if the baseball is going 200 MPH it can happen.  But they don't.

Likewise, curveballs can break sharply, some say, while others disagree, including us a year ago (see Does A Curveball In Baseball Really Break?).   It's an illusion.  Still a K if you miss them often enough, though, so players are forgiven if they are convinced they got beat by science.

If you recall the names Arthur Shapiro (American University) and Zhong-Lin Lu (University of Southern California) it's because we covered their prize for best illusion at the 2009 Vision Sciences annual meeting  - a demonstration of how an object falling in a straight line can still appear to change direction (try it yourself!)

Naturally, that didn't settle the debate and if you saw Tim Lincecum's ridiculous slider in last week's no-hitter against the Braves, you know they aren't wrong for believing in wild motion. A curveball breaks, sure, the ball is spinning at 1500 RPM and a speed of over 75 MPH, it just doesn't break the way the batter thinks it does because part of the magic is the perceptual puzzle of motion and vision.

In a new PLoS ONE study, the group explains the illusion and relates the perceived size of the break to the shifting of the batter's eye between central and peripheral vision.

"If the batter takes his eye off the ball by 10 degrees, the size of the break is about one foot," Lu said.

Interactive Curveball Illusion. A disk descends vertically from the top of the screen to the bottom. If the observer tracks the disk in the periphery (i.e., if the observer looks to the right but attends to the motion of the disk), the disk appears to descend obliquely. The lever allows the observer to adjust the angle of descent. Experiment 1 measured the physical angle of descent at which the observer perceived the disk to descend vertically when viewing the disk in the periphery.

Lu explained that batters tend to switch from central to peripheral vision when the ball is about 20 feet away, or two-thirds of the way to home plate. The eye's peripheral vision lacks the ability to separate the motions of the spinning ball, Lu said. In particular, it gets confused by the combination of the ball's velocity and spin.

The result is a gap between the ball's trajectory and the path as perceived by the batter. The gap is small when the batter switches to peripheral vision, but gets larger as the ball travels the last 20 feet to home plate.

As the ball arrives at the plate, the batter switches back to central vision and sees it in a different spot than expected. That perception of an abrupt change is the "break" in the curveball that frustrates batters.

"Depending on how much and when the batter's eyes shift while tracking the ball, you can actually get a sizable break," Lu said. "The difference between central and peripheral vision is key to understanding the break of the curveball.   A similar illusion explains the "rising fastball".

Experimental results applied to an actual trajectory of a curveball.  A) The parabola fit to the curveball data tabulated in Bahill and Baldwin [34]. B) The line drawn at each point represents the physical velocity of the curveball at every moment of time. C) The deviation of the moment-by-moment perceived velocity of the ball (indicated by the red lines), assuming that the batter's gaze shifts to the expected point of bat/ball contact when the ball is 20 ft away from home plate (i.e., when the ball is 20 ft from home plate, the batter shifts his/her eyes so that the ball is at 10-degree eccentricity; the eccentricity decreases linearly when the ball reaches home plate). D) We used the perceived moment-by-moment velocity of the ball from part C to estimate the perceived trajectory of the ball, which is dependent on the initial eccentricity and when eye shift occurs. Each line indicates when the batter shifts his/her eyes from the ball toward home plate (i.e., the red line indicates that the observer shifts his/her eyes when the ball is 20 ft away; green line, 15 ft; dark blue line, 10 ft; light blue line, 5 ft). The longer the batter is able to maintain foveal fixation on the ball, the less the ball will be perceived to deviate from its parabolic path.  See credit in the citation below.

The obvious remedy for a batter, repeated by parents and coaches everywhere, is to "keep your eye on the ball."

That is easier said than done, according to the authors. As the ball nears home plate, its size in the batter's field of view spills out of the eye's central vision.

"Our central vision is very small," Shapiro said. "It's the size of the tip of your thumb at arm's length. When an object falls outside of that region, strange perceptions can occur."

Lu noted that the spin of the ball tends to draw the eye to the side, making it even harder for the batter to keep the ball in central vision.

"People's eyes have a natural tendency to follow motion," Lu explained.

His advice to hitters: "Don't trust your eyes. Know the limitations of your visual system. This is something that can be trained, probably."

Lu, Shapiro and their co-authors plan to build a physical device to test the curveball illusion. Their study was carried out with volunteers tracking the movement of a disk on a computer monitor.

To the authors' knowledge, the PLoS ONE study represents the first attempt to explain the break in the curveball purely as a visual illusion. Others have tried to explain the break as a result of the hitter overestimating the speed of a pitch.

Responding to comments from baseball fans, Lu agreed that on television, pitches filmed from behind home plate appear to break. He called it a "geometric illusion" based on the fact that for the first part of a pitch, the viewer sees little or no vertical drop.

The ball is falling at the same rate throughout the pitch, Lu said, but because the pitcher tosses the ball at a slight upward angle, the first part of the pitch appears more or less flat.

As a result, the drop of the ball near home plate surprises the eye.

For Shapiro and Lu, who have studied visual perception for many years, the PLoS ONE results go beyond baseball.

"Humans constantly shift objects between central and peripheral vision and may encounter effects like the curveball's break regularly," the authors wrote. "Peripheral vision's inability to separate different visual signals may have f ar-reaching implications in understanding human visual perception and functional vision in daily life."

HOW THE EXPERIMENT WAS CONDUCTED:

The visual stimulus consisted of a descending disk (to represent global motion, or the ball's path through space) with an internal moving grating (representing local motion, or the spin on the ball). When the five observers viewed the disk centrally, they perceived both global and local motion (i.e., observers saw the disk's vertical descent and the internal spinning). When observers viewed the disk peripherally, the internal portion appeared stationary, and the disk appeared to descend at an angle. The angle of perceived descent increased as the observer viewed the stimulus from further in the periphery.

The researchers estimated the magnitude of the illusion by measuring the physical angle of descent that created the perception of vertical descent. The experimenter adjusted the physical angle of descent, and the observer reported whether he/she perceived the disk to fall vertically. For example, the experimenter adjusted the global motion direction of the disk 20 degrees to the right if the observer reported, “No. The disk is moving to the left about 20 degrees.”

The amount of adjustment became smaller as the observer reported that he/she saw the disk falling closer to vertical. The stimulus was on until the observer made a response, in response to which the experimenter changed the physical direction of the descending disk. An observer’s response was measured twice. There were twenty-four different conditions based on every combination of the following: three eccentricities (0, 15 and 30 degrees), two directions for the internal grating (0 and 180 degrees), and four moving speeds (6.7, 10, 13.3 and 20 deg/sec). Each condition was repeated four times.

Observers practiced two trials for each condition before data collection.

Citation: Shapiro A, Lu Z-L, Huang C-B, Knight E, Ennis R (2010) 'Transitions between Central and Peripheral Vision Create Spatial/Temporal Distortions: A Hypothesis Concerning the Perceived Break of the Curveball', PLoS ONE 5(10): e13296. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013296

Eggheads should keep away from sports. Tim Lincecum didn't throw a no-hitter; that was Roy Halladay.

You are correct.   Lincecum's 2-hit, 14K shutout performance was not a no-hitter, it was actually better than Halladay's 1-walk, 0-hit, 8 strikeout no-hitter.   For that matter, it was also better than Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956.

A no-hitter requires a lot more luck than blanking a playoff team with 14 Ks because it is 9 on 1 for balls in play.   Strikeouts are alllll pitching.
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The study wasn't about throwing a no-hitter. Nor did it comment on a pitcher's capacity as a player. It was simply about the optical illusion created when switching from peripherial vision to the central vision.

Your Study was Wonde4ful reading.I have a fireball tendency in All sports involving Ball's and Even Riflery .What Si. Believe is my Mind Plays A Big Role In that I know skill in Mega Quantum Physic's ;) also Phillies just might not Win ,never say never !

The gent who took me to the NLDS playoff game has a bet with me that the Giants beat the Phillies - dinner at Morton's - and I took it gladly.   It's not that I want the Giants to lose or am a pessimist, I just always listen to the math.
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Explaining the curve ball strictly as an optical illusion is misguided. In reality it's a combination of the both aerodynamics and optical illusion.

As documented in the book, "Physics of Baseball," early in the 20th century three collinear poles were set up and a pitcher threw a baseball around them unequivocally proving the aerodynamic curving. It's actually the Magnus effect, the influence of drag, not the Bernoulli principle that causes a baseball and tennis ball to curve. Baseballs and tennis balls change the momentum of the air stream resulting in the force on the baseball or tennis ball. In contrast a smooth surface, low drag ball curves due to the Bernoulli principle as the Bernoulli principle ignores the influence of drag.

Why it's so hard to hit a curve, slider, or other pitches cannot be explained in totality by polarized camps dedicated to the pure optical illusion line of thought or the purely aerodynamic line of thought. I think there's now plenty of evidence that both influences effect a batter.

No one has claimed a curveball does not curve, it certainly does, but in a parabola, so it does not 'break' the way hitters seem to think it does (and television angles exaggerate it also) - I discuss the Magnus Effect and the physics of hitting and throwing in too many places to count but this topic was in Does A Curveball In Baseball Really Break? and the general physics of pitching in The Science Of Baseball: What Is The Fastest A Pitcher Can Throw?

Like any good science writer, I can talk about it even though I couldn't do it. I had a decent glove but curveballs were the death of me.  So I feel sympathy for players who think that sucker is moving by 20 inches.
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Pro baseball will now be gone from Portland for a long time. It won't be back without a solid eight-figure outlay by the city's taxpayers.

8 figure?   That's only \$99 million.   No businessman would put a baseball team in Portland for under \$500 million in public money.

Not every market works for baseball.    San Francisco acquired a team before the modern culture there or they would never support it, and the bulk of their attendance is from outside the city.   Ditto with the 49ers, who would love to move out of San Francisco to be closer to their fans.

It's not easy to stereotype but markets that skew left tend to have people who dislike sports - and people who dislike sports won't support a team with intangibles, like shirt sales, etc.    The Giants had enough support from a large megalopolis (Sacramento, Silicon Valley) they could build a new stadium without huge public money but no businessman would put a baseball team in Portland without public financing when the Trailblazers lose \$20 million a year.
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if you look at light bending possibilites ...then capturing on still or moving captionated film would be astonishing ..hmmm ..but have it happen in real ...life ..getting to technical fellas ..it happens ..