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How a Little Science Goes a Long Way in Baseball


Barry Bonds’ 71 home runs in a single season or Clayton Kershaw’s ability to strike out 301 batters in one year may seem like magic to most of us.

While we enjoy the sense of wonder we feel witnessing these talents, not everyone is satisfied to simply sit back in astonishment. Understanding the science behind baseball’s greatest players and their feats adds to our enjoyment of the game. Read through these points to gain a deeper appreciation of how players leverage the laws of physics to optimize their performance and wow fans.

Baseball & the Science Behind Energy Transfer

Each spring when training begins, reporters across the country ask University of Illinois physics professor Dr. Nathan to discuss the science of baseball. The most common questions include: How can a ball duck or swerve so dramatically at the last minute? How do batters choose where to put the ball?

But is Dr. Nathan a sports physicist? Not by a long shot.

Dr. Nathan has spent his career studying the collision of sub-atomic particles. Like baseballs, these particles rotate on an axis at varying speeds and with varying rotations. Interestingly enough, his findings about sub-atomic particles relate directly to the science of baseball. His answers to the following questions make sense and make baseball far more calculated and complex than it can appear.

Why Is the Bat’s Sweet Spot So Important?

Players share that when the ball hits the sweet spot on the bat, it feels awesome, powerful, even “true.” From their experience and from their physical sensations in their hands, they know a ball hit on the sweet spot has the greatest chance of going far and in the intended direction.

Physics makes the thrill of the sweet spot clear. First, understand that the bat is not a rigid object. Watch any slow-motion replay of a great hit. If the ball connects on the sweet spot there isn’t much bat movement. If the ball hits above or below the sweet spot, the bat vibrates, even to the point of hurting the player’s hands.

The energy and momentum of the ball transfers to the bat, causing a violent collision. If it hits where the bat can best deflect the energy, that energy transfers back to the ball, sending it in the opposite direction with the most force. If the ball hits higher or lower than the sweet spot, much of its energy transfers to the bat. This is what makes the bat vibrate. Therefore, at the sweet spot, you get the most pop.

How Do Pitches Change Course at the Last Minute?

The goal of the batter is to estimate where the ball will be when it crosses home plate. He does this by watching the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hands, but at about twenty feet away the batter can no longer process the movement of the ball. His vision and decision-making capacities cannot keep up with the ball’s speed. Therefore, it’s critical for the pitcher to throw the ball in a way that makes it change course in those last twenty feet.

Pitchers can make the ball drop, rise, and veer left or right by manipulating speed, rotation (spin), and the axis around which the ball spins. Dr. Nathan has determined that, due to the laws of movement and momentum, a small motion put on the ball at the beginning of the throw continues to build throughout the ball’s trajectory. This small movement can be nearly undetectable to the batter. And the more unpredictable a pitcher you are, the more strikes you achieve.

How Do Batters Direct Balls to an Intended Spot on the Field?

It’s not only the pitcher that puts spin on a ball. The batter, too, can make a ball harder to catch. Excellent batters can determine whether to put top spin or bottom spin on a ball, depending on the goal they want to achieve that inning. They put top spin on a ball by hitting it with the top of the bat so that it torques downward. The long grounder causes the infielders and outfielders both to scramble. The batter may choose to put a bottom spin on a ball to force the ball upward for a pop fly or even a foul. The energy from the ball hitting the bat off-center creates friction which can even lead to burning the ball. Even though the ball maintains contains contact with the bat for only one-thousandths of a second, it’s a violent energy transfer.

Why Do Bats Break in the Middle Rather Than Where the Ball Makes Contact?

When the ball hits the bat outside of the sweet spot, the bat bows or vibrates drastically. The outside wood fibers stretch, feeling the most stress where the most dramatic arc occurs — in the middle of the bat. The ball may have initiated the bend, but it didn’t cause the wood fibers to break. It’s the bend, not the ball itself that breaks the bat.

Scientists reverse engineer what baseball players learn from muscle memory and experience. Still, knowing some science of baseball could help both players and fans respect the game and its intricacy.

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Evolution of Sport – Baseball

Baseball has a long history in the United States. The roots of America’s favorite pastime go back to the early 1800s. It was a British game that involved a pitcher throwing a ball at a “striker” swinging a flat stick that inspired the modern-day game of baseball. The rules of baseball were written in 1837 by Alexander Cartwright, a member of the Knickerbocker Club in New York. The rules originally written by Alexander Cartwright lead the way towards making the game we watch today.


So what has changed in the nearly 130 years since the game of baseball first appeared in American culture? Would we even recognize the original game that Cartwright envisioned if we saw it today? What are some of the biggest changes to the game?

A Tale of Two Leagues

The popularity of baseball in the mid-1800s led to the founding of the National League in 1876. It started with 8 teams. In 1901, the American League was formed with 8 teams of its own. These teams were considered bitter rivals of the National League. Today that dynamic is different. Both leagues are much more competitive within the leagues, and really don’t worry about the other league until the playoffs leading to the World Series begin. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. If you’ve ever been to an inter-league game between the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox then you know that rivalries between the two leagues DO exist. Still, the National League versus American League mentality is not nearly as bitter as when the American League came on the scene in the early 1900s.

The Ball Itself

The history of the actual baseball is an intriguing one. The baseballs used at today’s games are formed from wool yarn that is covered by cowhide. These balls weigh 5 ounces and have a circumference of nine inches. The modern-day baseball came into play in 1976 when balls were no longer made with horsehide – a change from the beginning of the game. In the early 1900s, balls were also not wound as tightly and were not even weighed. Until 1920, pitchers could modify balls with things like spit or tar to have an even greater advantage over the batter. Those rules changed after batter Ray Chapman died on August 16, 1920 after a spitball thrown by Carl Mays struck him in the head.

The number of balls used in games has also changed. A typical Major League game today uses 60 to 70 balls. When balls end up in the stands, it’s customary for fans to keep them. Umpires pull balls out of play after they’ve been hit or landed in the dirt a few times to maintain the integrity of the ball and keep the game fair. From 1900 to 1919, only  5 or 6 balls were used each game. Now known as the “dead ball era,” this time frame gave pitchers a distinct advantage because batters could not hit the overused balls as far. To put this concept in perspective, during those years the leading home run hitter in a season would have just 14 home runs. In 2014, Nelson Cruz had 40 home runs and was the leader in both leagues. Even a decade earlier that number was even higher, but a crackdown on players using performance enhancing drugs is believed to have led to a drop in home runs in recent years.

The Evolution of the Baseball Bat

The first six years of the National League allowed players to determine what bats they wanted to use. There were no rules on weight, height or even what material the bats were made from. Over the years, the width of the bat became regulated to the 2.61 inches it sits at today. The maximum length for a bat is still the same today as it was in 1869 – 42 inches. Bats that are 33 to 34 inches long are commonly regarded as the standard for today’s players, though. At one time baseball players could use flat-sided bats, but rules changed to make them round in 1893. The types of wood used in bats is also regulated now and players can choose between ash, maple and birch. There isn’t an exact weight requirement but bats cannot be 3.5 ounces lighter than the length of the bat.

Outfield Change

Major League Baseball is the ruling body when it comes to most changes to the game but occasionally players or owners facilitate modifications to how baseball is played. One example is shortening the outfield requirement. Over time, team owners have made the joint decision to shorten outfields to make home runs more common in order to excite fans. Case in point: when Fenway Park opened in 1912, the distance to its outfield fence was 488 feet. Today that distance is just 420 feet. These decisions made owners, fans and batters very happy. Pitchers, understandably, aren’t fond of the smaller outfields, though most modern-day pitchers still have better records than their predecessors.

Introduction of the Designated Hitter

In 1973, the American League debuted a new kind of player: the designated hitter. This position was designed to ramp up excitement at pivotal times in the game. In the first year the designated hitter was used, hits in the American League went up by nearly 2,500. Not only does the designated hitter concept increase excitement in the game itself, but it extends the career lifetimes of batters. It also means that for American League pitchers, there are never any “easy” outs like there still are in the National League when the pitcher is at the plate.

The Introduction of Technology

The introduction of technology has impacted the game of baseball at almost every level. As an example, video technology was first used in baseball in 2002, and is still used to track pitch speed, break, and location. Between 2002 and 2014, video replay outside of the plate was limited, and only calls disputing home runs were evaluated. During the 2014 season, video replay was expanded, and now the manager of each team can issue one video replay challenge per game.

Technology is also used to evaluate umpire calls, and as a result, umpires are becoming more accurate. Prior to the use of Pitch f/x, a camera used to evaluate umpire calls at the plate, umpires had a median accuracy rate of about 83% (in 2007), as of 2013, that accuracy has become closer to 87%.

The sport of baseball continues to evolve with its fan base. Each generation of players is better than the last and they infuse a new energy into the game. Though the logistics and specifications of baseball have changed, the excitement of hearing the crack of a bat on a summer night remains.

What do you think the game will look like in another 100 years?