Is It Really Unhittable ?

April 11, 2007

Ask Bill Nye / MSN Encarta

Is It Really Unhittable ?

Bill Nye examines Dice-K's "gyroball"

Dear Bill,

Is Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka's "gyroball" really a new unhittable pitch?

--Skeptical Sammy

Dear Gyronian Observer,

Do you go with the flow or against it? Well, how about going sideways--sideways to the flow? Apparently, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston's newly acquired very-hard-throwing Japanese phenom(-enon), is so strong and flexible that he can throw a baseball with an unusual spin that creates a unique changeup/screwball hybrid pitch which, for now, is pretty deceiving. Innovators, aerodynamicists, and observers are calling this new pitch the "gyroball." Now, there's a wrist exerciser product of the same name. But, this is about a technique, a pitch to throw batters off ... er, or out.

Skeptics insist "Dice-K" (nicknamed after the pronunciation of his first name) isn't onto anything new, but it's clear that his pitches are behaving ... wacky, to say the least. Even if the gyroball doesn't exist, the mere thought that a pitcher has a tricky pitch up his sleeve is enough to tilt the head game of pitcher vs. batter toward the defense.

But is the gyroball myth or reality?

Well, apparently the gyroball story started with a baseball instructor in Japan named Kazushi Tezuka, who was fooling around with throwing plastic cylinders. You throw these like you'd throw a football ... with the spin not going backward or forward or slightly sideways--but almost entirely sideways. A batter looking at this pitch doesn't see it drop extra fast or stay up especially long. Instead, it's falling like a rock and moving in the opposite direction of that same pitcher's curveball. It's getting its traction to the side rather than up or down.

Right now, this pitch is being dubbed the "gyroball." I guess it reminds someone of a gyroscope. And of course, it sounds especially scientific and mysterious. Gyro in Greek is a "ring." So, it goes around like a ring, perhaps. Mr. Tezuka got together with an aerodynamicist named Ryutaro Himeno and published a book translated as The Truth About the Miracle Pitch. Well, it's probably not miraculous. But, it is cool. It's just that not many of us can throw this pitch very well. 

Matsuzaka's gift

In a sense, this gyroball thing is nothing new. In New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A., back in 1870 (as I mentioned in an earlier column), a guy named Freddy Goldsmith threw a curveball that was flat--not dropping or sinking. He threw a ball past three rods set up in a row. It passed to the left of the first rod, to the right of the second, and to the left of the third. This was before reliable video technology. He must have held the ball with his palm almost facing the sky. The thing is, when you throw a curveball like that, it goes too slowly. Modern batters have time to react and can crush it. Similarly, when most of us non-big leaguers try to throw a gyroball, a pitch with nothing but sidespin, we just can't get enough push on it to make it go fast enough to fool a batter.

At any rate, the key to this seems to be that Matsuzaka is some kind of smooth athlete. He can throw with his wrist going all different directions and not ruin his muscles and ligaments in the process, at least so far. He's just good at it. I've read that people believe that he throws eight different pitches instead of the usual four. Many pitchers in Japan throw what is called the "shuuto" or shoot-ball pitch. It's where you rotate your fingers and wrist even more toward your opposite hand than you do with a slider. The ball curves somewhat more in the opposite direction of your slider. If a batter doesn't know it's coming, it's hard to handle.

Some pitchers in the United States throw what is called a "screwball." The ball curves the other way, at least to a degree. The problem is that it messes up arms and wrists ... for most people. Matsuzaka seems to have a gift for throwing. In addition to being smooth, he's durable. He threw 130 pitches in eight games last year. No one in Major League Baseball comes close to that. He never puts ice on his arm after a game. Virtually every professional pitcher does.

Is Dice-K Superman?

So how does Dice-K achieve this quirky action on his pitches? Imagine a globe on a stand. You give it a push, and it spins. Now, imagine pinning that globe's stand to the wall so that its axis, its spindle, is pointed right at you. When you spin the globe west to east, you're looking right down on top of the North Pole. So it is with the gyroball. Pitchers like Matsuzaka and a few others throw the ball the way you'd throw a football, letting the ball roll off their fingers in a spiral or helix (for you geometry buffs). Such a pitch flies in unexpected and striking (pun intended) ways.

When most of us pick up a ball of any size and get ready to toss it hard or throw it a long way, we throw overhand. That's with one's fingers pointing up, skyward, maybe up to a bird or Superman. When we let go, the ball gets backspin. The spinning surface of the ball drags some air molecules with it. The dragged-along molecules on the top surface of the ball are moving with the flow, in the same direction as the ball's flight. The dragged-along molecules on the bottom side are going against the flow--they pile up, in a sense, and create a higher pressure underneath than on top. So, a ball with backspin is not only the easiest to throw, in general, it also has a little bit of lift, aerodynamic lift, like the wing of a bird or an airplane. (Superman's abilities seem to be based on a less well-understood physics.) Some pitchers put so much spin on the ball that people refer to it as a "rising" fastball. It doesn't quite go up, but it sure doesn't fall as fast as you might expect. The ball is getting a little traction in the air, just like tires on pavement--only air is, uh, ... somewhat more slippery.

You've experienced this backspin business if you've ever experimented with spin while playing Ping-Pong. The lightweight Ping-Pong ball and the large sticky surface of the paddle (or "bat," for serious table tennis players) conspire to make it pretty easy to give the ball lots of backspin. Ping-Pong balls will actually rise or go up on their way across the table. Well, baseballs behave the same way. The spin affects their flight.

The mysterious art of pitching

So in baseball, you throw a fastball in the most natural way by throwing overhand with backspin. You can hold the ball in a few different ways to present the stitches on the ball to the air in different orientations. The stitches, in a sense, cause the air molecules flowing over them to tumble and break loose from one another, altering the effects of lift and drag. Therefore different grips on the ball produce slightly different pressure forces and slightly different flights. These subtleties make pitching a mysterious art. And, these forces make it quite difficult for a batter to hit a ball, especially--most especially--if he doesn't know what pitch is coming.

Pitchers generally work so that they control the flight of the ball when it's thrown in about four different ways. Hard and straight--that's a fastball. Not so hard, but with your fingers curved over the top of the ball so that it has topspin--that's a curveball. Major league curveballs curve down. They fall a great bit faster than a fastball. They can't be thrown as hard. So, they go more slowly. Somewhere in between, is the slider. The fingers come over the side of the ball--not straight over, not directly behind. Then finally, pitchers work and work on their "changeup." You make it look to all the world, and especially the batter, that you're going to throw it hard and straight like a fastball, but you hold it deep in your palm and the ball flutters to the plate. Batters often don't have that extra moment they need to adjust to the slow speed and miss the ball entirely or hit it weakly. A much more obscure pitch is the knuckleball, an entirely different sort of pitch that relies on a lack of spin for its unusual flight pattern.

This pitchers' deception is made even more effective by the following bit of physics: If you throw a slider, the ball moves from your throwing side toward your other side. For a right-hander, it's his or her right to left. From the batter's point of view, it's his or her left to right. Well, the spin of a right-hander's gyroball is counterclockwise, from the batter's point of view. So, it goes the other way--from a batter's right to left. Yikes.

Gyroball misconceptions

There have been articles written claiming the gyroball is a shoot-ball, that the gyroball is a myth. When asked about the gyroball, Matsuzaka adds to the mystery by claiming that he doesn't know what people are talking about. Incidentally, I was charmed by a fancy diagram in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper that had the gyroball's spin and curve shown exactly backward. These sorts of misconceptions no doubt contribute to the confusion. Hmm ...

As a guy who loves the game, who loves the science of it, but is not the foremost authority on who's who, Matsuzaka reminds me of Livan Hernandez. They both seem to just throw without working as hard as everybody else does. They have a smoothness and an efficiency that most pitchers just don't have.

So, Daisuke is able to rotate his wrist and his shoulders and position his hips so that he can alter the spin he puts on the ball without injuring himself. He can throw conventional fastballs and side-spinning gyroballs. And, he throws each of these pitches in just about exactly the same way, with his body in the same position, so that each pitch starts out looking exactly the same to his opponents. Batters are continually thrown off, pun intended again.... He varies the speed and the spin constantly. So you never quite know what's coming even though you have a pretty good idea where it's coming from. We'll see how spun out teams get this season against this Doctor of Spin.

Bill Nye, scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor, is the host of two television series: The 100 Greatest Discoveries, which airs on the Science Channel, and The Eyes of Nye, which airs on PBS stations. His previous television show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, won 18 national Emmy Awards in five years. He recently published his fifth book, Bill Nye the Science Guy's Great Big Book of Tiny Germs. Bill holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and in a former career he worked as an engineer at Boeing.

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