Friday, September 21, 2012

The Physics of Baseball


by Heather Frank

When I watch a professional baseball game I am often very impressed by the skill and coordination of the players. Many, like me, think that you are born with such talents and athleticism but after 2 weeks of Physics 111 it seems as if there must be much more thought and mathematical equations involved in being a talented athlete. One skilled baseball player that has recently been in the news is now being recognized for his pitch that seems to redefine the laws of Physics. In April of 2009 at a New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays Baseball game, the fastball pitch of the Yankees pitcher Freddy Garcia caught the eye of players and scientists a like. One particular Baseball journalist, Mike Fast, noticed this "fast" pitch and asked a Physics Professor at the University of Illinois to examine the interesting projectile path of the baseball out of this pitch. The Professor, who knew a lot about the physics of a baseball realized that this was more than the Magnus effect, which is the guiding principle responsible for the curve in a curveball. He realized that the side to side movement was not determined primarily by the spin but instead by something else. After much research and analysis this Professor asked another Physicist at the University of Australia if he could figure out the physics of the baseballs motion. This physicist, Rod Cross, hypothesized that the curve was due to the smooth patch effect which is due to airflow being disrupted by the raised and rough seems on a baseball: "the turbulence applies a force on the ball causing it to break. Wherever the ball is smooth, however, or not covered by seems, will cause it to go away from that direction. According to this theory Garcia's pitch is so difficult because he must enable the ball's spinning axis to pass through the smooth patch for as long as possible which makes the ball spin in a way different from any other pitchers throw. Garcia must hold the ball is a specific way so that the spin axes passes through the smooth patch instead of the stitching therefore causing the ball to curve in the opposite direction then expected. Garcia had little idea that he was redefining how physicists analyze the motion of a baseball, but he does realize that his pitch is a uniques skill and if the secrets of projectile motion were as obvious as the equations make them seem, then he would not be the star pitcher for the Yankees team.  

"Challenging Batters and Physics Experts Alike"

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