The Cubs’ best hitter last season wasn’t Derrek Lee or Alfonso Soriano, who were paid to hit. It was Carlos Zambrano, who was paid to pitch. Z’s .337 batting average (in 83 official times up) led the team, as did his .554 slugging percentage. Still, every game he started his manager, Lou Piniella, put him ninth and last in the order, the worst batter’s place. Why? Because Zambrano is a pitcher and pitchers always bat last.
The conclusion is inescapable: much of what passes for wisdom in baseball really is just calcified habit. If John McGraw always batted his pitchers ninth, so did Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy, Walter Alston, Sparky Anderson, Bobby Cox, Piniella and just about every other great managerial mind. Even though Tony La Russa sometimes breaks the mold, the point still holds.
The same can be said for beliefs about the game’s mechanics. Do curve balls “break”? Can an overhand fast ball rise on its way to the plate? Does a ball hit with topspin pick up speed when it skips off an artificial playing surface? Are home runs necessarily hit harder than singles or doubles? Will a “corked” bat propel a ball farther than an uncorked one? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’ve chosen to believe folklore over science.
I have that on the very good authority of the science in a couple of books, “The Physics of Baseball,” by Robert K. Adair, a professor of physics at Yale University, and “Newton at the Bat,” edited by the science writers Eric W. Schrier and William F. Allman. They went into the laboratory to test some baseball saws. Their findings include the following:
--Curve balls don’t “break,” if that means changing direction abruptly during flight. They do curve, but in a smooth arc, in the direction of their diagonal spin. If there were no gravity the typical curve would transcribe a circle with about a 2,000-foot diameter and wind up back in the pitcher’s hand, but because of gravity the pitch loses velocity and drops as well as curves as it approaches the plate, creating the illusion of “break.”
--Fastballs don’t really rise, or “hop.” Like the curve, the overhand fastball follows a smooth and downward trajectory to the plate, but the backspin imparted by a hard thrower will somewhat offset its predictable loss of speed as it travels, and that can be perceived by a batter as a rise. A ball thrown by a knuckle-dragging “submariner” will rise as it begins its journey, but, typically, will be on a downward path by the time it reaches the hitter.
--Topspin will propel a ground ball faster than one hit without it, but the ball still will lose velocity once it strikes the ground, no matter how slick the surface.
--The force applied to a batted ball is a result of the weight (mass) of the bat, the speed with which it is swung and the speed of the pitch coming in. Those are independent of the trajectory of the swing, which determines the ball’s flight path. Singles hitters like Rod Carew, Wade Boggs or Ichiro Suzuki employ or employed “flat” swings that deviate upward from the horizontal by about 10 degrees through the strike zone. Home-run hitters usually have swings that follow an upward path of about 35 degrees. So while the likes of, say, Adam Dunn, may drive a ball 400-plus feet, that doesn’t mean he hits it any harder than his singles-hitting colleagues. Also, since an uppercut swing intersects a pitched ball’s path for a shorter time than a flatter swing, the uppercutter is likely to strike out more.
--Some players, like our old friend Sammy Sosa, illegally drilled about a six-inch-deep cylinder into their bat’s barrel and filled it with cork or hard-rubber balls, substances with more elasticity than the bat’s wood, and then recapped it to avoid detection. The theory was that the change would impart more “spring” to the bat and drive the ball farther. Trouble is, taint so. Drilling the bat and filling it with a lighter material reduces its weight, enabling the batter to swing it faster, but this is at least offset by the bat’s reduced mass. Further, the ball is in contact with the bat for only about 1/1,000 of a second, making any “spring” effect negligible. Prof. Adair suggests that batters could achieve the same feel by loping about ¾-inch off the ends of their bats or by choking up their grips about an inch from the handles.
Choking up on the bat? Barry Bonds, the all-time home run leader, did that, but few other players follow his example. Why is that, do you suppose?