Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Baseball: The Grand Illusion! (WHODATHUNKIT?!: The 3 Best Things You REALLY Want To Know About the 2011 World Series!)


WHODATHUNKIT!?, like John Stamos' career, is a joint effort between The Best Of Everything and Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!

Another major event, another major post -- WHODATHUNKIT!?, remember, is my post that, for every single major event in the world, provides you not the usual load of garbage the media foists off on you, but a unique brand of garbage that only I foist off on you: namely, three things that you probably didn't know about the major event, but which, once you do know them will fill you with wonder, a sense of mystery, and, provided that you subscribe to the payperview, 5D-version* of this blog, dark energy.

*5D version not available in Albuquerque, because screw you, Albuquerque.**

**They know what they did.

This year's World Series, like every World Series, qualifies as a major event, not just because I'm going for that coveted "I'm 78 years old and I love baseball" blog demographic***

*** I see you there, Mr. Kascheski! Hi!

but also because, as I understand it, nearly 14 people will annually tune in to watch the World Series, which, let's face it, is still more than will watch the entire run of that "new" Tim Allen "show" about how "men" leave the "toilet" seat "up."

Don't mind that last sentence. I was trying a little thing to see if extra quotation marks would give me a little gravitas, and I have to say, I think it "worked."

I watched a little baseball this year, "a little"*4

*4 Gravitas! Which, when you think about it, could actually be the Latin word for Dark Energy. And, having said that, I'm 90% sure that in about three months we will read that people at the Large Hadron Collider discovered gravitas, because who's paying attention? Besides me, I mean? And I'm not, really, because I've also got the TV on and I'm sort of listening to Colbert.

meaning only three innings of game 6 of the Series between the Brewers and the Cardinals before I fell asleep Sunday night. I feel bad about that, because the Brewers gave up four runs before I tuned in, and then when I was watching they were doing pretty well (or "pretty good" as I say when I don't feel I'm being watched by the Grammar Police) and then I fell asleep and they lost, which kind of proves that Dark Energy really exists because it was clearly influencing the Brewers through my "efforts" at watching them on TV.

Speaking of the Large Hadron Collider, did you know that you can help look for the Higgs Boson (a/k/a, The Best Way to Prove that "Scientists" Are Making It Up)? It's true: If you're the type of person who leaves his home computer on (Guilty!)*5

*5 Wait, I meant to plead not guilty! No! Get these cuffs off of me! Fools! Only I can stop them!*6

*6 I've had a little too much coffee already today. Does it show? And, more importantly, do you think that by using all these footnotes I'm subconsciously emulating that one guy who wrote Infinite Jest and then died and everyone wrote all that nice stuff about him so I went out and bought Infinite Jest, spending $18 on it, only to find it completely unreadable, giving up on it 70 pages in, and then I felt sad that I'd wasted my finite book money on a book that was terrible, and so I've never forgiven him and can't even remember his name?

then you can use your home computer to help search for the Higgs Boson (which doesn't exist, and might as well be called a gravitas) by joining the LHC@Home 2.0 effort: a program which will let your home computer simulate complex particle collisions and then send the results back to the Large Hadron Collider, which will compare them to the results it obtains, and, who knows, maybe YOU will discover the Higgs Boson *7

*7 You won't

And, in doing so, earn yourself a Nobel Prize -- because that's what that other guy got the Nobel for, remember: Taking photographs of space and comparing them to each other.

I've got a screenshot of what it looks like when your computer is simulating those particle collisions, so you'll know what to expect:




Try not to get too amazed by the science-osity of it all. Also, note that that screenshot, which is an Actual Screenshot of Science, proves that dark energy is all around us 'cause it's really dark in space.

About time I got around to the World Series, don't you think? Me, too:

1. Who invented the curveball? Trick question! There's no such thing as a curveball!

Well, okay, there's a little such thing as a curveball. But not really. Just about a year ago, a two researchers published a paper that showed that while curveballs move a little, the real effect of a curveball is... all in your mind!

Darn. I was hoping for some spooky music and effects there.

Anyway, the researchers found that the curveball's "break" or deviation from a straight line, is real, but very gradual-- not the drop that most viewers expect.*8

*8: A curve ball, contrary to what I always thought, doesn't curve right or left, but down: it has top spin, which makes the air pressure higher on top of the ball and pushes the ball downward, making Dizzy Dean's famous defense of a curve ball's actually curving ("Stand behind a tree 60 feet away and I'll whomp you with an optical illusion!") not make much sense, unless that tree was one of Larry Niven's integral trees.

The researchers hypothesized that the curve that viewers, and batters, claim they see isn't a curve at all, but an effect of switching from central to peripheral vision: The batter, they said, sees the ball using central vision until it's traveled 2/3 of the way to the plate, at which point they start using peripheral vision -- until the ball is at the plate and they switch back to central vision, which makes it seem as though the ball has dropped more because of the switch. Peripheral vision, they explain, has trouble distinguishing between various motions like velocity and spin, and the eye tends to follow the motion of the ball (downward) making it seem further like the ball is dropping.

Too much reading? I could've put the video first... but then all those words I typed would still be bottled up inside me, waiting to get their shot at fame. You wouldn't want to deny a word its time in the limelight, right? So now, give a word a hug and watch the video:


With that question answered, let's move on to question 2!

2. No, really, who invented the curveball?

Well, aren't you singleminded! As I was trying to find out the answer to that question, I wondered to myself "How many pitches are there in baseball, and how many are banned?" So I went to Baseball Reference.com, which ought to know, and found out the answer, which I will quote verbatim:

There are many, many types of pitches in baseball.
Okay! Moving on!

Actually, Baseball Reference lists four standard pitches (four-seam fastball, curve ball, slider, and change-up, the latter being a pitch thrown exactly like a fastball... only it comes in slow, and throws off the batter.)

Then, the Reference has 5 variations on the fastball:

The Two Seam Fastball, a fastball in which the fingers are held along the seams rather than across them, causing more movement and a slower throw,

The Sinker, which is a two-seam fastball thrown near the edge of the strike zone and is intended to drop out of it entirely,

The splitter, a sinker with a better downward break (or thrown against batters with worse peripheral vision?), a pitch that isn't used much because it causes injuries in pitchers,

the Cut Fastball, a ball thrown inside from an opposite-handed pitcher (lefty pitcher, righty batter, for example) that, when it works best results in a broken bat, and

the Running Fastball, which is a cut fastball when it's thrown by a pitcher with the same-handedness as the batter.

Don't those all appear to be simply standard pitches thrown in a particular area? That'd be like football calling a handoff a short pass with no gap between the quarterback and the running back.

But then there's all these trick pitches:

The Circle change, which looks like a two-seam fastball but then breaks in an opposite direction to that expected,

the Palmball, a changeup that's actually a fastball thrown using the palm of the ball to slow the pitch down, thereby making the batter swing before the pitch gets to the plate...

...and the existence of that pitch really does suggest suggest that a lot of this is in the batter's mind and tricks of the eye, doesn't it? A batter sees a fastball motion and swings but the ball isn't there yet and so he misses -- that's not pitch location or curve. That's just tricking the batter...

and the Gyroball, which made news not long ago because nobody believed it existed; the gyroball is a pitch that "falls faster than a fastball, but slower than a curve, and hardly breaks inside or outside." It's thrown with a spin that mimics the way a football spins -- the axis more or less parallel to the trajectory. The gyroball gets to the plate faster than the batter expects and makes the batter late on the ball, and because it's spinning looks like a breaking ball when it's not...

... which, seriously, it is all just illusions, isn't it?


There's also a two-seam gyroball, both of which tend to make the batters swing under them and miss, expecting the ball to drop more than they do.

The Japanese invented the Gyroball, and also

the Shuuto, a ball that breaks down and to the right, so, not very exciting. I expected more, so back to America with

the Knuckleball, a ball Baseball Reference describes as "tantalizingly slow but dances all over the place."

So like Christina Aguilera:



That really was just an excuse to put that picture in there.

Here's Sean O' Leary, knuckleballer:


And the first couple pitches I watched in that video didn't seem to move at all, but let's get a little more Baseball Reference hyperbole before exploring that. Says the BR:

It's been said that a knuckleball screws everybody up, as "the hitter can't hit it, the catcher can't catch it, and the umpire can't call it."

They don't attribute that quote. I bet it was Gandhi. Was it Gandhi? It was probably Gandhi.

Now go back and watch that video. At about 1:30 Sean throws a bunch of pitches that all appear to go perfectly straight. The slowed-down one about 2:32 in particular looks like it would've been knocked out of the park by everybody but me; I have lazy eye.

Other pitches with funny names include the "Eephus" an "impossibly slow" pitch invented by by Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1930s -- "basically a lob to the catcher", BR says, that's not really used, a "Forkball" which "tumbles out of the strike zone (rather than breaks out of it) when thrown" that's a "brain scrambler" when the wind is blowing, and the:


Vulcan Change-up This is similar to the forkball. Often called V change or the "trekkie" because of its unnatural grip. It is held like the Vulcan greeting that is used by Spock the Vulcan in Star Trek (The dude with pointy ears in Star Trek). This pitch drops like a regular change-up, but just puts a little more friction on the ball. Basically it is a different way to grip a Change-up.

Cue the Sexy Vulcan!



And the "Slurve," a slider thrown at curveball velocity that is supposed to fool the hitter by taking longer to reach the pitcher...

...Illusions!



... and the "Screwball" or "backwards curveball", a pitch that breaks like a curveball thrown by an opposite-handed pitcher, which now I'm all messed up because people keep saying that the curveball drops but that makes it sound like it goes left or right, so which is it, baseball! I swear, I'm this close to dropping you and running off with cricket.

And then there's a bunch of other curveballs like the "12-6 Curveball", the "Sweeping Curveball" and the "Knuckle Curveball" and the "Spiked Curveball" and the "Knuckle Slider" and finally, the "Yellow Hammer," which sounds like a cut-rate superhero from the 1930s but is actually an even slower curveball that supposedly drops more than a regular curveball because it's only thrown at 50 miles per hour or so, but by now I don't know what to believe because it's all so confusing, so I'm going to assume that the pitcher doesn't even throw the damn ball and in fact, let's just admit that baseball doesn't even play the game anymore: all of baseball is just one game that was played at Comiskey Park in 1972, and they're using CGI to change the uniforms for you and if you go to a game in person you're just subject to Mass Hypnosis and it didn't really happen. There is no spoon! The cake is a lie!*8

*8: I still don't know what that means, but I like it.

Also, I wasn't far off on that Yellow Hammer. Remember this?




Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was one of the greatest things ever made.

3. Seriously, can we find out who invented the curve ball?

You know, I haven't even touched on what pitches are banned yet -- like the spitball -- but you know me: I give the people what they want:


You need serious help.


so let's get down to the nitty-gritty of The Fabulous Story Of The Invention Of The Curveball. From Wikipedia:

Baseball lore has it that the curveball was invented in the early 1870s by Fred Goldsmith or Candy Cummings (it is debatable).

*Tries to pull at hair, doesn't have much hair, thinks better of that, contemplatively takes a sip of coffee while mulling what to do next.*

So ALL OF BASEBALL is ONE BIG TRICK, and the batters probably aren't even wearing pants, and yet that's the $(*#&%$#($^& best you could do about the invention of the curve ball?

Where is the mythos? Where is the legend? Where is the shrouded in time... etc? George R.R. Martin could do a better job with that, and all he did was take The Silmarillion and cut-and-paste "human" and "elf" and then say "battle-axe" a lot. You need to begin with something like...

...In a tiny unheated room of his parent's cottage in 1872, a young Alexander Graham Bell huddled over a fire built with a mixture of myrrh and polonium dust, communicating with the ghost of Lord Alfred Tennyson. Bell had been chosen as the pitcher in the Firste Annuale Worlde SeriesE starting the next day, but his arm was possessed by demons, according to a doctor who had considered diagnosing him with "muscle spasms" but had rejected that because this is 1872 and "muscles" haven't been discovered yet...

See where I'm going with that? That's way better than what you've got.

Whatever it's origins*9

*9 Mine is better than baseball's, so go with mine: magic!

the curve ball also was featured in a story published in 1884 in the magazine "St Nicholas," a popular (?) children's magazine at the time, which now raises into question all that crap they taught us in school about how hard life was in the 19th century with people dying of black plague or having to cross the plains or at least fight in wars or something; I don't know. I didn't really pay attention. But I distinctly recall being told that life was hard back then -- something about meat-packing, or maybe the Gold Standard? -- and if life was so hard, why were kids reading popular magazines?

Life was so hard that kids hardly had time to do the word jumble, is that what history tells us? Screw you, history. And Albuquerque, while you're at it.

The story in St Nicholas was called "How Science Won The Game," and was about a boy who used a curve ball to beat the other team, even though the curve was thought to be dishonest. You can actually read the whole story here. Spoiler Alert: Jack and his friends run off to meet a strange man in a hotel who says to them "Let me feel your arm" and then proceeds to compliment Jack on his muscles and then tells Jack and his friend to meet him outside in the alley behind the hotel.

Seriously.

Then he gives this advice to Jack: "Keep cool, and pinch tight."

Jack, of course, doesn't turn the guy in to Chris Hansen, but instead goes on to master the curve ball and win the Big Game, but here's the thing:

They win the game because Jack hits the ball to first base, but that guy commits an error and the right fielder backing him up throws home but Jack's friend, the not-at-all-symbolically-named Win, scores by jumping over the catcher.

Oh, and: SPOILER ALERT!

So the only science really involved was the Fosbury Flop, and, once again, Baseball has pulled a slight-of-hand -- promising you science (the curve ball) would win the game but really just having a bigshot sports reporter get credit for writing the story (as it turns out, the story was supposed to have been written by Hotel Guy about this game, because news was in short supply in those days so kids' baseball games got major coverage from all media.)

Here's a college player winning the game... With science!



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