A Cheer For The Physics Of Baseball

16:21 minutes

A baseball player swinging at a ball on home base.
Credit: Shutterstock

College basketball’s March Madness concluded this week, meaning that now the national sports attention can turn fully to baseball. 

The next time you’re at the ballpark—whether you’re devoted enough to fill in the box scores by hand, or are just there for the peanuts and crackerjacks—take some time to appreciate the physics of the game. There are tricky trajectories, problems of parabolas, converging velocities, and the all-important impacts.

Dr. Frederic Bertley, the president and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, joins Ira to talk about the science of sports, and about how sports can be a gateway to scientific literacy.

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Segment Guests

Frederic Bertley

Dr. Frederic Bertley is President and CEO of COSI in Columbus, Ohio.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I am a real baseball fanatic, and I mean, I love all the aspects of the sport, the plays, the players, the ballparks. But what makes it even more exciting for me is understanding the physics behind the runs, hits, and errors. Trajectories, velocities, baseball spin rates, baseball is filled with these details. And my next guest is also a baseball fan, both for the game itself and how the sport can be a gateway to science literacy. Dr. Frederic Bertley is president and CEO of Cosi, the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome to Science Friday.

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Ira, thank you so much for having me on here.

IRA FLATOW: Now I know that baseball is now obsessed with physics, though they don’t call it that. One of the immediate examples that comes to mind is trajectories and parabolas. A ball is launched at angle X with speed Y, and the players pay attention to this, don’t they?

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Absolutely. I mean, the easiest, quickest analogy is to jump from baseball and go to basketball, and think about taking a foul shot. Shaquille O’Neal versus, you know, anybody else at the foul line, basically. And you have to shoot that ball in an arc and get it in the hoop. And it’s really clear to anybody. If you throw it as a line drive, it’ll hit the rim. If you were to throw it too high in the air, it’ll be hard to make it in.

Baseball is very similar but on a wider distance. So when that pitcher throws the ball, that ball’s coming at such speed, when the batter actually connects with the ball, that ball will take a parabolic flight, that beautiful mathematical physics arc flight. And if you understand a little bit about the math and a little about the physics of what angle you should actually have that ball released off of the bat, that can impact if you have a lobbed ball that’ll fall middle of the infield, a lob ball that might fall in the outfield versus a massive home run.

And so understanding just some simple, old school newtonian physics and mathematics can really allow you to be a better athlete and really get your batting scores up.

IRA FLATOW: And the players do understand this and they follow this sometimes.

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Well, what’s really great about sports in general, in this case, baseball, is players actually learn this. But to your point, they’re not calling it physics or math. They’re doing all these in the batting cage and using all this kind of technology to figure out how best to refine their hip swing, their arm twist. But they are actually intuitively understanding and anatomically living out the physics and math of baseball.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, and also, the playing conditions. The weather can also affect the flight of the ball. And it used to be that players talked about hot, humid air as slowing the ball down. But they’ve learned since then that it’s just the opposite, isn’t it?

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Yeah, absolutely. So when you think about hot, humid air, and let’s go to that bigger word, climate change or climate science, it turns out that climate change not just impacts the glaciers in the North and Southern poles, but because it impacts weather in general and there’s this global warming, warmer air, the molecules in the air actually move around faster. And so that doesn’t slow up the ball, but in fact, it speeds up the ball. So you have pitchers who, with warmer temperatures, actually throw much faster over the home plate. And then similarly, on the other side, when you connect properly with that ball, warmer air will allow that ball to travel faster and further, and sometimes out in the park, giving us fans what we like to see.

IRA FLATOW: And they also talk about playing at Mile High Stadium in Denver, right? It’s much thinner air and that does affect the flight of the ball.

FREDERIC BERTLEY: That definitely affects the flight of the ball there, but what’s even more important to me, as someone who loves following sports, is the athletes themselves. If you are training in Mile High Stadium, you’re training at high altitudes all the time, your physiology actually adapts to that. And if you come from another sporting venue where your city is at a lower altitude, you’re not used to that. And so if you don’t have a chance to get up there two weeks ahead of time or even longer to train and get used to that lower oxygen accessibility, that’s actually a major debilitating factor for athletes. So yes, there’s the air itself, but really, the bigger toll is on those athletes and you see it.

When they don’t have enough time to quote unquote, “climate adjust” and have their anatomy and physiology adjust to that new climate, that new altitude, you can see it on the field. They’re hurting, and the home team is having a ball.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I remember they used to talk about this when the Olympics was in Mexico City. They talked about people going there earlier so they could get acclimated to the conditions. And especially when you’re on such a high level, they knew how to do this.

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Well– and I’m so glad you called that out, that piece about high level. This is not me playing with my older brother. These athletes, these men and women are literally at the top of their field. So those tiny changes can lead to huge differentials in performance. And that’s what will make the difference between first, second, and first place if you’re running a track and field race in the Olympics. Or that will make the difference between you being able to steal second base as a baseball player. And that will certainly make the difference between your third and fourth time at bat– do you still have stamina– versus someone who didn’t train at that level. So yeah, it’s those small changes make a fundamental difference in the outcome of the sport.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of changes, I mean, there have been several rule changes to either speed up the game or improve safety. For example, the size of the base has been increased by a few inches, which has a tiny effect on the distance between the bags. Do you think that’ll be a big deal when it comes to steals?

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Absolutely. I mean, every baseball fan will tell you– if you try to steal second base, for example, and that pitcher throws back to first base, you always see the replay, the runner diving down and the first baseman with the ball. And it’s literally a few inches can make a fundamental difference.

As someone growing up loving Jackie Robinson, one of the guys who was able to steal home base, I love stealing bases. And if that allows for more stealing bases, that’s really exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And speaking of bases, sometimes, you see them. They’re, like, diving into first base instead of running and sprinting, but that’s really not going to get them there any faster, is it?

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Yeah, that’s an interesting transition that I fully don’t understand. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time following track and field. And it’s clear that as you’re running, it’s not like you’re running a 200 meter race here to first base, right? So that distance, you have the best chance at getting there as you accelerate out from home plate and you’re accelerating. At some point, you get to your constant velocity before you get there, but you want to stay at that constant velocity and not accelerate.

The idea of throwing your body and now pivoting, you’re going to have some energy transfer loss that’s actually going to not allow you to go faster. So I don’t know how that fad got popular. It’ll be interesting to see in years to come how that data shakes out, but I’m not a fan of that. I suggest you just sprint and go right past that base. Just make sure you touch it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you need to be the coach there at first base. Speaking of which, the base path rules have also changed. What was that change and why?

FREDERIC BERTLEY: One of the things with base running is you could theoretically, from a geometric standpoint, run from home plate to first base directly, then do a 90 degree pivot, try to run the second base, do another angled degree pivot, run to third base, et cetera again, run home.

I think part of that widening is to allow you to have a more, again, almost a parabolic run that if you kind of arc your run– again, not necessarily trying to get to first base. But if you know you hit a double or even a triple, if you’re able to do a more, almost– I won’t say full parabolic run, but a mini kind of curvature run from home plate, kiss first base and keep your arc going into second and third, that allows you to minimize your energy transfer to shift to get to second base and the third base.

And if you can minimize that, you’re going to minimize how much have to slow up, and therefore, how much velocity you lose. So ideally, that might lead to more doubles and more triples. But again, we have to see.

IRA FLATOW: Something that’s always talked about and discussed among baseball fanatics is major league baseball is the land of wooden bats. But little league and minors, they all have aluminum or composite bats, but it has never made it to the major leagues. And there’s a good reason for that. We’re worried about the velocity of the ball coming off the bat, right?

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Yeah, and it’s one of those things where you don’t want the sport to be too predictable or too unfair to certain athletes. I mean, we understand material science and technology to the n-th degree now. So you can make a stick that you just– that Frederic Bertley could swing at the plate and probably get home runs regularly.

And so when you get to the majors, the fact that they’ve stuck to the wood, they’re trying to find that sweet spot between let’s make these wooden bats really nicely made, but also, let’s not make it too easy for a decent batter to keep knocking it out the park. And I think that’s a good thing. And you saw it with corking, right? Before it was detected, corking had a dramatic change in the capacity of a good batter to knock the ball around the field and also out the park.

So I’m a fan of not getting into too many composites and I’m a fan that aluminum bats aren’t in the majors.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, and speaking of which, we’re seeing this year, a tremendous increase– I’m sure you’ve noticed this– in the number of injuries, especially to pitchers. And the Baseball Union has blamed it on the new pitch clock speeding up the game. But analysts are saying it’s really the pitchers doing harm to their arms by throwing so hard on every pitch and also trying to put this huge amount of spin on the ball.

And we keep track of something called spin rate now, right? What does that spin rate have to do with pitching?

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Yeah. And even before I get to the spin rate, which is critical, one of the other things with technology, we have all these incredible ways of doing analytics on every kind of athlete. So they got sensors on all these pitchers that literally monitor every single movement they do.

And what happens, the computer scientists and analysts come back to the pitchers and the coaches and they break down all this data. And it literally psychologically puts pressure on the baseball pitcher to say, OK. Well, now they’ve proven scientifically that I need to extend this muscle a little more, twist this arm a little more. And they’re really figuring out on an almost AI algorithm type machine learning to allow this human being to try to be more robotic. And that actually causes a lot of damage on your tissue.

Because at the end of the day, we’re not robotic. We need recovery time, et cetera. So there’s that pressure with amazing technology that allows us to detect more, that are forcing athletes to be that much more competitive and that much more kind of listening to the computer science and the analytics.

In terms of the spin, absolutely. Spin on the baseball is everything. I mean, there’s this thing called the Bernoulli effect in physics, as you know. And so depending on the rotation speed, that can cause the ball to lift, drop, curve left, curve right. And so the more spin you put on it– as I used to say when I was growing up, the more juju you could put on that ball– the more impact you could have as a pitcher to really fool the batter. But to your point, it leads to you extending your arms and muscles in different ways that long term, you can’t sustain.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m not a great fan of using the Bernoulli principle to explain this spin on the ball and what it does. I like to think of Newton’s three laws of motion. Like, if you spin the ball forward like you are a curve ball, that actually pushes the air up so the ball goes down. And a reverse spin pushes the air down so the ball goes up. And it’s a lot easier for me to understand it that way.

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Well, you’re spot on. It’s just like when you’re driving in a car and you put your hand out the window and it’s parallel to the ground. But then you tip it up a little bit and that wind just pushes your hand up, that’s the same thing. And so it’s a great way of teaching people about curves and spins in baseball.

IRA FLATOW: I know that your background is in immunology. So why do you love talking about sports so much?

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Yeah. You know, Ira, I mean, I’m passionate about that because America has this growing science illiteracy. And one of the reasons why is because us as scientists tend to stay in our hallowed halls of ivory tower. And we speak in a vocabulary that 10 other people in the world may understand, and we think that makes us smarter. And that’s not great.

What is great is understanding the beauty and wonder of the natural universe and having some literacy around science, technology, engineering, and math. And what we’ve discovered over time, what I’ve discovered is that, well, if you can meet people where they are and make that thing come alive through whatever lens you want– in my case, science– that’s a great thing.

And so I could tell people f of x is equal to MA and blah, blah, blah, and throw some equations on the paper or chalkboard and try to get them excited. Or I can say, hey, you love baseball? Basketball? Formula One? You love sports in general? Which, the best part about that is around the world, people love sports. Whether you’re a couch potato or you’re two-a-day athlete, people love sports. And so now, you already have a vocabulary, a language that connects you to that person.

And if you can show how science is really cool in that sport that they love, they may not necessarily become Albert Einstein, which is not the goal, but they might feel more comfortable in understanding, hey. Science is cool and interesting. And maybe I should Google some stuff and learn some more. And so even though I’m an immunologist and I’m passionate about vaccine development and cancer therapies, I love physics because almost all sports has to do with motion of some kind, and that’s physics and math, and that’s the language of the universe.

IRA FLATOW: One pet peeve I have with baseball and that is baseball’s scoreboards. And I say this as someone who’s interested in math. And I noticed that the number one, the actual number, has been eliminated from scoreboards. So when you say, let’s say, you look at hits, runs, and errors. It won’t show one hit, number 1, or one run, number 1, but just the letter H or R. And the math side of me says this is wrong. I mean, we had to invent the number zero. Why are we eliminating the number one?

I mean, it makes it harder to read as your head has to fill in that number. And the math geek in me just has to vent this.

FREDERIC BERTLEY: You know what? I’ve never thought about that, Ira, until right now. When I say never thought about it, obviously, I noticed the H’s and R’s. I never thought about why they changed that. And I’m going to dig into that because I wonder if that was America wanting to shy away from math. And to your point, maybe we did it to ourselves, part of this science illiteracy that even something like a box score, we’re like, no, no, no. Let’s use the alphabet. So that is so interesting.

The sad part about that is people who say they don’t love math– this is why I love sports– they don’t love math. But if you tell them they’re hitting at a 232 or a 342 average, they know exactly what you mean, like exactly. And that’s pure math, but they’re not thinking about it in terms of, oh my gosh, I have to actually divide this, figure out a percentage. They just intuitively do it.

And so back to, again, to your point about using sports to get people excited about science, it’s a language that people love. People love sports so we should lobby that we bring back numbers to box scores. I’m going to support you.

IRA FLATOW: I’m with you and I hope you can dig into it for me, because I think you have some kind of gravitas for this that I certainly don’t have. Cosi was almost, almost, almost in the path of a complete totality for the eclipse this week. How was it out there?

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Ira, that was fantastic. We were at 99.4% in the path of totality. And we had thousands of people outside of Cosi just different races, genders, people of all ages, socioeconomic status, just really coming together because of a natural phenomenon by mother nature called an eclipse. It was spectacular.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it was wonderful for the whole country, the whole world who could see it, to get together in a positive way and explore science together. I totally agree with you.

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Absolutely. So along with baseball, we should lobby that both baseball and science will be the unifying theory for humanity to get along.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Bertley, thank you for being part of our conversation today. It’s great talking with you.

FREDERIC BERTLEY: Ira, absolutely a pleasure. Look forward to chatting with you again soon.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Frederic Bertley is president and CEO of Cosi in Columbus, Ohio.

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