By Kristel Tiburcio
I’ve been watching a Japanese anime about baseball called “Ace of Diamond”. I have never seen a baseball game in real life or on television; however, watching the show, even though it’s just anime, gets me really pumped up about the sport. I know the tricks are exaggerated and some are not even humanly possible, but it does not stop me from being amazed at all the different types of pitches that can be thrown. Maybe some of us who are not knowledgeable about baseball think that the pitcher just has to throw the ball in the strike zone (to avoid a ball call) and fast enough to overcome the batter; however, there is more to it than that. The way the ball is thrown, the timing and angle of releasing the ball, the grip, the movement of the fingers, shoulders, and waist, and the strength used to throw the ball all influence the ball’s movement.
Here is a short list with descriptions about some of the types of pitches used by baseball players written by a former professional pitcher, Steven Ellis (2015):
- Four-seam fastball – Maximum velocity and should have best command. This is the most important pitch because everything else works off of it.
- Two-seam fastball (a.k.a. sinker) – This fastball does just that, it sinks. A very good pitch for inducing ground balls.
- Cut-fastball – Holding the ball slightly off center, it will run away from the arm side. Usually a few miles per hour slower than a four-seam fastball. Good for jamming hitters.
- Split-finger fastball – Strictly an out pitch. Dives down hard at home plate, many times getting missed swings.
- Change-up – Slower than a fastball, but thrown with the same arm action. The arm speed is very important in getting the maximum effectiveness. This pitch helps control bat speed.
- Curveball – Most often a strikeout pitch. Dives down as it gets to home plate. Many times the velocity is as effective as the movement, because it’s usually much slower than a fastball.
- Slider – In between a fastball and a curveball. It’s harder than a curveball with less downward action. The slider has a smaller break with a tighter spin. Many times you can see a small dot in the baseball as it’s coming toward you.
- Knuckleball – A pitch that has very little or no spin. It’s very difficult to control and catch. No one knows what it will do usually, which makes it also hard to hit. A very hard pitch to throw.
- Forkball – Thrown hard while held between the index and middle fingers at varying depths. Usually tumbles and drops violently, often diagonally. Known as an out pitch, but also can be hard on the arm.
In professional games, the baseballs are thrown by the pitchers at a very high speed. According to the Guinness World Records, the fastest baseball pitch by a male was thrown by Aroldis Chapman last September 2010. The speed of the ball was 105.1 mph or 169.14 km/hr. I cannot even begin to imagine how the player on the batting plate felt like while watching a 105.1 mph baseball coming towards him.
Even though in most games, the speed of the pitch does not reach 105.1 mph, they are still fast nonetheless. Coupled with the different possibilities of trajectories and movement of the ball, how are batters able to hit the ball? How are some of them even able to hit a home run?
To be able to hit a baseball pitch, players should first be able to pinpoint the position of the ball. There have been numerous studies on position perception. Most studies focus on which parts of the brain are responsible for perceiving position and the process and mechanism under which it works. According to Fischer, Spotswood, and Whitney (2011), these studies on position perception have shown evidence that not only retinotopy or the use of retinotopic maps are important in perceiving an object’s position; other factors, such as attention, eye movements, object and scene motion, and frames of reference, are important as well.
Retinotopic maps are organized spatial maps used to represent how images represented in our retina correspond to neurons that can be activated. For many years, researchers have used retinotopic maps to understand and explain cortical organization; however, there are instances that perception does not depend or follow the position of the image in our retinas (Fischer et al., 2011). One such situation is position perception.
Past research looked into specific areas in the brain that may have a role in perceiving position, such as the Fusiform Face Area (FFA), Parahippocampal Place Area (PPA), Lateral Occipital (LO) Cortex, and Middle Temporal (MT) Region. These studies also tackled if position perception in these particular areas is based on retinotopic (physical) or perceived object position. The study by Fischer et al. (2011), aimed to see if there is a perception-based position coding in higher level visual areas. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and eye tracking techniques, the researchers observed that perception-based representation of object position dominates higher level visual areas. Although retinotopic position of the object is also a represented in these areas, it carries little information compared to perception-based representation. What this means is that the properties of the stimulus is not the only important source of information in determining the object’s position, but the perceptual experience of the observer as well (Fischer et al., 2011). Their study, however, was not able to pinpoint the exact mechanism that is responsible for this perception-based representation of an object’s position.
Trying to hit a baseball also depends on how we are able to track its motion. Since we are looking at a moving object, it is possible that the object moves from our center of vision to the periphery, making it more difficult to assess its position due to low acuity. When this happens, we use the object’s motion as source of information for the object’s position (Patenaude, 2015). The mechanism that dominates our ability to track the motion of an object in our periphery, or whenever visual signals are ambiguous and lacking, was found to be an algorithm called Kalman filter (Kwon, Tadin, & Knill, 2015). It is thanks to this algorithm that we are still able to see, perceive, and take appropriate actions in situations where we cannot depend on our visual system due to presence of unreliable visual cues or signals (this is also the algorithm GPS use!). However, this algorithm is also responsible for the so-called “curveball illusion” – perceiving the ball to “break” or curve suddenly as it nears the home plate or the batter.
Going back to curveballs – with its top to bottom movement and speeds around 70-80 mph – this type of pitch makes it difficult to hit because when the ball reaches the periphery of our vision (remember, in these areas rods dominate as visual receptors, thus, lower acuity than when cones dominate), the seam pattern and rotation of the ball creates an illusion of position (Kwon et al., 2015) where the ball looks like it’s in a different position than it actually is (Patenaude, 2015).
The study of Kwon et al. (2015) includes experiments testing the following relationships: 1) motion-induced position shifts and perception of speed; 2) Estimated object speed and changes in object position, and; 3) object tracking and the interaction of object motion and pattern. They conclude that this model (Kalman filter) is able to integrate an object’s position and motion (two different perceptual experiences) as sources of information for us to track an object. The model is just one of the brain’s mechanisms in integrating multiple stimuli and sources of information in our environment for us to be able to perceive a whole view of that environment.
These studies have shown that our brain looks for the best solution when visual cues in our environment become unreliable. It may not always be perfect but without it, we would not be in any better position.
For those who are trying to hit a curveball, you now know the trick behind it. It may be difficult to override the somewhat automatic mechanism of our brain to perceive an object’s motion and position as integrated perceptual experiences, and maybe you cannot avoid the ball going to your periphery because of the speed of the ball and limitations of our visual system. However, knowing that you may perceive the ball to have a speed and trajectory that is different from the actual can help you anticipate and think of other ways to overcome the illusion. Also, there’s always practice! Good luck and hit that (curve)ball!
Ellis, S. (2015). Different baseball pitches. Retrieved from The Complete Pitcher website: http://www.thecompletepitcher.com/different_baseball_pitches.htm
Fastest baseball pitch (male). (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/fastest-baseball-pitch-(male)/
Fischer, J., Spotswood, N., & Whitney, D. (2011). The emergence of perceived position in the visual system. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23(1), 119-136.
Kwon, O-S., Tadin, D., & Knill, D. C. (2015). Unifying account of visual motion and position perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(26), 8142-8147.
Patenaude, M. (2015). How understanding GPS can help you hit a curveball. Retrieved from the University of Rochester website: http://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/how-understanding-gps-can-help-you-hit-a-curveball/