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Science Talk

Baseball Science

In this episode, former big league pitcher Dr. Dave Baldwin talks about his run-in with Ted Williams, his life in science, the physics of the gyroball versus the slider, and how he finally made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some baseball science. Websites mentioned on this episode include;;

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting April 4th. I am Steve Mirsky and I hope you like baseball, which returned this week because that’s what we'll be talking about today—with a science angle of course. And if you don't like baseball, I weep for you. We'll talk to a former major league pitcher. We'll also talk with an artist whose work hangs in one of the world's great museums and we will chat with the geneticist who has also done research into the physics of baseball—and the really interesting thing is they're all the same guy! Renaissance man, Dave Baldwin.Plus we'll test your knowledge about some baseball-related science.

Leading off, Dave Baldwin. In 1967 he appeared in 58 games with the Washington Senators—today's Texas Rangers—and posted a very tidy 1.70 ERA. He shagged flies—fruit flies that is—in the off-seasons and eventually got a doctorate. I called Baldwin at his home in Yachats, Ore.

Steve: Dr. Baldwin great to talk to you today.

Baldwin: Well! Thank you very much Steve.

Steve: Tell everybody first of all give us the mini tour of your major league pitching career.

Baldwin: Well! I was called up with the Washington Senators in fall of '66 and I was an old man in baseball terms, so that time I was 28, and then pitched with Washington for three years and then I just traded to the Milwaukee Brewers and then finished up my career a few years later with the Chicago White Sox.

Steve: I happen to have your lifetime statistics in front of me here—so in 1970 you were with the Brewers, then in '71-'72 you weren't in the major leagues and you had a brief comeback in '73 with the White Sox.

Baldwin: Right! I was sold by the Brewers to the Hawaii Islanders.Hawaii at that time was gearing up to try to go to a major league and they were buying ball players out of the majors and obviously it didn't work. (laughs)

Steve: But if one has to be in the minor leagues, Hawaii is not a bad place to do it?

Baldwin: Oh! It was the best place to play majors or minors. In fact, I had my highest salary playing for Hawaii.

Steve: Why don’t you tell everybody what that salary was?

Baldwin: I made 18,000 for them, which was far more than I was making in the majors. (laughs)

Steve: Right! Your high salary in the major leagues had been what?

Baldwin: It was 14,000.

Steve: That let me just make sure everybody hears that correctly that's fourteen—one-four—thousand dollars a year.

Baldwin: Yes! Right!

Steve: Because, you know, people today might not believe that a major league baseball player was paid only that much just 30 years ago.

Baldwin: Oh! Yeah! In those days, I mean, you know, obviously the value of the dollar was different but in those days ball players had off-season jobs, so were their wives there. Lot of times they were married to school teachers who would support them during the off-season.

Steve: I think Ritchie Hebner was famously a gravedigger in the off-season.

Baldwin: Oh! (laughs)

Steve: Your manager with the Washington Senators at one point was the legendary, Ted Williams.

Baldwin: Oh! Yes! (laughs)

Steve: And you being a pitcher, Ted Williams had sort of a, I don't think it was a love-hate relationship, I think it was a hate-hate relationship with pitchers.

Baldwin: Yes! actually he considered all pitchers to be just incurably stupid. Ted wanted to get to know his pitchers. (laughs) Well! He called a meeting and he said, "You know, pitchers are the stupidest people alive and so that and to prove that I bet not one of you can tell me what makes a curveball curve." Right out, you know all of the pitchers knew what made the curveball curve (laughs), but all the rest of the pitchers were smart enough (laughs) not to say what made a curveball curve and, you know, I gave the explanation. I had been going to school so I thought I have been called on in class or something like that, you know, (laughs) and so I explained, you know, all about the magnetic force and all of the forces on the ball that would make it deflect and I got through and I thought, well something is not quite right here and there was this real awkward silence, you know, (laughs). Everybody contemplated what I had done because Ted was just, you know, just bursting to give us the explanation and here I had taken the opportunity away from him right like that and this is my first interaction with my new boss and so I was, you know, considering other career options and...

Steve: So you inadvertently proved his point that pitchers really were stupid?

Baldwin: Oh! Yeah! Definitely (laughs), at least one of them was, you know. (laughs) The story goes on, may be it shouldn't, but I'll go ahead and tell this anyway. In July we were in Yankee Stadium and that was when the first landing on the moon—the first, you know&mfdash;the Apollo 11 landed on the moon and there is a delay in the game, you know, they announced this and everybody, you know, in standing ovation and so forth and we were sitting up in the rope and, you know, considering what these guys were going to do, now they are on the moon (laughs) and everybody had to know the theory and so forth and one of them said (laughs), "As of now they are trying to find another pitcher who is dumb enough to explain the curveball instead."

Steve: (Laughs). So that was about four months later?

Baldwin: (Laughs) Yeah! Now they didn't forget it the whole season and they didn't let me forget it.

Steve: That's great. So one of the reasons we're talking to you is because after your baseball career, you went on and had a really interesting scientific career. I know you've got a doctorate in genetics, is it?

Baldwin: Yes! It is.

Steve: And you also have an additional master's degree in engineering?

Baldwin: In systems engineering.

Steve: Systems engineering. So tell everybody a little bit about both of those fields and what you did in them.

Baldwin: Oh! Okay! Well, actually I have been going to school during the off-season all through those years and I earned my PhD first—this is at the University of Arizona—earned my PhD first in '79 and worked there at the university as an assistant researcher and it looked like I wasn't going to get a permanent position for a long, long time. They were hard to come by and I decided, well, I didn't want to get a postdoc because that can go on forever and it didn't pay very well, and so I went back [and] earned my masters in systems engineering a few years later, also at the University of Arizona, and then worked as an engineer for quite a number of years and I didn't get back to baseball or to science for several more years until about 2002—I think 2001, I guess that was. I met a number of researchers who were, you know, physicists and such at the universities who were doing research also in baseball and so we formed kind of a small group here of scientists, who are actually interested in what goes on in psychology and physiology and physics in baseball.

Steve: What exactly, can you talk about some of the specifics of what kind of research is going on there?

Baldwin: Yeah! Most of the researches have been related to the pitch ball and the batted ball—what happens when the bat hits the ball the, you know, studying the causation or restitution of the bat and the ball or the velocities of the bat and ball and so forth, and I've been very interested in what goes on in a batter's mind is when the pitch is released and is on its way to the plate, because the batter doesn't have very long to think about that.

Steve: Right! You're not talking about the psychology of success or failure as much as you are the actual physiology of reaction, I would take it.

Baldwin: Analysis of psychology. How is the batter able to track the ball; what information does the batter get from the stand and from the angle of the stand as he sees the ball released and that sort of the thing, because the batter has to make his decision within a tenth of a second, you know, of this time that the ball has been released, because he has to start to swing and he only has four tenth[s] of a second to hit the ball. So that's how long it's going to take a 90-mile-per-hour fastball to get to the plate. So that it looks like the conscious mind really doesn’t have time to make a decision (laughs), so everything is done unconsciously.

Steve: Based on some small visual cues that they get that they appreciate at some subconscious level?

Baldwin: Right! and we've discovered that some hitters are not getting the same cues that other hitters are getting. There are some hitters that can't see the spin of the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand. For example Mike Smith, a very good hitter in the Hall of Fame said that he could never see this, the spin on the ball, and other hitters say they can see the ball just fine, they can see the dot on the slider so they are picking up this with better eyesight I assume or least a better visual accuracy than players like Mike Smith.

Steve: Where does any of this research get published?

Baldwin: Oh! Various places in academic journals of, you know, it's not easy to find a place to publish an article about the science of baseball, but we found it.

Steve: So now you mentioned Mike Smith being in the Hall of Fame. You're also in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Baldwin: Yeah! (laughs) But the only way I could ever possibly get there—I've got a painting that's in the Hall of Fame.

Steve: Because you are also a very talented artist.

Baldwin: Thank you.

Steve: Where did you pick that up?

Baldwin: I started getting involved in arts, I guess, about the mid-60s. I took a course at the University of Arizona in scientific illustration. In fact, I took a couple of courses and really enjoyed scientific illustration. Again, you know, they're very realistic drawings of—or, hopefully, realistic drawings—of animals and plants and so forth and this developed from there.

Steve: What was the reaction of some of your teammates when they would find out that you were engaged in a lot of these kinds of intellectual activities, if any?

Baldwin: Mostly it was just a lack of interest. (laughs) They didn't really care.

Steve: Okay!

Baldwin: They knew that I read books a lot, you know, that didn't seem to bother them.

Steve: Well! That's good, a benign indifference.

Baldwin: Oh! Yeah! Tolerance, I guess. (laughs)

Steve: Tolerance.

Voice 1: Well! Then who's on first?

Voice 2: Yes.

Voice 1: I mean the fellow's name.

Voice 2: Hold.

Voice 1: The guy on first.

Voice 2: Hold.

Voice 1: The first place

Voice 2: Hold.

Steve: More with Dave Baldwin in a moment.

Right now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four baseball-related items. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Many pitchers wind up, sorry, having Tommy John surgery, which involves removing a damaged ligament from your throwing arm and replacing it with a tendon harvested from your forearm or even your ankle.

Story number 2: Computer simulations indicate that the chance of somebody having a 56-game hitting streak, which Joe DiMaggio actually did in 1941—the chance of somebody actually hitting a [in] 56 straight games at any point in the entire history of baseball is only actually one in eight.

Story number 3: A batted baseball travels farther in dry air than in humid air.

And story number 4: Studies using the database of major league baseball players have found that short men actually live longer than tall men.

We'll be back with the answer, but first more with Dave Baldwin. I've been hearing about a new pitch in baseball and figured that Dr. Dave was the perfect person to ask.

Steve: They're calling it the gyroball.

Baldwin: Oh! Yeah!

Steve: And I've heard all these things about it's a new kind of pitch. It's completely unhittable. I've heard rumors that it breaks in directions it shouldn't break in. I think I heard somewhere that somebody says it actually breaks twice, which has just got to be impossible.

Baldwin: Yeah! (laughs)

Steve: So what's the deal on this gyroball?

Baldwin: Yeah! Well! When I first started hearing about this in the middle of last summer, and the stories were that you know the thing would break three feet suddenly, just before it reaches plate, and which is absolutely impossible, you know, from a physics point of view, and then I started hearing tales that well may be it was just two feet, maybe just a foot and a half. (laughs) And finally I hear recently the stories have changed to well it doesn't do anything (laughs), just comes in perfectly straight. And then the question is why would it be affecting? (laughs) You know why would it get a batter out and it reminded me of the, what we call the backup slider when I was playing. I didn't throw a slider but those pitchers who did throw slider[s] would occasionally accidentally throw a slider that didn't fly. It'll just go straight. And we had a pitcher, Jim Hannan with Washington Senators, who pitched a three-hit shutout against the Angels in one game and Jim French was this catcher and Frenchie said that it was the best backup slider he has ever seen. So you know pitch after pitch (laughs) and it's perfectly straight and everybody was expecting, you know, the ball to move and so, the batter—you know, Hannan was a right-handed pitcher—right-handed batter would start leaning forward to know when he saw the spin coming out of Hannan's hand.

Steve: So the batter in effect is jamming himself, when it doesn't break at all.

Baldwin: Exactly! Yeah! And batters can pick up the slider's spin fairly easily coming out of the hand, if the batter has good enough eyesight, and so, you know, there they're expecting something that's just not going to happen.

Steve: There's also a diagnostic kind of a red dot that the seams form when the slider is in the correct spin. Right?

Baldwin: Yeah! If the pitcher throws a four-seam—what they call a four-seam fastball—they generally throw the slider over the same grip and this will produce a little red dot on the slider coming from a right-handed pitcher, in the upper-right quadrant of the ball.

Steve: And you can actually see this now when they have the super-slow-motion cameras?

Baldwin: Oh! Yeah!

Steve: That captures the pitch. You can really see that red dot, because I heard [it] talked about by batters, when I was kid, but now anybody can really see it.

Baldwin: Yes! Right! With the new technology, well, you can see you know all the aspects of the stand—and it's really great, (laughs) I think.

Steve: Talk about some of the physics of the gyroball that's related to the direction of the trajectory and the direction of the spin.

Baldwin: Oh! Okay! The slider—normal slider—will have a small angle between the axis, the spin axis and the direction of the trajectory and it's this angle between the axis and the trajectory that actually will make the ball move. It'll make it to flex to the side. And with the gyroball, if the pitchers are throwing it so that this axis—the spin axis—is perfectly aligned with the trajectory of the ball, so that now it has what they call a bulletlike spin, or you put a spin on a bullet in order to stabilize the bullet, in order to keep it from curving (laughs), because your curving don't want it to fly.And you get the same effect then with the gyroball, because the gyroball now has that dot. The dot represents the spin axis pole on the face of the ball. And that dot now has migrated from the upper right quadrant down to the spinner of the ball.

Steve: Right! It will be right dead centered, right! right!

Baldwin: Yeah! But you know that little migration is hard for a batter to detect.

Steve: Right! Because you'll be detecting it when the ball is just out of the pitcher's hand.

Baldwin: Yeah! He has to detect it during that first tenth of a second of the pitch, you know, and it's very difficult to see that; but he can see the dot very easily and so he is thinking slider all the way and so is the catcher when it is [a] backup slider, because you know [the] catcher has just called for a slider, so he is starting to shift a little bit to his right from the right-handed pitcher and he's got to back up his glove now and that's why it's called a backup slider.

Steve: Right, because it doesn’t break as much as you expect it to?

Baldwin: Right! In fact it shouldn't. If probably, it won't break at all if the dot is right in the center.

Steve: Right! So the batter sees the dot, assumes slider then the pitch doesn't break at all and the batter has gotten himself out of his normal hitting kind of flow.

Baldwin: Right! Because the ball is now in on the handle of the bat and there is not very much tweaking it from the handle of the bat, I mean,(laughs) you've got to really narrow part of the bat and so it's going to probably be a pop-up, for example.

Steve: So the only way for a gyroball throwing pitcher to truly be effective would be to combine it with a legitimate slider?

Baldwin: Yeah! And that's where the genius of the coach in Japan comes in, because this guy named Tezuka has figured out how the pitcher can throw the backup slider deliberately, and so once you can do that, now you can set up the hitter and so you can throw a hitter a couple of really good hard sliders and then throw on this gyroball and you've got them setup perfectly.

Steve: Well! this has been a lot of fun to talk to you and I know tomorrow—we're talking on Thursday, the 29th—tomorrow is your birthday.

Baldwin: Yeah!

Steve: So Happy Birthday...

Baldwin: Thank you.

Steve: You spent probably too many birthdays in some spring training camps surrounded by other ballplayers.

Baldwin: Oh! No! No! It was fun. I had a lot of fun in baseball and I've no regrets at all. (laughs)

Steve: Well! That's great and so you're retired now. What do you do with your days?

Baldwin: I spend almost all of my time thinking about baseball and writing about it (laughs). I've just finished writing my memoirs and I'll be publishing those sometime this summer and I've been writing a number of articles about you know, about the science of baseball. So am actually busy.

Steve: We will definitely look for that book that's going to come out this summer. Do you have a title for it yet?

Baldwin: Yes! It’s called Snake Jazz.

Steve: Snake jazz! What does that refer to?

Baldwin: It's a baseball term—at least it was when I was playing. I just meant all of those wiggly pitches, anything that curves (laughs) let it be a screwball, slider, curveball, anything that didn't go straight...

Steve: snake jazz?

Baldwin: Yeah! (laughs).

Steve: And that also kind of sums up the path of your life.

Baldwin: Pretty much. Oh! Yeah! (laughs).

Steve: Dr. Dave Baldwin, great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Baldwin: Well! Thank you very much Steve.

Steve: For more on Dave Baldwin and to see some of his art, go to

(Dodgers's song plays: Say, hey Willy Mays hits a three-bagger down the right field line, but he's out trying to stretch it to a homer as Roseboro tags him on the bottom of the spine.)

Steve: Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: In Tommy John surgery, a tendon replaces a damaged elbow ligament.

Story number 2: One in eight odds of a 56-game hitting streak in all of baseball history.

Story number 3: A batted ball travels farther in dry air than in humid air.

And Story number 4: Short men live longer according to baseball statistics.

Time's up.

Story number 1 is true. Tommy John surgery involves replacing the elbow's ulnar collateral ligament with a tendon harvested from somewhere else in the body. It's named for the pitcher, Tommy John, the first person to undergo the procedure successfully and return to the big leagues. During the 2002 and 2003 seasons more than 10 percent of all major league pitchers were Tommy John surgery's success stories. For an excellent article on Tommy John's surgery, Google "Tommy John surgery" and hit the link in the first page of results for the article in the baseball perspectives by Will Carroll and Thomas Gorman, not to be confused with Gorman Thomas, who hit 45 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1979.

Story number 2 is true. You'd need to run all of baseball's history eight times to expect to see a 56-game hitting streak. That's according to an article in something called Chance News, a publication devoted to statistics out of Dartmouth College, where I once spent a week as a ringer on the math department softball team.You can find that article by Googling Joe DiMaggio hitting streak and standard deviation altogether. The Chance News article is on the first page of results. Stephen Jay Gould also dealt with the statistical unlikelihood of the DiMaggio hit streak in his book, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville. He discusses calculations that show that for a greater than even chance, that even a 50-game streak should have occurred. You'd expect to find 52 lifetime 350 hitters in the baseball encyclopedia. There are in fact only three: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.

And Story number 4 is true. Analysis of the large century-old database of major league baseball players indicates that short men live longer. That's according to research by Santiago Systems analyst, Thomas Samaras, who has widely published on this topic.Possible explanations include fewer body cells in which to suffer cancer-causing DNA damage in short men and smaller forces involved in impact injuries. The bigger they are, the harder they really do fall.All of which means that story number 3 about batted balls traveling farther in dry air than in humid air is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because although humid air may feel heavy to us it's actually less dense than dry air with water molecules displacing heavier oxygen and nitrogen molecules, so the ball should go farther in humid air. And those sunny, dry, high-pressure systems that you love to sit through a game in actually mean more air pressure holding the ball up, of course, lots of guy just can't hit under pressure.

Well! that’s it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at Check out news articles at our Web site,, and the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Web sites mentioned on this episode include

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