Trouble with the Curve

So, Major League is still my all-time favorite baseball movie. Nonetheless, we rented Trouble with the Curve this weekend, and I enjoyed the father-daughter drama. Some critics cast Clint Eastwood’s 2012 film as the antithesis to another good baseball drama, 2011’s Moneyball. Eastwood’s crotchety Gus Lobel disdains the statistics-rich Sabermetrics that helped get Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane to the playoffs. Yet Lobel still relies on the laws of physics.

In Trouble with the Curve, sound tells Lobel that a Grady Sizemore 7/7/06hot scouting prospect isn’t hitting a curve ball right. This makes sense when you consider the physics of baseball. In nontechnical terms, a bat’s sweet spot is the point where it will hit a baseball the farthest. Basically, the bat transfers the most energy to the ball upon impact. In the process, the bat absorbs the least vibrations. We hear sound when vibrations cause waves to move through the air in certain ways. Absorb fewer vibrations with the bat, and the sound of the ball-bat collision will vary.

In a later scene, Lobel’s daughter Mickey recognizes a gifted amateur pitcher from the sound of his pitches hitting a mitt. If any physics experts read this and can suggest a good explanation, please post a comment or email me, and I’ll do a follow-up post. Otherwise, to my way of thinking, the sweet dramatic moment doesn’t necessarily follow from the physics. Yes, a ball thrown harder should make a louder sound when it strikes a mitt. However, if someone threw amazing pitches for me to catch, the sounds from my end would be more like “Oops” or “Ouch!”

Physics comes into the picture again when the drafted hot prospect faces off against the amateur pitching phenom. Pitchers give the curveball a topspin instead of the backspin that a fastball has. The different spin makes the ball curve downward and drop more than you’d expect from gravity alone. SUNY Geneseo physics professor Charlie Freeman and research assistant Michael Canfield have demonstrated the effect with high-tech video equipment, computer analysis, and Styrofoam balls. Check out the diagrams at Freeman’s web page, http://www.geneseo.edu/geneseo_scene/physics-baseball .

The different spin also produces an optical illusion. The ball may seem to change direction, which makes it even harder to hit. American University’s Arthur Shapiro and his colleagues illustrate this “perceptual puzzle” at http://illusionoftheyear.com/2009/the-break-of-the-curveball/ .

In short, major league players have to be able to hit a curveball, along with a fastball, slider, and other pitches. All of us have to obey the laws of science. And movie writers should double-check their science stuff.

What are your favorite baseball movies and why? Do any of them raise science questions you’d like to see explored further?

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