If baseball were nothing but fastballs, we’d all be in the Majors at some point. No matter how hard someone throws, with enough work and time in the cage, building up batspeed to attack a fairly straight ball is within reach of the average human.
What inevitably puts the spikes in the throat of the collective dream is the breaking ball. It’s often said that trying to hit a round ball with a round bat is the hardest thing to do in sports. While that’s certainly open for debate, there’s no denying the difficulty of catching a pitch with a wrinkle square on ash or metal.
And for many a hardballer, the curveball is the pinnacle of frustration. Oh sure, you’re slider, changeup and splitter can cause an ill-fated attempt to smash bat over knee on the way back to the bench, but the one pitch that can really make a great hitter look like a T-baller is the curveball.
Known by many names – The Hammer, Uncle Charlie, Yakker, Bender, etc. – there’s nothing worse than feeling of being frozen, or worse – twisting in the wind with buckled knees, as a big 12-6 local skims across the plate for a called third strike.
Wait, it turns out there is something worse: it’s all in your head.
According to Zhong-Lin Lu, who holds the William M. Keck Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, that filthy hook never happened. It’s impossible. All in your head. What you just got punched out on and were made to look foolish by was nothing more than a straight ball and what amounts to an optical illusion caused by spin and the red and white blur of seams and hyde.
While you try to figure why this guy hates America and the rules of the universe, check out this rather amazing bit of visual evidence he presents. Sadly, it’s not embeddable, but here’s the explanation behind the illustration:
In baseball, a curveball creates a physical effect and a perceptual puzzle. The physical effect (the curve) arises because the ball’s rotation leads to a deflection in the ball’s path. The perceptual puzzle arises because the deflection is actually gradual but is often perceived as an abrupt change in direction (the break). Our illusions suggest that the perceived “break” may be caused by the transition from the central visual system to the peripheral visual system. Like a curveball, the spinning disks in the illusions appear to abruptly change direction when an observer switches from foveal to peripheral viewing.
Got that? It’s all in your head, meat.
Physically, there is no such thing as a breaking curveball. It’s mostly in the hitter’s mind, claims Lu.