7 Famous Baseball Pitches (and some physics behind them)

iStock
iStock

If you watch the playoffs from home, or listen in on the radio, you'll hear a lot of talk about what kind of pitch was just thrown, will be thrown, should be thrown, might be thrown, or, perhaps, shouldn't have been thrown. Cutters, sliders, sinkers—what are they exactly and what's the difference between them? Here's a little primer on six of the most popular pitches out there and a bit of the physics behind them:

1. Fastball - This is the basic, most important pitch in baseball. The first two fingers rest just on (or inside) the seams and the pitcher releases the pitch with the palm pretty much facing the batter, producing maximum velocity. How fast are we talking? Generally in the 90-95 mph range, though some pitchers have been known to hurl over 100 mph. Technically, what you see in the photo is called a two-seam fastball and produces a sidespin that causes the ball to cut in as it approaches the batter. There are other varieties, like the 4-seam fastball, which is thrown by holding the ball with the seams horizontal, rather than vertical. This produces backspin, which creates high pressure under the ball and low pressure on top resulting in the illusion of the ball rising (actually the ball isn't rising, just falling more slowly than it would normally). There's also a split-finger fastball where the first two fingers split, or straddle the seams, which causes the ball to drop a little as it approaches the plate. Despite the movement, the basic idea of a fastball is to overpower the batter, so he swings late and misses.

2. Sinker - If you've ever played wiffleball, you know the ball rises, falls, and curves in and away from a batter depending on where you position the air holes in the ball. Likewise, in baseball, a pitcher can create movement and variation in speed depending on how he releases the ball, or how he spins the ball. Off-speed pitches, like the sinker, are pitches that are released with the palm of the hand facing away from the pitcher. This causes the ball to sink as it approaches the batter. The idea here is to either get him to swing over the ball and miss, or, if he connects with the pitch, to produce a ground ball, rather than a line drive.

3. Changeup - A changeup is like a sinker, in that it's an off-speed pitch, only the palm is turned even further out. All off-speed pitches are similar in that they're thrown with less velocity than the fastball. But the batter doesn't know when one is coming because a good pitcher is able to use the same arm speed as he does for the fastball. So how does he throw it with less velocity? Simple: by pressing the baseball deep into his palm. Less finger contact means less torque and less velocity. So, if a batter is expecting a fastball, slowing down, or "changing up" the speed to, say, 87 mph can trip him up and he'll swing ahead of the ball. Great pitchers can build an entire career on the changeup because they're able to slow it down all the way to around 80 mph. If they can throw a fastball around 95 mph, that's a whopping 15 mph slower and really confuses the batter.

4. Screwball - This is another off-speed pitch that not only sinks, but moves from the pitcher's left side to the right as it approaches the batter. The palm is again pronated away from the pitcher, even further than the sinker and changeup. As the pitcher releases the ball, he twists the ball like a corkscrew. A left-handed batter will see the ball break away from him and a right-handed batter will experience the opposite, as the ball breaks in on him (the reverse is true if the pitcher is left-handed, of course)

5. Cutter - Turning the palm in the opposite direction produces a series of pitches known as breaking pitches. The further the palm is rotated toward the pitcher, the more movement (in most cases, but not all). The first stop over from the fastball is the cutter, which is like a fastball, only it breaks in ever so slightly and is generally thrown a few mphs slower than a fastball.

6. Slider - Basically the same thing as a cutter, a slider is thrown with less velocity than the former and the palm is rotated further toward the pitcher. The slower speed means there's more time for the ball to move, or slide, from one side of the plate to the other.

7. Curveball - A good curveball can be devastating, and also fun to watch. These are the pitches that appear to arc up toward the batter's chest (or even head) before dropping into the strike zone like a bomb as they reach the plate. Of course, not every successful curveball pitcher throws the large arc variety and they need not be so dramatic. Even a small arc keeps the hitter off balance. So how is the amazing trajectory accomplished? The pitcher turns his palm in so far that his hand looks like the letter "C." He then flicks his wrist as he releases the ball (the opposite direction from the screwball) creating topspin. The more topspin, the greater the air pressure difference between the top and bottom of the ball, and the greater the break.

7 Tips for Winning an Arm Wrestling Match

iStock
iStock

Geoff Hale was playing Division II college baseball in Kansas City, Missouri, when he sat down and started flipping through the channels on his TV. There—probably on TBS—was Over the Top, the 1987 arm wrestling melodrama starring Sylvester Stallone as Lincoln Hawke, a truck driver who aspires to win his estranged son’s affections. And to do that, he has to win a national arm wrestling tournament. Obviously.

Neither the worst nor the best of Stallone’s efforts, Over the Top made Hale recall his high school years and how the fringe sport had satisfied his athletic interests, which weren't being met by baseball. “I had never lost a match,” Hale tells Mental Floss of his arm wrestling prowess. “The movie reminded me that I was good at it.”

That was 13 years ago. Now a professional competitor known as the Haleraiser, the full-time petroleum geologist has won several major titles. While you may not have the constitution for the surprisingly traumatic sport (more on that later), you might still want to handle yourself in the event of a spontaneous match breaking out. We asked Hale for some tips on what to do when you’re confronted with the opportunity to achieve a modest amount of glory while arm-grappling on a beer-stained table. This is what he told us.

1. KNOW THAT SIZE DOESN'T MATTER.

A child uses books to help in arm-wrestling an adult
iStock

Well, it does. But really only if your opponent knows what they’re doing. Otherwise, having a bowling pin for a forearm isn’t anything to be wary about. If anything, your densely-built foe may have a false sense of confidence. “Everyone has arm-wrestled since they were a kid and thinks they know what it is,” Hale says. “It looks easy, but there’s actually a very complex set of movements. It’s good to check your ego at the door.”

2. PRETEND YOU’RE PART OF THE TABLE.

A man offers to arm wrestle from behind a table
iStock

When you square up with your opposition to lock hands—thumb digging into the fleshy part, fingers wrapped around the back—don’t lean over the table with your butt in the air. And don’t make the common mistake of sitting down for a match, either. “It limits you from a technique standpoint,” Hale says, and could even open you up to injury.

Instead, you want to plant the foot that matches your dominant hand under the table with your hip touching the edge. With your free hand, grip the edge or push down on the top for stability. “Pretend like you’re part of the table,” Hale says. That way, you’ll be able to recruit your shoulders, triceps, and biceps into the competition.

3. REMEMBER TO BREATHE.

Two men engage in an arm wrestling match
iStock

If you’re turning the color of a lobster, you’re probably holding in your breath. “Don’t,” Hale says. Remember to continue taking in air through your nose. There’s no benefit to treating the match like a diving expedition. The lack of oxygen will just tire your muscles out faster.

4. BEAT THE HAND, NOT THE ARM.

Two hands appear in close-up during an arm wrestling contest
iStock

There are three basic techniques in arm wrestling, according to Hale: the shoulder press, the hook, and the top roll. The shoulder press recruits the shoulder right behind the arm, pushing the opposing appendage down as if you were performing a triceps pressdown. The hook is more complex, varying pressure from all sides and incorporating pulling motions to bend the wrist backward. For the best chance of winning, opt for the top roll, which involves sliding your hand up your opponent’s so your grip is attacking the top portion nearest the fingers. That way, he or she is recruiting fewer major muscle groups to resist. “When you beat the hand, the arm follows,” Hale says. Because this is more strategy than strength, you might wind up toppling some formidable-looking opponents.

5. IN A STALEMATE, WAIT FOR AN OPENING.

A man and woman engage in an arm wrestling contest
iStock

While lots of arm wrestling matches end quickly, others become a battle of attrition. When you find yourself locked up in the middle of the table, wait for your opponent to relax. They almost always will. “In a neutral position, it’s good to stay static, keeping your body and arm locked up,” Hale says. “You’re just waiting for your opponent to make a mistake.” The moment you feel their arm lose tension, attack.

6. TRY SCREAMING.

A woman screams while winning an arm wrestling contest
iStock

Arm wrestlers play all kinds of psychological games, and while some might be immune to trash talk, it’s likely your rival will be influenced by some selective insults. “You can make someone lose their focus easily,” Hale says. “In a stalemate, you can give them a hard time, tell them they’re not strong. It’s intimidating to be out of breath and to see someone just talking.”

7. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, GO SECOND.

A man struggles while losing an arm wrestling contest
iStock

Arm wrestling exacts a heavy toll on winners and losers alike: The prolonged muscle contractions can easily fatigue people not used to the exertion. If you fear a loss from a bigger, stronger opponent, conspire to have them wrestle someone else first, then take advantage of their fatigue.

If all goes well, you might want to consider pursuing the sport on more competitive levels—but you probably shouldn’t. “It takes a toll on the body,” Hale says. “I’ve got tendonitis and don’t compete as much as I used to. On the amateur level, it’s common to see arm breaks, usually the humerus [upper arm] bone. The body was not really made for arm wrestling.”

Does the University of Florida Still Make Money Off Gatorade?

George Frey, Getty Images
George Frey, Getty Images

In September 1965, 10 freshmen players on the University of Florida's Gators football team agreed to let the school's kidney disease specialist, Robert Cade, assess their hydration levels during practices. He took urine samples. He interviewed athletes. He asked to take their rectal temperature during games.

The players agreed to all but the last request. In analyzing his results, Cade discovered that the wilting heat, coupled with a lack of hydration, resulted in subjects who were very low on electrolytes like sodium and potassium, sometimes losing six to nine pounds of water per practice session—with some footballers having anecdotes of 15 to 20 pounds lost during games. Cade felt that players suffered from low blood volume and low blood sugar. Many, in fact, were being hospitalized after overexerting themselves without drinking enough water, traditionally seen as a way of building toughness in players. Those who remained on field were surely not playing up to their potential.

Cade mixed water, sugar, salt, and lemon juice, then ordered them to drink the solution to keep their bodies in balance. By 1967, the Gators were all consuming "Gatorade," and incidences of heat stroke fell sharply. The Gators secured a 9-2 record in 1966; the team became renowned for their renewed energy during the second half, and ignited a transformation in sports science. Decades later and backed by a massive promotional machine, Gatorade has permeated both professional sports and amateur athletics alike, replenishing electrolytes lost during physical activity. Roughly 632 million cases were sold in 2013 alone.

With the sports drink having been born on the Gators's playing field and invented by a University of Florida employee, it's not hard to see why both Cade's estate (he died in 2007) and the school get a percentage of royalties from sales, an agreement that's still in place today. But if they had their way, the university would be getting all of it.

A University of Florida coach is soaked in Gatorade by his players after a win
Donald Miralle, Getty Images

After Cade and his co-researchers finalized Gatorade’s formula, Cade approached the school's head of sponsored research to see if they wanted to come to an arrangement over the rights to the drink (Cade wanted $10,000) and determine if they wanted to try and sell it to a national distributor. According to Cade, University of Florida (UF) officials weren't interested, so he struck a deal with beverage maker Stokely Van-Camp in 1967.

Stokely's offer was for Cade and his cohorts—now known as the Gatorade Trust—to receive a $25,000 cash payment, a $5000 bonus, and a five-cent royalty on each gallon of Gatorade sold. When UF realized that they had been shortsighted in assessing the brand's mass market appeal—and that they were missing out on profits—they allegedly told Cade that the drink belonged to them.

"Go to hell," Cade responded, a statement that kicked off several years of litigation.

While Cade was a university employee, funds for his work actually came from the government—specifically, the Department of Health. He also managed to avoid signing an agreement solidifying his inventions as school property. For these reasons, and because both sides anticipated an endless and costly legal jiu-jitsu match in their futures, the two accepted a federal ruling in 1972. The Gatorade Trust would continue to receive their royalties, and the school would take 20 percent of the disbursement.

Initially, that meant one cent for every gallon of Gatorade sold, a fraction of the five cents owed to the Trust. In September 1973, following the first full year of the agreement, UF made $115,296 in royalties and earmarked the funds for kidney research and marine science.

Gatorade cups are shown stacked in a locker room
J. Meric, Getty Images

That's a considerable sum, but it's nothing compared to what poured out in the decades to come. When Stokely Van-Camp was purchased by Quaker Oats in 1983, they kicked off a heavy promotional campaign that highlighted Gatorade in commercials and sponsored teams. Coaches began getting doused with jugs full of Gatorade following big victories. When PepsiCo bought Quaker for $13.4 billion in 2000, they leveraged their marketing muscle to further engender the brand.

Consequently, both the Gatorade Trust and UF have profited immensely. As of 2015, the Trust had earned well over $1 billion in royalties, with 20 percent, or about $281 million, going to UF. The five-cent per gallon formula has been replaced by a percentage: between 1.9 percent and 3.6 percent depending on how much Gatorade is sold annually, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell, with the University taking a fifth of that. The funds have been invested in the school's Genetics Institute, the Whitney Marine Laboratory in St. Augustine, and to help disperse seed money for grants.

The school naturally has an affinity for the stuff, but that can occasionally come into conflict with other marketing deals. In 2016, the University of Florida’s women's basketball team played in the NCAA Tournament, which was sponsored by Powerade, a competing sports drink made by Coca-Cola. As a compromise, the players dumped their Gatorade into Powerade bottles and cups. The beverage born on campus—one that's netted them nearly $300 million to date—always comes first.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER