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7 Famous Baseball Pitches (and some physics behind them)

If you haven't noticed, it's October, and that means Major League Baseball playoffs are upon us. If you're watching from home, or listening 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:

2-seamuse.jpg1. Fastball - This is the basic, most important pitch in baseball. As you see in the picture, 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.

sinker.jpg2. 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.

changeup.jpg3. 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.

screwball.jpg4. 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).

cutter.jpg5. 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.

slider.jpg6. 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.

bodyshotcurve.jpg7. 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.

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Paramount Home Video
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entertainment
Impossible Figure Skating Moves from the Movies
Paramount Home Video
Paramount Home Video

Figure skating is always one of the most anticipated events during the Winter Olympics. But in Hollywood, filmmakers have taken a few liberties on the ice, namely when it comes to some of the technical elements. And the judges are not impressed. Here are a couple of skating moves that could never have been completed without a bit of movie magic.

THE CUTTING EDGE

It's a climactic moment near the end of the 1992 movie, The Cutting Edge, when figure skater Kate Moseley (played by actress Moira Kelly) turns to her pairs partner Doug Dorsey (D.B. Sweeney) just before they are to take the ice at the Olympics and excitedly declares, “We're doing the Pamchenko!”

Frantic, Doug tries to talk her out of it. “Forget it. It's too dangerous,” he yells over the sound of the cheering crowd at the skating arena.

They argue right up to the very moment their music starts on the ice about whether to attempt the controversial “Pamchenko twist,” a highly difficult and dangerous maneuver their coach invented that, if completed during their skate, would mean an instant gold medal. Long story short (spoiler), they execute the move flawlessly and the movie ends with no doubt that they've won Olympic gold.

It's a triumphant ending. But let's just say there's a very good reason the filmmakers used a series of cuts to create the illusion that they actually did the move. The truth is, the Pamchenko twist is impossible.

Earlier in the film, coach Anton Pamchenko (Roy Dotrice) tosses a bunch of weathered looking diagrams onto the ice during a practice that detail a highly dangerous pairs move he has been inventing for the last 20 years.

Intrigued, Doug takes a look. “A bounce spin into a throw twist ... and I catch her?”

The Pamchenko twist does have a basis in reality. It is composed of two parts, as Doug deftly put it. The first part is a “bounce spin,” which is a real move that is actually illegal in competition, per International Skating Union rules. It's often performed in exhibitions and shows because it is quite a death-defying crowd-pleaser—the man grabs the woman by her feet and swings her up and down as he rotates. The woman's head typically comes mere inches from smashing on the ice if it is done correctly. If done incorrectly ... well, just try not to think about that.

The second part is a “throw twist,” more commonly known as a “split twist.” This is a required technical element in high-level pairs competition. To get full credit, a man and woman must start skating backward together. The male partner typically launches the female above his head, where she splits her legs and twists in midair as she pulls them back together. The man catches her as she comes down. Elite-level pairs teams regularly complete triple-twists (the woman does three rotations in the air). Two-time Olympic champions Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov completed a textbook split triple-twist in their long program in the 1988 Olympics—the first technical element in this video.

Now, put the bounce spin together with the throw twist. The physics just don't compute. The centrifugal force built up during the bounce spin would launch the woman—assuming she is released at the highest point of the bounce spin—on a parabolic trajectory. In theory, she could use the momentum to twist in the air, but it's highly unlikely that she would be thrown high enough to pull it off without getting her head smashed onto the ice during the bounce spin. And even if she did, the horizontal trajectory would launch her so far away from her partner that there's no realistic way he could have enough time to stop his own momentum from the spinning and traverse the distance to catch her.

Pamchenko says in the film that it's all about the timing. But frankly, it's not worth risking the horrifying injuries that would inevitably result to test his theory. There are plenty of other legal and physically possible moves pairs skaters can spend their time and energy perfecting.

BLADES OF GLORY

In Blades of Glory, Will Ferrell and Jon Heder play two champion singles skaters who are banned from men's competition for life after an unseemly incident at a competition. Desperate to get back on the ice, they team up as a pair. In order to stand a chance of beating reigning pairs champions Stronz and Fairchild (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett), they attempt a highly dangerous and difficult maneuver called the Iron Lotus—which has only ever been attempted in North Korea with comically disastrous results.

If the Pamchenko twist is impossible, the Iron Lotus is downright laughable—which is the point, of course. It starts out the same way, with a bounce spin. However, at the height of the bounce, the male skater launches the female into a back flip instead of a twist. While she's flipping, he does an Arabian cartwheel underneath her. Once completed, he catches her by the arm and leg, and the pair gracefully rotate out of it together.

“I swear to God, if you cut my head off,” Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) warns his partner, Jimmy MacElroy (Heder), before they attempt it in the final performance of the film. As they launch into it, their coach (Craig T. Nelson) screams, “No! Don't do it! I was wrong, it's suicide!”

But wordlessly, magically, they nail it. Or rather, computer-animated stunt doubles nail it, because it's physically impossible. It would require the “female” skater to reverse her momentum in mid-air to transition from the bounce spin into the back flip. Maybe it's possible on the moon, where gravity isn't so much of a factor.

So what have we learned from this little figure skating physics lesson? You won't be seeing any Pamchenko twists or Iron Lotuses in Pyeongchang. And don't try any of this at home.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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

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