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6 Epic At-Bats

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Major League batters see, on average, about four pitches per at-bat. So something like an 8-pitch at-bat is considered pretty long. If nothing else, these types of at-bats help to run the pitch-count up, and getting the starting pitcher out of the game is always on the opposing team's mind.

But what about the endless at-bat—the ones that stop the game in its track? While detailed baseball stats have been kept practically since the game was born, the number of pitches a batter faces per at-bat were never considered important enough until fairly recently (mid "˜80s), when pitch-counts became all the rage. So in some cases, we are dealing with legends here. But still, these six epic plate appearances are worth considering:

1. Alex Cora's 18-Pitch At-Bat

On May 12, 2004, the Dodgers' Alex Cora won the duel against Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Matt Clement after an epic,18-pitch at-bat. Clement, who had thrown 86 pitches before Cora stepped in, emptied his tank on Cora, who got the pitch-count up to 104. But that's not all Cora did. Facing a 2"“1 count, Cora fouled off 14 straight pitches before finally hitting"¦. a home run, of all things. I say "of all things" because in 13 seasons of Major League ball, the guy has only knocked 35 homers, period. Cora's AB is the third longest documented at-bat since baseball statisticians began keeping track of pitch counts in the mid-1980s.

2. Luke Appling's Two 1940 ABs

What makes Hall-of-Famer Luke Appling's 1940 at-bat so epic is that with two outs in the 9th, as Bob Feller was trying to close out the first (and only) opening day no-hitter, Appling fought through a whopping 15-pitches (11, according to some accounts), fouling off four with two strikes on him before finally walking, which put the tying run on base. The walk did not, however, break up a perfect game for Feller, as he'd allowed another walk already in the 3rd. But you can imagine the tension in the stadium as the game was winding down. This wasn't Appling's only epic at-bat, either. According to Baseball Digest, in another game during the 1940 season, the White Sox great fouled off 24 pitches in one trip to the plate, befuddling the Yankees Red Ruffing. Though there is no hard proof for this that I could find, there is this quote from the Baseball Digest story: "So I started fouling off his pitches," Appling said"¦ "I took a pitch every now and then. Pretty soon, after 24 fouls, old Red could hardly lift his arm and I walked. That's when they took him out of the game and he cussed me all the way to the dugout."

3. Richie Ashburn's 17 Foul Balls

Another Hall-of-Famer, Richie Ashburn, the great center fielder for the Phillies from 1948-59, and one of the game's best leadoff hitters, once said he fouled off 17 straight pitches in one at-bat before hitting a single. Again, there's no written proof of this that I could find. Unlike that amazing Ashburn story dating back to the '57 season when old Whitey hit a spectator with a foul ball in the stands. The spectator, named Alice Roth, broke her nose and was carted off on a stretcher. As she was being taken away, Whitey hit her again with another foul ball!

4. Brett Myers' 9-Pitch At-Bat Against CC Sabathia

While on the Phillies, who can forget pitcher Bretty Myers drawing a walk in the 2008 NL Division Series against the Brewers' CC Sabathia?! Myers, who only had 3 hits all season, came to the plate with two outs. After two quick strikes, Sabathia looked to be on his way to an easy K. But Myers took a ball, fouled one off, and took another ball. At this point, the capacity crowd at Citizen Bank Park in Philly got into CC's head and after a few more fouls, he wound up walking Myers, which put the crowd over the edge. CC was clearly rattled. He then walked Rollins and finally gave up a grand slam to Shane Victorino, helping the Phillies win the game and go up in the 5-game series 2-0.

5. Kevin Bass' 19-Pitch At-Bat

Here's another one involving the Phillies, only this time they were pitching. The year was 1988 and Kevin Bass from the Astros was at the plate facing Steve Bedrosian. The game was knotted at six with two outs in the eighth. At one point during the AB, Bass fouled off 11 straight before flying out to left. But that's more consecutive pitches fouled off than 99.8881% of batters see in their entire plate appearance. (Bedrosian faced just 10 batters and threw just 52 pitches total in this relief appearance, 19 of them to Bass!)

6. Ricky Gutierrez Sets Modern-Day Record

And while talking about the Stros, ahead of Cora and Bass, at least since the stats have been kept, we find Ricky Gutierrez's remarkable 20-pitch affair with Bartolo Colon of the Indians back in June 1998. The Indians were beating the Astros 4-2 in the eighth inning with none out in Cleveland when Gutierrez stepped to the plate. He quickly fell behind in the count 0-2. But it would take a staggering 18 more pitches for Colon to strike Gutierrez out. It took 13 pitches just to make it to a full count! This single plate appearance represents 18% of all the pitches Colon threw that day. For those really interested, below you can see the AB, pitch by pitch.

Strike 0-1
Strike 0-2
Foul 0-2
Ball 1-2
Foul 1-2
Ball 2-2
Foul 2-2
Foul 2-2
Foul 2-2
Foul 2-2
Foul 2-2
Foul 2-2
Ball 3-2
Foul 3-2
Foul 3-2
Foul 3-2
Foul 3-2
Foul 3-2
Foul 3-2
Strike Strikeout

I'm sure I left some epic plate appearances off the list. So why don't you hit me up with your favorites that belong in this Epic category by leaving a comment below.

If you liked this post, keep on top of all my writing via my Twitter account, @resila.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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