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Unwinding the gyroball (cont.)

Posted: Friday January 26, 2007 11:02AM; Updated: Tuesday January 30, 2007 9:07AM
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By Brett Bull, Special to SI.com

The physics of baseball

The wake of a four-seam gyroball.
The wake of a four-seam gyroball.
t1_gyroballwake2.jpg
The wake of a two-seam gyroball.
t1_gyroball3d.jpg
The wake of a two-seam gyroball in 3-D.
Images courtesy of Ryutaro Himeno
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It was during this time that Himeno was invited to participate in research roundtables at Takarazuka Zokei Geijutsu University, where twice a month students, teachers, researchers and athletes discussed various scientific topics. At one of these meetings Tezuka proposed studying a baseball that rotates like a spiral -- what he referred to as a gyroball. In Himeno's book Makyu wo Tsukuru (The Making of the Supernatural Pitch), he wrote, "When Tezuka explained the gyroball grip and spin, it was the most exciting thing I had seen in my life."

Back in Tokyo, Himeno simulated air flowing around both a two-seam and four-seam gyroball. (The distinction indicates the number of seams rotating parallel to the ground.) The results showed that the wake behind the two-seam version had a wide path similar to a forkball's. But the air flowing over the four-seamer followed the arc of the ball much more closely, making its wake narrow.

Himeno's conclusion: The two-seam gyroball drops like a forkball; the four-seam gyroball drops, too, but less; and both variations generate much less drag than a forkball, causing them to arrive to the plate faster. Dr. Robert K. Adair, a physics professor at Yale University, who wrote the bible on the study of a baseball's behavior after it has been hit or pitched, The Physics of Baseball, is skeptical about the efficacy of throwing what amounts to a fast forkball. "A forkball is basically a changeup," says Adair. "You don't want to throw it fast. It is far from clear to me why you would want to throw a gyroball."

As if to explain, Himeno hands out 3-D glasses and shows a computer graphic in a five-row theater on his building's first floor. On the screen a large two-seam gyroball spins toward the audience. Dozens of streams of colored dots (simulating the air flow) dangle over the floor, as if a mutant octopus has attacked a Lite-Brite board. "Now people can see the high-speed rotation on the screen," Himeno says of his projections. "We need to present it like this so people can understand the difference between the various pitches."

Himeno has studied two variations of the two-seam and four-seam gyroball. One involves rotating the pitching hand horizontally in a clockwise manner to create a little backspin. Dubbed the "gyroball with lift force" by Himeno, this pitch nearly follows the path of a fastball, dropping much less than a pure gyroball. The other -- the "gyroball with side force" -- occurs when the pitcher turns up his hand slightly to apply sidespin. "This version," Himeno admits, "is not much different from a conventional slider."

Himeno grabs a plastic bat that has had two sensors attached at both ends of its hitting zone. A small device in the floor that emits a magnetic field is acting as home plate. Both pieces of equipment are hooked up to Himeno's computer.

He taps a few keys and a rendition of a baseball stadium (from the hitter's perspective) appears in place of the rotating baseball. A cartoon pitcher stands on the mound. He winds and a pitch tumbles out of his hand. Himeno, who describes himself as a scientist with only a passing interest in baseball, takes his best hack. There is contact.

Dr. Himeno's computer simulation shows the difference between the trajectory of a forkball (green), fastball (red) and a gyroball (white).
Dr. Himeno's computer simulation shows the difference between the trajectory of a forkball (green), fastball (red) and a gyroball (white).
Image courtesy of Ryutaro Himeno

"You can see the drop," Himeno says, letting the Whiffle bat fall to his side. "The model shows the gyroball at the same speed, same direction and same timing as a pitch would behave in the field."

The computer then dishes out three pitches simultaneously: a fastball, a forkball and a gyroball. Dashed lines of different colors stream from behind the advancing balls to represent the different trajectories. The model shows the gyroball nearly following the path of the forkball. The fastball's line is far above the other two.

The pitch in practice

In the basement of a small building off a major expressway in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward is the dojo, or training hall, of Beta Endorphin, a company that provides sports instruction to youngsters. Green artificial turf fills the space between two pitching mounds and two home plates. As a coach stands at the edge of the left mound, pitch after pitch from a young lefthander snaps into the netting behind the plate.

In a brimless gray hat and workout jacket the president of Beta Endorphin watches through the gaps in the green netting. "This," says Tezuka, as he grabs his thigh, "is the most important part of throwing the gyroball. It has nothing to do with the hands."

As described in The Truth about the Supernatural Pitch -- plenty copies of which are available at the clinic's register -- the circular rotation of the hips off the pitcher's back leg provides the initial torque that constitutes the first spin in the "double spin" technique. The spin imparted by the fingers is the other. Getting the two spins to work in tandem is the basis of mastering the gyroball, says Tezuka, who discovered the pitch in 1995 as he watched some hard-throwing students playing catch.

A pair of gyroball training balls, whose surfaces have been half-painted for the two-seam (red) and four-seam (black) throws, are available on the Beta Web page. A plus mark positioned at the "front" of the ball allows Tezuka to judge whether a tight spiral has been achieved by the pitcher, which is preferred -- in other words, the appearance of something similar to a spinning drill.

The benefit of the four-seam gyroball, Tezuka says, is its surprising explosiveness. Batters, he believes, are lulled into thinking a typical fastball is approaching only to find that it already streaking through the zone as they start their cut. But most gyroballers, he says, throw the two-seam version because of its speed and sharper break.

"The gyroball is scary," says Tezuka, of the pitch's speed and unpredictability. "It is beyond imagination."

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