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Unwinding the gyroball

The physics behind the mysterious pitch and the burning question of whether Matsuzaka throws it

Posted: Friday January 26, 2007 11:02AM; Updated: Tuesday January 30, 2007 9:07AM
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The next time Daisuke Matsuzaka suits up, it will be in a Red Sox uniform. The question is, which pitches will he throw?
The next time Daisuke Matsuzaka suits up, it will be in a Red Sox uniform. The question is, which pitches will he throw?
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By Brett Bull, Special to SI.com

Daisuke Matsuzaka is 26 and sports a crown of spiky black hair. He stands 6-feet, 190 pounds and throws a pitch that has never been delivered in the major leagues.

Or does he?

Based largtely on Matsuzaka's dominant outings in the World Baseball Classic for the victorious Japanese team last March, as well as the 2.13 ERA and 200 strikeouts he posted for the Seibu Lions in 2006, the Boston Red Sox paid the Lions $51.1 million just for the right to negotiate a contract with him. Boston signed Matsuzaka last month to a six-year, $52 million deal.

To his Japanese fans, the right-hander is known simply as Daisuke. When he pitches, he often uses a high right leg kick on his follow-through. His fastball checks in at 93 mph. Knees buckle at the sight of his curve. His changeup makes hitters look foolish.

And then there's the gyroball...

"It is a pitch with a gyro spin," explains Dr. Ryutaro Himeno, the director of the Advanced Center for Computing and Communication at the physics and chemistry research institution Riken in Saitama Prefecture.

Himeno, who has done computer simulations of the gyroball's movement since the late 1990s, says that the pitch is delivered much like a "football pass," speeding toward the plate in a tight spiral. In 2001, he co-authored the book Makyu no Shotai (The Truth about the Supernatural Pitch) with baseball instructor Kazushi Tezuka. "Tezuka is the godfather of the gyroball," Himeno says of his associate, who operates sports clinics in Tokyo and Osaka. "I just proved that the pitch exists."

Since Matsuzaka's signing, U.S. newspaper stories have compared the gyroball's elusiveness to that of a ghost or the Loch Ness Monster. Graphs have apocryphally approximated the degree of the pitch's break, showing a sweeping turn as it crosses the plate -- a movement so large that it exceeds even that of a curveball.

But Matsuzaka has never admitted to more than occasionally experimenting with the gyroball; often, he has denied using it at all. The diverging opinions of Himeno and Tezuka, the foremost experts on the pitch, only add to the uncertainty. In fact, reaching some kind of concurrence on what the gyroball is and whether Matsuzaka throws it is about as easy as hitting a Matsuzaka delivery -- any one of them.

In his office Himeno lifts a plastic bottle that has had both of its ends trimmed, with red tape lining the edges. After explaining that a proper gyro grip is the same as that of a standard fastball, Himeno holds the tube as if he were about to throw a pass. When he follows through, he rolls the tube to the tips of his fingers and brings his hand down in what resembles a karate chop.

"Unlike most other pitches," Himeno says, "the wrist is not snapped when the gyroball is delivered."

A pitch changes its direction because of its rotation. Himeno says that the gyroball's ideal rotation is perpendicular to the direction of travel. This relationship is the source of its name -- the gyroscope balances upon a single axle through the momentum generated by a ring spinning around it.

Mother Nature then says that upon its release the gyroball will be slowed by friction and felled by gravity only. There will be no curving, cutting, slicing, or dicing. Just drag and drop.

Himeno's usual line of study involves analyzing fluid flows and assembling supercomputers. In 1996, while working for Nissan Motor Co., he got interested in the wake pattern formed as air flows over the seams of a rotating forkball -- a pitch thrown with very little backspin. This wake creates drag and forces the ball to drop. After leaving Nissan a few years later, Himeno shifted his focus to the gyroball.

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