Baseball Pitchers Hurl Illusions Home

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, February 20, 1993 | Go to article overview

Baseball Pitchers Hurl Illusions Home


Bower, Bruce, Science News


With major league baseball season fast approaching, you can bet that two types of pitches will drive batters batty. One, dubbed the "rising fastball," rockets toward the hitter, only to jump a few inches to a foot upon reaching home plate, wickedly hopping over the outstretched ,bat. The other, a "breaking curveball," loops toward the batter and at the last moment plunges downward.

Although baseball players have long groused about these pitches, the rising fastball and breakingcurveball do not actuaIly exist, according to a study conducted by two engineers. Instead, the hops and dips are visual !illusions produced when a batter errantly estimates the speed of a pitch and momentarily shifts his gaze as the ball travels to home plate, contend A. Terry Bahiii of the University of Arizona in Tucson and William J. Karnavas of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School.

In experiments directed by Bahill nearly a decade ago, baseball players displayed an inability to track a pitch continuously as it approached them. Measures of! eye movements revealed that often hitters momentarily divert their eyes to where they think the ball will cross home plate.

Michael K. McBeath, a psychologist at Kent (Ohio) State University. proposed in 1990 that a perceptual illusion accounts for the rising fastball. A baseball leaves a pitcher's hand about 6 feet above the ground; it would have to arc down and bounce up to qualify as a rising 'fastball, thus defying gravity. Instead, McBeath argued, if a batter underestimates the initial speed of a fastball, it appears slightly farther away and slightly lower than its actual location. …

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