Curve Balls

Wow, I made the straight dope.

If anyone would like a PDF of my dissertation please e-mail me at

As for the story. I left out the best part of the R.W. Madden in the New Yorker. He also included these little gems:

  1. We are being deceived [by baseball] like Hitler is deceiving us.

  2. Women are not as easily deceived at men so take your sweetheart to a baseball game and ask her if she sees the baseball curving. If she says yes, she is being sweet, if she says no, she is being honest.

Thanks Cecil.

LeRoy Alaways

Congratulations, and welcome. Looking forward to continued baseball physics information. column link

Hey! Welcome to the Straight Dope, LeRoy! I actually stumbled across your dissertation on the Web a couple months ago when I was looking up physics of baseball type information (ball-bat interaction, in that case, but your page was linked to from Alan Nathan’s site) and wound up reading the introduction and skimming through the rest. I recommend it to other people: much of it is written in a way that can be understood by the non-technical person, without sacrificing rigorousness.

BTW, Cecil’s column is Do curveballs really curve? (31-Oct-2003).

What about the rising fastball? The pitcher stands higher than the batter so the ball would have to curve upwards to actually rise.

In baseball, no human puts enough spin on a baseball to create enough lift force for a fastball to rise. All fastballs, pitches thrown with backspin, do produce lift and therefore do not drop as fast as the normal gravitation arc.

In softball, due to the larger diameter, humans do put enough spin on the ball for the softball to rise. The King, Eddie Feigner, who has pitched over 10,100 games once pitched a sofball on a basketball court. He started under on basket, pitched the ball, the ball dropped and ALMOST touched the court at midcourt. He almost made the basket at the other end of the court (a 10 foot rise).

So the short answer, is there is no such thing as a rising fastball, in baseball.

LeRoy Alaways

According to the Physics of Baseball book referenced by Cecil in his column (if I’m remembering it correctly), the rising fastball is an optical illusion. Essentially, it doesn’t arc downward as much as it would without the spin, so the batter’s eye and brain, used to seeing the normal flight as “straight,” interprets the path as curving upward. It doesn’t actually rise, but it fools the batter into thinking it does.

Talking about pitches, I asked a friend of mine during the playoffs who knows more about baseball than I do, are there any pitches that would be extremely insulting to the hitter when thrown? A ‘taunting’ pitch? He said there was one called a suckerball where the pitcher basically lobbs the ball way up in the air. The batters would miss it because they would swing too early or too hard, etc. Did this ever happen? If it did or it didn’t, wouldn’t it be cool if someone actually threw a suckerball?

The suckerball or sucker pitch is a pitch that is low and away. Usually dropping out of the strike zone in the back outside corner.

The “lob” ball is a legal pitch and if you can get it into the strike zone will work for a pitch or two. However, it is hard to get it into the strike zone for a pitcher throwing hard and a good batter will kill it, especially if they saw it twice. In the 1800’s the object of the pitcher was to get the ball in play and they pitched underhand from 40 feet. Pitching underhand is still legal but from 60 feet an underhand or overhand lob is a very difficult pitch.

However, if you take a major league batter down to a softball slow pitch batting cage and let them take a few swings. You will realize why lob pitches don’t occur very often with good hitters.

Don’t forget, however, the Ephus pitch of the late 40’s. It was a variant on the lob, and IIRC, caused Ted Williams to strike out in the 1947 All Star Game.

It was the 1946 All Star Game. Rip Sewell was the pitcher who threw the eephus pitch. Williams didn’t strike out - he hit the pitch for a home run. Sewell claimed it was the only time anyone ever hit the eephus pitch for a home run.

One drawback to the eephus (or lob) pitch: you can’t use it with anyone on base. It takes so long to get to the catcher that even Ernie Lombardi could steal a base. (Note: Lombardi is best known for being the slowest player in Major League history.)

As for the question of pitches breaking, Cecil is right that it’s an illusion. I believe it’s caused by the fact that the batter sees the pitch coming at him nearly head-on, so he sees the curvature as lateral motion. This motion accelerates as the ball gets closer to the plate - the lateral motion of a good curveball is much greater at the end of its path than at the beginning. Thus, it looks to the batter like the ball suddenly changes direction.

If you throw out the knuckleball and look at the spinning pitches. There is one pitch that “breaks” in fact it can actually change directions and curve from left to right then right to left and that is a true slider. A true slider is a pitch with a spiral spin, i.e. the spin of a football. For the backspin and topspin pitches they do not break at all. In fact, the curve continuously and the optical illusion is due to the fact that you are looking at a tangent line of a circle when the pitcher releases the ball, the ball continues to follow the path of a circle and therefore curves more and more away from you. If there was no earth (i.e. dirt to stop the ball) or catcher, the ball would continue to curve and complete the circle hitting the pitcher in the back. (Take away gravity as well but keep the air).

I don’t want to go into the math and physics but the angle between the velocity vector and spin axis defines the direction of force acting on a spinning ball. Because the spin axis is constant, when you have a slider and the fact that most balls are thrown up then they drop means that the velocity vector changes direction with respect to a spin axis on the slider (i.e. it is higher then lower). This actually causes the slider to break.


I thought not. Thanx.

Anywhere one could read about this online? Is there a reliable source who saw it? When did it happen?

Rather hard to believe story.

What are the forces involved which would make a ball drop 3 or more feet, and then rise 10 feet?

It’s not so much that the ball drops three feet, as it is that it was thrown slightly downward to begin with. If the pitcher both throws the ball slightly downwards and puts the appropriate spin on the ball, then yes, it’s possible for the ball to move downwards, turn up again, rise above the initial height, and then eventually go down again. In fact, this should in principle be possible with any ball. The real question is how significant the effects would be, and the appropriate way to answer that question is by experiment. If the pitch mentioned by LeRoy was well-documented (say, by high-speed video or movies, or a multiple-exposure strobe photo), then it would constitute proof that, with a softball, the effects can be significant.

if the physics of all this ball bending is what you want to learn about, there is a lot of scientific study regarding the free kick in soccer. especially interesting to investigate is Roberto Carlos free kick against France in 1998. it is often refered to as the kick that defied physics. if you can find a download of the kick itself you will see what they mean when they say that, its a trully astonishing thing to see.

Uhh, I’ve thrown a baseball that rose, although it was thrown from left field in the general direction of third base, and it wasn’t really on purpose.

I was playing left field in a high school American Legion game, and the batter hit a ground ball to me. The runner from first tried to go for third, so I picked up the ball, crow-hopped, and threw. The grass was still damp from a rain earlier in the day, and the ball squirted (for lack of a better word) out of my fingers. Most of my throws from that range probably wouldn’t have gone higher than 8 feet off the ground, and this one started just a little higher, but it was travelling a little slower, too. After the inning, the third baseman said he thought that the ball was going to be a little bit high, but it would be catchable. As the ball travelled, it curved up and to the right, and sailed about 15 to 20 feet over the third baseman’s head, and kept going up as it left the field, and then left the stadium. The angle of flight was certainly increasing as the ball curved up, slowly at first and at an increasing rate, which was confirmed by pretty much everyone that saw the play.

So, barring some X-Files-like conspiracy, it’s certainly possible for a human to spin a baseball enough to make it rise. I’d always thought that those pitchers that threw a rising fastball were simply able to harness the type of throw I’d made accidentally.

Also, I’m surprised to hear that there’s no such thing as a breaking pitch with late action (other than a knuckleball or a slider). After years of having described pitches by at least 3 separate and independent variables – how far they break, how hard they break, and how late they break – it seems sort of silly to think that we were just describing the same action all those times. It’s especially disturbing to think that everyone in the dugout (and the catcher) were essentially laboring under the same illusion.

Maybe this is similar to how 100 people can all see a UFO?

I would pay good money to see that video.

Well, I don’t believe there is a video and I don’t believe you will find it on the web.

Location was Lower Hickey Gym at the University of California, Davis and the event occurred in the mid-1980’s. I believe that Eddie Feigner was invited to Davis by someone in the P.E. department. For more on Eddie Feigner see From memory the pitch was low at mid-court but from the angle I was at it may have been closer to his release point. There at least three attempts to make or hit the basket and I recall it was close, really close but the speed and angle of approach made it impossible for the ball to go in but my memory has it close to hitting the net. I was told about the event before hand and attended it with Professor John Brewer in the Engineering department and, as luck would have it and I am dearly sorry to say, I found out he passed away last month. John was a softball enthusiat and we had many debates on the rising fastball (i.e. hardball) but none on the rising softball.

I understand the King and his Court may still be touring with very very limited engagements. I read he retired four years ago but still see ad’s for events from time to time. He had some running gags like the Globe Trotters and I believe the umpires were in on some of them. One was to go through the motion but not release the ball and have the catcher hit the pocket of his glove really hard like the ball hit it. The first time I saw this happen you believed he threw the ball and the fact the umpire called it a strike made you believe it more. The batter would always argue about it and Eddie would walk around the mound tossing the ball the into the air.

Assuming all this correct what you described by saying the ball squirted is a spit-ball. The ideal spit-ball is squeezed out your fingers like a watermelon seed and had NO spin. This differs from the knuckleball which has a little spin. By throwing a spit-ball you could have thrown a ball in such a way that the airflow is radically deflected downwards because a single seam is tripping the air boundary layer is just the right way. Could this result in a “rising thrown ball”? Yes, but the research to prove it really hasn’t been done. Very little data exists for non-spinning baseballs with the seam in the right place to trip the boundary-layer optimally. Now, the good news or maybe the bad news, the spit-ball is illegal. It was legal for a time and even once it was outlawed they allowed the legacy pitchers to throw it until they retired.

Isn’t it also possible to put the spit or grease on one side of the ball, to cause it to slip only on that side when coming out of the hand? That way the ball can have much more spin than normal.