Opening Day 2015: The science of baseball

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

The 2015 Major League Baseball season officially kicks off tonight, as the Chicago Cubs host the St. Louis Cardinals at iconic Wrigley Field, and it really gets into swing on Monday with a full slate of games welcoming back “America’s National Pastime.”

We here at redOrbit are big fans of baseball (well, some of us are, anyway), especially when it intersects with our other great passion, science. In honor of the unofficial US holiday that is MLB Opening Day, here are some of our favorite baseball-related studies of the past few years.

1. Evolving from tree-climbing chimps into Nolan Ryan

You know what separates us from chimpanzees and other primates? The ability to toss a halfway decent fastball. This is according to a 2013 study that revealed that human ancestors exchanged traded tree climbing for throwing skills, naturally anticipating that they were to be used in sports.

Okay, not really. In actuality, the talent to throw well evolved as a hunting aid, explained George Washington University researcher Neil Roach. The motion needed to throw well required anatomical changes in the torso, shoulder, and arm that allowed energy to be stored and later released in order to accelerate the arm forward to complete a throw.

2. Curveballs don’t actually curve… who knew?

Students of the game known that the curveball is one of the most effective pitches in baseball, and in 2010, psychiatrists from the American University and USC, along with experts from the Mayo Clinic and the SUNY College of Optometry explored just what made it so hard to hit.

As it turns out, whenever sportscasters describe the “break” of a pitch, they’re not being accurate – a curveball never actually breaks. Instead, it “follows a gradual and steady parabolic path” that our eyes just have a hard time handling, Discovery News explained. When the pitcher first tosses the ball, a batter relies on foveal or central vision to keep track of the round rawhide sphere.

However, approximately 20 feet into the ball’s journey, the batter switches to peripheral vision, then back to central vision by the time it crosses home plate. During the peripheral stage, hitters fail to notice the gradual change in direction of the curveball, the website said. Once they switch back to foveal vision, they notice it and perceive it as a sudden change in direction.

3. Tommy John surgery: no longer a career-killer

Ulnar collateral ligament (UCLR) reconstruction, better known to baseball fans as “Tommy John surgery,” once spelled the end for a Major League pitcher. Nowadays, however, it has become a fairly routine procedure, and some experts believe that it actually causes players that have it done to actually throw harder once they’ve fully recovered from the operation.

While the jury’s still out on the surgery’s impact on fastball velocity, research presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) in March 2014 did show that MLB pitchers actually win more games after the operation than before it.

Furthermore, they had significantly fewer walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) while also recording lower earned-run averages (ERA) than prior to their surgeries. Eighty-three percent of those who had UCLR were able to return for baseball for an average of 3.9 additional years.

4. Forecasting the 2015 season using mathematical models

Finally, we would be remiss if we did not include the annual MLB predictions from New Jersey Institute of Technology Mathematical Sciences Professor and Associate Dean Bruce Bukiet, who for the 18th consecutive year has applied mathematical analysis to calculate the number of wins that each MLB team should have during the regular season.

Bukiet, who is a New York Mets fan as well as a math whiz, uses a mathematical model that he first began developing in the 1980s as the basis for his predictions. Using those formulas, he has determined that the Washington Nationals will have the best record (99 wins) in the NL and the Detroit Tigers (94 wins) will earn the most victories in the American League. Play ball!

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