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Post details: The Unsung Physics of Baseball

The Unsung Physics of Baseball

One thing that intrigues me about baseball is how the dimensions of its ballparks are optimized for suspense. Not only is the depth of an outfield just enough for a homer to arch over, but the separation of bases has been carefully chosen so as to make the hitter a fair game should the ball be stopped by the first line of defense. And the same goes for stealing. The catcher's ball and the speeding stealer usually arrive at the same time - just as it happened this Friday during the Card's game against the Pirates when the St Louis jack-of-all-trades Rick Ankiel dashed across the empty interbase space like a wild meteor and his looming contour so confused the Pirates' baseman that he didn't quite emotionally connect with the incoming ball and allowed Ankiel to continue to third and gain much more from this adventure than he had originally hoped for. If the Pirates ever move to retail, their enterprise should start off with the slogan: "steal one, get one free".

Almost all the plays in baseball are exercises in kinetics. But the players hardly ever turn to the high school physics. They use their experience instead. In the 7th inning, the 3rd baseman Troy Glaus caught a low-flying line drive and because of a runner already at first, he had to quickly solve the following problem: the hitter H1 moves from the plate to the first with the velocity v1. Simultaneously the previous hitter H2 moves from the first to the second with velocity v2. Do you shoot for the elusive double play or do you go for the bird in hand arriving shortly at the terminal 1? Well, Glaus chose wisely the latter and the Pirates, despite the ruckus in the 9th, went home empty handed.

Watching batters on the field betting on the outcomes of exercises from elementary physics textbooks is what makes baseball so attractive for the science crowd. Now if only we could agree on whether the players are burning calories or kilojoules while at it.


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