Sports Science: Pitching!

We, as a nation, love applied physics. If anything, that’s all that sports are.

With the Houston Astros on the brink of advancing further in the 2015 Major League Baseball playoffs, take a look at this physics-based pitching preview of tonight’s American League Divisional Series Game 5 matchup between the Astros and the Kansas City Royals.

My baseball coach growing up was my friend’s dad, named Paul Mancillas. He loved to say that hitting was timing and that pitching was about disrupting that timing. He could not have been more correct. Baseball is a sport in which a fraction of a second can mean the difference between hitting a home run and swinging and missing a pitch.

The announced starter for the Astros is Collin McHugh, who was the winning pitcher in 19 games during the regular season as well as in Game 1 of this series in Kansas City. He relies on four types of pitches: a four-seam fastball, a curveball, a cutter, and a changeup.

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The grip for a four-seam fastball sets two fingers across the stitching, held horizontally. The grip launches the ball into a backspin, causing greater acceleration through the air. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

McHugh throws his fastball at approximately 90 miles per hour. This means that the ball will travel the 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate in approximately 458 milliseconds! Astros hitters will have even less time to react; the Royals’ expected starter Johnny Cueto throws his fastball at around 93 mph, so it will reach home plate in about 444 milliseconds!

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An average MLB player can locate the moving baseball in about 140 milliseconds and swing his bat in approximately 150 milliseconds. So subtracting that away from the previous numbers, the batter has about 150 milliseconds to make the decision to swing or not swing at the pitch. Take too long to make the decision, and you swing too late and miss the pitch or foul it away to the opposite side.

But if a pitcher only throws fastballs at the same speed, he becomes too predictable, and a batter can easily time his swing to make good contact. That’s where the other pitches come in.

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A wider, more even grip across the stitching makes a changeup move more slowly. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

A changeup is a pitch that looks like a fastball while moving but arrives at the plate much more slowly. McHugh and Cueto each throw a changeup at around 83 mph, which travels to home plate in approximately 497 milliseconds. A batter expecting a fastball would start his swing 50 milliseconds early and, instead of hitting the ball with the fattest part of the bat, miss the pitch completely.

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For a cutter or cut fastball, a slightly off-center grip causes the ball to curve right just before crossing the plate. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

In addition to changes in speed, some pitchers rely on pitches that move horizontally or vertically. McHugh throws a cutter, or cut fastball, which has the speed of a fastball but moves horizontally right before it reaches home plate. A pitcher would hold the ball similarly to a fastball, but with a slightly off-center grip. Since a batter’s timing won’t be disrupted by a change in speed, this pitch is designed to create weaker contact with the ball. The barrel of the bat would be in one place while the ball would be in another, usually resulting in an easy-to-field ground ball.

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A curveball relies on a different grip and throwing technique to achieve changes in both movement and speed. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

Combine movement with change in speed to get the deadly curveball. A great curveball has what’s called 12-to-6 motion, meaning that it dips straight down as if going from the 12:00 position on a clock to 6:00. This occurs because of the spin of the ball. The rotation of the ball causes the air around it to rotate as well. As the air is ejected on the upper side of the ball, the ball itself moves in the opposite direction, downwards. This is Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion in action!

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Proper curveball pitching technique calls for a sideways release of the ball. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

In addition, many pitchers throw a curveball at least 10 mph slower than their fastball; McHugh actually throws his at around 74 mph, which reaches home plate in about 557 milliseconds, about 100 milliseconds slower than his fastball! The combination of reduced speed and change in direction makes hitting a curveball challenging for batters of all kinds.

The most important feature of the baseball to pitchers are the seams, those red stitches that hold the ball together. The stitches themselves create a disturbance in the air molecules around the ball, resulting in a clean pocket for the baseball to travel through with less resistance. This allows the ball to reach greater speeds.

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Want to see if you can hit a major league fastball? All you need is a ruler and a friend! Have your friend hold the ruler in the air, and position your finger and thumb around the 0 centimeter mark. Tell your friend to drop the ruler at some point without telling you when, and try to catch the ruler between your fingers. Note the position of your fingers on the ruler; if you caught the ruler in 11 centimeters or less, you have a reaction time of about 149.8 milliseconds, which would be just fast enough to hit a 90 mph pitch! Now you just have to work on swinging the bat in 150 milliseconds, too, and maybe you could be the next big thing on the 2016 Houston Astros!

Let’s go ‘stros!

Sahil Patel: Legacy Camper

Once in a while, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Xplorations program gives children so much enthusiasm about science that they never really leave the museum. Sahil Patel discovered the museum as a child with the Xplorations program, and moved on to become an Ecoteen as he grew older. Now, he is an HMNS Outreach Presenter and a writer for the BEYONDbones blog.

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Patel teaches a children’s class about the density of various items for the Science Start Outreach Program. Interested in the Houston Museum of Natural Science since age 6, Patel hopes to share his excitement with other kids, cultivating their education through HMNS.

HMNS: When did you start attending summer camp here? And why?

SP: I started attending camp when I was six years old. I didn’t start going to school until Kindergarten, but I would go to work with my mom every day. Every day at lunch time, we would go to either the zoo or the museum, depending on weather, and I was hooked. The real reason I came to camp is probably so my mom could get me out of her office, but I kept coming back because I just never had a bad time. There wasn’t a single class I didn’t enjoy.

HMNS: What was your favorite class? What made it your favorite? Any stories from that class?

SP: Every summer, I had to take the Space Commander class; I must have taken it at least four times. My favorite part was the Expedition Center mission to Mars or the Moon on Friday afternoon. I loved it so much that I had a birthday party mission one year! Every time, I tried to be on a different team inside and was mostly successful. My favorite of those had to be the CIMCOM team, which got to talk to mission control. Years later, when I was a Moran Ecoteen, I got to be a part of mission control for a summer camp mission and loved every second of that, too!

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As an Ecoteen in 2010, Patel interned with Paleontology Curator David Temple.

HMNS: What is your favorite memory from summer camp?

SP: I enjoyed the camps that used to take field trips; one of my favorites was called Thrills and Chills, and the physics-based camp ended with a trip to Astroworld on Friday! Sadly, neither Thrills and Chills nor Astroworld still exist. I also enjoyed the Senior Coastal Ecology class that would take daytrips to Galveston to study wildlife and various aspects of the gulf coast, but this camp was discontinued in the late 2000’s. But I’d say my favorite memory was from when I took Crime Scene Investigators one year. Friday afternoon of Crime Scene Investigators involves a crime scene that the Xplorations staff and Moran Ecoteens set up, and our class went about examining evidence and following clues to try and figure out who committed the crime. Low and behold, it was our TA, who took off out the door and down the hall before he was captured and brought back to the classroom to explain himself.

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HMNS: If you could go back to Xplorations Summer Camp for one week this summer, what class would you take and why?

SP: I’ve taken quite a few of the camps that are still offered today, but one that I didn’t get to that I always wanted to take was Wizard Science Academy. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released on my tenth birthday, and I was obsessed from the opening chorus. The Potter-themed summer camps weren’t created until I was too old to go to camp, and I always felt like I missed out on something amazing. That was confirmed for me when my brother took Wizard Science Academy four years ago and came home with a wand, a broomstick, and a Triwizard Tournament championship.

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As an Ecoteen, Patel was present for the blooming of Lois the Corpse Flower in 2010.

HMNS: What made you decide to come back and work at HMNS?

SP: I guess you could say that I never left. Since I started summer camp at age 6, the only summer I did not work at the museum was when I was 14, because I thought I was ineligible for the Moran Ecoteen Program at that age. HMNS has always held a special place in my heart, from the moment I saw the massive T. rex in the old Glassell Hall. The museum has always made me question what I know, motivated me to learn further, and inspired me to pursue a career in science. Over the years, I fell in love with this place as I learned more and more about it. I got to a point where a summer without HMNS was a summer wasted. I wanted to show others why I was so passionate about this place and what made HMNS so special to me. Coming to work here was a no-brainer.

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With HMNS Outreach, Patel teaches children TEKS-based science skills with the Chevron Earth Science on Wheels: Dinosaur Discovery program.

HMNS: How did the Xplorations Summer Camp influence your life?

SP: Xplorations Summer Camp has had nothing but a positive impact on my life and thousands of others. The museum set me up for success by instilling in me a love of learning at a young age; Xplorations made science fun! With a summer’s worth of learning at camp, I was ready to go when school started up again in August, and I had all kinds of new, useful knowledge to impress my classmates. But most importantly, the summers I spent at Xplorations opened a door for me to a true passion: teaching. Xplorations led me to a career at HMNS. I wouldn’t be here today without it.

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Even hard at work at his desk in the outreach office, scheduling educational programs, Patel has a good time. He can’t imagine working anywhere else.

 

Unmasking Everyday Superheroes with HMNS Outreach!

Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Wait, no, it actually is a bird, flying faster than most cars.

Superpowers, such as the Flash-like super speed of the peregrine falcon above, are abundant throughout the natural world and specifically highlighted by several specimens in the HMNS Outreach collection.

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Meet Hamilton the blue-tongued skink, who has the ability to regrow most of his tail should it be separated from his body!

In addition to a stuffed peregrine falcon that travels with our Texas Wildlife program, the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels lineup is full of noteworthy unlikely heroes. Like Wolverine of X-Men, traveling specimens such as our blue-tongued skink from Reptiles & Amphibians or starfish from Invertebrates exhibit regeneration after loss of tail and limb, respectively.

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Vinny the vinegaroon has an awesome superpower, the ability to spray acid with his abdomen!

Our newest LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels program, Awesome Arachnids, gets your Spidey-Sense tingling with a few undercover superheroes. The program will bring out specimens such as an emperor scorpion, which glows electric blue under ultraviolet light, and a vinegaroon, which sprays an acetic acid and caprylic acid mixture from its abdomen when threatened. And don’t forget about the wall-crawling creatures that spawned Spiderman! Awesome Arachnids also features two tarantulas, who can climb with special retractable claws! 

Superheroes like Batman and Iron Man use science and technology to their advantage when fighting crime, and after a ConocoPhillips Science On Stage presentation, your knowledge of chemistry or physics can rival theirs! Learn about the super heat used to produce colors in fireworks with Cool Chemistry, or explore the tricks anyone can use to acquire super strength through simple machines with Motion Commotion!

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Stepping back in time 70 million years could have brought you face to face with these supersized T. rex teeth!

Very few superheroes have the ability to travel through time, but kids can harness this ability through Chevron Earth Science On Wheels! Shift back millions of years and explore the characteristics and adaptations of prehistoric life with Dinosaur Discovery, or combine time travel with super smarts in Know Your Rocks, in which students save the day by classifying different types of rocks.

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Children and adults alike love the Discovery Dome for its superb selection of shows, available in English and Spanish!

We certainly can’t forget about the superhero qualities of the men and women working in outer space. With hazards ranging from freezing temperatures to rapidly moving matter to a lack of air, outer space is a place fraught with danger. Learn more about the extremes of life in space and much more with our Discovery Dome, which features a wide selection of shows from the Burke Baker Planetarium!

Every hero has a story, and you can unmask your own with HMNS Outreach, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood science museum.

Contact us at outreach@hmns.org or (713) 639-4758 to book your HMNS Outreach program today!

HMNS in the Classroom: Amazing arthropods model for middle schoolers

Those expecting a typical runway show were in for a surprise; the models all had at least six legs, nobody was showing off the latest fall collection, and the paparazzi consisted of a group of art students at Johnston Middle School.

A student concentrates while sketching one of the eight legs on Peanut, the Costa Rican Curly Hair Tarantula. Peanut was very cooperative and stood still the whole day for the classes.

A student concentrates while sketching one of the eight legs on Peanut, the Costa Rican Curly Hair Tarantula. Peanut was very cooperative and stood still the whole day for the classes.

HMNS’ LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels traveled to Christina Gutierrez Gonzalez’s art class October 1-2 to model for a group of talented middle school artists. Exotic specimens from the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s insect zoo spent the days playing muse as the students learned about the arthropods and practiced their sketching.

A student smiles while observing a Giant African Millipede attempt to escape its plexiglass enclosure. While it is just a little too small to get out right now, this millipede is expected to grow up to one foot long.

A student smiles while observing a Giant African Millipede attempt to escape its plexiglass enclosure. While it is just a little too small to get out right now, this millipede is expected to grow up to one foot long.

In February 2013, Gonzalez booked the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels program for the same purpose, and after the presentation yielded fun and fantastic artwork, she decided to try it again, this time with bugs.

A student sketches a Giant Prickly Stick, who is just trying to blend in with his stick. This species of walking stick will curl its abdomen and mimic a scorpion if threatened.

A student sketches a Giant Prickly Stick, who is just trying to blend in with his stick. This species of walking stick will curl its abdomen and mimic a scorpion if threatened.

Many students got the chance to draw multiple of the five live and five once-living arthropods present.

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A student colors in the wings of a Blue Morpho butterfly. While the butterfly’s upper wings are a brilliant, bright blue, the undersides are a darker brown with eye spots.

While the bugs lounged around, the students were hard at work, carefully drawing outlines in their sketchbooks and filling in gaps with pencils.

Two students draw the outline of Stewart, the Giant Long-Legged Katydid. This species of katydid may be the largest and loudest in the world, but they are herbivorous and very gentle; Stewart was a very good model!

Two students draw the outline of Stewart, the Giant Long-Legged Katydid. This species of katydid may be the largest and loudest in the world, but they are herbivorous and very gentle; Stewart was a very good model!

The event was a hit once again. One young man stopped the HMNS presenters as they left for the day and gave them a thumbs up, saying, “Thanks for the awesome sixth period!”

A student colors in the legs of Peanut with alternate bands of black and yellow. Peanut, like all arachnids, has eight legs and two main body segments.

A student colors in the legs of Peanut with alternate bands of black and yellow. Peanut, like all arachnids, has eight legs and two main body segments.

Bugs On Wheels and our other Outreach programs, such as TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels, ConocoPhillips Science On Stage, and Chevron Earth Science On Wheels, bring the wonders of the Houston Museum of Natural Science to you through hands-on and interactive presentations. For further information on these programs and more, visit our HMNS Outreach website or send us an email at outreach@hmns.org!

A student shows off his finished rendition of an Atlas Beetle behind the specimen itself. While its horns look scary, these beetles are not harmful to humans and are often kept as pets.

A student shows off his finished rendition of an Atlas Beetle behind the specimen itself. While its horns look scary, these beetles are not harmful to humans and are often kept as pets.

For more information on HMNS’ outreach programs, click here.

For more information on LyondellBasell Bugs on Wheels, click here.