The Private Citizen / "Play ball!"
Published 1:05 am, Friday, May 7, 2010
My maternal grandfather was a microbiologist and a university professor, but as a young man, in his spare time, he was also the catcher on a semi-pro baseball team in New York. According to family legend, he caught bare-handed.
When I knew him, later in his life, he had stopped playing baseball, but he would listen to games on the radio in his basement laboratory. Baseball games were commonly televised by the 1950s and 1960s, but you could listen to a game while simultaneously doing something else -- such as, in his case, bottling amoeba to send to high-school biology lab classes all over the country. The games he listened to were Yankee games. Perhaps the Yankees were simply what was on.
Curiously, although she had grown up in the same household, my mother was a Red Sox fan. She explained to me, when I was a child, that this was uncommon in our part of the world, naming the only other person we knew who supported the Boston team. Alas, she died in the summer of 2004, and the team never won the World Championship during her lifetime. Of course, I loyally picked up the banner, and it is fair to say that my active interest in baseball dates from about then.
I've done some reading: David Halberstam, Frank DeFord and Roger Angell all write consistently well about the game, and I enjoyed Richard Bradley's book on the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox one-game playoff. This year, to get ready for Opening Day, I read Robert K. Adair's The Physics of Baseball, and Michael Lewis's Moneyball. Lewis is a financial journalist who is perhaps best known for Liar's Poker and this year's The Big Short, but Moneyball is about how the underfunded Oakland A's competed credibly against the Yankees, among others, through their more intelligent use of statistics in a game that is full of statistics. The trick is that many of the common baseball stats, like batting average and earned-run average, are misleading because they comprise too many extraneous events, such as the effectiveness of the defense in both cases. A pitcher's ERA depends partly on how many hits his colleagues allow to turn into runs. On the other hand, there are measures that are more relevant, such as strikeouts, walks, and home runs in the case of pitchers, and walks and on-base percentage in the case of batters. The team that is more thoughtful in its choice of statistical measures has an almost unfair advantage against the team that has nothing going for it except years of tradition and an outsize bankroll.
The unexpected pleasure, though, was The Physics of Baseball. The author, Robert K. Adair, is described as "Sterling Professor of Physics at Yale University and Physicist to the National League, 1987-89." The dates are the clue: he was a faculty colleague of Bart Giamatti, who asked him for a monograph on the subject when he transitioned from president of Yale to commissioner of baseball. Adair obliged, but would take no payment except the title. The book is about 100 pages, alternating between anecdotes spanning a century of ball players, and equations with Greek letters for some of the variables. We learn, for example, that the "just 216 raised red cotton stitches" affect the aerodynamics of the formerly-horsehide sphere in ways that baffle the hitter, and exactly why and how this happens. There are graphs, with, for instance, curves representing force (up to 10,000 pounds) versus time (in milliseconds), for "muzzle velocities" of 58, 89 and 140 miles per hour (Figure 4.6). And, to the point, there is a two-page discussion toward the end, titled "How Far Can A Ball Be Hit?"
This is how the book came to my attention, five or so years ago: I was on the high school building committee, and we were dissuaded from putting a baseball diamond in Sturges Park because of the neighbors' fears for their living room windows across Mill Plain Road from it. Home plate would have been something like 450 feet from the street line, and these would have been high school players, but we decided this would be a fight we didn't need, and we went elsewhere. Adair says he estimates that 450 feet is about the human limit under standard conditions, pointing out that "no one -- not Ruth, not Gehrig, nor DiMaggio, Mantle or Maris ever hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium." He then imagines some abnormal conditions that could add to the range, such as a 95-mph fastball pitch, a pull toward the foul line, a 100-degree day in July, a 10-mph following wind, and a falling barometer, all of which combined could theoretically add another 100 feet. An aluminum bat, which is the weapon of choice everywhere except in the major leagues, can also add to the distance. Maybe the neighbors were right, but I might have had time to read the book sooner if I hadn't spent so many hours in building committee meetings.
In one of my earlier pieces, titled The Original Math Ambush, I suggested some impromptu math problems for readers to try at home. One of them, roughly, goes like this: How much will Jonathan Papelbon make this year, per pitch? I looked up some data, and I have worked out an answer. He has thrown 236 pitches in 12.0 innings as of the day before yesterday, while the Sox have played 27 games (winning, alas, only 13 of them), or about one sixth of their maximum imaginable season. If they win more, they will be ahead more often and need a closer to save games more often, and if their post-season lasts practically forever, he will have thrown perhaps a bit over 1,600 pitches by October or early November. This year, his salary is $9.35 million, which works out to not quite $5,850 per pitch. The next time you see him strike out a batter in maybe a minute or two, necessarily throwing at least three pitches to get three strikes, think of a classroom paraprofessional making that much in a whole year.
James H. Lee writes a regular column for the Fairfield Citizen.