June 19, 2019

Touring the Bases With…Dave Baldwin

August 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The confrontation between batter and hitter defines baseball.  No one understands the scientific dynamic of those opposing forces better than Dave Baldwin, late sixties bullpen stalwart for the Washington Senators, a geneticist and engineer who studies batters and pitchers as mechanical and neurological entities.  His insights are fascinating and offer some important instructive insight into both pitcher and hitter that would benefit them both. Here is his interview.

TL.  You wrote an article on Baseball Analysts.com, “Unraveling the Batter’s Brain,” about the mental imaging of the batter from the moment the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand to the point of contact with the bat.  It sounded like the person who wanted to get inside the batter’s brain was a pitcher.  Was this in service of the fraternity of pitchers?

DB.  Every pitcher should study the batter’s brain, attempting to answer questions such as, “What does the pitch look like to the batter?” “How does the batter pre-process the decisions he must make?” and “How much time does he have before he must commit to his swing?” Discussions with Ted Williams helped me with the first two of those questions.  The third question required the research of physicists and psychologists.  I hope pitchers (or batters for that matter) find the article you mention helpful, but I doubt if any players will ever become aware of it.

TL.  In the article you talk about the importance of a pitcher setting up his pitches because batters keep a phantom image of the last pitch in their unconscious mind.  Should pitchers try to keep the pace brisk on the mound to keep that most recent image of the last pitch fresh?

DB.  At one time, pitching coaches such as John Sain suggested that pitchers should work rapidly and vary the speed of the ball with each pitch.  In 1974, Sain turned Jim Kaat back into a twenty-game winner with this philosophy.  Recently, I’ve been told by a psychologist that the “phantom image” can hang around much longer than a few seconds, so the batter can’t do much to foil this strategy by stepping out of the box and stalling.  I don’t know whether many pitchers today use Sain’s method, however.

TL.  You use Steve Hamilton’s “folly floater” as an example of a pitch slow enough and with enough height on it to get the batter’s conscious mind actively engaged in the decision making to his detriment.  Several current pitchers use extremely slow curves–62 mph–with great success.  Is this an example of the same thing?

DB. I doubt that the reason a 62 mph pitch is effective is the same reason that the folly floater or Rip Sewell’s eephus worked.  Hamilton would toss his pitch to over twenty feet in height, so the angle of descent was much steeper than batters were used to seeing.  This presented a problem – how should the batter angle his swing?  A steeply angled swing would be most likely to connect squarely with the ball, but it would merely produce a high pop-up or fly.  A more nearly level swing will be less likely to make contact.  The batter’s conscious mind has plenty of time to struggle with this question.  The best strategy is to take the pitch since it will most likely be out of the (skewed) strike zone, but everyone in the ballpark is thinking, “My great grandmother could hit that pitch,” so the batter feels pressured to swing – to prove that he is at least as good as all those great grandmothers.

TL.  The engineering of pitches is something you have analyzed at length.  In Edward Achorn’s book on Hoss Radbourn he attributes an extremely slow, but hard and late breaking curve as one of Radbourn’s best pitches that embarrassed the best batters of the day.  What are the dynamics of the slow curve and is it harder to throw a sharp breaking 62 mph curve than a sharp breaking 82 mph curve.

DB. I don’t know what makes a sharply breaking curve “sharp.”  The deflection of the pitch caused by the ball’s spin is a smooth arc, but the deflection from the original direction increases approximately quadratically throughout the flight of the pitch (see R. K. Adair, The Physics of Baseball, 3rd edition, page 50), so in a sense it also breaks (but not suddenly).  The longer the ball is in the air (the slower the curveball), the greater this break.  So perhaps the question is, why do some curves appear to break sharply?  One possibility is that batters swing harder on slower pitches, and in doing so, they “pull their head” and move their eyes a bit.  A curve will be exaggerated suddenly if the image of the ball suddenly shifts from foveal to peripheral viewing (see a demonstration of this at this website:

http://illusioncontest.neuralcorrelate.com/2009/the-break-of-the-curveball/ ).

TL.  You pitched for the best set of eyes to lock onto a baseball, Ted Williams.  Was he any good with the pitchers?  Dick Bosman thought he was, though he gave most of the credit to Sid Hudson.

DB.  Ted helped me a lot by telling me how batters were thinking.  He would talk to anyone about hitting – didn’t matter whether you were a pitcher or a position player.  He gave me a better idea about pitch selection, for example.  Sid Hudson was an excellent pitching coach, by the way.

TL.  In your book, Snake Jazz, you talk about tormenting Ted Williams, could you share your favorite Ted Williams torment?

DB.  I wouldn’t say “favorite” – I wasn’t trying to create problems for him, after all.  We just had some difficulty understanding one another.  I would be effective for several games and about the time he thought he could trust me with the game on the line, I turned into a batting practice pitcher, or worse.  Once, in Seattle against the pathetic Pilots, he brought me into a wild game, probably expecting me to bring some stability with me.  I surprised him by walking the bases loaded and giving up a grand slam homer to Rich Rollins.  We lost 16 to 13.  The Senators traded me to the Pilots at the end of the season, probably as retribution for both me and the Pilots.

TL.  After the mound was lowered and the strike zone reduced in 1969, the game took off on a slow but steady offensive climb from 1969 until the muscled version of today.  I would love to hear your opinions about how the game was played in the sixties and seventies in contrast to today?

DB.  You know by just looking at today’s rosters that the current players are bigger and stronger than at any time in the past.  As you say, a slow but steady climb in size and strength.  Athletes in general are faster and quicker today — just better athletes in all sports.  We played the game with greater skill and sharper thinking.  Today’s game must involve much more power than most of us had.  The radar gun is greatly responsible for that.  We had no quantitative measures of pitchers’ speeds.  Scouts judged pitchers more on whether they were able to get batters out.

TL.  You have an interest in women playing professional baseball?  What do you see happening there these days?

DB.  I think pitchers like Eri Yoshida and Chelsea Baker could give baseball a big boost.  Everyone assumes that a woman has little chance for success in baseball, but I think a knuckleballer might be able to make it to the majors.  Women aren’t going to throw a 95 mph fastball, but then, not many men can, either.  A knuckleball doesn’t need to go faster than 65 or 70 mph – in fact, it has more movement at slower speeds.  Since MLB is always most concerned about making money — can you imagine the crowds a woman pitching in the majors would draw?  As it is, baseball isn’t very popular with women — American football, soccer and basketball are more popular.  This is a great opportunity for baseball to gain many new fans.

TL  As a genetic engineer, do you believe women have any physical advantage in throwing a knuckle-ball?

DB. I don’t know whether women have a physical advantage in throwing this pitch.  They might have a psychological advantage, though.  I think women are less likely to try to throw the pitch too hard (which makes it tumble rather than corkscrew, wiggle, or any of those other squiggly twists it can take).  Women also tend to be more diligent in learning new skills – more patience in getting the feel of the knuckleball.  This is a pitch that takes a great deal of patience, and many male pitchers have given up on it quickly

TL.  Did your interest in the mental dynamics of the game between pitcher and hitter influence your decision to return to school for advanced degrees?

DB. Not a bit.  I developed an interest in ecology when I was a kid, so I earned a B.S. in zoology.  When I began my graduate work my interests expanded to include genetics.  My adviser was an ecological geneticist studying natural populations of Drosophila (fruit flies), and that determined the direction of my research.  The mental dynamics stuff has been strictly a baseball pastime for me.

TL.  There has been discussion from some–Nolan Ryan prominently–that there is too much emphasis on pitch count monitoring for young pitchers.  As a pitcher and scientist, what are you thoughts on how the game conditions young pitchers?

DB.  I wouldn’t want pitch counts if I were a young pitcher today, but then I threw nearly every day (except when it rained) from the time I was about 12 until I retired from pro ball at the age of 36.  I had my best season when I was 35 (but it was in the minors so it didn’t count) so I didn’t get burned out.   I was a sidearmer, however, and it’s much easier on the arm than throwing overhand or three-quarters

On Dave Baldwin’s website (http://www.snakejazz.com/ ) there is the gentlemanly disclaimer, “Baseball was never meant to be taken seriously.  If it were, we would play it with a javelin instead of a ball.” The quote is from one of his mentors, Max Surkont.  His book, Snake Jazz, is a memoir about his time in the game and the people he met from Ted Williams to the Seri Indians in Mexico.

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