Hitting a major league fastball is impossible
by no n., Age 13
, Grade 6, mason middle, mason, MICHIGAN USA
A batter facing a 90 mph fastball has less than a quarter second to see the pitch, judge its speed and location, decide what to do, then start to swing.
To make contact, the bat must meet the ball within an eighth of an inch of dead center and at precisely the right millisecond as the 3-inch spinning sphere whizzes by.
It is a superhuman feat that is "clearly impossible," said Robert Adair, a Yale physicist who has studied the science of baseball.
Adair reported on his analysis of the art of hitting big league pitching at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting this weekend.
When big league pitcher Randy Johnson throws a 90 mph fastball, it takes only 400 milliseconds—400 one-thousandths of a second—for the ball to reach the plate, Adair said.
It takes about 100 milliseconds for the eye of the batter to see the ball and send the image to the brain. It takes 75 more milliseconds for the brain to process the information, and gauge the speed and location of the pitch.
During those fractional seconds, the ball already has traveled 14 feet.
The batter then must decide, in just 25 milliseconds, whether to swing or to let the ball go by. If the decision is to swing, Adair said the batter's brain then picks a swing pattern -high, low, inside, outside. This takes 100 milliseconds.
By the time the batter is ready to start his swing, 225 milliseconds have passed and the ball now is only 25 feet from the plate.
Adair said the swing starts when the brain sends signals to the legs to start the batter's stride forward. It takes 15 milliseconds for the fastest signal to reach the lowest muscle in the leg.
The swing itself takes 150 milliseconds, so if the bat is to meet the ball, the swing must begin just 250 milliseconds after the ball left the pitcher's hand.
Adair said the swing involves moving a 2-pound bat at more than 80 mph and delivering up to nine horsepower of energy to the ball.
During the first 50 milliseconds of the swing, the batter can stop the swing and let the ball pass. But after 100 milliseconds, the bat is moving at 70 percent of its final speed "and the swing can no longer be checked," Adair said. Too much energy is moving forward and there's simply not enough time for the muscles to react.
The physicist said the batter not only must gauge where to put the bat, but also precisely time the swing so that baseball and bat arrive at the same place, at the same time.
"If the swing by a right-hand batter is seven milliseconds too late, the squarely hit ball will sail foul past first base," he said. "If the swing is early, the ball will be foul on the third base side."
Adair said that most of the decisions a batter makes about swinging or not comes from information collected by the eye in the first 100 milliseconds of the pitch's flight.
In the 1880s, the pitcher's rubber was 50 feet from the plate instead of the current 60 feet, six inches.
A Randy Johnson-style pitcher in the 1880s could have delivered the ball to the plate from 50 feet in just 305 milliseconds, Adair said.
"The batter might as well just close his eyes and swing after he sees the ball released," Adair said.