VSL:SCIENCE // The science of fastballs

It’s a quintessential American ritual: As summer winds down, baseball season heats up, with tight pennant races and record-breaking feats. For scientists, however, there has always been something inherently mysterious about the sport: How do players manage to hit a fastball?

A new book, Your Brain on Cubs, lays out the paradox. A typical major-league pitch takes about 0.35 seconds to travel from the hand of the pitcher to home plate. (That’s the amount of time in between heartbeats.) Unfortunately for batters, it takes about 0.30 seconds for their muscles to initiate a swing, leaving their brain an impossibly brief one-twentieth of a second to make a decision. (Studies suggest that the brain requires at least twice that much time.) So how do the players do it? By collecting information about the pitch long before it’s actually thrown. As soon as the pitcher begins his windup, the batter will automatically start to pick up on “anticipatory clues” that help him winnow down the list of possibilities. Although hitters aren’t consciously aware of these details, they make the act of hitting possible.

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