28 October 2011

Amazing baseball!

Game 6 of this year's World Series between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals was one of the most thrilling baseball games I've ever seen.  The Rangers were one strike away from winning their first World Series in both the 9th and the 10th innings.  The Cardinals fought back each time.  The game ended in dramatic fashion when David Freese hit a solo home run in the bottom of the 11th to win it for the Cardinals.

As great a game as tonight's game was, I can't help but wonder how many sports fans missed the final couple of innings.  I saw 12:40 am on my clock here on the east coast of the US when Freese touched home plate with the game-ending run.  I have to get up early on Friday morning and get ready for work; many other sports fans will need to do the same.  Major League Baseball has got to do something about important games starting so late.  Sure, extra innings make for a late finish.  Still, one of the most thrilling games in the sport's championship series should not end at midnight, much less 12:40 am, on a weeknight.  I'm curious to know how television ratings for tonight's game changed as Thursday gave way to Friday on the east coast.

One interesting bit of physics caught my eye in tonight's game.  Albert Pujols led off the bottom of the 6th inning by striking out looking.  He took two straight pitches that appeared to cross the plate at roughly the same point.  The first was a breaking pitch that home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom called a ball, and rightly so because the pitch was low.  The second was a fastball that Cederstrom called a strike, much to the dismay of Pujols because that was strike three.  That pitch was low and should have been called a ball.

Think about the view of the two pitches from the umpire's point of view.  The breaking ball that Pujols took was dropping with an acceleration greater than that of the local acceleration due to gravity. The fastball that Pujols took for a called strike three was dropping with an acceleration less than the acceleration due to gravity.  Though he was wrong to call the latter pitch a strike, I can't blame Cederstrom too much for the missed call.  After having seen a ball dropping quickly to a plane below the strike zone, Cederstrom saw the next pitch at about the same location, but it was not accelerating downward as much as the previous pitch.  He clearly thought the pitched crossed the plate higher than the previous pitch.  Given that the human eye cannot fully track a Major League fastball during the roughly 0.4 seconds it takes to get from the pitcher's hand to home plate, and given the different downward accelerations of the two pitches, I can understand how Cederstrom could have perceived the two pitches as crossing the plate at different heights.

23 October 2011

All Blacks Win Rugby World Cup!

Following the 2011 Rugby World Cup has been challenging for me.  Besides the time difference between New Zealand and the east coast of the US, there is simply not much interest in rugby in my country.  The games are not readily available on standard television packages.  This is the first Rugby World Cup that I have followed, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it! Congratulations to the New Zealand All Blacks.  They won a tight match over the French Tricolores, 8-7.  This is New Zealand's second championship after having won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, also over France.

I will give one more shout out to my former editor, Trevor Lipscombe.  Reading his book, The Physics of Rugby, during this year's World Cup made for lots of fun (click here to get a copy).  I still have much to learn about rugby and its gloried history.  But, like everything else, rugby is constrained by the laws of physics.  Science gives me a good starting point for enjoying a sport I knew very little about just five years ago.  With any luck, I might be able to hop across the pond for a match or two in the 2015 World Cup in England.

16 October 2011

Dan Wheldon

As a physicist who researches the sports world, I have been asked if science dehumanizes sports.  I understand that basketball players do not hang in the air and fastballs do not rise.  The truth about how the universe works has always fascinated more than myths.  Scientific understanding of the sports world provides me with avenues to look at and enjoy sports in ways many people cannot. Understanding how a great sports feat is performed does the opposite for me of dehumanizing sports; it allows me to see how talented human beings can nearly reach the limits set by the constraining laws of physics.  The awe that that gives me is entirely human.

I saw the terrible crash that took the life of Dan Wheldon today (click here for an ESPN story).  The horror of the incident reminded me of how much humans push themselves and machines to cross a finish line in record time for the entertainment of those of us without the skill or the intestinal fortitude to embark on such a life.  Upon seeing a great sporting event, my jaw drops first because of the tingling I feel inside induced by watching something so magnificent.  Only later do I use science to help me understand what I saw.  I am quite sure that science will help gain understanding of how such a terrible crash happened in Las Vegas, Nevada.

First and foremost, however, is that a wonderfully talented 33-year-old driver was killed.  He won this year's Indy 500, his second win after his 2005 victory.  More import than any race, Emberton-born Dan Wheldon leaves behind a wife and two very young sons.  I have two young daughters.  Words fail me for what Wheldon's family must be going through.  For all that science helps us understand in the sports world, we are reminded today that real human beings are behind the helmets, masks, cars, and numbers that give us so many thrills.  Dan Wheldon gave us a lot of racing thrills.  My sincerest condolences go out to his family.

08 October 2011

Wins, Losses, and Quick Outs

I thoroughly enjoyed watching last night's Cardinals win over the Phillies.  I really wasn't pulling that hard for either team, but the pitching on both sides was a thing of beauty.  Chris Carpenter pitched a complete-game shutout for St. Louis, giving up just three hits and walking none.  Roy Halladay pitched eight innings for Philadelphia, gave up six hits, walked one, and allowed a first-inning run.

Carpenter clearly pitched better than Halladay, but not by leaps and bounds.  Halladay pitched a great game, but got the "loss" because his team couldn't score any runs for him.  Carpenter got the "win" even though his team mustered just one run.  Sure, Carpenter pitched a fantastic game, but the "win" and "loss" statistics for pitchers really don't say much.

Baseball playoffs are good examples of how small sample sizes do not reveal much.  The Cards advance and the Phillies go home after last night's game was decided by a single run.  The Phillies were 12 games better than the Cards over the regular season, which is comprised of 162 games for each team.

The Phillies finished with 12 wins more than the Cards.  What did that get them?  Philadelphia got to host three out of five playoff games in the first round of the playoffs.  That's really not much of a bonus after such a great regular season!  With fewer teams in the playoffs in past years, baseball better rewarded success over a long season.  There is now talk about adding more playoff teams.  What is the incentive to win 100 games when a team needs only to win 90 (no easy task in MLB!) to secure a playoff spot?  If more teams are added, I hope the team with the best record in each league will get a first-round bye.  In that scenario the regular season will mean a little more than it does now.  Sorry Philly fans.  Your team's 102 wins didn't help much in a five-game playoff series.  The Phillies outscored the Cards 21-19 over their five-game series, but the Cards got what mattered -- three wins.  Philadelphia was a quick out this year.