Behold the absolute mind-bogglery of a knuckleball in flight

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MLB pitcher R.A. Dickey* slings an erratic knuckleball pitch, posing a challenge for batter and catcher alike. The ball has been colorized to highlight its almost total lack of spin, which usually serves to stabilize the ball's trajectory.

A baseball's seams make it an imperfect sphere, which can lead to some screwy flight behavior when there's no spin to steady things out. Ivan R. Dee provides a good explanation of knuckleball dynamics in chapter 1 of The Knucklebook:

In the action of the knuckleball… some stitches are moving toward the flow of air in the front, and others are moving away, at a slow speed. The stitches move around the ball in quire a complex curve on a knuckleball, and the ball may rotate at different rates in different ways. This causes the swirls of air to change size and direction, form and disappear, and move location on the ball, thus producing changing locations of low pressure that really can't be predicted. The wake behind a single knuckleball at various points in flight may look like this:

Written By: Robert T. Gonzalez
continue to source article at io9.com

26 COMMENTS

  1. oh yes, this is very important – anything to do with the religion which is sport, and of which i am an atheist, is important. perish the thought that we accord the same attention to the beauty of the human body in balletic flight; or that we get all ecstatic over a teacher’s successfully teaching a class; but no, if it has to do with what (mostly) men do over and over to a bit of leather, then by all means let’s get giddy. sport and religion, two of the things had hold back civilisation – the film, the Barbarian Invasion was not too far off the mark.

    • You sound like a really fun person to hang out with. Not.
      The objective here is to explore the science behind the behavior of a knuckleball.
      Lighten up.

      In reply to #1 by Net:

      oh yes, this is very important – anything to do with the religion which is sport, and of which i am an atheist, is important. perish the thought that we accord the same attention to the beauty of the human body in balletic flight; or that we get all ecstatic over a teacher’s successfully teaching a…

      • In reply to #2 by sethdhanson:

        You sound like a really fun person to hang out with. Not.
        The objective here is to explore the science behind the behavior of a knuckleball.
        Lighten up.

        In reply to #1 by Net:

        oh yes, this is very important – anything to do with the religion which is sport, and of which i am an atheist, is importa…

        Why accord such banal activities as hitting or throwing a ball any attention, scientific or otherwise? The time, money and energy fun people put into sport would be much better diverted to alleviating poverty or improving education. I have no objection to having fun with a ball as an occasional recreational pursuit; my beef is not with the activity per se so much as the amount of attention accorded it. I am not anti-sport. I simply object to the amount of attention devoted to what can be seen as the opium of the masses. This is so funny. It’s like an atheist arguing against faith-heads.

    • In reply to #1 by Net:

      oh yes, this is very important – anything to do with the religion which is sport, and of which i am an atheist, is important. perish the thought that we accord the same attention to the beauty of the human body in balletic flight; or that we get all ecstatic over a teacher’s successfully teaching a…

      If you want to get a grasp of the power of baseball read WP Kinsella: Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes To Iowa, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, The Dixon Cornbelt League and Other Baseball Stories, Box Socials. The Thrill of the Grass.
      Might change your mind about the game.

      • In reply to #4 by kraut:

        In reply to #1 by Net:

        oh yes, this is very important – anything to do with the religion which is sport, and of which i am an atheist, is important. perish the thought that we accord the same attention to the beauty of the human body in balletic flight; or that we get all ecstatic over a teacher’s…

        no. you don’t get my point. i acknowledge what you call the power of the baseball. that is not in contention. but to me, that is just like saying, “oh but wait, if you want to understand the power of christianity – read the bible … islam – read the koran “. also, i have read the book you mention and seen the film. it’s one of my favourites but it is not about baseball. if you think that, then you have missed the point there, too. it’s about a man’s coming to terms with his father. baseball is merely the vehicle. it could easily have been any other, perish the thought, sport or activity.

        • In reply to #9 by Net:

          In reply to #4 by kraut:

          In reply to #1 by Net:

          that is just like saying, “oh but wait, if you want to understand the power of christianity – read the bible … islam – read the koran “.

          Net, how do you make that huge Leap of Faith? Are baseball players and fans flying planes into buildings? Are women being stoned to death if they sit in they are caught playing the game? Are umpires beheaded for making a bad call? Unfortunately, this has derailed the point of the article, understanding physics. Perhaps you should start a discussion on the terrible evils of sports – I’d be curious as to the evidence and data you have gathered to substantiate that sports and religion are comparable in terms of their ability to cause psychological harm, hold back civilization, halt scientific advancement, justify genocide, rape, and murder, and control the lives of women and children.

          • In reply to #17 by Elisabeth Cornwell:

            In reply to #9 by Net:

            In reply to #4 by kraut:

            In reply to #1 by Net:

            that is just like saying, “oh but wait, if you want to understand the power of christianity – read the bible … islam – read the koran “.

            Net, how do you make that huge Leap of Faith? Are baseball players and fans flying pl…

            Well, there’s no faith involved. It’s all empirical observation. Sport is dominated by men, as are all religions. The tedium of the repetitive actions involved is attenuated by the distractions of of elaborate costumes, fanfare, and, these days, technological gimmicks. Most people follow in the sidelines on pews or benches or in front of TV whilst the elite few get to perform and receive glory. Fidelity to different teams is as fierce as that to be found among different religious sects. The list of parallels just goes on and on.

    • In reply to #1 by Net:

      oh yes, this is very important – anything to do with the religion which is sport, and of which i am an atheist, is important. perish the thought that we accord the same attention to the beauty of the human body in balletic flight; or that we get all ecstatic over a teacher’s successfully teaching a…

      I am a female, I played baseball (hardball) with my brothers and neighbors while growing up, learned to pitch, and my younger sister played softball. During my childhood, Dodger games were a family event. Sports is not an evil pursuit, nor is it a ‘male’ activity – children will event games to play no matter what the circumstances. The point of the article, as Sethdhansen pointed out was about physics, which is why I asked that it be posted.

      In terms of American baseball (yes, Rounders probably had an influence on the game) – its history stemming from the Civil War through the civil rights movement is extremely interesting and an important aspect of US history.

      • In reply to #15 by Elisabeth Cornwell:

        In reply to #1 by Net:

        oh yes, this is very important – anything to do with the religion which is sport, and of which i am an atheist, is important. perish the thought that we accord the same attention to the beauty of the human body in balletic flight; or that we get all ecstatic over a teacher’s…

        As a female, you will never be allowed to get a certain level of admiration and respect but you will never be accorded top position, and glory. Nobody said anything about sport’s being evil but there is often a considerable level of violence involved. And families and others being involved is just the same as it is in religions: it seems to be more about the social dimensions than any game per se. Just let a young boy in a family proclaim that he is not interested in sport, and watch the parents, especially the father, recoil in horror, and wonder at what the neighbours will think. Women’s embracing of sport is a little like the down-trodden identifying with their persecutor. Sport, just like the world at large, is still very much a man’s world.

        • In reply to #22 by Net:

          Women’s embracing of sport is a little like the down-trodden identifying with their persecutor. Sport, just like the world at large, is still very much a man’s world.

          I’m not real big on sports either but I think it’s kind of narrow minded if we try to impose our beliefs on the world. I think it’s very possible for a woman to love a sport and want to excel for all kinds of positive reasons. Women want to demonstrate excellence and success just like anyone else and if a woman wants to do that in sports I think she should be encouraged not dissuade or told she is ” identifying with [her] persecutor”.

          Look at Billy Jean King for example An excellent role model for women and she helped the woman’s movement quite a bit when she became famous and demonstrated that women could draw fans also.

          • In reply to #24 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #22 by Net:

            Women’s embracing of sport is a little like the down-trodden identifying with their persecutor. Sport, just like the world at large, is still very much a man’s world.

            I’m not real big on sports either but I think it’s kind of narrow minded if we try to impose our beliefs on…

            I think the imposition comes from the sports world. It is almost impossible to avoid sport if one is not into it. And, of course a woman can love sport. I never said otherwise. What I did say was that she would never enjoy the same attention or admiration a man would get no matter how good she is. Billy Jean King did indeed demonstrate that women could draw fans as well; as did mother Teresa show that women could attract attention in religion but nowhere near as much as the Pope.

  2. In other words, it’s impossible to throw a knuckleball with a rubber ball, or any other perfectly sphere-shaped object. I wonder how the trajectory of an American football might be informed by it’s stitches.

  3. I love it! Great to watch. Strangely, where I come from, we call this a rank full toss outside the off stump – a really bad ball, loosely translated. But given that (i) we have slightly broader and much flatter bats and (ii) my national team has just been trounced 0-5 by its deadliest enemies, perhaps I’m in no position to poke fun!

  4. Let’s not forget that the best part of team sports in general is to take (most of) the bloodshedding out of warfare by removing it from the battlefield with it’s nasty sharp weapons, to the sports field with pigs bladders and the like.

    Now I am sorry to say that the following video clip is an example of a barbarous people (Taliban), proving an exception to the civilising influence of sport and showing their fanatic inhumanity by playing football with human heads.

    Sorry to go slightly off-topic.

  5. Always wondered about how that works. Interesting stuff. And one doesn’t need to have an interest in baseball as a sport to be interested in ball flight physics – just an interest in science. The same can be said about projectile ballistics. Just because I find the subject interesting doesn’t make me a gun enthusiast.

  6. The ball doesn’t spin. If I understand it correctly, the strange trajectory is caused by the stitches. But then again, throwing a knuckleball should be very easy to do, it behaves this way automatically. Or is there yet a special technique involved?

    • In reply to #18 by hfaber:

      The ball doesn’t spin. If I understand it correctly, the strange trajectory is caused by the stitches. But then again, throwing a knuckleball should be very easy to do, it behaves this way automatically. Or is there yet a special technique involved?

      Yes, involving the knuckles, and no it’s hard to throw a ball with some speed and zero spin.

      To try it yourself curl your fingers in on themselves and hold the ball with the resultant outside of fingers and thumb. It’s tricky and trickier still to get it on target. I understand that’s why they deserve so much money compared to their marks, sorry, spectators.

  7. Funny story about that- The knuckler also stresses the catchers and at one point they tried over-sized mitts to help out. Joe Garagiola who caught the Cardinals back in the day said of himself (loosely quoting), “My manager was talking to the owner the other day and told him he got a new glove for Garagioal. The owner said, ‘You made a great trade.”

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