You had to be a Musial to see it Early and Often

a presentational excerpt from "The Physics of Baseball" by Robert K. Adair, Ph.D.

The featured illustration above is a presentational excerpt here from “The Physics of Baseball” by Robert K. Adair, Ph.D.


Stan Musial was no physicist by degree, but he often spoke about hitting in ways that went way beyond the suggestion that he possessed an uncanny ability to see pitches early in the delivery and to know from memory what their direction of spin meant for him by the time they each reached the plate. Musial denied that he could actually see the spin of the ball.

In a 2009 Joint interview for Sporting News Magazine with Musial and Tony Gwynn, both denied that they could see the spin of the ball coming in, but neither may be able to report accurately what great vision and the unconscious mind is picking up in that minuscule lapse of time that it takes for the ball to reach the plate over the course of pitches in the thousands they have each seen as incredible batters. It almost  goes without saying that a hitter that understands where the ball is going by its spin, who also senses or sees the ball’s directional spin on an  unconscious level, may be processing that information neurologically and be directing him to make almost reflexive adjustments to posture and swing based on where the brain now thinks the ball is going.

The fact that neither Musial nor Gwynn report any conscious ability to see the spin of a pitched ball doesn’t mean they aren’t processing that information subliminally on an unconscious sensory/sight level. And that’s my theory. The TSN article does not address the point.

In “The Physics of Baseball”, physics scholar Robert K. Adair goes into detail about the laws governing motion and the action that these various releases of a pitched baseball have to the batters that face them by the time each reaches the plate.

For the featured pitches, as the illustration shows, energy and force builds in the direction of the ball’s spin in a way that causes the ball to break in the direction of the spin by the time it reaches the plate (in this case) from a pitch thrown by a right-handed pitcher to a right-handed batter.

And that’s leaving out all of the other variables of physics that really good pitchers and batters have to learn by trial and error over time of seeing the ball thrown in all these ways in ball parks where little things like local altitude, humidity, game time temperature and wind matter in the successful execution of both hitting and pitching.

Great players don’t have to be physicists to excel at a game which is totally controlled by the laws of physics at its base level, but, like Stan Musial, they have to be really superior on the sensory level to hold the edge over all others. Let’s use Stan Musial as an example here. We could have used Ted Williams or any other Hall of Fame player of noted superior eye sight.

Good pitchers, of course, are not dummies. They know that the batter’s ability to see their grip on the ball or any changes in delivery based upon the pitch that is coming, are advantages they must not give away to the batter, if at all possible. The really smart pitchers also build a pretty good book on the few with “Hall of Fame” conscious or subliminal vision for the early spin – as opposed to all the “cat and mouse” batters who have to rely a lot more on “next pitch guessing” and “Lady Luck” in making bat contact with the ball, where and when it arrives.

Like most, if not all brilliant science writers, Dr. Adair keeps on talking and writing, even when he early to often loses his audience. He still makes some points along the way that enrich our understanding the real base of our game. When a player gets injured running out a triple that turns out to be a foul ball call and a negation of the hit by the umpire, the player remains injured. He’s playing first in line with the laws of physics – and only second in allegiance to the laws of baseball. There are no “do-overs” for broken legs.

We read or listen to brilliant people in the hope of gleaming what we can absorb. Dr. Robert Adair is that kind of source. And he has given us a pretty varied view of the game at its scientific core. He certainly gets my admiration for his easy-to-understand rotation of the ball factor that I have humbly tried to present here in my own language – and we didn’t even get to what he said about knuckle balls.

Addendum: My thanks to Tom Hunter for the inclusion of the material from Sports Illustrated.

One Final Note: Jon Leonoudakis is a wonderful collector of published and verbally expressed baseball quotations. After reading this column today, Jon  sent me one he described as an “Apocryphal Musial story”

I knew I’d heard this story before, but could I not reference it to anything prior to hearing from Jon by e-mail. – Thanks, Jon! – You made my day!

According to Jon, the Musial story goes like this:

A younger guy on the Cards purportedly once asked Stan how to hit the curve ball: Stan (said): “Well, you watch the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand, pick up the rotation of the ball, and then you whack the shit out of it!”


"Merry Christmas!"

“Merry Christmas!”


2 Responses to “You had to be a Musial to see it Early and Often”

  1. Anthnony Cavender Says:

    Bill: I recall a late 50’s Newsweek cover story on Musial which discussed his approach to hitting based on his knowledge of the pitchers and his ability to quickly spot what they were throwing.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Tony, thanks for that memory. I recall hearing or reading numerous mentions of Musial’s early pitch recognition and “seam-seeing” over the years. I am just not prepared to document them for this column. My own opinion requires no confirmation, because it’s theoretical: I believe, whether Musial realized it or not, that he was one of the few greats who could actually see the ball spin on a subliminal consciousness level and instantly make the almost reflexive adjustments neurologically to his swing and bat speed attack upon a specific hittable pitch at a place and speed needed for good contact – and contact based upon what he already unconsciously knew or intuitively understood about the effect of spin upon ball movement at the plate.

      Having said that, the proof of this theory would be difficult to impossible to prove, based on comparative studies with other batters against the same pitchers. Most of these stat comparison tests would show Musial’s consequential superiority by results, but that would not establish the difference variable as “ball-spin” recognition. There isn’t any test for that capacity that I know of, but others with deeper ophthalmic science backgrounds may be aware of some way to test for “ball-spin” recognition.

      All I know is that the big money advertising people trust the power of subliminal registration on the unconscious mind level. If they did not, the big sport salary players in America today would not have the money from TV and sports apparel sales to pay for their off-the-grid life styles.

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