Thrown for a Loop
Saturday, December 23, 2006
It came from Japan, like one of those 1960s movie monsters, conceived in a scientist's laboratory, imbued with supernatural powers and given a mysterious, evocative name: Gyroball. Then, like Godzilla, Mothra and those other celluloid beasts, the gyroball was unleashed upon American shores to wreak havoc. And also like them, the gyroball may be nothing more than a cartoonish bit of fiction.
The Boston Red Sox' signing last week of 26-year-old Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52 million contract -- on top of a $51.1 million "posting" fee the Red Sox paid to the Seibu Lions for Matsuzaka's negotiating rights -- had many ramifications for baseball.
It turned the fanatical Red Sox-New York Yankees rivalry into a trans-Pacific phenomenon. It gave the Red Sox what is arguably the best starting rotation in baseball for 2007. And it forced a reexamination of the posting system, which clearly tilts in the favor of high-revenue teams like the Red Sox and Yankees.
But perhaps most tantalizingly, at least to a small subset of Internet surfers, fanatics, historians, pitching gurus and other true believers, Matsuzaka's arrival in the United States next spring holds the promise of introducing into the highest level of the game the first distinctively new pitch in more than three decades -- if, in fact, Matsuzaka throws the mysterious gyroball, and if, for that matter, it exists at all outside of the realm of the theoretical.
This much is known: The gyroball was invented on a supercomputer by a Japanese physicist named Ryutaro Himeno, with the help of a baseball trainer named Kazushi Tezuka, and was described in their 2001 book "Makyuu no Shoutai" -- which, translated loosely, means "Secrets of the Demon Miracle Pitch."
The gyroball, as theorized by Himeno and Tezuka, would behave unlike any other pitch in baseball -- with either an exaggerated drop or an exaggerated side-to-side motion (even on this there is some disagreement) -- owing to its special spin, which is more like the spiral of a football or a bullet than the backspin of a fastball or the topspin of a curve.
"I can teach it in 10 minutes," said Will Carroll, an expert on pitching injuries and a writer for BaseballProspectus.com who is also the gyroball's leading champion in the United States. "Perfecting it? That's a lot longer."
New pitches come along in baseball about as often as Triple Crown winners; the last was the split-fingered fastball, which was popularized by closer Bruce Sutter in the 1970s. This is why the arrival of Matsuzaka, who is said to throw the gyroball (but who has been vague when pressed about it), is creating such a frenzy among believers such as Carroll.
"As the pitch becomes more of a known quantity, and as more people learn how to throw it and more importantly teach it," Carroll said, "we'll see who the Bruce Sutter of the gyroball is."
But is the gyroball real? And if so, is it really something new?
"No such pitch," Bobby Valentine, former Texas Rangers and New York Mets manager and current manager of Japan's Chiba Lotte Mariners, said in a terse e-mail response to a question about the pitch.
"There is no gyroball. I don't know who came up with that," said former major leaguer Mike Pagliarulo, who owns a scouting company that provides reports on Japanese players for major league teams. Matsuzaka, according to Pagliarulo, "doesn't throw anything that's any different from what anyone else throws. Oh, and he also doesn't wear a cape, and doesn't fly."
"I believe it is a screwball," said Buck Martinez, who managed the U.S. team in this spring's World Baseball Classic, for which Matsuzaka was named most valuable player.
"It's a change-up," said Robert Kemp Adair, professor emeritus of physics at Yale University and author of "The Physics of Baseball." "Put another way, it's basically nonsense."
"This pitch," said Alan Nathan, physics professor at the University of Illinois and a specialist in the study of baseball physics, "is something like a cut fastball, but with more drop to it."
Undoubtedly, the confusion stems, at least in part, from cultural and language barriers. The Himeno-Tezuka book has never been fully translated into English, and Matsuzaka apparently has spoken to an American reporter only once regarding the pitch -- and only then with the help of a translator. That came in March, during the WBC, when Matsuzaka told a Yahoo!Sports reporter, "Oh, yes, I'm trying to throw [the gyroball]. I have done it in a game. But not too much. Sometimes accidentally."
An additional layer of confusion exists because although grainy videos of Matsuzaka supposedly throwing the pitch have been passed around the Internet for several years, the pitch shown on the video clip is most likely Matsuzaka's excellent slider -- one of six traditional pitches he is known to throw.
But Carroll believes most of the confusion results from one basic truth about the gyroball: It has multiple incarnations that are achieved by tilting the hand during delivery, in much the same way that a fastball can be made to "cut" or sink by changing the grip or the arm angle. One of those incarnations Carroll has taken to calling the "side-force" gyroball, because of it's side-to-side (as opposed to up-and-down) motion.
Carroll also believes Matsuzaka is proficient in throwing the gyroball, to a much larger degree than the pitcher was willing to admit in March.
"I believe Matsuzaka knows this pitch and has worked on it," Carroll said. "I don't believe he's perfected it, but . . . I think he can make it work enough to keep working on it."
This is how the gyroball should work, in theory: By rotating the hips and shoulders in unison during the windup -- a maneuver the physicists based on the theory of "double-spin mechanics" -- and then releasing the ball with a twist of the hand, a pitcher can impart a bullet-like spin on the ball. Unlike a fastball, the backspin of which creates the illusion that it is rising, or a curveball, which has topspin that makes it tumble as it reaches the plate, a gyroball should have a spin axis -- an imaginary pole around which the ball is spinning -- that is facing the same direction as the ball is traveling, causing it to drop as it reaches the plate.
But according to Adair, who literally wrote the book on the physics of baseball, there is a simple reason why that drop occurs. "It's just gravity," he said. "It's like any pitch that doesn't have the backspin of a fastball. Gravity acts on the ball and pulls it down."
Moreover, Adair contends, unlike the split-fingered fastball -- which also drops, but which has the added tactical advantage of appearing like a fastball as it approaches -- the gyroball would be easy for a batter to read out of a pitcher's hand, given the extreme contortions required to throw it.
"So," Adair said, "it's a change-up -- but in my mind, a change-up that a batter can tee off on, and clobber."
Nathan believes the gyroball, in theory at least, could be more effective than a splitter, because, he said, even a well-thrown splitter has at least a little backspin, which reduces its drop.
"But it's not at all clear to me that this pitch has made the leap from theory to practice," Nathan added. "I'm not convinced, without seeing more evidence, that any pitcher actually throws this pitch properly or effectively."
Since coming across the Himeno-Tezuka book in 2002, Carroll has made it his life's mission to learn everything there is to know about this pitch, and to teach it. To date, he has taught the gyroball to two pitchers who have made it part of their repertoires: a Milwaukee Brewers Class A minor leaguer named Steve Palazzolo, and an Indianapolis-area high schooler named Joey Niezer.
"If you could actually teach Mariano Rivera's cutter or Brad Lidge's slider," Carroll asks rhetorically, "wouldn't you do it?"
But Palazzolo, who split last season between rookie ball and Class A in the Brewers' organization, said he has never felt comfortable enough with the gyroball to throw it in a game, and isn't sure he ever will.
"It's a real pitch," he said. "And it's effective when it's thrown properly. But I don't know if it's going to be groundbreaking or revolutionary. It would take someone learning to master it. Maybe Matsuzaka will be the one. Maybe he already has [mastered it]. I'm looking forward to watching him."
Matsuzaka's signing with the Red Sox has raised the profile of the gyroball around baseball, and by extension that of Carroll. He said he has been asked on several occasions by big league managers and executives about the pitch.
Typically, Carroll will confirm the gyroball's existence to the inquisitive manager or executive, who will then cast a skeptical glance, say thanks, and walk away. But Carroll is waiting for some team -- perhaps even one that plays in the nation's capital and that, by virtue of its poor prospects for 2007, has little to lose but everything to gain -- to make the leap of faith and fly him in next spring to teach its pitchers the Secrets of the Demon Miracle Pitch.
"I'll teach this thing to anyone, anywhere. If [Jim] Bowden or [Randy] St. Claire want to see this pitch in action," Carroll said, referring to the Washington Nationals' general manager and pitching coach, "I'll do it for the cost of a plane ticket."