Entertainment | Science

Nobody Throws Balls Like Yu

NPR | April 27, 2013 5:03 a.m. | Updated: April 27, 2013 2:34 p.m.

Contributed By:

Robert Krulwich

He’s 26 years old, comes from Japan, plays baseball in Texas and can throw pitches like no one else in the game. He’s Yu Darvish and he throws fastballs, sliders, slow curves. Facing him — and this is the thing that makes him bigger than baseball, just a stunning athlete — you’d have no idea what’s coming, or when. He can throw a 96 mph fastball, pause, shuffle about, and then toss a piddly 64 mph slowball. Batters can’t prepare. Most seem stunned. In this GIF, Drew Shepard captured five of his pitches from one game and superimposed them, so for the first time, you can literally see his athletic range.

What we’ve got here, says Shepard, is “a 97 mph 4 seam fastball” on top of “a 96 mph 2 seam fastball” on top of an “85 mph slider” on top of a “78 mph slider with a different grip that is more vertical” on top of a “64 mph slow curve.” What’s uncanny is he seems to release his balls at almost the exact same time. When you run these same pitches in reverse …

… he looks like a kung fu fighter who can casually catch five spears and launch them back again without shifting arm angle or position. (That’s partly because Shepard chose pitches that started at the same place on the mound; that’s why he didn’t include some of Darvish’s very different pitches — cutters and splitters — because he throws them from a different spot.) Showing his full range would have made the image “too messy.”

The coolest thing about all these GIFs, which were posted on Deadspin, and the various “time merge media” experiments now going on all over the Web, is we can now see what athletes are doing by dramatically collapsing or extending time.

Here, for example, (thank you, Jason Kottke) is a collapsed-time view of tennis player Roger Federer’s serve. Like Darvish, Federer looks like he’s making the same moves in the same way … up goes the ball, up goes his racket, but watch what happens …

Using “time merge media,” we can watch different athletes hitting or throwing things with uncanny consistency masking astonishing inconsistency. We can also watch what they do in fraction-of-a-second sequences, kind of like watching a millipede in motion … but in these images, each instant is frozen into a sculpture. Here time loses its flow, and becomes (in these images from Martin Hillpoltsteiner in Germany) a beautiful frozen pattern. This is a cheerleader …

This is a break dancer …

And this is a basketball player dribbling. You can follow the image with your eyes, right to left, and can see backward in time …

Or, in this dazzling video, which plays with point of view, you can see time passing, from above, below or as a striptease, as each moment peels into the next. Check it out at MoFrames.net.

However you slice it, we are entering an era where we can spy on ourselves, observe our movements with ever increasing intimacy, learn secrets, see patterns, or just go … “wow!”


You can read more about Martin Hilpoltstiener’s computer program that breaks film into frozen sequences here. I have, of course, seen sports GIFs before — though never as revealing as the Yu Darvish one. Usually they make fun of silly moments, the most embarrassing being a Yankee baseball broadcast where an animated Spider-Man suddenly pops out of pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s … ummm … backside. It was an unfortunately placed promo.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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