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Aerodynamics of Baseball

Glenn Research Center

NASA baseball

What makes a curveball curve? What determines how far a batted ball will travel? How do weather conditions change the flight of a baseball? How does location determine if a field is a "hitters" or a "batters" park?

While NASA is known for rocket science and airplanes, we love to solve more down-to-earth problems too. Many researchers are big fans of America's pastime too! Our researchers have taken computer applications designed to study and teach the aerodynamics of airplanes and rockets and applied the equations to baseball. Factor in the location and the weather and you have the perfect tools to have fun learning about baseball! We've put these programs online so you can "play ball" with your "thinking cap" on in place of your baseball cap. You can do this in school, at home, or anywhere you have a computer connected to the Web.

Aerodynamics is the study of forces and the resulting motion of objects as they fly through the air. Judging from the story of Daedalus and Icarus, humans have been interested in aerodynamics and flying for thousands of years, although flying in a heavier-than-air machine has been possible only in the last hundred years, thanks to the Wright Brothers. Aerodynamics affects the motion of every object that moves through the air, including kites, and jet engines. While aerodynamics plays a major role in many sports, such as golf, football, ski-jumping, and automobile racing, this web site investigates the effects of aerodynamics on baseball.

With the CurveBall software you can study how a big league pitcher throws a curveball by changing the values of the factors that affect the aerodynamic forces on the ball. Values include the pitch speed, the wind and the weather conditions. These are the same forces that generate the lift of an aircraft wing. We added the spin of the baseball for left-handed and right-handed pitchers plus a few mechanics to give you a chance to see how it all comes together.

We have recently (May, 2012) upgraded the software to include fast pitch and slow pitch softball as well as baseball. While the basic aerodynamic forces are the same, the size of the ball and the size of the forces are different on a softball than on a hardball, resulting in different flight characteristics. We have also included an option to allow you to describe any ball by inputting the weight, diameter, and drag coefficient.

During the World Series of 1995, astronauts orbiting the Earth on the Space Shuttle Columbia threw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 5, in Cleveland. You can learn more about this event at http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/history/firstpch.html

With the HitModeler software, you can study how far a ball will travel after it is hit by a bat by changing the values of the factors that affect the aerodynamic forces on the ball. Values include the "launch" angle, the speed, wind and weather conditions. These are the same forces that determine how far a rocket will travel after launch. There is a special version of HitModeler that only considers the effects of weather on a batted ball.

After you study baseball and softball from all the angles, you can move on and explore the aerodynamics of airplane wings and model rockets.

Tom Benson displaying the science behind baseball on the Jumbo-Tron at Jacob's Field before the May 18, 2007 game between the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins.

Here is an index of all the web pages related to the aerodynamics of baseballs: