Greg Riley at bat

With the return of Major League Baseball, one Hun School alumnus has been making headlines as of late for his success with the New York Yankees. 

In a game on August 16, Mike Ford ’10 led the Yankees to a 4-2 victory by launching a two-run home run over the wall. The distance of this home run was 420 feet. The recent win has had a few of our students’ wheels turning, in particular, Greg Riley ’21, an avid Yankees fan, pitcher for the School’s varsity baseball team, and rising senior who has taken a particular interest in STEM. 

So, we sat down with Greg to break down the physics of baseball. 

Greg admits that during a game, whether he’s at the mound or home plate, the last thing on his mind is the physics of baseball; Nonetheless, when he watches his favorite professionals on television, he often finds himself examining each pitch and swing to understand the physics behind each play. 

Let’s start with the quintessential play in all of baseball: the home run. 

“The two key factors we should pay attention to are the launch angle and the exit velocity,” Greg explained. “The launch angle is the angle that is created based on the degree of how the ball is coming off of the bat. For example, if the batter hits the ball directly back to the pitcher, the launch angle is zero, if it’s a pop fly, the launch angle will be a positive degree, and if it's a line drive towards the ground, it will be a negative degree. Then there’s the exit velocity, which is how hard the ball is being hit off of the bat.

"So, the recipe for a home run is a hit with a launch angle anywhere above 15 degrees with an exit velocity above 105 miles per hour.” 

And while your average baseball fan might think that mechanically, the perfect swing in baseball results in a home run, Greg explains that that’s actually not the case: “scientifically speaking, the perfect swing is a base hit to your opposite handedness, and it's a line drive with a peak of anywhere between 15 to 20 feet.” 

Now, let’s move on to the art of pitching. 

Greg, a left-handed pitcher, says that the most interesting part of pitching is that with just a simple change of grip, he can create a unique spin, forcing the ball to change directions. With that being said, the hardest part for Greg is the pressure of pinpoint accuracy every time he throws. 

With just 60 feet and six inches between him and the batter, the goal for Greg is to keep the same exact motion and arm angle with every pitch he throws. He notes just how difficult it is for the batter to read what a pitcher is going to throw if it's the same motion every time. 

“When hitting, the decision-making process comes down to a matter of milliseconds, and when a pitch looks exactly the same as the one before until twenty feet from the plate, it makes it really difficult,” he said. “In my opinion, one of the best pitchers in the game is [New York Mets pitcher] Jacob deGrom and I think he’s a strong pitcher because of his overlay. His fast ball and his slider are in the same exact position until twenty feet away. For the first forty feet, the two pitches are on the same exact plane, and then one drops 21 inches to the right and the other moves in and left about six inches within that last 20 feet.” 

So, when Greg is at bat and there is a matter of milliseconds between the pitch entering the strike zone and his reaction to swing, there is one thing that makes his decision making process a tad easier: 

“For me, it all comes down to my eye movement. I know that if I have to move my eyes at all then I’m not going to swing, if I have to look down, it's going to be below my knees which is a ball, and if I look up, I won’t swing. If I’m up against an experienced pitcher, I know I won’t have to move my eyes at all and can just swing” 

While Greg acknowledges that baseball from a physics standpoint may be exceptionally difficult, he also explains that because of the in-depth physics, it’s the only sport where failing 70 percent of the time is actually a good thing. 

“The common viewer might not understand why the game is usually so low scoring, but an avid baseball fan will know that failing a majority of the time is good. In any other sport, to only be successful 30 percent of the time sounds terrible, but not with baseball, which is definitely mentally hard to wrap your head around, but it’s one of the reasons I love the game so much.” 

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