Searching for baseball's Bigfoot
By Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports
March 13, 2006
ANAHEIM, Calif. – The search started Saturday afternoon. I was looking for the pitch that doesn't exist.
I saw Daisuke Matsuzaka trotting off the field at Angel Stadium. He is the best pitcher in Japan, 25 years old with a grown-out mohawk streaked with red dye. His face is round, his body angular, his gait tall and proud. When he swooped into the dugout, I asked him about the gyroball.
I'd asked Ichiro Suzuki if he knew about the gyroball, and he'd never heard of it. I'd asked the same of Michihiro Ogasawara, a veteran first baseman in Japan, and he looked at me like I queried him about UFOs.
The gyroball is baseball's version of alien life. No one knows if they've seen it. No one knows what it looks like. No one knows much about it. Except there's a small pocket of American fans who graze the Internet champing to see Matsuzaka, because they're all convinced that he throws a gyroball and they're all convinced it will revolutionize the sport.
In the minds of the gyro-obsessed, Matsuzaka is their 24-karat answer. So when he heard the gyroball question, chuckled and started talking, it was obvious he did know the pitch, and that maybe, just maybe, it existed after all.
The concept of the gyroball was perfected in a supercomputer by two Japanese scientists named Ryutaro Himeno and Kazushi Tezuka. In simulations, they showed how a pitcher with good mechanics could throw the baseball in a way that it spun like a bullet – or, in sporting sense, like a perfect football spiral – and broke like nothing anyone has ever seen.
Roughly translated, the title of their book is "The Secret of the Miracle Pitch," and it's loaded with anime cartoons and mathematical formulas that attempt to explain how to throw a gyroball.
Diagrams started showing up on the Internet in 2002 and made their way onto message boards. That's where Will Carroll learned of the gyroball, and he has chased it like a fleeting dream ever since.
Carroll writes a column for Baseball Prospectus analyzing injuries. Sound mechanics tend to create less arm problems, and the combination of Himeno and Tezuka's mechanical research with their discovery of the gyroball was like a chocolate sundae with more chocolate drizzled on top.
"A good gyro is impossible to hit," Carroll said. "Even if you did hit it, you can't do anything with it. If you're lucky you're going to aim the sweet spot of the bat on it and hit it off the end."
To throw a gyroball, a pitcher holds the side of the ball with a fastball grip. The pitcher's hips and throwing shoulder must be in near-perfect sync, something the book refers to as "double-spin mechanics." As the pitcher rotates his shoulder, he snaps his wrist and pulls down his fingers rather than flipping them over the ball, as happens with curveballs. The rotation is side over side. When the pitcher lets go, he must pronate his wrist, or turn it so the palm faces third base. It's like a right-hander throwing a screwball, only instead of the ball last touching the middle finger, it spins off the index finger.
Ideally thrown, the gyroball should resemble a fat pitch, then take a sweeping turn away from a right-handed hitter. It's a slider on steroids, a cut fastball with science behind it, a testament to the aerodynamics of a baseball.
When video of Matsuzaka surfaced on the Internet, gyroball denizens were convinced they'd trapped Bigfoot. The footage was grainy, and it was from an angle that made the gyro look no different than a regular breaking pitch. For some time, they weren't sure if there was a difference between a shuuto – the "shootball," a reverse slider thrown by Japanese pitchers – and a gyroball.
Rather than rely on footage of a pitcher no one knew for sure threw a gyroball – Matsuzaka's pronation was the only evidence – Carroll decided to conduct a test of his own. A friend coached Oldenburg Academy, a small Indiana high school, and Carroll asked the team's ace, Joey Niezer, to try the pitch just to see the results.
After 10 minutes, Niezer felt comfortable enough with the gyroball to keep using it. One time last season, Carroll said, a gyro started so far behind a batter that he leaned forward to avoid it, only to see the ball paint the inside corner, forcing him to lean back.
"They move so much," Carroll said. "We're used to seeing curveballs that break 6 inches if they're good. A splitter that dives a foot. This thing breaks a foot if you're not good at it.
"I've seen Joey's break 3 feet. It takes a left turn and heads to the dugout."
Curiosity grew. Carroll said Curt Schilling asked him if the gyroball was real, or just some kind of April Fool's joke. With Matsuzaka pitching in the United States for the first time, it would provide the perfect opportunity to quiz the master of the gyroball.
And of all the questions, the one Carroll wanted answered most was the simplest.
"Please," Carroll said, "just ask him if he even throws it."
At Japan's practice, I met Masa and Yasuko, two Japanese reporters who speak fluent English. Masa knew about Himeno and Tezuka's book, and he, too, seemed baffled by the gyroball. Yasuko had no idea what it is, but she found it interesting, plus she knew Matsuzaka from covering his team, the Seibu Lions.
The three of us surrounded Matsuzaka and, with Masa translating, I asked if he knew about the gyroball.
"Oh, yes," Matsuzaka said. "I'm trying to throw it."
Turns out Daisuke Matsuzaka, the pitcher who would come to the United States and cause a revolution with his gyroball, doesn't throw one. He throws a fastball, a sinker, a changeup, a splitter and a filthy slider. He'd like to teach himself how to throw a gyroball, and Matsuzaka said he may trot it out Tuesday when he starts for Japan against Mexico in the World Baseball Classic.
"I have done it in a game," Matsuzaka said. "But not too much. Sometimes accidentally."
Masa and Yasuko start telling Matsuzaka about the Americans' gyroball prophecies, and he's getting a kick out of it. With each question, Matsuzaka's eyebrows arch higher.
He has never worked with doctors on his mechanics, and he doesn't think the authors of the book used him as a model.
He has heard of Tezuka, who, it turns out, threw a gyroball himself when he played.
He has not ever seen a true gyroball, though he thinks Nobuyuki Hoshino, a longtime left-hander with the Hanshin Tigers, might have thrown one.
He has modeled himself after other sports, trying to apply the spin created by tennis players to a baseball and throwing an American football around before every start to keep his motion tight.
In high school, Matsuzaka (his first name is pronounced DICE-kay) earned his reputation by throwing nearly 250 pitches in a 17-inning complete game. He twirled a five-hitter against a team of big-league ballplayers touring Japan. His earned-run average was the best in the league last season, his seventh. Eventually, whether it's after his 10th season in Japan or if Seibu uses the posting system to sell his rights before then, Matsuzaka would like to pitch in the major leagues – preferably with a mastery of the gyro.
"I would like to make it my out pitch," Matsuzaka said. "But it's not a miracle pitch."
The more Matsuzaka talked about the gyroball, the more people surrounded him. I asked one final question, about exactly how many times he has thrown it, but Masa and Yasuko didn't want to translate anymore. This was their story, too, and in Japan, Daisuke Matsuzaka learning anything is big news.
The news here is Matsuzaka does not throw a gyroball, which leaves Joey Niezer and Steven Brown, another Carroll protégé, as the teenage heirs to the pitch that's supposed to change baseball.
"We always had questions of whether Matsuzaka did it," Carroll said. "Now to find out there's this guy with Hanshin, that's almost as cool. It's kind of like having a treasure map and being Indiana Jones in the Temple of Gyro.
"It's still like it doesn't exist."
No. Not after this trek. The gyroball exists like the pot of gold at the end of every rainbow, and someone at Angel Stadium had to know how to find it.
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek?
"The what?" he asked.
Team USA manager Buck Martinez?
"No," he said.
In the Japanese dugout, a pitcher named Tsuyoshi Wada changed from his practice jersey into his game uniform. Wada is 24, and when asked if he knew of the gyroball, he gave one of those looks, like you've got to be some sort of fool not to know about the gyroball.
"I don't know who can throw a gyroball," Wada said, "but I have seen it. It does exist."
Finally, some proof. I was so relieved I cut off the middle of one of Wada's answers. Masa and Yasuko asked where Wada saw the pitch that didn't exist, where the search to find it would end.
"I read comic books," he said. "And pitchers throw it in the comics."
Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Monday, Mar 13, 2006 6:40 pm, EST