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Is Waino’s hook an illusion?

Watching Sunday’s St. Louis Cardinals road trip-ending loss to the San Francisco Giants seemed a flashback to early in the season – at least when considering the performance of Cards starter Adam Wainwright.

Through his first seven 2009 starts, the 27-year-old was scuffling along with just two quality starts (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs) and a career-worst 4.35 ERA. His frustration was beginning to mount as it clearly showed in interviews.

Just prior to mid-month, Wainwright discovered a flaw in his delivery and results improved from there. He allowed just one earned run in each of his next three starts, over 23 2/3 innings. That lowered his season ERA to 3.18.

Unfortunately, the old Wainwright seemed to reappear on Sunday. It wasn’t a washout as he kept the walks down (two), a problem earlier, and 64 of his 101 pitches over seven innings were strikes.

However, too many of those strikes were hittable as the Giants collected ten hits. The killing blow was a seventh-inning home run by reserve corner infielder Rich Aurilia. It was the 37-year-old veteran’s first of the season. Not the guy one would have expected to beat you.

“It’s a brain cramp when you look back on it. You don’t know if you’re throwing it for effect or trying to get him out with that pitch. If I’m trying to get him out, that’s not the pitch I want to throw,” Wainwright told the press after the game.

Considering his outing overall, Wainwright made this evaluation.

“Today wasn’t a day where I made a lot of good pitches. I made a lot of mediocre pitches.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Adam as he clearly battled and almost won, but one thing I noticed was that his trademark curve did not seem to be working for him on Sunday. That caused a study recently published by four university educators to come to mind.

While this will seem wonky to some, I was fascinated by an award-winning treatise on the optical illusion of the break of the curveball. The team that won “The Best Visual Illusion of the Year” contest in May was led by a psychology professor from American University named Arthur Shapiro, who calls himself a “vision scientist”.

Check out this site and specifically, the visual demonstration of how the eye’s peripheral vision perceives the curve compared to when looking directly at it. One can even adjust the speed and two other parameters, but the result is the same. From the periphery, the rotating baseball definitely looks to be breaking, but when focusing directly on it, the ball really isn’t.

Does this mean conventional wisdom about what we grew up calling the “yakker”, “Uncle Charlie”, “the bender” or simply “the hook” has to be thrown out the window?

If so, please don’t tell Carlos Beltran!

Maybe Sunday’s defeat can be simply chalked up to those pesky San Francisco hitters keeping their eyes focused on the old baseball with tunnel-like vision.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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