Jeff Topping for the New York Times:  A computer showing how the mysterious gyroball, allegedly thrown by Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, affects air as it moves forward.

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gyro animation

The Japanese Gyroball Mystery

By LEE JENKINS  New York Times 2/22/07

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz., Feb. 21 — Most major league pitchers throw a fastball, a curveball, a slider and a changeup. Some mix in a sinker. The experimental ones use a knuckleball. None of them throws a gyroball, at least not on purpose.

For most of the past decade, the gyroball seemed to exist mainly in Japanese video games and cartoons. It was a funhouse pitch with a comic book name.

When Japanese television analysts tried to deconstruct the mystifying slider thrown by Daisuke Matsuzaka, they called it a gyroball, partly because the pitch seemed to come from another world.

Matsuzaka says he does not throw any such pitch in games — but when he signed with the Boston Red Sox this off-season for $52 million, American baseball fans were forced to confront the mystery.

Is the gyroball a myth, or is it real? And if it is real, what exactly is it?

Kazushi Tezuka 手塚一志 says he has the answer, and he flew from Japan to the United States this week to reveal it. Tezuka, a Japanese trainer who is credited with creating the gyroball 12 years ago, walked to the mound at Scottsdale Stadium on Wednesday to show off his invention.

Tezuka used a standard fastball grip. He went into a basic motion. Only at the end of his delivery did he deviate. He turned the inside of his throwing arm away from his body and released the ball as if it were a football, making it spiral toward home plate.

The pitch started on the same course as a changeup, but it barely dipped. It looked like a slider, but it did not break. The gyroball, despite its zany name, is supposed to stay perfectly straight.

“That’s it!” Tezuka said, laughing hysterically on the mound. “That’s the gyro!”

For all of the kids who launch balls around the backyard, baseball is slow to invent new pitches, and even slower to recognize them. The last pitch to be adopted by major leaguers was the split-fingered fastball, about 30 years ago.

The gyroball is not going to revolutionize the sport. Like a four-seam fastball, a four-seam gyroball is designed to surprise hitters with its speed. Like a changeup, a two-seam gyroball is designed to fool hitters with its slower pace.

“I think it’s basically a myth, but it’s like a lot of myths in baseball — it can be useful,” said Robert Adair, who wrote “The Physics of Baseball.” “If you’re a batter and you think a guy occasionally throws this pitch, it is something extra to worry about.”

In many ways, this has been the winter of the Japanese pitcher. Matsuzaka joined the Red Sox. Kei Igawa signed with the Yankees. The gyroball dominated the blogosphere. Following the mania, Tezuka was overjoyed. But he was also frustrated.

No one understood his pitch. It was compared to a screwball even though it is released off a different side of the hand. It was compared to a cutter even though it does not cut. Many American coaches claimed it was the stuff of fantasy.

So Tezuka came to spring training in Arizona this week with two baseballs and a DVD. Standing in the San Francisco Giants’ clubhouse on Wednesday, Tezuka watched a portion of the DVD with one of the most unlikely viewers — outfielder Barry Bonds.

The DVD shows Japanese pitchers throwing gyroballs and hitters from around the world flailing at them. Usually, the hitters are either out in front of the gyroball or slightly underneath it, expecting the pitch to sink like a changeup.

One of the hitters on the video, undercutting the gyroball and hitting a meager pop fly to center field, is Bonds. In 2000, during a major league tour of Japan, Bonds swung violently at a gyroball from the sidearm pitcher Tetsuro Kawajiri.

Studying the video in the Giants’ clubhouse Wednesday, Bonds took a moment to try to identify the pitch. “It looks like a little slider,” he said. Asked if it could be a gyroball, Bonds shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know what that is,” he said.

Tezuka came up with the gyroball in 1995, when he was given a toy known as the X-Zylo Ultra. The toy, a flying gyroscope, could travel as far as 600 feet when thrown with a spiral. Tezuka wondered why the motion could not work on a baseball.

Tezuka sought out a Japanese computer scientist, Ryutaro Himeno, to test his theory. They published a book in 2001 called “Makyuu no Shoutai.” Translated, the title of the book means, “Secrets of the Demon Miracle Pitch.”

The gyroball has been exaggerated as often as it has been dismissed. In the latest edition of “The Physics of Baseball,” published in 2002, Adair does not refer specifically to the gyroball, but he does write about pitchers who try to throw the ball with a spiral.

Usually, those pitchers are cricket bowlers.

“It’s a standard cricket pitch,” Adair said. “It’s not as useful in baseball.”

Still, when Tezuka envisions games in 2017, he predicts that the gyroball will be part of any pitcher’s repertoire. He estimates that 20 professional Japanese pitchers already throw it, and 100 youths in his clinics use it. He believes that the Mets Pedro Martínez accidentally throws a pitch resembling the gyroball.

Tezuka feels so strongly about the gyroball that he has tried to get it copyrighted. “I couldn’t get that,” he said through Masa Niwa, an interpreter.

For years, American players have warmed up their arms by throwing footballs during batting practice. Because the gyroball is thrown like a football, it theoretically reduces stress on the elbow and the shoulder.

Akinori Otsuka, a relief pitcher for the Texas Rangers, works out with Tezuka in the off-season. Even though Otsuka does not throw the gyroball, he allows his 9-year-old son to throw it. Tezuka raves about the boy’s ability.

Tezuka visited the Rangers’ spring training complex Tuesday, mainly to see Otsuka, but he was approached by several other pitchers. They had the same questions everybody else does. First, they wanted to know if the gyroball is for real.

Then, they wanted to know how to throw it.

On YouTube: Matsuzaka's pitching