How Jennie Finch Struck Out Albert Pujols
To so-called "manly men," getting beaten by a girl can be a cause for consternation. That's probably why a lot of professional baseball players avoid Jennie Finch.
Standing a mini but mighty inch over six feet tall, the golden-haired Finch is an imposing sight, especially to the hitters she faces on the softball diamond. Finch, perhaps the best softball pitcher to ever play the game, originally roared to fame when she anchored the United States to a gold medal victory at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Since then, she's kept busy, leading the U.S. to a silver medal in 2008, starring in numerous television shows, and getting married. She's also been making a whole lot of venerable MLB hitters look absolutely silly. The most memorable of these dress-downs occurred at the 2004 Pepsi All-Star Softball Game, Finch struck out future Hall of Fame slugger Albert Pujols, two-time All Star Brian Giles, and future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, who took his leave from the batter's box in shameful one-two-three fashion.
"I never touched a pitch," Giles readily admitted. "Her fastball
was the fastest thing I've ever seen, from that distance. It rises and
cuts at the same time."
Seeing his colleagues get so thoroughly embarrassed at the game, all-time home run leader Barry Bonds boastfully challenged Finch to a duel of sorts.
"You faced all them little chumps... You gotta face the best," he goaded.
When she faced him months later -- slinging underhand rockets from 43-feet away -- Bonds only tapped the ball once, and it wimpishly puttered into foul territory.
Major league hitters regularly make contact with baseballs traveling at blazing speeds of over 90-mph, so why is it that a softball, with a circumference almost one-third larger, thrown at a comparatively measly 68-mph, gives them so much trouble?
In his new book, The Sports Gene, senior Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein tracked down the answer, and it has a little something to do with predicting the future.
Most of us probably think that hitters' abilities can be attributed to their "catlike" reflexes. This couldn't be further from the truth. Even the best professional baseball players perform roughly the same as everyone else in simple reaction time tests, gauged by how fast you can hit a button in response to a flash of light -- about 200 milliseconds (ms).
Besides, once a baseball leaves the hand of a pitcher 60-feet away, or a softball leaves the hand of a pitcher 43-feet away, it takes approximately 400ms for each ball to travel to home plate. Seeing as how the ball moves about ten feet in the 75ms before one's eyes even confirm the baseball is in view, and it takes another 200ms simply to initiate our muscles, hitters have to decide whether or not they're going to swing almost before the ball is thrown.
Studies have shown that this is basically what professional athletes do. Decades ago, University of Queensland physiologist Bruce Abernathy found that top tennis players could discern whether or not a serve was going to their forehand or backhand simply by observing the movements of an opponent's torso. Similarly, professional boxers can evade punches by noting and reacting to the subtle movements that belie an opponent's intentions. The only way to notice these bodily giveaways, Abernathy determined, is to observe them over and over through thousands of hours of meticulous practice.
And this brings us back to Albert Pujols, and the rest of the MLB players at the mercy of softball phenom Jennie Finch. Without their honed and polished crystal balls, they have little to no chance at stealing a hit. Explains Epstein:
"Since Pujols had no mental database of Finch's body movements, her pitch
tendencies or even the spin of a softball, he could not predict what
was coming, and he was left reacting at the last moment."
Primary Source: David Epstein, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, 2013