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The median time it takes for a trade to take place on New York Stock Exchange is one millisecond. That's one thousandth of a second, round trip, from the time an order reaches our system through when it gets transacted and exits our system.
I don't know about you, but it's hard for me to grasp such speed, just as it's difficult to get my head around large numbers such as a billion or trillion dollars. And the securities industry now is measuring the speed of electronic messages moving from one place to the next in microseconds (a millionth of a second) and nanoseconds (a billionth), and even picoseconds (a trillionth, or a millionth of a millionth).
My head hurts already.
So I'm always looking for ways to translate such numbers into human scale, or as I like to say, things that even I can understand. The New York Times magazine supplied a neat one last weekend: a passage within For Derek Jeter on his 37th Birthday.
This diehard Yankee fan has a tough time coming to grips with the very idea of the article, which is about the inevitability of age making it harder and harder for Derek Jeter to perform at the Derek Jeter level. I hear that, but I don't want to hear it.
That aside, what really hit me was this passage about the physics and anatomy that take place in the core component of baseball: the 400 milliseconds it takes for a baseball to travel from pitcher to batter:
“How can you think and hit at the same time?” Yogi Berra once said, which like many of the quotes attributed to the former Yankees catcher, even the malapropisms, contains an essential truth. You can’t think and hit because there’s not time for both.
In 1987, A. Bartlett Giamatti, then president of the National League and soon to become baseball’s commissioner, was curious to know more about the science of the pitcher-hitter duel. He asked an old friend, the Yale professor Robert Adair, to do some research and gave him the title, no doubt with a wink, Physicist to the National League. Adair ended up producing a book, “The Physics of Baseball,” that is surprisingly accessible and even funny at times. If any aspiring young player were to read it, he might give up the idea of trying to make a living hitting a baseball, because it seems nearly impossible.
At 90 miles per hour, average major-league speed, a baseball leaves the pitcher’s hand and travels about 56 feet to home plate in 0.4 seconds, or 400 milliseconds. The batter’s eyes must first find the ball, Adair writes, then sensory cells in the retina encode information on its speed and trajectory and send it to the brain. This all takes about 75 milliseconds, during which the pitched ball has traveled nine feet.
The brain then sends messages through the spinal cord that tell muscles to initiate the swing. Adair writes that the first such messages go to the batter’s legs to prompt him to step into the ball. (Jeter, at the beginning of this season, tried to hit without a stride. Instead of making his own actions quicker, he basically tried to buy himself some milliseconds by retraining his brain to skip the first part of the swing process. He wasn’t comfortable with it and is taking a stride again, though it’s a short one.)
The batter continues to track the ball as muscles in his arms and upper body begin to bring the bat around, but once the pitch is halfway to the plate, it is too late for him to change the swing plane. He must instantaneously form a mental picture of the ball’s course, then direct his swing to where he believes it will be. This is why batters are fooled by sliders and other pitches with so-called late break. If it weren’t “psychologically upsetting,” Adair writes, a hitter could just as well close his eyes once the ball is halfway to the plate and get the same result.
That's what happens in the span of just 400 milliseconds, which only increases my appreciation of what Jeter, or even a guy treading the Mendoza Line, does on a daily basis. It also puts in perspective what happens within a matter of a single millisecond in our financial markets.