The Science of a Super-Fast Pitch
It might be impossible to make a hyperbolic statement about the potential of San Diego State right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
He has a fastball that tops 100 miles per hour -- the speed long seen as the holy grail of baseball. He has a sharp-breaking, knee-buckling curveball. And he throws strikes.
The gap between Strasburg and the next best pitching prospect in this year's draft, according to Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, is "Grand Canyon-esque."
Barring a huge surprise, he is expected to go to the Washington Nationals with the first pick in June 9's Major League Baseball amateur draft. Other than injury, the only reason he might go to another team would be the record bonus money teams expect Strasburg to demand.
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But as baseball fans know, the draft can bring the next ace or the next bust. The annals of baseball are full of pitchers who injured their arms and never achieved their immense potentials.
Predicting the durability of Strasburg or any other pitcher is notoriously difficult, but scientists are developing methods to understand the mechanics of pitching and to identify the best form to prevent injuries.
Strasburg is the prototype of the ultimate major league pitching prospect, standing 6 feet 5 inches tall and built like a muscular tree trunk. According to Goldstein, he has the stamina to sustain his performance deep into games.
This season Strasburg has struck out an incredible 180 batters in 102 innings over 14 games, allowed just 13 total runs, won 13 games, and lost none.
But the crucial question for the Nationals and other Major League teams is will he be able to perform for 200 innings year in and year out, as is expected of a big league ace.
The science of biomechanics might help answer that question.
Glenn Fleisig has studied pitchers and pitching injuries for more than twenty years as the Director of Research at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.
His field, biomechanics, is "the application of principles of mechanical engineering to how people move," he said.
Throwing a baseball is a violent act, one that the body struggles to accommodate.
"When baseball pitchers pitch at a high level often, what they are doing is they're putting their body about to the maximum they could take without breaking, pushing their body to its limits," Fleisig said.
After observing that elbow and shoulder surgeries are common for baseball pitchers, Fleisig said, he wanted to "focus on what are the forces on the elbow and shoulder."
Small defects in the throwing motion introduce unnecessary stress, and the cumulative effect of thousands of pitches is significant.
When a pitcher gets hurt it typically is because he "did the same thing a little wrong again and again," he said.
Fleisig uses an array of cameras connected to a computer to capture pitchers' motions, measuring variables such as the angle of the arm and the use of legs and hips to generate drive. Proper alignment minimizes stress on the arm.
After setting up the cameras, Fleisig adorns the pitcher with reflective markers, and then records the pitcher's motion, tracking the markers in three dimensions.
The finest details of a pitching motion matter, from the windup to the follow-through. The timing of a pitcher's stride is critical, as is the location where the front foot lands. Injuries can often be pinpointed to a certain portion of the pitching motion.
"There are certain muscles in the body and ligaments and tendons that are used to move the arm forward and certain muscles and tendons and ligaments that are used to stop your arm," Fleisig said. "You can tell by what got hurt where [in the pitching motion] the injury probably happened."
Fleisig noted that the elbow ligament replaced in the famous "Tommy John" surgery is stressed during the cocking of the arm, before the pitcher even begins moving his arm forward.
Developing the ability to throw a ball faster is different than increasing muscle strength in order to jump higher or lift heavier weights.
While hitters can get stronger and hit the ball farther, pitchers are pushing their bodies so hard that if they add muscles to get stronger, "then the ligaments and tendons won't be able to take it," Fleisig said.
That may be why few pitchers have ever thrown routinely at 100 miles per hour and stayed healthy, and it is why Strasburg, who has reportedly thrown as fast as 102 miles per hour this year, is so remarkable.
Goldstein said Strasburg's mechanics are not considered "picture perfect, but they are not horrible either."
Many pitchers add velocity after becoming professionals. Could Strasburg eventually throw the fastest fastball of all time? Maybe.
"Pitchers who have better mechanics get more ball velocity for less force and they do that by coordinating their body motions better," Fleisig said. "Essentially, they are more efficient."
Throwing even harder might mean that a pitcher like Strasburg would stress his tendons and ligaments too much. Alternatively, using a little less effort and throwing a few miles per hour slower may lower the risk of injury and still leave hitters helpless.
Strasburg is expected to sign the richest contract in the history of the draft. Conservative estimates suggest that the final contract could be five to 10 million dollars more than the previous high of $10.5 million.
That record deal was signed by another universally praised college pitcher, Mark Prior. According to Goldstein, doctors thought highly enough of Prior's mechanics to literally use them as textbook illustrations.
Prior performed spectacularly in 2003, but he has suffered from injuries ever since and has not pitched in the majors since 2006.
Strasburg's next start will likely be Friday, May 29, when San Diego State plays the University of Virginia in the first round of the NCAA baseball tournament.
This story was provided by Inside Science News Service, http://www.aip.org/isns/.