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The perfect pitch: why are more pitchers throwing faster than ever before?

A batter steps up to the plate. The score is tied, and the next pitch will decide the game. The pitcher winds up and throws the ball. It speeds from the mound at a whopping 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour. The batter doesn't even have time to swing as the ball streaks into the catcher's mitt. STRIKE!

Pitches hitting such blistering speeds used to be rare in Major League Baseball. But now they're becoming commonplace. The reason: Pitchers and coaches are using high-tech tools to improve pitching technique, boost strength, and reduce injuries. All that adds up to an increase in the number of lightning-quick fastballs being thrown.

The Big Windup

The fastest-known human movement ever recorded is that of a pitcher hurling a baseball.

All that power doesn't come just from a pitcher's arm, says Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute in Alabama. A pitcher's entire body is involved (see Hard-Throwing Pitcher, below).

When throwing a ball, a pitcher makes a set of motions that transfer energy to the ball. First he lifts his front leg, balancing over his back one. Then he takes a large stride forward. He pulls his throwing arm back and twists his upper body. Finally he whips his arm forward, releasing the ball.

The whole process builds kinetic energy from the pitcher's legs, hips, and back up to his shoulder. "The arm is basically a delivery system for all the energy traveling up the body," says pitching coach Ron Wolforth. He runs a baseball training camp in Montgomery, Texas.

Dissecting a Throw

For decades, scientists have analyzed the biomechanics of pitching. It's helped them learn how parts of the body move together. Today, new technology is revealing the pitching process in even greater detail.

Fleisig, for example, has evaluated thousands of pitchers using motion capture technology. At his lab, he attaches reflective dots to points on a pitcher's body. Then high-speed cameras record the positions of the markers as the player throws the ball. A computer tracks the points to create a 3-D model of the pitcher. Then it uses mathematical equations to calculate the body's angles, forces, and speeds during the pitch.

This information can help a pitcher adjust the timing of his movements. The more coordinated those movements are, the faster he can hurl the ball. "Players can see what they need to do to go from being a good pitcher to a great one," says Fleisig.

Speed Limit

Coaches like Wolforth use motion-capture results to pinpoint problem areas in a pitcher's throw. These areas might cause pain that limits pitching speed--or worse, lead to an injury. Wolforth also works with players to build specific muscles to add power to their pitches.

But improving technique and strength can only do so much. Fleisig believes the maximum speed pitchers can throw has already been reached. With rare exceptions, even the pitches of elite players top out at around 164 kph (102 mph). That's because, unlike muscles, the tendons and ligaments in the arm can't get much stronger. If the forces on them increase much more, these connections could snap.

More and more pitchers are approaching the fastball's 164 kph speed limit. That's changing the game and had led to an increase in the number of strikeouts.

"The ball is that much harder to hit when it comes in faster," says Wolforth. "Speed provides a competitive advantage because so few batters can match it."

Hard-Throwing Pitcher

A pitcher may adjust his grip on the ball to throw different types of pitches, but his basic pitching motion should always be the same.

HEAD MOVEMENT: Head and eyes are Focused on home plate.

STRIDE: The pitcher lifts his front leg and then takes a big step forward toward home plate.

ARM ALIGNMENT: Elbows are aligned with the pitcher's stride. This helps with balance.

ROTATION: The hip moves toward home plate, followed by the torso. The shoulder whips the arm carrying the ball forward.

RELEASE: The ball zips toward home plate at speeds reaching up to 164 kph (102 mph).

words to know

kinetic energy--energy associated with motion

biomechanics--study of the movement and structure of living organisms

motion capture--technology used to create a digital representation of people's movements

tendon--connective tissue between muscles and bones

ligament--tough tissue that connects bones to each other

PAGE 10 PHYSICAL SCIENCE

THE PERFECT PITCH

Lexile Level 900; Guided Reading Levels

OBJECTIVE

Learn how technology is being used to improve pitchers' throwing speeds.

SET UP

1. Obtain an empty film canister with a lid, a paper towel roll, an Alka-Seltzer[R] tablet, duct tape, safety goggles, and water. Break the tablet into four pieces.

2. Seal one end of the paper towel roll with tape. Fill the canister halfway full with water.

BEFORE READING

1. Put on safety goggles. Drop one piece of Alka-Seltzer into the canister. Ask: What do you observe? (fizzing)

2. Explain that a chemical reaction is occurring in which gas is produced. Empty the canister and refill it with water. Drop one piece of Alka-Seltzer into the canister, quickly snap on the lid and slide the canister upside down into the opened end of the roll. Important: Aim the roll away from yourself and others, as the canister will fly out, splashing contents. Ask:

* What happened? (The canister flew out of the roll.)

* What caused this to happen? (The chemical reaction produced gas. With the lid on, pressure built up inside the canister At a certain pressure, the moving gas pushed the lid off the canister.)

3. Explain that this demonstration shows how the energy of moving gases can transfer motion to an object.

AFTER READING

* Explain how motion-capture technology is used to improve pitching. (Scientists attach reflective dots to points on a pitcher's body. Cameras record their positions as the pitcher throws. A computer creates a 3-D model of the pitch so movements can be improved.)

RESOURCE

Watch a video on the physics of pitching: entertainment.howstuffworks.com/4944-the-physics-of-baseball-flightof-the-ball-video.htm
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Title Annotation:physical science
Author:Crane, Cody
Publication:SuperScience
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2014
Words:995
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