Perfect Pitch

Perfect Pitch - Why Steven Doty, professor of astronomy, physics, and computational science, threw himself into research about perfecting a pitch from the mound
issue 04 | winter 2019
Winter 2019 - Open Mic - Perfect Pitch

During your 20 years of research experience, you’ve typically delved into things like star formation and how the molecules in our solar system came to be. Why dip into the magic waters of baseball?
Historically, about 80 percent of my research has been in astrophysics and about 20 percent in what I call everyday phenomenon. How lightning works, for example. Then, about three years ago, I started making a change in the portfolio of my research projects to focus more on this idea of human biomechanics, human performance, and injury prevention. In other words, how does the body work, how do we make the human body work as efficiently as possible, and how can we have injury prevention? Those are three things that, especially in the world of baseball, we don’t talk about.

Then, when Melanie Lott, assistant professor of astronomy and physics, came on board, she and I started having conversations about it, along with Eric Winters, associate professor of health, exercise, and sports studies. We realized that we could bring a different perspective to the problem.

Let’s talk about the different perspective to the problem.
Baseball already had high-speed videography. With Melanie’s equipment, we could go to the next level and put markers at different points of the body and identify how each joint and segment of the body move, from a finger to your entire leg. Then Eric and I were talking, and we realized that the largest muscle group in the body is the core muscle group, and nobody’s really looked simultaneously at the extent to which people activate that muscle group. When we first saw this, it was in the negative. We were watching players go to throw, and they were not using their core at all. We would look at high-performing people, and they would get knotted up, twisted up, and their body would act like a whip, and the ball would come flying out. One of the things we realized is that we don’t train or talk about the activation of these core muscles. The second thing we brought in was to apply electromyogram sensors to the core muscles, basically the six-pack area, to measure the electrical signals of players’ muscles to find out which ones were firing, how fast and how hard they were firing, and when they were firing. And when you combine that with the high-speed videography, now we can say, “This person is doing this, and they’re moving this way.” We can ask, “Are their muscles firing and in what sequence are they firing?” We can ask, “How hard are they firing and how does that sequencing compare to the sequencing of the body movement itself?”

Aren’t there others out there, in major league baseball for instance, who are doing this? What makes this research different?
Most times when people are talking about high-level players, they’re talking about case-study types of sampling. The unfortunate problem is there’s only one Roger Clemens; there’s only one Nolan Ryan. We don’t really know what made each of them different. What’s different for us is we are constructing a huge data sample. We probably have about 20 to 30 subjects right now, all volunteers of different ages from local schools. This fall, we’ll have another 20 or 30 collegiate and high-school level athletes, and in the spring, we’ll add 9- to 16-year-olds. We give them a brief analysis of what they’re doing, and they provide data for the project.

Instead of talking about individuals and what could be different about them, we can start talking in an aggregate sense. Is there correlation of pitch speed with body mass? Is there correlation of pitch speed with how fast they push off their back leg? Is there correlation of pitch speed with how far back their shoulder goes? Is there correlation of pitch speed with how far back their elbow goes? These are basic scientific questions that, it turns out, nobody has actually answered for a population of throwers.

Have you come up with any answers so far?
Although there’s a meaningful correlation between how fast you initially explode off, the biggest correlation occurs during the time the legs actually start rotating. Part of it is in the initial push off, but part of it, too, is the ability to transfer that motion from the straight-line motion, the push off, to the rotational motion you need in the lift part.

What we’re finding is that high-level throwers have finely timed activation of the core muscles, where one turns on, the next one turns off, and the next one turns on again, in some sense like a whip, pulling something forward. The timing is very tightly constrained. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why a player can be 6?4??, 250 pounds, and throw 71 miles an hour, and then you have other people who are 5?8??, a buck fifty, and throw 97.

How can pitchers prevent injuries?
Doing dead lifts, which is what people say you should do as a pitcher, can injure your back. But what you really want to do is increase your core muscles and, most importantly, the timing of your core muscles under stress. If you look at injury data from major league baseball, the harder you throw and the more movement you get, the more likely you are to have Tommy John surgery to replace a torn ligament in the arm with a healthy tendon. So one of the other sub-projects we have going on is to measure the amount of stretch back in that ligament for different throwers and correlate that with throwers’ injury histories. 

Beyond the young players lining up to volunteer, how will your findings help others?
We’ve had a pitching tracking machine donated to us by Rapsodo, the data-driven sports technology company, so we can correlate things like pitch speed and pitch spin rate. In exchange, we will provide data for their contract with major league baseball to provide intervention and data results to each of the 30 major league baseball teams as pamphlets.

The great thing about doing research is it’s fun. But we’re learning stuff that can actually help people. We want 8- or 9-year-olds to have a good experience as they grow to be 15- or 18-, or 22-year-olds. It’s really cool because these are results that matter, in a field where there is just so little known, and everywhere you look there is an interesting result.

Published December 2018
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