Technology takes the mound
Pitchers get high-tech tips on how to improve technique
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CNN) -- When the curveball won't curve, the sinker won't sink and the fastball loses a few miles per hour, some baseball pitchers turn to technology to cure their woes.
At the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, the researchers watch as the pitchers pitch. But it's not a day for a ballgame; it's a day for science.
Using computers and high-speed cameras, scientists can thoroughly examine a player's pitching motion. The technology records 500 frames of film per second and converts the player into a digital stick-figure.
The stick-figure's movement on the screen, exactly copying the pitcher's throw, allows the scientists to map and analyze minute details of the motion. Is the pitcher's body moving in the right way? Is the body using all the force it can? How could the pitcher get more power?
This form of analysis attracts pitchers from around the country, many of them looking to give their game a boost.
Take minor leaguer Brian West. West is a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox-affiliated Birmingham Barons. His pitching coach, former major leaguer Juan Nieves, has high hopes for the prospect.
"He has all the requirements we are looking for to have a championship pitcher on the mound every five days," Nieves says.
But West wants to "iron out a few flaws" in his pitching motion. After being injured in high school, he believes better mechanics would help avoid further injury, as well as improve his work on the mound.
The analysis could show him "what a regular video camera couldn't," West says. "In baseball it's all a numbers game and results, fastballs and strikes. And if you can perfect your mechanics to where you are getting more strikes and get more players out, it can be very valuable."
Prepare to be digitized
On the indoor mound at the institute, Dr. Glenn Fleisig and his team of assistants show West the technology and get him ready to be digitized.
"We're gonna put some reflective markers," Fleisig explains, "on your hips, shoulders, knees, ankles, and just film you going through your motion."
After throwing, West watches himself on tape -- his work now just lines and dots -- and the researchers tell him what they have learned.
"I feel like this is 'The Matrix Reloaded' over here," West says, "just seeing yourself on the computer right after you do it, instead of having to stop the VCR."
Although successful pitchers may have different wind-ups or throwing motions, they have similarities that can be measured and analyzed, Fleisig says. Knowing these key characteristics can help other pitchers improve their games or prevent injuries.
The American Sports Medicine Institute is more focused on the injury side -- how to keep people healthy on the field, Fleisig says. "But what we find out is if we keep someone's pitching mechanics better and more efficient, they are getting more velocity for less effort. You are really getting two for the price of one."
Rounding the bases of biomechanics
Oakland Athletics pitching coach Rick Peterson has sent several of his young pitchers to the institute for analysis, including 2002 major league all-star Barry Zito. This year's all-star game takes place Tuesday night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin beginning at 7 p.m.
Fleisig himself has worked with Cincinnati Reds' pitcher Jose Rijo, who stunningly returned to the majors last year after serious elbow surgery in 1995.
This year Fleisig has added something new to his research. He is also gathering data on how pitchers throw the four basic pitches -- change-ups, sliders, fastballs, and curves -- and the kinds of stresses they put on the body.
Researchers learned this data about the fastball in 1991, according to Fleisig, but they are now pushing their work further. "One question leads to another," he says.
The lessons of biomechanics have important, everyday implications, Fleisig says. Most Little Leaguers, past or present, probably know the example he cites.
"A boy shouldn't throw a curveball until he can shave," he says. He doesn't want young pitchers to pitch the curve until their bone plates have sealed. If bones are still growing, the curve-throwing motion can cause problems in development.
Without looking at X-rays, the best way to tell the right time is "if a young man is in puberty and has some facial hair," he says. "It sounds kind of silly, but there's some science to it."
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