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Says Chris, "When he finishes his follow-through, his back leg, knee to hip, is parallel to the ground, on the same plane as his back. His back foot is above his head. Like a ballerina's."
THROWING a baseball is an act of violence that has been graphically defined by Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Glenn Fleisig and the other doctors and clinicians at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham. From the loaded position, the shoulder, at its peak speed, rotates forward at 7,000 degrees per second. "That," Fleisig says, "is the fastest measured human motion of any human activity."
While in the loaded position, the shoulder and elbow bear the equivalent of about 40 pounds of force pushing down. When the ASMI biomechanists wanted to know how much more force an arm could take, they brought cadavers into the lab and pulled and pushed upon the elbow joint to find the breaking point. The cadavers's ligaments blew apart just after 40 pounds of force. "So a pitcher is just about at the maximum," Fleisig says.
From the loaded position, when the ball has come to a stop, it is accelerated from zero mph to 90 mph in 3/10 of a second. Rick Peterson, the former New York Mets pitching coach who has worked with ASMI since 1993 and is the acknowledged expert on pitching biomechanics among his peers, once referred to that measurement in a speech he gave to college coaches. A doctor of physics who was in the audience approached him after the talk.
"Rick, do you know what that means in g-forces?" the doctor asked.
"I have no idea."
"If your entire body was accelerated at that rate of speed for over 60 seconds you would die."
No wonder pitchers break down. Pitching, unlike most athletic activities, has reached the limit of what is humanly possible. So while we are accustomed to increasingly swifter sprinters, faster swimmers, longer drivers of the golf ball and bigger football players, you will not see a pitcher throwing 110 mph. The arm and shoulder are maxed out. Pushed any further, the shoulder would blow, like an engine in a race car.
"People run faster and jump farther because we have figured out ways to make your muscles bigger and stronger," Fleisig says. "The baseball pitcher, every time he pitches, his muscles are pushing his ligaments and tendons to the limit. In the future, I can't anticipate making the muscles bigger and stronger because you can't strengthen the ligaments and tendons that much. That's why the role of research in baseball is not to get the pitcher to throw faster but to lower the risk of injury."
For some 20 years ASMI has studied pitchers in the lab by pasting reflective sensors on their bodies, capturing their pitching motion with eight high-speed cameras and running the information through its proprietary computer code. ASMI generates a report with 42 precise measurements, such as elbow, hip and torso rotational speeds, shoulder abduction (how many degrees the shoulder pulls away from its axis) and stride length. ASMI can find possible injury risks by comparing those numbers with the normative range for pitchers. (The best pitchers typically don't show abnormally high measurements in any one area; what makes them special is that they fall in the normative range across the board.) About eight to 10 major league teams, including the Red Sox, Indians and A's, send a total of about 50 pitchers to the ASMI lab each year. At a time when keeping pitchers healthy may be the single most important element in building a successful team, ASMI's work is more essential than ever.