The Fine Timing in a Well-Pitched Ball

The "crack" of ball against bat is the hallmark of baseball. But it is generally the pitcher who wins or loses the game. With the baseball season now under way, fans might take a moment to admire the exquisite precision with which a winning pitcher has to time the release of the ball.

The pitcher's fingers must release the ball within 1/1,000th of a second of the ideal moment to hit the strike zone, according to neuroscientist Jonathan Hore of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. That's pretty fast fingering.

The best precision a bunch of skilled amateurs attained in Dr. Hore's experiments on average was about 10 milliseconds on either side of the ideal timing. That gave them too many bad throws to make it in the big leagues.

There's a lot of athletic ability behind a well-pitched ball. Muscles, joints, and bones must move in smoothly coordinated action over much of the pitcher's body. It takes more than arms and shoulders to zip balls across the plate at major-league speeds of around 90 miles an hour.

In a review of baseball physics in Physics Today last year, Yale University physicist Robert Adair noted that the energy to accelerate the ball "must come largely from the muscles of the thighs and thorax." But when it comes to putting the ball where the pitcher wants it to go, the fingers do the job. Hore says he has "no doubt about it at all."

His confidence grows out of experiments with 10 male right-handed recreational players who are accurate throwers by amateur standards. They threw tennis balls at the central square of a grid of small squares. Sensors tracked the motions of fingers, hand, arm, upper arm, and collar bone for each thrower. Microswitches on the middle finger timed ball release.

To focus on arm, wrist, and finger action, Hore had the subjects sit while they threw. This eliminated extraneous influences of general body motion and allowed Hore to measure hand trajectory accurately.

"In this sort of business ... you want to decrease your variables," he explains. He says he is confident that his findings with seated subjects throwing tennis balls apply directly to standing pitchers throwing baseballs.

These findings show that timing of finger opening correlates directly with pitching accuracy. Because the hand follows an arcing path, the ball is moving forward and up during the early part of the throw and forward and down during the later part. Bad timing of finger opening leads to high or low throws.

The 10 subjects had a lot of bad throws attributable to poor timing. The best thrower could control timing only to within 4 milliseconds during 50 experimental throws. Hore says he can extrapolate those results to indicate that a professional pitcher would need timing precision of 1 millisecond to maintain big-league pitching standards.

Such extraordinary timing precision is an essential part of a big-league pitcher's athletic ability. That means it depends partly on natural capability and partly on training.

Speaking as a neuroscientist, Hore explains that the timing with which signals travel through the nervous system to the fingers is likely to be a key physiological factor. But speaking as a recreational player whose pitching accuracy is "not bad," Hore says he suspects the best pitchers have had a lot of practice to hone whatever inborn timing ability they have.

Hore plans now to study professional baseball players as they pitch real baseballs. Yet there's more than baseball involved in this research. It should yield insight into what goes into skilled hand movements in general.

Meanwhile, as the baseball season heats up, give a thought to what your favorite pitcher does when he shuts out the opposition. He has timed the launch of a baseball more accurately than a spaceship navigator times a rocket firing. And he has reached a target as challenging a that of a mission to Mars - the strike zone over home plate.

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