Teach Your Brain How To Hit That Curveball

Teach Your Brain How To Hit That Curveball

This is the year. This is the season when you finally learn to hit that curveball. But better yet, you will be able to SEE the curveball right out of the pitcher’s hand and not be fooled. It’s not about the bat or your gloves or even your stance in the batter’s box. It’s about what’s under your helmet. From the split second your eyes pick up the ball’s spin and trajectory, your brain is performing multiple calculations and recognizing the slightest patterns so that you can consciously identify the pitch and then make a swing/no-swing decision.

Most of us have heard the quote from the late, great Ted Williams, the last MLB player to hit .400 for a season, ''I've always said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. The hardest thing - a round ball, round bat, curves, sliders, knuckleballs, upside down and a ball coming in at 90 miles to 100 miles an hour, it's a pretty lethal thing.”

But in the same NY Times article back in 1982, he also shared a nugget about his concentration level, “'I used to say, 'I got to be quick, this guy's faster than he looks.' I had to hang in there. It's like saying, 'Nothing is going to disturb me as far as my intensity to go into the ball.'”

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Catching Flies And Hitting Fastballs Have A Lot In Common

Catching Flies And Hitting Fastballs Have A Lot In Common

Most baseball coaches and a few parents have learned the futility of instructing a young batter to “keep their eye on the ball.” Studies have shown that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for human eyes to track the trajectory of the pitch all the way across the plate. Even at the slower speeds of Little League pitchers, the shorter distance to the plate forces batters to pick-up early cues of the ball’s flight and speed, then make predictions of where and when it will cross the plate.  With less than a half second to to make the swing/no-swing decision, if the muscle activity isn’t triggered early in the pitch, the bat just won’t get around in time.

This time lag between incoming visual stimuli, motion planning in the brain and activation of the muscles, known as sensorimotor delay, is common throughout sports.  Think about a goalkeeper moving to stop a hockey puck or soccer ball; a tennis player returning a blistering serve; or a receiver adjusting to the flight of a football.  Their eyes tell them the speed and path of the object they need to intercept, then their brain instructs the body to move in the predicted path to arrive just in time.

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Did Pete Rose's Competitive Spirit Drive Him To Gamble?

Did Pete Rose's Competitive Spirit Drive Him To Gamble?

For many young baseball fans, Pete Rose is a name that is better known for being a baseball player banned from the game for gambling rather than the all-time leader in hits, not to mention games played, at-bats and singles. 

In 1989, Major League Baseball banned him from the game due to accusations, which Rose later admitted to, of betting on baseball games including on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, as a player and a manager. While Rose contends that he never bet on the Reds to lose, which would be a conflict of interest, MLB still suspended him indefinitely.

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Training Your Eyes To Hit That Curveball

Training Your Eyes To Hit That Curveball

“Just keep your eye on the ball.”  Seems like simple enough advice for a young slugger at the plate.  That may work in the early years of Little League baseball when the pitches they see  have not yet cracked 50 mph. 

But as the fastballs get faster and the change-ups get slower, having quick eyes and an even quicker perceptual brain is the only way hitters will be able to “hit it square” with a round bat and a round ball.  

Which is exactly why psychology researchers at the University of California - Riverside (UCR) teamed up with the college’s varsity baseball players; to see if advanced visual perception training could help their at-bat performance.  While previous vision training research had focused on strengthening a player’s specific eye muscles, the results never transferred well to the batter’s box.  UCR professors

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How Neuroplasticity Helped Get The Red Sox Into The World Series

Its the stuff every young baseball player dreams of - down by a run in the bottom of the 7th inning with the bases loaded in game 6 of the American League Championship Series.  With a chance to become a legend, Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino tried to focus at the plate.  "I was just trying to tie the game," Victorino told ESPN. "I wasn't thinking grand slam, hit it out of the park, any of that. I was just trying to put the ball in play, to give us another chance."

Instead, he launched an 0-2 pitch from right-handed pitcher Jose Veras over the Green Monster in left field for a grand slam, giving the Sox a 5-2 lead over the Detroit Tigers.  The lead would hold up sending Boston to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals

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Baseball Pitchers Dominate With Length

Justin Verlander
“You can’t coach height.”  While that scouting advice is usually heard around high school and college basketball courts, it applies equally well to pitching prospects in baseball. 

The trend towards taller, dominating pitchers has been rising for years.  A quick check of this season’s MLB stats shows the average height of the top 10 pitchers with the most strikeouts this season is 6’ 5” compared to the average height of all MLB players of 6’ 1”. 

In fact, the height of pro pitchers has been on the rise for the last 110 years and they're throwing harder. In the 2009 MLB season, all but two of the fastest 20 pitches thrown came from pitchers 6’ 2” or above. It makes intuitive sense that with greater height usually comes a faster pitch, but now a mechanical engineering professor at Duke has helped to explain why.

Tall pitchers are not alone in their domination of a sport.  World record sprinters have gained an average of 6.4 inches in height since 1900, while champion swimmers have shot up 4.5 inches, compared to the mere mortal average height gain of 1.9 inches.  During the same time, about 7/10 of a second has been shaved off of the 100-meter sprint world record time while over 14 seconds have come off the 100-meter swim record.  Even in golf, the top 10 players in driving distance in 2010 were, on average, 2.5 inches taller than the bottom ten.

What do all of these athletes have in common?  According to Adrian Bejan of Duke University, it is the “falling forward” motion of their athletic task.  The taller the athlete, the more force they can put behind either themselves or an object that they want to propel forward.  It is what Bejan calls the “constructal law” theory of sports, which he describes in this recent Ted Talk.

His latest research is reported in the current online edition of the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics.

"Our analysis shows that the constructal-law theory of sports evolution predicts and unites not only speed running and speed swimming, but also the sports where speed is needed for throwing a mass or ball," Bejan said.

Pitching anglesTrebuchet

He compares the pitching motion with that of a trebuchet machine, (ala Science Channel’s Punkin Chunkin).  "According to the constructal law predictions, the larger and taller machine, like a medieval trebuchet, is capable of hurling a large mass farther and faster," Bejan said. “In the case of the human thrower, the height of the mechanism is the height of the ball that is accelerated overhead. This height scales with the size of the athlete, in this case, the shoulder height plus the arm length. The other players on the baseball field do not have to throw a ball as fast, so they tend to be shorter than pitchers, but they too evolve toward more height over time. For pitchers, in particular, height means speed.”

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule.  Two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum, all of 5’ 11”, pitched a no-hitter this month.  Still, scouts and manager have learned over the years that taller is better, even if they have no idea what the constructal law says.

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Remind Your Brain That You Can Hit This Pitch

Baseball hitting strategy is usually taught as a logical, almost statistical thought process. Depending on the score of the game, runners on base, the number of outs and the current count, the batter can make an educated guess as to what pitch will be thrown next.  This cues the visual system to expect a certain release point, speed and location of the ball.  

But what about the emotions of the game?  Do the possible positive and negative outcomes affect a hitter’s ability to see the right pitch?  According to new research, the reward that you associate with a visual stimuli can help improve your ability to quickly identify that object.

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How To Train The Batter's Brain To Reduce Strikeouts

It’s not getting any easier being a big league hitter.  Consider that in 2003, only three pitchers lit up the radar gun at 95 mph or more on at least 700 of their pitches, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Futterman.  Last season, 17 pitchers were able to bring that speed consistently.  In 2003, only Billy Wagner threw at least 25 pitches at or above 100 mph compared to seven pitchers last year.
Has the added heat affected the hitters? You bet.  Strikeouts in the MLB totalled 36,426 last season, an 18.3% increase over 2003.  To see the rise over the last 100 seasons, look at this interactive NY Times graphic.  "It's pretty simple," said Rick Peterson, director of pitching development for the Baltimore Orioles, in the WSJ article. "The harder you throw, the less time the batter has to swing and the harder it is to make contact.
Let’s crunch some numbers on the hitter’s dilemma.  At 100 mph, the ball will leave the pitcher’s hand and travel the 60’ 6” to the plate in under a half second (.412 to be exact).  For those facing a pitcher throwing “only” 80 mph, you get an additional 1/10 of a second.  Now, factor in that it takes 100 milliseconds for the image of the ball hitting your eyes to be delivered to and acknowledged by your brain.  Again at 100 mph, that lag means your brain is contemplating a ball’s location that has already travelled an additional 12.5 feet.
How then are players able to get around on a pitch at that speed, let alone make contact?  According to vision scientists at UC Berkeley, our brains make guesses.  Using the perceived speed and path of the ball actually seen, our visual cortex fast forwards it to a future location.  It is at that estimated point that we direct our muscles to make contact with the bat.
“For the first time, we can see this sophisticated prediction mechanism at work in the human brain,” said Gerrit Maus, postdoctoral psychology fellow and lead author of new research published this week in the journal, Neuron.
Maus and his fellow UC Berkeley researchers, Jason Fischer and David Whitney, were able to discover this prediction ability by actually fooling the brains of volunteers.  They asked six volunteers to watch a computer screen showing an optical illusion while their brains were being watched by an fMRI machine, which records and displays brain activity.
Called the “flash-drag effect”, the illusion (see video below) flashes stationary objects on the screen against a moving background.  The objects seem to move in the direction of the background motion, even though their location is fixed.  “The brain interprets the flashes as part of the moving background, and therefore engages its prediction mechanism to compensate for processing delays,” Maus said.

From the fMRI images, they observed activity in the V5 region of the visual cortex, pinpointing where this prediction model gets built in our brain.  “The image that hits the eye and then is processed by the brain is not in sync with the real world, but the brain is clever enough to compensate for that,” Maus said. “What we perceive doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with the real world, but it is what we need to know to interact with the real world.”
So, what can a hitter do to fine tune this predictive mechanism?  In a talk at last year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Peter Fadde, professor at Southern Illinois University, presented what he calls the “sixth tool”, aka pitch recognition.  By watching videos of a pitcher’s windup and release, but occluding the flight of the ball at different points in its path, a batter can exercise his or her visual cortex to make better models of ball flight and speed.

Strikeouts still matter at the next level.  Keith Hernandez, the former MVP and batting champ, told the WSJ, "Guys don't seem to care about striking out anymore, but when you strike out, you're not putting the ball in play, and when you don't do that, nothing can happen."

The Neuroscience Of Pitch Recognition

When asked to describe Greg Maddux, the retired 4-time Cy Young award-winning pitcher, Wade Boggs, a Hall of Fame hitter with a .328 lifetime batting average, once said, “It seems like he's inside your mind with you. When he knows you're not going to swing, he throws a straight one. He sees into the future. It's like he has a crystal ball hidden inside his glove.” 
So, what did Maddux know that other pitchers don’t?  Neuro-engineers from Columbia University decided to actually look inside some hitters' brains to try to find out.
Maddux, who seems to be a lock for the 2014 Hall of Fame class, earned a reputation for knowing batters so well that he could think one step ahead of them.  "When you think it's a ball, it's a strike,” confessed former Yankees manager Joe Torre. “When you swing at what you think is a strike, it's in the dirt. He was a remarkable pitcher."  This lack of pitch recognition skill by hitters is what all good pitchers try to exploit.  While hours of batting practice try to teach this through repetition, there have been surprisingly few attempts at finding out what’s really happening under the batting helmet.
Jason Sherwin, Jordan Muraskin and Paul Sajda, biomedical engineers at Columbia’sLaboratory for Intelligent Imaging and Neural Computing, specialize in motion perception and high speed decision making but are also baseball fans.  Last year, they reported that they had been able to pinpoint the timing of pitch recognition within the brain.  Fitted with electroencephalography (EEG) skull caps, test volunteers watched 12 sets of 50 different video pitches that were either a fastball, a curve or a slider.  They were asked to immediately identify the pitch they just saw, before the pitch arrived over the plate, by pressing a certain computer key.

Comparing correct answers with the EEG data, the researchers were able to determine the exact millisecond when recognition happened in the brain, or when the hitter locks onto a pitch knowing what’s on the way.  Fastballs were the fastest to be recognized with curve balls taking the longest.  However, sliders had the highest average prediction accuracy at 91% while fastballs were only guessed correctly 72% of the time.
Mapping the response times with the trajectory of the ball, the recognition typically happened in the middle third, between 32 and 40 feet, of the ball’s path to the plate.
Their study appeared last year in Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience.
After discovering when pitch recognition happens in the brain, the team then wanted to see where it occurred.  By combining the timing clues from EEG with the location-specific data of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they could see a more complete model of decision making.  This time they used college baseball players and showed them a combination of 468 fastballs, curves and sliders, while wearing EEG caps and lying inside an fMRI machine.
Figure 1
Cross-referencing the pitch’s trajectory, the “light bulb” recognition moment and the fMRI map of the player’s brain, they not only confirmed their earlier research of a pitch-guessing neural network but also a fascinating twist.  For correct guesses, the brain logically lit up in its visual and motor cortex areas.

However, for the incorrect guesses, activity moved to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, known to be used for conflict resolution and higher level decision making. As can be seen in Figure 1, red areas indicate regions that have higher activations during correct pitch guesses, while blue areas indicate regions with higher activations for incorrect choices.
So, when the visual information isn’t enough for an automatic recognition, it appears that the problem gets escalated to add in other known facts or previous experiences.
This new research was presented at last month’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
So, what good would this baseball neuroscience be against today’s great pitchers?  The authors ask us to imagine a new era of baseball training, where step one is to capture a baseline of each player’s neural recognition ability.  Realizing when a hitter is able to make a correct prediction of a pitch and seeing first-hand their brain’s reaction time will identify specific training opportunities.  Step two is to use a pitch simulation tool to see hundreds of pitches, measuring performance improvement in accuracy and speed.
“Knowing the neural circuits involved in the rapid decision-making that occurs in baseball opens up the possibility for players to train themselves using their own neural signatures,” concluded Sajda.
Tony Gwynn, another Hall of Famer known for studying video of opposing pitchers, would have appreciated this technology twenty years ago when facing Maddux. “He’s like a meticulous surgeon out there...he puts the ball where he wants to," remembered Gwynn. "You see a pitch inside and wonder, 'Is it the fastball or the cutter?' That's where he's got you.”

Joe Mauer's Quick Swing Starts In His Brain

Joe Mauer
When describing his former teammate Joe Mauer’s hitting discipline, five-time MLB All-Star Jim Thome told ESPN, “Joe's the only teammate I've ever had who never gets fooled. And when I say 'never,' that's what I mean. Absolutely never."  The fact that Mauer had more walks than strikeouts in 2012, while leading the league in on-base percentage, is not surprising to his Minnesota Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire. "He takes (pitches) because he can," Gardenhire said. "Other guys aren't good enough."

Combine this knack of knowing when to swing with one of the sweetest strokes in baseball and the result is a three-time batting champion, a first for a catcher.  Being able to unleash his trademark “quick swing” on just the right pitch has made Mauer into the model of brain-body coordination.
Now, Harvard bioengineer Maurice Smith has some new clues on how our brains are able to combine learned motor skills with all of the incoming cues from the external world.

When we map out an action, like a baseball swing, in our brain, we use two different types of representations, intrinsic and extrinsic.  “An intrinsic representation is one that’s body-based and procedural. It relates to the complex series of muscle and joint movements your body has to make to complete a task,” Smith said in a 
Harvard press release.  For baseball players, they practice that swing and its collective parts over and over so that it becomes automatic.
The key, of course, is being able to not just swing a bat but use it to hit a ball travelling at 90 mph.  This requires an ability to interpret the ball’s flight and intercept its path with contact.  “Your brain must represent that action plan extrinsically, as it is an activity based in the world,” notes Smith.

Those two representations seem to be two different processes, first evaluate the situation and absorb the outside inputs (the approaching ball), then execute the well-rehearsed motor sequence to swing the bat.  However, Smith’s Neuromotor Control Lab at Harvard learned last year that the two representations may actually be intertwined.

“The predominant idea had been that in memory we maintain separate intrinsic and extrinsic representations of action and translate between the two when necessary,” said Smith. “But our work shows that memory representations are combinatorial rather than separate.”

Neurons store all of these different representations in a process known as gain-field encoding, which was thought to be just a common language interpreter between intrinsic and extrinsic.  Not so fast, according to Smith.
In a unique experiment that tested volunteers ability to reach for a target with a cursor, the team was able to confirm that indeed the brain combines both types of representations internally. In baseball, that means the extrinsic model of the arriving pitch is stored alongside the intrinsic motor skill of swinging the bat.
“We found that this gain-field encoding, which leads to a combinatorial representation of space, is not simply an intermediary in the transformation between representations, but is in fact the encoding on which motor memories are based,” said Smith. “This suggests that the neurons which display gain-field encoding are the same ones that store the motor memories associated with the actions we learn.”
Their research is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Obviously, at Joe Mauer’s level, those motor memories have evolved to a world class level. Perhaps his cross-training in other sports contributed to his advanced status.  He was, after all, the only high school athlete to ever be named the USA Today National Player of the Year in both baseball and football, not to mention averaging 20 points a game for his basketball team.

You Can't Hit What You Can't See

Warren Spahn
Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn never studied biomechanics or captured 3D motion capture of the batters he faced, but he knew a lot about the science of strikeouts.  “Hitting is timing.  Pitching is upsetting timing,” Spahn stated decades ago. “”A pitcher needs two pitches, one they’re looking for and one to cross them up.” After all of these years, ASMI biomechanist Dave Fortenbaugh has put this theory to the test in his lab.

With less than a second to see the pitch, identify its speed and location then execute an intercepting swing of the bat, a baseball player’s margin of error can be milliseconds or millimeters.  Since most of the bat speed and power of the swing comes from the weight transfer and rotational speed of the hitter’s body, it is critical that the entire process starts at just the right time so that bat connects with the ball in the perfect horizontal and vertical planes.
Fortenbaugh, whose Ph.D. dissertation was titled “The Biomechanics of the Baseball Swing, set out to see what physically changed about a hitter’s swing when he faced pitches of different speeds.  In new research published in Sports Biomechanics, he and his team gathered 29 professional baseball players (minor league AA) to observe and record the physics of their swings.

Their focus was on a key force for any human movement known as the ground reaction force or GRF.  When you stand still, your feet create a force on the ground equal to your weight.  At the same time, following Newton’s Third Law of Motion, the ground creates an equal and opposite force on your feet, aka the GRF.  When moving, a person’s feet create not only a GRF in the vertical direction but also one horizontally.

Hitting coaches use this force to stabilize a batter’s feet while their weight is shifting from the back foot to the front foot, or from the right foot to the left foot for a right-handed batter.  Fortenbaugh hypothesized that when batters get fooled by a change in pitch speed, the timing of their step and weight shift gets thrown off causing the bat to come through at the wrong time.

For the experiment, the players were asked to face either fastballs or changeups thrown by a live pitcher.  They placed each of their feet on a force plate which measured the level and timing of the force applied as compared to the timing of the ball arriving.

Hitters are often coached to expect every pitch to be a fastball, then adjust if they see something slower.  If they don’t recognize an off-speed pitch soon enough, they will begin their biomechanical process too early, throwing off the eventual swing and contact with the ball.

What the researchers found was that the back foot force stayed roughly the same for either fastballs or changeups.  This would be expected as a player’s weight starts here.
However, for the front foot, the results were significantly different.  As Fortenbaugh concluded, “The batter applied maximum vertical and horizontal braking forces earlier for a successfully hit changeup than a successfully hit fastball, and even earlier for an unsuccessful swing against a changeup. This may be an indication that the batter is fooled a little when successfully recognizing a changeup in adequate time and fooled quite a bit more on unsuccessful swings when this recognition occurs too late.”

Because they weren’t able to identify the slower changeup earlier, they started their swing motion too soon.  For every hitter, specialized visual and cognitive training to recognize pitch types sooner would buy them the valuable milliseconds they need.

The big takeaway from all of this?  “This study provides biomechanical evidence that an effective off-speed pitch, as postulated, upsets a hitter’s timing,” states Fortenbaugh. “The data in this study also support the claim of the difficulty of hitting a baseball well, as literally just tiny fractions of a second separated the successful and unsuccessful swings.”
In other words, Spahn was right.

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Beanball Retaliations Rise With The Temperature

Last week, the Cubs made a rare visit to Fenway Park to face the Red Sox in an Major League Baseball interleague series.  Things got a little nasty when Sox pitcher Alfredo Aceves put a fastball into the face of the Cubs’ Marlon Byrd, causing multiple fractures.  As is “tradition” in baseball, the Red Sox batters knew the score would be settled in the following game.  After just missing Jed Lowrie with an inside pitch in the eighth inning, Cub pitcher Kerry Wood made sure he connected with his target and plunked Lowrie in the behind on the very next pitch.

"After he missed the first one, I figured there's a good chance [I'd get hit]," Lowrie told MLB.com.  "I'm [ticked] off. I just got hit with a 97-mph fastball," he said. "I mean, I understand the situation, but I'm [ticked] off."

This type of diamond justice will only get worse as we get into the hot summer months of the season, according to researchers at Duke University.  Richard Larrick, a management professor at the Fuqua School of Business studied 57,293 Major League Baseball games from 1952 through 2009, including 4.5 million at bats. He looked at the relationship between batters hit by a pitch and the air temperature druing the game.  If a pitcher’s teammate gets plugged, whether it be intentional or not, he is much more likely to retaliate if the temperature is 90F or above.  However, if no one has been hit yet, the heat is not any more likely to cause the first knockdown.

"We found that heat does not lead to more aggression in general," said Larrick. "Instead, heat affects a specific form of aggression. It increases retribution."

They used baseball as a test environment as most other variables can be controlled. "There are decades of research showing heat leads to aggression, like finding more violent crime in the summer," he said. "But in crime statistics, it's hard to really determine if it's heat or other things. One of the nice things about studying baseball is that we're able to control for factors besides heat."

Just boys being boys, right?  That would seem to be the male stereotype according to another “let’s use baseball to test something” study.  A group of researchers led by Kerri Johnson, an assistant professor of communication studies and psychology at UCLA, wanted to see if certain emotions are unfairly connected to gender in our perceptions.  

By using the same type of video motion capture technology used to model athletes in sports video games, they captured the baseball throwing motion of 30 different male and female actors.  They were asked to throw pitches with different emotions, like sadness and anger.  By using the motion capture camera, only the bio-mechanical actions of the actors were captured, not their facial expressions or gender.

Next, Johnson asked 93 college student volunteers to watch these randomly ordered videos of the pitchers and try to identify the emotion and the gender of each thrower.  Thirty percent of the time, they correctly identified a “sad” throw while an “angry” throw was chosen 70 percent correctly.

However, even though each volunteer was shown an equal number of sad and angry throws from each gender pitcher, the sad throws were identified as being female 60 percent of the time while 70 percent of the angry throws were associated with a male pitcher.

"It's OK -- even expected -- for men to express anger," Johnson said. "But when women have a negative emotion, they're expected to express their displeasure with sadness. Similarly, women are allowed to cry, whereas men face all kinds of stigma if they do so. Here, we found that these stereotypes impact very basic judgments of others as well, such as whether a person is a man or woman."

So, we’ll just go with that gender bias and assume that when Kerry Wood was coming inside on Jed Lowrie, it was most likely out of anger, not sadness.

See also: Youth Baseball Pitchers Need To Stay Under 100 Innings Per Year and Virtual Reality Lab Proves How Fly Balls Are Caught

Youth Baseball Pitchers Need To Stay Under 100 Innings Per Year

For years, sports medicine professionals have talked about youth pitching injuries and the stress the motion causes on developing bones and muscles. In a new, 10-year study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers showed that participants who pitched more than 100 innings in a year were 3.5 times more likely to be injured.

"The study proved a direct link between innings pitched in youth and adolescent baseball and serious pitching injuries. It highlights the need for parents and coaches to monitor the amount of pitching for the long-term success and health of these young athletes. We need to all work together to end the epidemic of youth sports injuries, and education through campaigns like STOP Sports Injuries is in excellent first step," said lead researcher, Glenn S. Fleisig, PhD, of the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.

The study followed 481 pitchers for 10-years (1999-2008). All were healthy, active youth (aged 9 to 14 years) baseball pitchers at the beginning of the study. Every year each participant was asked whether he played baseball in the previous 12 months and if so what positions, how many innings pitched, what types of pitches he threw, for what teams (spring, summer, fall, winter), and if he participated in baseball showcases. Each player was also asked every year if he had an elbow or shoulder injury that led to surgery or retirement from baseball.

During the 10-year span, five percent of the pitchers suffered a serious injury resulting in surgery or retirement. Two of the boys in the study had surgery before their 13th birthday. Only 2.2 percent were still pitching by the 10th year of the study.

"It is a tough balancing act for adults to give their young athletes as much opportunity as possible to develop skills and strength without exposing them to increased risk of overuse injury. Based on this study, we recommend that pitchers in high school and younger pitch no more than 100 innings in competition in any calendar year. Some pitchers need to be limited even more, as no pitcher should continue to pitch when fatigued," said Fleisig.

The study also looked at the trend of playing pitcher and catcher in the same game, which did appear to double or triple a player's risk of injury but the trend was not statistically significant. The study also could not determine if starting curveballs before age 13 increases the risk of injury.

Source:  American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and K. E. Wilk, L. C. Macrina, G. S. Fleisig, R. Porterfield, C. D. Simpson, P. Harker, N. Paparesta, J. R. Andrews. Correlation of Glenohumeral Internal Rotation Deficit and Total Rotational Motion to Shoulder Injuries in Professional Baseball Pitchers. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 2010; DOI: 10.1177/0363546510384223

See also: Do Young Athletes Need Practice Or Genetics? A Conversation With Peter Vint and  Breaking Curveballs And Rising Fastballs Are Optical Illusions

Breaking Curveballs And Rising Fastballs Are Optical Illusions

(Credit: iStockphoto/Barry Howell)
Curveballs curve and fastballs go really fast, but new research suggests that no pitcher can make a curveball "break" or a fastball "rise."  Led by Arthur Shapiro of American University and Zhong-Lin Lu of the University of Southern California, the researchers explain the illusion of the curveball's break in a publicly available study in the journal PLoS ONE.

The study comes a year after the same group won the prize for best illusion at the Vision Sciences annual meeting with a demonstration of how an object falling in a straight line can seem to change direction.  That demonstration led to debates among baseball fans over the existence of the break in curveballs, breaking balls and sliders.

There is no debate in the researchers' minds.

"The curveball does curve, but the curve has been measured and shown to be gradual," Shapiro said. "It's always going to follow a parabolic path. But from a hitter's point of view, an approaching ball can appear to break, drop or do a whole range of unusual behaviors."

A little terminology: to many batters and pitchers, a break is a deviation from the relatively straight path of a fastball. In that sense, all curveballs break.  The authors of the study use the term to describe an apparent sudden drop or other change in trajectory as the ball nears home plate. That, they say, is an illusion.

The PLoS ONE study explains the illusion and relates the perceived size of the break to the shifting of the batter's eye between central and peripheral vision.

"If the batter takes his eye off the ball by 10 degrees, the size of the break is about one foot," Lu said.
He explained that batters tend to switch from central to peripheral vision when the ball is about 20 feet away, or two-thirds of the way to home plate. The eye's peripheral vision lacks the ability to separate the motions of the spinning ball, Lu said. In particular, it gets confused by the combination of the ball's velocity and spin.

The result is a gap between the ball's trajectory and the path as perceived by the batter. The gap is small when the batter switches to peripheral vision, but gets larger as the ball travels the last 20 feet to home plate.

As the ball arrives at the plate, the batter switches back to central vision and sees it in a different spot than expected. That perception of an abrupt change is the "break" in the curveball that frustrates batters.

"Depending on how much and when the batter's eyes shift while tracking the ball, you can actually get a sizable break," Lu said. "The difference between central and peripheral vision is key to understanding the break of the curveball."

A similar illusion explains the "rising fastball," Lu added.  The obvious remedy for a batter, repeated by parents and coaches everywhere, is to "keep your eye on the ball."  That is easier said than done, according to the authors. As the ball nears home plate, its size in the batter's field of view spills out of the eye's central vision.

"Our central vision is very small," Shapiro said. "It's the size of the tip of your thumb at arm's length. When an object falls outside of that region, strange perceptions can occur."

Lu noted that the spin of the ball tends to draw the eye to the side, making it even harder for the batter to keep the ball in central vision.  "People's eyes have a natural tendency to follow motion," Lu explained.  His advice to hitters: "Don't trust your eyes. Know the limitations of your visual system. This is something that can be trained, probably."

Lu, Shapiro and their co-authors plan to build a physical device to test the curveball illusion. Their study was carried out with volunteers tracking the movement of a disk on a computer monitor.
To the authors' knowledge, the PLoS ONE study represents the first attempt to explain the break in the curveball purely as a visual illusion. Others have tried to explain the break as a result of the hitter overestimating the speed of a pitch.

Responding to comments from baseball fans, Lu agreed that on television, pitches filmed from behind home plate appear to break. He called it a "geometric illusion" based on the fact that for the first part of a pitch, the viewer sees little or no vertical drop.

The ball is falling at the same rate throughout the pitch, Lu said, but because the pitcher tosses the ball at a slight upward angle, the first part of the pitch appears more or less flat.  As a result, the drop of the ball near home plate surprises the eye.  For Shapiro and Lu, who have studied visual perception for many years, the PLoS ONE results go beyond baseball.

"Humans constantly shift objects between central and peripheral vision and may encounter effects like the curveball's break regularly," the authors wrote. "Peripheral vision's inability to separate different visual signals may have f ar-reaching implications in understanding human visual perception and functional vision in daily life."

Source: University of Southern California and Arthur Shapiro, Zhong-Lin Lu, Chang-Bing Huang, Emily Knight, Robert Ennis. Transitions between Central and Peripheral Vision Create Spatial/Temporal Distortions: A Hypothesis Concerning the Perceived Break of the Curveball. PLoS ONE, 2010; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013296

See also: Morning Type Pitchers Do Better In Day Games and Virtual Reality Lab Proves How Fly Balls Are Caught

Morning Type Pitchers Do Better In Day Games

A Major League Baseball pitcher's natural sleep preference might affect how he performs in day and night games, according to a research abstract presented June 9, 2010, in San Antonio, Texas, at SLEEP 2010, the 24th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC.

Results indicate that pitchers who were morning types performed statistically better overall than those who were evening types. In early games that started before 7 p.m., the earned run average (ERA) of pitchers who were morning types (3.06) was lower than the average ERA of pitchers who were evening types (3.49); however, in games that started at 7 p.m. or later, pitchers who were evening types performed slightly better (4.07 ERA) than morning types (4.15 ERA).

"We were surprised to see that chronotype did affect pitching," said principal investigator and lead author W. Christopher Winter, MD, medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Va. "We were also surprised to see that pitchers who were more 'morning type' seemed to do better overall."

Individual pitchers showed a trend toward higher ERAs in the late games. According to Winter, this supports previous research showing that the peak performance time for most athletes is between mid-afternoon and early evening.

The study involved 18 pitchers from five MLB teams: the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants and Tampa Bay Rays. Sleep preference was determined using a modified version of the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ). It identifies a person's tendency to be either a morning type who prefers to go to bed and wake up early, or an evening type who prefers to stay up late at night and wake up late in the day. Ten participants were found to be evening types, and eight were morning types.

The study used the players' statistics from the 2009 season, which provided about 728 early innings and 845 late innings for analysis. Game start times were adjusted for travel using the principle that for every time zone crossed, it takes 24 hours to adjust.

"These results are important as they are potentially giving insight into an entirely new way to grade or classify an athlete, in this specific case a pitcher," said Winter. "This study may provide insight as to which pitchers would be best in a given situation based upon when the game is being played. For example, a critical game being played in the evening might be a better situation to pitch an evening-type pitcher versus a day-type pitcher."

Winter also has studied the effect of travel across time zones on the performance of MLB teams. At SLEEP 2008 he presented the initial findings of a 10-year retrospective study that was later published in the September 2009 issue of the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. He found that teams traveling from Western time zones to Eastern time zones were 14 percent more likely to win than teams traveling from east to west. Teams also won more than 60 percent of the games in which they had a three-hour "circadian advantage."

Source: American Academy of Sleep Medicine

See also: Math Professor Picks 2010 MLB Division Winners and Little League Arm Injuries Jump Up

Little League Arm Injuries Jump Up

Throwing arm injuries are on the rise in Little League and other youth baseball programs. After these injuries occur, many players are out for the season; others require surgery and must refrain from play for an even longer duration; still others sustain injuries so severe that they cause permanent damage and are unable to continue playing baseball.

Three new studies presented at the at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) address this critical issue, each offering new solutions to help prevent these injuries.

Pitchers and catchers under the age of 15 often experience tightness of a shoulder ligament known as the posterior-inferior glenohumeral ligament. If this ligament is not stretched, it will become increasingly tighter and more prone to pain or injury as the player ages, if that player continues to play baseball.

A study of 1,267 youth baseball players, led by Charles Metzger, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in upper extremities in Houston, Texas, found that a simple stretch known as the posterior capsular stretch can help.

"A posterior capsular stretch is done after play and since it is different from the general stretches players already know, it must be taught," says Dr. Metzger. "Once learned, however, it is very simple, and takes only five minutes to complete. Nearly 97 percent of young players who performed the stretch properly and consistently reported shoulder improvement."

Dr. Metzger supports Safe Throw, an injury-prevention and rapid return-to-play program. Instructions and diagrams showing how to perform the posterior capsular stretch can be found on www.safethrow.com.

The elbow is the most frequently reported area of overuse injury in child and adolescent baseball players. One type of overuse includes osteochondral lesions, which are tears or fractures in the cartilage and underlying bone, covering the elbow joint.

In a study led by Tetsuya Matsuura, MD, Department of Orthopedics, The University of Tokushima Graduate School, Institute of Health Bioscience in Tokushima, Japan, 152 baseball players were observed (ranging in age from 8 to12) for one season to study the injury incidence in relation to their playing positions. These players had no history of problematic elbow pain.

The results were as follows:

* 38 players, or 25 percent complained of elbow pain
* 26 (68.4 percent) had limitations of range of motion and/or tenderness on the elbow, and/or valgus stress pain (a stressful force placed upon the ligaments on the inner side of the elbow joint); and
* 22 (84.6 percent) had osteochondral lesions including:
  • 12 pitchers (54.6 percent)
  • 6 catchers (27.3 percent)
  • 3 infielders (13.6 percent)
  • 1 outfielder (4.5 percent).

Dr. Matsuura concluded, "Twenty-five percent of child and adolescent baseball players have elbow pain and nearly 15 percent sustain osteochodral lesions per year and pitchers have the highest rate of osteochondral lesions. If overuse injuries such as osteochrondral lesions occur, prompt diagnosis and treatment can prevent this injury from causing long-term damage. Better awareness and education among parents, players and especially coaches about risk factors can help prevent these injuries."

Reviewing -- and adhering to -- youth baseball throwing guidelines can help prevent injury

In another presentation, led by George A. Paletta, Jr., MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Orthopedic Center of St. Louis and Medical Director/Head Team Physician of the St. Louis Cardinals, discussed the increase in elbow injuries of young baseball players, including the increasing number of ligament reconstruction or "Tommy John" procedures performed.

Despite these increases, Dr. Paletta says there are identifiable -- and controllable -- risk factors of which young athletes, parents and coaches should be aware, to help reduce injury.

"A young athlete should never throw through pain or continue to pitch when he or she is obviously fatigued," says Dr. Paletta. "Additionally, parents should familiarize themselves with the recommended single game, weekly and season total pitch counts, suggested recovery times, and recommended ages for learning various pitches."

Dr. Paletta stresses that there must be a greater focus on education and research in this area, or more young baseball players will sustain serious injury.

Source: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

See also: Kids' Baseball Injuries Down But Some Still Play "Until It Hurts" and Baseball Brains - Pitching Into The World Series

Atomic Physicist Proposes Winning Formula For Baseball Success

(Credit: Photo by Bob Elbert)
Kerry Whisnant, the Iowa State University physicist, studies the mysteries of the neutrino, the elementary particle that usually passes right through ordinary matter such as baseballs and home-run sluggers.

Kerry Whisnant, the St. Louis Cardinals fan, studies the mathematical mysteries of baseball, including a long look at how the distribution of a team's runs can affect the team's winning percentage.

Whisnant, a professor of physics and astronomy who scribbles the Cardinals' roster on a corner of his office chalkboard, is part of baseball's sabermetrics movement. He, like other followers of the Society for American Baseball Research, analyzes baseball statistics and tries to discover how all the numbers relate to success on the field.

The results are ideas, analyses, formulas and papers that dig deep into the objective data.
Whisnant recently took up a decades-old formula written by Bill James, the baseball author and statistician who inspired sabermetrics and is a senior adviser for baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox. The basic formula, which has been tweaked over the years, uses the number of runs scored per game (RPG) and runs given up per game to estimate a team's winning percentage.

Whisnant took that formula a step further by considering run distributions. What happens, in other words, when you consider how much a team's run production varies? Does it help if a team consistently scores runs? Does it hurt if a team scores a lot of runs one day and very few the next? And is slugging percentage (SLG, total bases divided by at bats) a good measure of that consistency?

Whisnant's answer, based on a Markov chain analysis that simplifies and simulates an infinite number of baseball games while eliminating the random fluctuations found by analyzing actual data from a finite number of games:

W1/L1 = (RPG1/RPG2)^a (SLG1/SLG2)^b
where a = 0.723 (RPG1 + RPG2)^.373 and b = 0.977 (RPG1 + RPG2)^( -.947)

"I hated math in school, just write me a very condensed summary Kerry," a baseball fan wrote to dugoutcentral.com, a Web site for baseball talk and analysis, when Whisnant posted his formula there.
Whisnant's reply: "Bottom line: More consistent teams (narrower run distribution) tend to win more games for the same RPG (runs per game). Teams with higher SLG (slugging percentage) tend to have a narrower run distribution. Given two teams with the same RPG, a team with a SLG .080 higher will on average win one more game a season. If their pitching/defense has the same RPG allowed but a SLG allowed .080 lower, that would add another game."

So there you have it: "The more consistent a team is in scoring runs, game to game, the better the team's winning percentage for the total number of runs scored," Whisnant said.

"My study shows that runs alone don't tell the whole story," he said. "Consistency is another factor. You want to score runs, and you want to be consistent."

Across an entire 162-game season, Whisnant said more consistency could mean two additional wins. And that can be the difference between making the playoffs and calling it quits the first week in October.

Whisnant's paper explaining the formula was recently named one of four finalists in a contest sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston on March 6.

And while he's at the conference to present his paper, other baseball researchers are telling Whisnant to introduce himself to general managers of Major League Baseball teams. You never know, maybe the Cardinals are looking for a statistical consultant.

Nothing against neutrinos, Whisnant said, "but it would be a dream job to be a part-time analyst for the Cardinals."

See also:Virtual Reality Lab Proves How Fly Balls Are Caught and Baseball Brains - Hitting Into The World Series

Source:Iowa State University

Virtual Reality Lab Proves How Fly Balls Are Caught

While baseball fans still rank "The Catch" by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series as one of the greatest baseball moments of all times, scientists see the feat as more of a puzzle: How does an outfielder get to the right place at the right time to catch a fly ball?

Thousands of fans (and hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers) saw Mays turn his back on a fly ball, race to the center field fence and catch the ball over his shoulder, seemingly a precise prediction of a fly ball's path that led his team to victory. According to a recent article in the Journal of Vision ("Catching Flyballs in Virtual Reality: A Critical Test of the Outfielder Problem"), the "outfielder problem" represents the definitive question of visual-motor control. How does the brain use visual information to guide action?

To test three theories that might explain an outfielder's ability to catch a fly ball, researcher Philip Fink, PhD, from Massey University in New Zealand and Patrick Foo, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Ashville programmed Brown University's virtual reality lab, the VENLab, to produce realistic balls and simulate catches. The team then lobbed virtual fly balls to a dozen experienced ball players.

"The three existing theories all predict the same thing: successful catches with very similar behavior," said Brown researcher William Warren, PhD. "We realized that we could pull them apart by using virtual reality to create physically impossible fly ball trajectories."

Warren said their results support the idea that the ball players do not necessarily predict a ball's landing point based on the first part of its flight, a theory described as trajectory prediction. "Rather than predicting the landing point, the fielder might continuously track the visual motion of the ball, letting it lead him to the right place at the right time," Warren said.

Because the researchers were able to use the virtual reality lab to perturb the balls' vertical motion in ways that would not happen in reality, they were able to isolate different characteristics of each theory. The subjects tended to adjust their forward-backward movements depending on the perceived elevation angle of the incoming ball, and separately move from side to side to keep the ball at a constant bearing, consistent with the theory of optical acceleration cancellation (OAC). The third theory, linear optical trajectory (LOT), predicted that the outfielder will run in a direction that makes the visual image of the ball appear to travel in a straight line, adjusting both forward-backward and side-to-side movements together.

Fink said these results focus on the visual information a ball player receives, and that future studies could bring in other variables, such as the effect of the batter's movements or sound.
"As a first step we chose to concentrate on what seemed likely to be the most important factor," Fink said. "Fielders might also use information such as the batter's swing or the sound of the bat hitting the ball to help guide their movements."

Sources:  Catching fly balls in virtual reality: A critical test of the outfielder problem and Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology

Kids' Baseball Injuries Down But Some Still Play "Until It Hurts"

At a recent baseball game, the 12-year-old second baseman on my son's team had a ground ball take a nasty hop, hitting him just next to his right eye. He was down on the field for several minutes and was later diagnosed at the hospital with a concussion.

Thankfully, acute baseball injuries like this are on the decline, according to a new report. However, several leading physicians say overuse injuries of young players caused by too much baseball show no signs of slowing down.

Our unlucky infielder's hospital injury report may become part of a national database called the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), part of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. It monitors 98 hospitals across the country for reports on all types of injuries.

Bradley Lawson, Dawn Comstock and Gary Smith of Ohio State University filtered this data to find just baseball-related injuries to kids under 18 from 1994-2006.

During that period, they found that more than 1.5 million young players were treated in hospital emergency rooms, with the most common injury being, you guessed it, being hit by the ball, and typically in the face.

The good news is that the annual number of baseball injuries has decreased by 24.9 percent over those 13 years. The researchers credit the decline to the increased use of protective equipment.

"Safety equipment such as age-appropriate breakaway bases, helmets with properly-fitted face shields, mouth guards and reduced-impact safety baseballs have all been shown to reduce injuries," Smith said. "As more youth leagues, coaches and parents ensure the use of these types of safety equipment in both practices and games, the number of baseball-related injuries should continue to decrease. Mouth guards, in particular, should be more widely used in youth baseball."

Their research is detailed in the latest edition of the journal Pediatrics.

The bad news is ...
While accident-related injuries are down, preventable injuries from overuse still seem to be a problem, according to author Mark Hyman. In his recent book, "Until It Hurts," Hyman admits his own mistakes in pressuring his 14-year-old son to continue pitching with a sore arm, causing further injury.

Surprised by his own unwillingness to listen to reason, Hyman, a long-time journalist, researched the growing trend of high-pressure parents pushing their young athletes too far, too fast.

"Many of the physicians I spoke with told me of a spike in overuse injuries they had witnessed," Hyman told Livescience. "As youth sports become increasingly competitive — climbing a ladder to elite teams, college scholarships, parental prestige and so on — children are engaging in a range of risky behaviors."

One expert he consulted was Dr. Lyle Micheli, founder of one of the country's first pediatric sports medicine clinics at Children's Hospital in Boston. Micheli estimates that 75 percent of the young patients he sees are suffering from some sort of overuse injury, versus 20 percent back in the 1990s.

"As a medical society, we've been pretty ineffective dealing with this," Micheli said. "Nothing seems to be working."

Young surgeries

In severe overuse cases for baseball pitchers, the end result may be ulnar collateral ligament surgery, better known as "Tommy John" surgery. Dr. James Andrews, known for performing this surgery on many professional players, has noticed an alarming trend in his practice. Andrews told The Oregonian last month that more than one-quarter of his 853 patients in the past six years were at the high school level or younger, including one 7-year-old.

Last spring, Andrews and his colleagues conducted a study comparing 95 high-school pitchers who required surgical repair of either their elbow or shoulder with 45 pitchers that did not suffer injury.

They found that those who pitched for more than eight months per year were 500 percent more likely to be injured, while those who pitched more than 80 pitches per game increased their injury risk by 400 percent.  Pitchers who continued pitching despite having arm fatigue were an incredible 3,600 percent more likely to do serious damage to their arm.

Hyman encourages parents to keep youth sports in perspective. "I think that, generally, parents view sports as a healthy and wholesome activity. That's a positive. But, we live in hyper-competitive culture, and parents like to see their kids competing," he said. "It's not only sports. It's ballet and violin and SAT scores and a host of other things.  It's in our DNA."

Please visit my other sports science articles at Livescience.com.

Catching Fly Balls Is A Lot Like Rocket Science

Every Little League outfielder knows the feeling.

With the crack of the bat, you see the ball jump into the air. You take a few quick steps forward. Then, as you watch the ball continue to rise faster, you feel your stomach sink knowing that this one is going over your head. What went wrong?

How our eyes, brains, arms and legs combine to track and catch a fly ball has stumped scientists for more than 40 years.

A new study supports the original theory of it all while offering some practical tips.

By watching fielders shag pop flies, researchers have noticed a few interesting quirks. First, great ballplayers will not sprint to the exact spot on the field where they think the ball will land and then wait for it. Rather, they usually adjust their speed to arrive at the landing spot just as the ball arrives.

In fact, a previous study asked fielders to stand still in the outfield and predict where a fly ball will land. While they did poorly on that test, they then demonstrated that, when allowed to move, they were able to go catch similar fly balls. So, the tracking and prediction mechanism seemed to require movement of the player.

Years ago, physicist Seville Chapman proposed a model to explain how players manage the path of a fly ball so that they arrive to intercept it at just the right time. His theory, called Optical Acceleration Cancellation (OAC), used the acceleration of the ball through the vision field as a guide for player movement.

As a fielder watches the ball rise, he moves either forward or backwards so that the ball moves at a constant speed through his field of vision. If he moves too far forward, the ball will rise faster and may eventually fly over his head. If he takes too many steps back, the ball will appear to rise slower and will drop in front of him.

By managing the ball's position with his movement, a fielder will end up at the right spot at the right time. This explains why the stationary fielders could not predict where the ball would land, as they did not have the benefit of OAC.

If we ask real fielders how they knew where to run to catch a ball, they may not respond with, "Well, I simply adjusted my relative field position to keep the tangent of the vertical optical angle to the ball increasing at a constant rate." So, to test the OAC geometric equations against real life, researchers led by Dinant Kistemaker of the University of Western Ontario, compared the predicted running paths from their mathematical simulation with the real running paths of fielders observed in a previous study.

"We have found that running paths are largely consistent with those observed experimentally," Kistemaker told LiveScience. "Largely, and not completely, because the start of fielders is somewhat strange: They tend to step forward first, irrespective of the fact that they have run either forward or backwards to catch that fly ball."

The research is detailed this month in the journal Human Movement Science.

Will those first few steps forward doom the Little Leaguer to years of fly ball nightmares? Actually, it might be our brain's method of improving its viewpoint.

"For a fielder, making a step is a way of changing the magnitude of the optical acceleration, while preserving its informative value," Kistemaker clarified. "A faster rise of the optical acceleration above the detection threshold may outweigh a possible initial step in the wrong direction. Making an initial step forwards is not only easier than making an initial step backwards, but might also be a better choice."

So, if you're now coaching Little Leaguers, be patient. Their brains may still be learning the math.

Please visit my other sports science articles at LiveScience.com