Nav: Home

The science behind making the perfect pitch

May 01, 2017

Baseball legend Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitcher in the history of the sport, had a simple philosophy when it came to pitching: Keep the ball away from the bat.

But as anyone who has thrown anything knows, it's not that easy. Throwing is one of the most complex actions humans perform. Even tossing a crumpled piece of paper into a wastebasket two feet away requires a series of complex neurological and mechanical calculations. Should you toss overhand or underhand? How fast should you throw? At what angle should you hold your arm?

Applied mathematicians at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) decided to use mathematical models to figure out the best strategies to throw something at a target.

"There are many different ways to get an object to a target," said L. Mahadevan, the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, Physics, and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at SEAS and senior author of the study. "How do you choose? Our hypothesis was that you choose based on a strategy that minimizes the error at the target while giving yourself the greatest room for error at the release."

The team found that while underhand throws are best for reaching a target close by and above the shoulder, overhand throws are more accurate for targets below the shoulder -- like a wastepaper basket -- and are more forgiving to errors over long distances.

The research is published in Royal Society Open Science.

As all pitchers, quarterbacks and bowlers know, once an object is released, the thrower loses control over where it goes. Mahadevan and M. Venkadesan, of Yale University, analyzed the parabolic trajectories of thrown objects to understand how release errors affect the accuracy of the throw.

"We asked, how do errors introduced in the release of the thrown object propagate at the location of the target, as a function of the distance, orientation and height of the target," said Mahadevan, who is also a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

The researchers also modeled the tradeoff between speed and accuracy when throwing an object.

The team found that regardless of the target location, the most accurate throw is slightly faster than the minimum speed needed to reach the target. The faster the throw, the less likely it is to be accurate, which explains why even the best pitchers still throw a lot of balls. The researchers found that at both high speeds and longer distances, the overarm throw beats the underhand throw in accuracy.

The findings shed light on how humans evolved to throw, said Mahadevan. After all, the ability to hit a target with a thrown object was key to human evolution. Without claws or sharp teeth, humans' ability to throw a stone or spear was a primary method of hunting for food.

"This research demonstrates the theoretically best way to throw. But most of us are not born throwers of anything. We learn how to throw through trial and error," said Mahadevan. "Now, we have a mathematical framework to think about how learning about the physical world requires interacting with the world. We can't think about tasks unless we think about the way in which we interact with the physicality of the environment."
-end-


Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Related Research Articles:

More Research News and Research Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans 2.0
More than test scores or good grades–what do kids need for the future? This hour, TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, both during and after this time of crisis. Guests include educators Richard Culatta and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Space
One of the most consistent questions we get at the show is from parents who want to know which episodes are kid-friendly and which aren't. So today, we're releasing a separate feed, Radiolab for Kids. To kick it off, we're rerunning an all-time favorite episode: Space. In the 60's, space exploration was an American obsession. This hour, we chart the path from romance to increasing cynicism. We begin with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, with a story about the Voyager expedition, true love, and a golden record that travels through space. And astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains the Coepernican Principle, and just how insignificant we are. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.