Milwaukee Brewers team physician William Raasch was able, for the first time, to bring to spring training a portable version of the $250,000-plus system he has used to analyze the team's minor league pitchers, as well as youth-level pitchers with pain, at his facility at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Eight digital cameras and 43 markers fed information into a $6,000 laptop — "the mother of all laptops," Raasch said. (The lack of a laptop powerful enough to absorb all the data was the impediment to bringing the system to Arizona; otherwise, the pitchers went back to Milwaukee for evaluation.)
He is still crunching the numbers gathered from spring training. But like he has each of the last five seasons, Raasch will prepare a report for the team's minor-league pitching coordinator about who might be most susceptible to an injury, and why.
"What you want to say is, 'Here is thing you can look for'" from a certain pitcher, Raasch said. "Injury prevention becomes an important part of coaching."
Marshall doesn't use motion-capture technology. But he has a camera that records at 500 frames per second — a standard movie camera is 30 frames per second — and takes a photograph of each frame at two-thousandths of a second. "Therefore, I can see with great clarity what happens even with the tip of the middle finger of their pitching hand," Marshall said.
Now would be an opportune time to mention the kinesiology-biomechanics divide over interpreting data, with Marshall on the former and most of the rest of the baseball world on the latter. Marshall's bone to pick is with what he sees as the biomechanists assumption that elite pitchers have perfect technique, while Fleisig says the difference is more over a practical approach of biomechanics and what he called Marshall's "theoretical approach," the equivalent of how the Fosbury Flop revolutionized the high jump in the late 1960s. "Nothing wrong with that," Fleisig said.
But where everyone agrees is that building the injury-free, effective pitcher is not about technology, but how people use it.
"Biomechanics will tell you what you need to do, but not how to do it, and it won't teach your brain how to teach your body to move," Fleisig said. So, for example, biomechanics has taught that every time you throw a pitch, your thumb goes down — even though it feels like your pinky is going down. A biomechanical analysis can tell a pitching coach the angle at which the thumb goes down, and whether that angle makes the pitcher susceptible to injury. But the coach has to teach the correct movement to the pitcher.
That's one of the main reasons why researchers say you won't see someone collecting and immediately interpreting real-time game data soon, even if, as researchers say, motion-capture is evolving where a pitcher won't need to put on the light-bulb suit to be evaluated.
Pitching, like any physical movement, is a force of habit, and those habits can't be changed inning to inning, game to game. Also, there's no guarantee an injury-minimizing motion makes for an effective pitcher, if, say, the funky delivery is what is putting the unhittable spin and movement on the ball.
One part of Raasch's work is using the video capture to help a coach spot troublesome motions when there's no technology around to help.
Technology "is a tool," Raasch said. "The pitcher can have the the best mechanics in the world, but there's always the mental aspect of the game. And you'll always need the coach to get the talent out of the pitcher."
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