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Fitness

Eyeing perfect pitch

Motion analysis reveals players' potential as well as ways to cut injuries.

August 11, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Grahamm Wiest, a Little League baseball player, had never performed in conditions like these. He was shirtless inside an air-conditioned room with more than 30 reflective markers taped to his body. And he was trying to pitch.

"It felt kind of funny," said Wiest, 12, of Orange. "The [reflectors] on my feet kept falling off."

Wiest was at the Center for Human Performance at Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego, where he was one of about 100 little-to-big-league pitchers seeking a better game through science. The year-old center is one of a handful of facilities across the nation that offers ballplayers a biomechanical analysis of their pitching technique, a process intended not only to enhance performance but also to prevent injury.

For decades, motion analysis, or the study of human movement, has been used to help stroke victims and orthopedic patients improve or regain their ability to walk. In the sports world, such analytic techniques have been used sparingly for such sports as distance running.

A pitching analysis like Wiest's costs about $400.

"Objective data for a coach is huge," said Tom House, founder of the National Pitching Assn. and a pitching coach who has worked with ex-big leaguer Nolan Ryan and Arizona Diamondbacks star Randy Johnson, among others. "The human eye can only see so much. Before, coaches had to rely solely on intuition."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Little League pitcher -- A photo caption with an article on motion analysis for ballplayers in Monday's Health section misidentified a Little League pitcher as Grahamm Wiest. The pitcher's name is Emanuele Thomas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Incorrect name -- A correction Tuesday for an Aug. 11 Health article on motion analysis for ballplayers misidentified a Little League pitcher as Emanuele Thomas. His name is Thomas Emanuele.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 18, 2003 Home Edition Health Part F Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Little League pitcher -- A photo caption with an article on motion analysis for ballplayers in last Monday's Health section misidentified a Little League pitcher as Grahamm Wiest. The pitcher's name is Thomas Emanuele.

If coaches and players were missing a flaw in a pitcher's delivery, it's easy to understand why -- the complex motion occurs in less than a second. At the center's motion analysis lab, players like Wiest are filmed with eight high-speed cameras that track the reflective markers on their bodies. In Wiest's case, the motion of his head, arms, trunk and legs were recorded and compared against the computer model of an optimal pitching motion -- in this case, the actual delivery of Chicago Cubs pitcher Mark Prior, a San Diego native.

In the lab, technique is prized over speed. "We don't even have a radar gun," said Arnel Aguinaldo, who directs the pitching analysis system used at the facility. "You can have a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, but if your mechanics aren't right, you're not going to throw it for very long."

Wiest's analysis, summarized in a 14-page report that details everything from his trunk rotation to optimal release posture, contained promising news. The youngster, who went to the lab last month as part of a weeklong baseball camp and dreams of pitching for the Boston Red Sox one day, demonstrated solid mechanics, said Aguinaldo. "For his age he does so many things correctly," he said.

Not a problem for Wiest but one that affects many young pitchers is the tendency to rely too heavily on arm strength, Aguinaldo said. Motion analysis can clearly show how the torso and lower parts of the body create powerful pitches, he added.

"The trunk, pelvis and legs generate the angular momentum," said Aguinaldo. "The arm is really along for the ride."

Even if athletes don't dream of the big leagues, the analysis can quickly identify poor techniques that could lead to injury at any level. Pitching wears down arms of any age, making injury almost impossible to avoid for professionals, said Aguinaldo. Proper motion can improve a pitcher's durability and minimize the risk of an overuse injury to the elbow or shoulder.

The San Diego laboratory's next project is to develop a program to help golfers with the mechanics of their sport. First, the researchers need a professional golfer to help them create a computer model.

"We'd like to get Tiger Woods to do it," said Aguinaldo.

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