Why Understanding Particle Physics is Vital to Understanding Baseball Pitching

Baseball coaches and gurus are constantly trying to simplify the baseball pitching motion to sell services and products. To me, this is intellectually dishonest and does a very large disservice to the chaotic nature of kinesiology and biomechanics. The best way I can explain this is by letting Richard Feynman do it. Since I can’t figure out how to embed a YouTube video at a certain time, click here for the explanation in the latest Symphony of Science video.

The transcript of his short speech is:

“It’s very hard to imagine all the crazy things that things really are like. ‘Electrons act like waves,’ no they don’t exactly. ‘They act like particles,’ no they don’t exactly.”

People get frustrated when statements like this are made! Feynman’s rebuttal was to say that if he simplified the argument for you any further, he’d be lying to you about how it works. The same holds true in baseball pitching and kinesiology in general.

First of all, most baseball coaches are very ignorant when it comes to the actual, very real classical mechanics of throwing a baseball. Example statements by these coaches that are said when trying to fix someone’s “mechanics” are:

  • Bend your back when you release the ball
  • Stride farther to increase fastball velocity
  • Grab some dirt on the way down

But even “enlightened” coaches will say psuedo-scientific things like:

  • Scapular loading stretches out the muscles in the shoulder and increases the stretch-shortening cycle
  • The faster the hips and shoulders turn, the more velocity can be imparted to the baseball
  • Your muscles are like a rubber band – stretch them out before contracting them to throw harder

The body is more than a series of levers, pulleys, and rope tied together, just like our universe is more than the simple answer of 12 particles of matter and 4 forces of nature. It’s about the interaction between these items that we seek to understand – something we’re very far away from in both disciplines, I might add. The famous double-slit experiment demonstrates the duality of waves and particles. Feynman famously said that the entire mystery of quantum mechanics could be understood through the double-slit experiment, and there are multiple interpretations of understanding this experiment. Peter Shor put it very well when he said:

Interpretations of quantum mechanics, unlike Gods, are not jealous, and thus it is safe to believe in more than one at the same time. So if the many-worlds interpretation makes it easier to think about the research you’re doing in April, and the Copenhagen interpretation makes it easier to think about the research you’re doing in June, the Copenhagen interpretation is not going to smite you for praying to the many-worlds interpretation. At least I hope it won’t, because otherwise I’m in big trouble.

The same is true about the understanding of kinesiological phenomenon like the Stretch-Shortening Cycle. We think we understand how this works as exercise scientists, but the mechanism of action remains unknown. This is much simpler to understand than the double-slit experiment, of course, but the problem plagues this phenomenon as it does with many indescribable things that seem to be true.

Research exists that show that the forces on the elbow present when a pitcher is throwing 90+ MPH is enough force to rupture the ulnar collateral ligament, yet a pitcher can throw for years without severe damage to this ligament. We think we know how the muscles in the forearm help to protect the elbow depending on the angular velocities of the arm, but we do not know. The truth, simply put, is that the forces required to throw this hard are enough to rupture the UCL, period. So why doesn’t the UCL rupture in all athletes? And why do some UCLs rupture at speeds much lower than 90 MPH? Does it have to do with the positioning of the forearm at release, or how the inertial mass of the baseball is achieved? All good questions, all without real, true answers – and it’s exceedingly likely that there will never be concrete answers to these questions in my lifetime.

Others have said the job of coaching (and teaching) is to simplify a subject matter so that people can understand it. “The duality of waves and particles is too confusing, can’t you simplify it,” someone might ask? The ultimate answer, of course, is:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMDTcMD6pOw

I’m not going to lie to you so you can feel good about understanding something that no one understands. If you want that, there are plenty of coaches who have never picked up a textbook on kinesiology or physics who will tell you things that will satisfy you.

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