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Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

Posted August 27, 2008 6:00 AM by ShakespeareTheEngineer

If pitchers improved their speeds as much as runners have, then baseball players would, statistically speaking, be able to throw at least 110 mph (assuming Walter Johnson could hit 101). Look at the sprinting field: many can finish within 3% of Usain Bolt's 9.69-s at 9.98-s. That list consists of people who didn't even qualify for the Olympics and some that might not make the finals at the NCAA Championships.

If pitching improvement was similar to sprinting, there should be a lot more people who can break the 100.9 mph plateau, much less go beyond. USA Women's sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, who set the women's 100-m record in 1988, surpassed Don Lippincott's 1901 record by 0.11s, (roughly 1%). But are there even any women who can throw 100 mph? Why the drastic difference?

Furthermore, if pitchers improved as much as swimmers have, then baseballs should be scorching past hitters at over 130 mph! Today's baseball players have better training regiments, better nutrition, modern science and technology, so what gives? Below, although hard to see, is a graph that shows the scope of falling sprint times compared to increases in baseball pitch speeds over about the same number of years.

Human Physiology Reaches Its Limit

Noam Scheiber, a senior editor at The New Republic, dived into this question and found an easy explanation. Humans have not jumped much on the radar gun because they can't. At some point, the body's creation of torque in the arm causes tendons and ligaments to snap. According to Glenn Fleise, a biomechanical engineer who studies pitching at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, AL, the threshold for an elbow ligament to snap is about 80 Newton-meters of torque, a fact Fleise discovered after testing human cadavers. Guess how much torque it takes to throw in excess of 100 mph? Just about 80 Newton-meters.

Isn't it ironic that Joel Zumaya, history's hardest thrower by many accounts, has spent more time on the disabled list with arm problems than he has pitching for the past two years? In a recent outing where he was injured and sidelined for the season, Zumaya said that after he threw his last fastball he "felt like my arm exploded." Joel Zumaya is not alone. Many of the pitchers on the 100+ list have had major arm injuries, such as Kerry Wood, Eric Gagne, Rich Harden, and recently, Billy Wagner.

So why can athletes in other sports continue to improve? Track stars and swimmers don't put as much pressure on their bodies at any point of competition as baseball players do. In addition, they rely upon the increased strength in the ligaments and tendons of the legs. These athletes have yet to approach the maximum torque threshold for these ligaments.

How Surgery Can Actually Improve Throwing Speed – Sort Of

Tommy John Surgery, often the three worst words a pitcher can ever hear, might actually be a blessing in disguise – if it could be perfected. Replacing the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), the ligament most often damaged by throwing hard, with one from a hamstring can increase the maximum torque threshold in the arm. Theoretically, if someone ever healed 100% from T.J. surgery, that person should be able to throw faster than before. Some patients report they have increased their throwing speeds by 2-5 mph, although some therapists attribute this to a strength regiment closely followed during post-op rehabilitation.

With the exception of the occasional individual who can defy nature or has a physical abnormality that allows him (or her) to overcome the physical limitations of the normal human body, it looks like until we can engineer a better ligament or wait long enough to evolve, baseball's counterpart to the 100-m sprint, the blistering fastball, will likely stay right about where it is. Some may be able to replicate Zumaya's fireball, but they are, in turn, playing with fire.

Pitchers trying to break through the 100+ ceiling might find that the only thing they consistently break is their own arm.

Resources:

http://www.slate.com/id/2116402/
http://www.slate.com/id/2116402/sidebar/2116451/
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/articles/fastest-pitcher-in-baseball.shtml
http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/players/7630/news;_ylt=AitWQibWYJ0f0N3JGpQ3XCaFCLcF

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#1

Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/27/2008 10:33 AM

The problem is that running and swimming are very different from throwing.

With throwing, all of the force has to be applied at the beginning. A ball, or javelin has to be accelerated from 0 mph to X mph with one motion.

By comparison, the force used in running and swimming for acceleration occurs over many motions (strides, strokes). Not only that, but each successive stroke has a higher initial velocity, which means that the effect is cumulative.

There is no such thing as a physiological limit because we continue to evolve. Every time they say that, someone like Usain Bolt comes along and shatters that misconception. I guarantee that we will see a sub 9 second 100 meter in the next 100 years (assuming the world doesn't blow up or anything).

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/27/2008 10:50 AM

Roger,

You are absolutely right and I totally agree about where we are when it comes to cumulative force motion and not being close to maxing out potential. But when it comes to baseball, as you have said, the arm cannot move much faster/harder without destroying the UCL.

To me, until we evolve or engineer an alternative, we must be close to the upper end of ability when it comes to pitching. I don't think the next 100 years will get us the same results as you are suggesting for baseball as it will for sprinting, also for the same reasons you noted.

Consider:

  • 9.69s to 8.99s = 9.3% improvement (and we might see that way before 100 years, especially since Bolt might shave 0.1s off next time he runs it).
  • Conversely, if you look at Zumaya's reported 104.8 + 9.3% = 114.5 MPH.
    • I am not knowledgeable enough to calculate the required Newton-meters of force, but by using a guess at the math, 100 MPH/80 Newton-meters = 1.25 MPH/NM.
    • If this math works (remember - English teacher, here, folks) 114.5 MPH/1.25 = 91.6 Newton-meters of force. That is 11.6 NM beyond the normal breaking point of the UCL, which is about 12% above the average maximum UCL torque threshold.

We probably aren't done evolving, but I think a mechanical replacement for ligaments and tendons with a higher torque threshold is closer on the horizon than evolution of a strong UCL is.

And once the artificial UCL is ready to go, (as well as other biomechanical replacements for tendons, etc.), be ready to see some eye popping speeds.

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#3
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/27/2008 11:15 AM

You Wrote: "But when it comes to baseball, as you have said, the arm cannot move much faster/harder without destroying the UCL."

That's not true and the point is, we will see a pitcher in the Major Leagues top 105 mph in the next 50 years for sure.

But your straight 10% ball velocity compared to 10% running velocity doesn't demonstrate any limitations of physiology, its limitations of math. A more accurate comparison for determining physiology limits would be % increase force per stride compared to % force per throw (Don't forget you use only 1 arm to throw but two to run). If you calculated that you would see that a 10% increase in fastball MPH would require a much higher %increase Force per throw than a runner's time would require a %increase in Force per stride, again because the increase is spread out for a runner and cumulative. A comparable increase in pitching speed would be like 3-5 mph which will happen.

Be careful with statistics of different systems.

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#4
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/27/2008 11:23 AM

Ah, my math limitation are laid bare. I guess I am being to general in my application when I am comparing improvements. I am looking at total results instead of results via force/workload, I guess.

One part I don't understand though:

Someone already calculated the max torque threshold for the UCL to be 80 Newton-meters of torque. You said,That's not true and the point is, we will see a pitcher in the Major Leagues top 105 mph in the next 50 years for sure.

But 105MPH is only an improvement of .2 MPH (give or take) over the current "record". Am I mixing my math again? Is it an "optical illusion" that the incremental improvement there is not as great, overall, as we see in sprinting and swimming? What am I missing?

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#5
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/27/2008 11:31 AM

No, your not mixing your math, I just didn't realize that it had gotten that high already. As recently as 10 years ago the record was 100.9 by Nolan Ryan. So I guess I should change my prediction to 110 mph.

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#6
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/27/2008 11:39 AM

It will be interesting to see if that comes true (although I won't be around in 50 years, most likely).

I talked about those speeds more in the first part of the blog. If you are interested in seeing some of them, I suggest:

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/articles/fastest-pitcher-in-baseball.shtml

And thanks for helping me straighten this out!

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#7
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/27/2008 2:24 PM

Amazing. I remember seeing him in the playoffs a few years ago. I can't imagine what it must be like to see a 101 mph fastball from the point of view of the batter.

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#8
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/27/2008 4:03 PM

I have been to a batting cage and stood in against 85MPH. It was terrifying. I can't fathom 104.

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#9
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/27/2008 4:27 PM

I knew a guy in highschool who threw in the eighties. Not only did he snap the laces in my glove (thats what I get for catching him with an old outfield mitt), but it made a terrifying "shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh....." for the last 10 feet. I doubt he threw over 85 mph.

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#10
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Re: Reaching the Limit of Human Performance (Part 2)

08/28/2008 8:18 AM

At those kinds of speeds, it looks like trying to hit an aspirin tablet. Most people can't react fast enough to get the bat around in time, and if they swing early enough to maybe connect, any change in the ball's trajectory will turn it into a pop-up foul (or pop-down) most of the time anyway. Imagine your coach has told you to go for a bunt... Flak jackets, anyone?

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