June 26, 2009

MECHANICAL MEN:

When Radar Gun Hits 100 M.P.H., There’s More Than Meets the Eye (GREG BISHOP, 6/21/09, NY Times)

How can Johnson, the towering lefty with the intimidating scowl, and Lincecum, the marvel of motion who has been mistaken for a batboy, accomplish the same feat in such different ways?

“It’s similar to how a Corvette and a Porsche look so different and drive so fast,” said Rick Peterson, the biomechanics expert and former pitching coach for the Oakland Athletics and the Mets. “Under the hood there are so many similarities.”

The differences are easier to spot. Johnson, 45, rises like a smokestack from the pitching mound, and he throws with a lower, almost sidearm arm angle, longer arm action and fewer moving body parts than Lincecum.

Lincecum, 25, learned his mechanics from his father, Chris, who works at Boeing and doubles as a pitching guru. His power comes from constant and harmonious motion, from his old-fashioned windup to a Luis Tiant-like body turn, then uncoiling into an unusually long stride. Lincecum likes to say that he uses every body part from his ankles to his ears.

“Short righty and supertall lefty,” the 5-foot-11 Lincecum said in Washington this month. “With our deliveries, that’s about as opposite as you can get.”

The similarities lie beneath the surface, rooted in biomechanics — the physics of fastballs, if you will.

A lifelong philosopher of pitching, Chris Lincecum has a frame similar to his son’s and still hit 88 m.p.h. on a radar gun when he was in his 50s. In his son, as well as in the 6-10 Johnson, he sees the same creation of leverage, the same generation of power from the ground up.

“The key is the arm twisting and turning on the same plane as your shoulders,” Chris Lincecum said. “The lower body controls the upper body, and energy transfers at the hinges, the ankles, knees, hips and trunk. It all has to be in sequence. They both whip the ball. Randy does it differently, but they’re whipping it.”

Scientists call this kinetic change. Coaches call it coordination. Either way, pitchers are transferring energy from larger muscles to smaller ones.

Rotational speed is crucial for velocity. Peterson compared a pitcher’s body rotation to that of an upside-down tornado, with the upper body rotating twice as fast as the hips, and the shoulder rotating so quickly that a physicist once told him that if the human body rotated at that speed, it would be deadly.

“Ever wonder why Indy 500 cars go faster than the Nascar cars?” Peterson said. “Because their tires rotate faster. Size doesn’t necessarily transfer to speed.”

The ideal motion works like a whip. The larger part — the legs and the trunk — moves more slowly but generates more power. The smaller part — the hand — moves at much higher speed, with pitchers turning into Indiana Jones and whipping, more than throwing, the ball toward the plate.

Johnson’s motion is more vertical; Lincecum’s more horizontal. But both are built long and lean and with fast-twitch muscles, like the Greek gods that Chris Lincecum remembers from old movies.

In fact, Kyle Boddy, a pitching instructor who runs the Web site Driveline Mechanics, said that if he took an image of Lincecum’s motion, he could bend it until it provided a “mirror image” of Johnson’s motion at the point of delivery.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 26, 2009 7:58 AM
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