Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander has been called a special talent, a prodigy, even a freak.
He consistently throws precise pitches that exceed 100 miles per hour. He's able to keep batters guessing, even as the innings wear on, by scattering the pitches all over the strike zone. According to some, he is the best starting pitcher in Major League Baseball.
The Tigers face the New York Yankees in game five of the American League playoffs tomorrow, in part, due to Verlander's performance on Monday night. His speed and precision look so effortless that opponents and fans are left to wonder what is his secret. Just what makes him so good?
The answer, experts say, is a combination of skills, smarts, genetics and mental toughness. Verlander taps into the same simple set of biomechanics and physics principles that make all great pitchers great.
"What makes a top level pitcher is a combination of two things -- pitching hard and not getting hurt," said Glenn Flesig, a biomechanist and research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. "Honestly, the best pitchers are not doing something special. They just don't have a weak link in the chain. They don't do anything magically best, but all the pieces work together."
The first ingredients in the recipe for an extraordinary pitcher, Fleisig said, are not glamorous or even surprising, but they are essential. During training, pitchers need to develop all major muscle groups. They also need to eat well -- not always easy when working their way up on a minor-league salary and travel schedule.
Rest is key. In a recent study, Fleisig and colleagues found that young players who pitch more than 100 innings in a calendar year are three times as likely to need surgery than those who pitch less. For Major League players, there is no magic number, but professional pitchers generally pitch every fifth day and leave the game after 100 pitches.
Most top pitchers are tall, with an average height of about 6’4”, and with good reason. Long arms offer more leverage. Still, the best pitchers come in a range of heights and weights. Verlander is just six feet tall.
Over the last 20 years, Fleisig and colleagues have analyzed the technique of thousands of pitchers, from youth to pro, by attaching reflective markers on their joints, then using cameras and computers to break down each movement and its consequences. Their findings point to a handful of pivotal moments in the on-the-mound sequence, together making the difference between a good pitcher and a great one.
Timing, it turns out, is everything.
The sequence of events goes like this:
After lifting his front leg up before the throw, the pitcher's leading foot makes contact with the ground. At that point, his throwing forearm, which is cocked behind him, should be between horizontal and vertical. If the arm is too high or too low, either the pitch will be too slow or the pitcher will put too much force on his elbow and shoulder, ultimately leading to injury.
Next comes a subtle twisting of the body, when a right-handed pitcher like Verlander shifts from facing third base to facing home plate. Like other elite pitchers, Verlander's pelvis turns first, followed by his trunk ( see video here ). That way, all of the muscles in his upper body distribute energy into the throw. Amateur players often draw energy from just their arms and legs.
As he lunges forward, the pitcher's front knee needs to be bent deep enough to stabilize his weight and maximize the amount of energy that passes from his leg muscles through his trunk.
Of course, the movement of the arm matters -- particularly the angle that a pitcher drops his hand behind his body before whipping it forward. Like a sling shot, the farther the arm can reach back, the faster a pitcher can throw the ball. Bigger arms help, but Newton's Laws of Motion suggest a tradeoff. An arm with more mass is slightly harder to accelerate to the same speed as a smaller arm.
"They look wildly different, if you're distracted, by flipping their hands up and down, looking this way and that, and kicking their legs," Fleisig said. "But people's bodies and joints are all connected in the same way. They can't break the laws of physics."
Verlander releases the ball at a height of about 6.5 feet, said Alan Nathan, a physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. After that, physics takes over yet again with a few basic forces of motion. Gravity pulls the ball down, sometimes by as much as three feet. And air resistance slows it down by as much as 10 miles per hour.
Though pitchers don't all study the science involved, they play with it all the time. The backspin that is put on a fastball, for example, adds a hop to the ball and reduces the pull of gravity on it by up to 20 inches, Nathan said. Tiny adjustments in the direction of the spin and the position of a pitcher's hand affect where the ball ultimately ends up – at a speed too fast for any set of eyes to catch what is going on.
"I suspect Verlander doesn't know a heck of a lot about physics," Nathan said. "He knows what he can do, but he doesn't know it from writing formulas."
Still, what goes on in Verlander's head matters just as much as the physics and biomechanics he uses to strike batters out, said Robert Weinberg, a sports psychology researcher who also works with athletes at Miami University of Ohio. And it’s his mind and brain that may ultimately explain why he's so good.
Studies show that expecting to succeed instead of fail can turn a player’s game around, as can confidence and the ability to relax under pressure. Elite athletes are good at focusing on what matters in the moment and filtering out irrelevant thoughts. Many pitchers also have superstitious routines that put them in the right mindset to play well, and those routines help them feel in control.
"Particularly at the elite level, the difference between first and second place can be hundredths of a second in swimming or short of an inch in baseball," Weinberg said. "Many times, that happens in the mind, not the body."