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New 3D motion system tries to save baseball pitchers from their worst enemy: Themselves

If this month’s playoffs and World Series have reminded baseball fans of anything, it’s that good pitching dominates. Well, good pitching dominates unless you’re the Detroit Tigers, in which case really awesome beards dominate. But, mostly, a great performance on the mound can dictate the results of a game more than any single position player, no matter how good a hitter he may be. The team with the best, healthiest arms has a serious advantage. 

Unfortunately, pitching also happens to be a fairly unnatural, extremely high stress activity for the body, and physical breakdowns are incredibly common, particularly in the shoulder and elbow. A pitcher’s mechanics – the way in which his body moves through the throwing motion – can significantly impact his chances of avoiding injury and maximizing performance. Good mechanics prolong careers, bad mechanics can end them before they start. But identifying subtle changes in a pitcher’s throwing motion with just the naked eye is no easy task. 

Xbus-XsensShoulder injuries are among the most difficult for a pitcher to overcome and the best treatment is to avoid them in the first place. With that in mind, researchers led by Dr. Pietro Tonino at Loyola University in Chicago have researched the Xbus Kit from Xsens, a 3-D motion detection system that collects data on arm movement and is capable of detecting “deterioration in the scapulo-humeral rhythm” (fancy talk for the shoulder blade and upper arm losing a healthy motion pattern) as a pitcher exerts himself on the mound and begins to fatigue.  

Sensor units are positioned on a pitchers scapula, humerus, forearm, and sternum, gathering information from embedded 3-D gyroscopes, magnetometers, and accelerometers, all designed to detect small changes in a pitcher’s throwing motion as he throws. Tonino and his research team believe those pitchers losing that rhythm, often through fatigue, are at the greatest risk for shoulder injury. Coaches can better identify those players in need of rest, mechanical adjustments, or both. 

The system works without the use of cameras, making the it simpler to use on the field, and far more portable. Xbus, Loyola’s researchers believe, can be an effective weapon in identifying those pitchers most at risk of injury. Their initial testing included 13 collegiate hurlers in the Chicago area, and they plan to test the tracking system on Little League pitchers. 

So who knows? In a few years, the player you see on the mound in the World Series might be there because his mechanics were rescued by fancy machinery. Whether that will be enough to topple really awesome beards remains to be seen. 

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