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Anatomy Of A Fastball

Cover Story


Hurling a 100-mile-per-hour fastball down the middle is a special skill worth analyzing. But a big-league pitcher's arm, wrist, and finger movements change so rapidly that they're almost impossible to dissect. This thwarts efforts to learn from good pitchers -- or figure out what's wrong when they have injuries or slumps.

Insights into these puzzles of movement could come from a new data-collection tool that's integral to virtual reality. Greenleaf Medical Systems, a four-year-old startup in Palo Alto, Calif., has licensed the "dataglove" from VPL Research Inc. for medical uses. A black Lycra glove with fiber-optic cables attached relays movement signals to a computer, which quantifies hand motion. In a recent experiment, Greenleaf put datagloves on the hands of four Boston Red Sox pitchers, including team ace Roger Clemens.

Attached to an Apple Macintosh computer, the glove recorded subtle relationships between speed, position, flex, and other variables as the four men threw a variety of pitches. For every three-second pitch, the system compiled 16,000 data points. Red Sox associate team physician William J. Morgan is building graphic images to see what he can learn. By repeating the experiment, he hopes to identify movement changes that make a pitcher less effective -- and correct them.

Company founder Walter J. Greenleaf sees broader potential in the experiment: He envisions a huge market in analyzing repetitive-stress injuries, an increasingly common malady of office workers, and in diagnosing other orthopedic and neurological ills. He also hopes to make patients who can't speak able to communicate through gestures the computer interprets.

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