Perfect pitch: Scientists explore the mechanics of throwing

"This research demonstrates the theoretically best way to throw," said researcher L. Mahadevan.
By Brooks Hays  |  May 1, 2017 at 3:04 PM
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May 1 (UPI) -- Professional baseball and basketball players make throwing look easy, whether it's a four-seamer on the outside corner or three-pointer from the corner. In fact, throwing a ball accurately at a target is one of the most complex athletic movements humans perform.

Researchers at Harvard University wanted to find out which kinds of throwing mechanics yield the most accurate throws.

"There are many different ways to get an object to a target," L. Mahadevan, a professor of applied mathematics at Harvard, said in a news release. "How do you choose? Our hypothesis was that you choose based on a strategy that minimizes the error at the target while giving yourself the greatest room for error at the release."

Models showed overhand throws are the best bet for hitting targets below shoulder height and for minimizing errors at faraway targets. An underhanded works best for closer targets and targets above shoulder height.

The math models developed by Mahadevan analyzed how release errors affected the thrown object's trajectory and accuracy.

"We asked, how do errors introduced in the release of the thrown object propagate at the location of the target, as a function of the distance, orientation and height of the target," he said.

As revealed by the models, the most accurate throws carried a velocity slightly faster than the minimum speed required to reach the target. Beyond the ideal speed, accuracy suffers as velocity increases. The overhand throw is the ideal method for throwing an object with speed and accuracy over long distances, such as from pitcher's mound to home plate.

Humans have been mastering the throw for the entirety of their existence. Without the claws and razor sharp teeth of other apex predators, humans had to rely on weaponry to hunt. For fresh meat, humans had to learn how to throw stones and spears at moving targets.

Just as pitchers give themselves the best chance for a fastball strike with an overhand throw, the overhand motion likely gave early hunters the best chance at killing dinner.

Researchers published their findings in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

"This research demonstrates the theoretically best way to throw. But most of us are not born throwers of anything. We learn how to throw through trial and error," said Mahadevan. "Now, we have a mathematical framework to think about how learning about the physical world requires interacting with the world. We can't think about tasks unless we think about the way in which we interact with the physicality of the environment."

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