“The pitch cuts the inside corner of the plate for strike two.”
That familiar sound is heard on radios around the world. In fact, some of the best pitchers in America are not Americans. Great pitching ability is not limited to ethnicity or geography, but rather to human beings alone. Great pitchers make it look so easy, and “practice makes perfect,” but it helps that the brain power necessary for control, neurological connections, and muscular arrangements for the human arm are exceedingly better than any system that exists on the planet. Is throwing a ball really that complex?
Planning Motor Activity
Most people have heard of “gray” matter and “white” matter in the brain. If the brain were cut in half and viewed from the end, two distinct layers would be seen. The darker-colored outer layer of the brain, about one quarter inch thick, is the gray matter, and the white-yellow area inside is the white matter. In very broad terms, the gray matter associates sensory input with memories, plans motion and muscular activities, and provides awareness of sensations. It is called the cortex and is the conscious part of the brain. The white matter is composed of nerves that are covered in an insulating material with high fat content, giving it a whiter color. The connections are not random, but organized into “tracts” carrying data from one specific point to another. However, the number of connections is huge, so every part of the brain is essentially connected to every other part.
One part of the pitcher’s cortex is the premotor area. Since childhood, the pitcher has been storing thousands of plans in this area that coordinate the actions of whole groups of muscles. It is the primary storage location in the brain for learned skills, particularly ones that are repetitious in nature. While every pitch is unique, the general plan for muscle coordination pertaining to each type of pitch is stored—and constantly refined—in that area. A great major league pitch was started possibly at age two when the pitcher was handed a ball by his father and he made his first toss, influenced by every throw since then. Today, the pitcher will pull a general plan for a curveball from the premotor cortex.
The premotor is absolutely essential to control muscular movements. Large muscle groups are controlled and coordinated so that simultaneous and ordered motions occur as planned. A pitch involves primary muscle groups in the neck, hand, arm, shoulder, trunk, hips, legs, and feet. Individual neurons send impulses to several muscles, and each muscle receives impulses from neurons in multiple spots in the cortex simultaneously. Several neurons in the brain control each muscle, and each muscle is sent impulses from neurons located in several locations in the premotor cortex. This extent of control is necessary to achieve proper muscle coordination for pitching.
The batter is a power hitter, so the pitcher decides to throw the ball a little high and over the outside edge of the plate but still in the strike zone. From the moment of his decision, he will be modifying the premotor general plans. He fixes his eyes on his target. He knows that the path of the ball is going to follow an arc—not an absolute straight line—so he wants the end of the arc to be at the correct elevation. Hitting that elevation is primarily a function of speed and distance. Good pitchers have programmed these factors into the premotor area. But the exact elevation of any one particular pitch has not been programmed, so conscious changes to the plan are inserted. Wind and type of pitch also figure into the trajectory of the ball.
The rehearsed plan from the premotor area, coupled with conscious modifications, is sent to an adjacent area of the brain called the motor cortex and simultaneously to the cerebellum. This distinct area of the brain located toward the back and base of the skull functions like an extraordinarily rapid gatekeeper and a switching station. As a gatekeeper, it receives movement and environmental data from all of the sensors in the tendons, muscles, eyes, ears, skin, etc., and sorts out those pertinent to the execution of the pitch—an astonishingly huge number. It will couple that input with data from the motor cortex and send instantaneous modifications to the execution of the plan back to the motor cortex and to the muscles. As the pitch is performed, the motor and premotor cortexes and the cerebellum work in concert in a blindingly fast “circuit” that provides continuous input from the brain, through the spinal cord, then out through thousands of microscopic nerves to the muscles.
Integrating Visual and Vestibular Input
Looking back to the batter, even if the catcher has not moved his mitt to become a target, the pitcher can still lock onto a target of plain three dimensional space. How? Subconsciously his eyes pick up cues regarding distance based on the relative height of the squatting catcher, umpire, home plate, batter, and other things. Keying on any movement of the people around the target, the relative motions one to another also give accurate indications of depth. These cues are constantly being compared with data stored in memory to give an extremely accurate estimation of distance relative to height or motion. Another aid is his “stereo vision” (since the distance between pitcher and batter is less than 600 feet.). The pitcher’s eyes are set about four inches apart. However, this small distance is enough to allow the line of vision from eye to object to not be parallel but angled. The slightly dissimilar images projected onto the retina are interpreted by the brain as a three-dimensional image that helps aid in the sense of depth or distance.
A right-handed pitcher’s body will pivot on his left foot and rotate toward the left. To stay locked on target, his left eye turns toward his nose, the right turns toward the right temple, and they both rotate (to compensate for head’s leftward tilt) a little to the right—in exact unison. Six small extremely fast muscles for each eye control these movements.
As the pitcher turns through his pitching arc, the body’s rotary motion is sensed by semicircular canals in both the left and right inner ears. The right semicircular canal sends an inhibitory signal to eye muscles attached to the nose bone of the right eye and the temple bone of the left eye—which allows these muscles to relax. The left semicircular canal sends an excitatory signal—of exactly equal timing, magnitude, and duration—to an eye muscle on the nasal side of the left eye and the temporal side of the right eye, causing contraction. Visual input is integrated with these inputs and “tempers” these signals that contribute to extremely smooth eye motion fixated on the target while the head and body move “around” them. While the right hip of the pitcher may swing through an arc covering more than four feet, the eyes will turn through the same number of degrees of turn (generally until release of the ball) but move about one inch.
Meanwhile, tiny adjustments are being made to the circular motion of the arm, wrist, fingers, and trunk all the way down to his feet. The arm swings through an arc angled from the perpendicular, and at just the right time the wrist rotates so the hand stays in the same orientation toward the ground. Muscles in the forearm start to flex the wrist forward, moving it in its own small arc as the whole hand swings forward. The wrist’s movement inputs spin to the ball and increases power. At just the right moment during the swing, the brain sends signals to the muscles controlling the thumb. Pressure by the thumb on the ball loosens in a carefully graded manner. Promptly thereafter, muscles in the back of the arm are signaled to just barely loosen finger pressure on the top of the ball. The force imparted to the ball pulls it out of the hand at the right moment so its trajectory is right on target at over 90 miles per hour…for a strike.
Drawings of cavemen throwing primitive spears may seem convincing evidence of humanity’s evolutionary ancestry for those who fixate only on the spear. This makes no more sense than standing in awe of a free-falling 500 pound “dumb” bomb but ignoring the stealth jet fighter that released it. For anyone not blinded by evolutionary prejudice, it is easy to see that the real star of the show is not the archaic spear—but the incredible arm that threw it. All arms reflect features of design whose origins resist natural explanations. In no small way, misplaced appreciation robs the Lord Jesus Christ of His rightful praise as the prestigious Designer. Yet, His arms remain open, inviting all to “come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
* Dr. Randy J. Guliuzza, P.E., M.D is the National Representative for the Institute for Creation Research.