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Levin: The Pitching Primate

Neil Roach, a post-doc at George Washington University, was the lead researcher in a recent study published in the journal Nature that recorded the throwing of collegiate baseball players.

Roach used a 3-D camera system, like those used to make video games and animation, and verified that during the throw a pitcher’s shoulder acts like a slingshot, storing and releasing large amounts of energy.

When a pitcher throws, he rotates his arm backwards away from the target, stretching the tendons across his shoulder. This stores potential energy, and when the energy is released, the arm accelerates forward, generating the fastest motion the human body is capable of producing. The result: a blazing fastball ... particularly if you’re a Mets pitcher named Matt Harvey.

It’s thought that the peculiar anatomy of our torso, shoulder, and arm, which permits us to throw a baseball accurately and fast, evolved approximately two million years ago in Homo erectus, our brooding, not-quite erect ancestor. This trait allowed these distant hominids to successfully chuck spears and rocks at large and formidable prey, safely and effectively, for a diet more calorie-rich in meat and fat. This in turn, produced larger brains and bodies, and fueled our appetite for wanderlust - ultimately leading us to the four-corners of the world.

So, pitching may very well be the basis for who we are - and why we are the way we are.

Chimpanzees, our closet living relatives, are superb athletes on the ground and in the trees, but they can only throw a baseball about 20 miles per hour, a third the speed of a 12-year-old Little League pitcher... which may have something to do with why Major League Baseball has never drafted a great ape - though some fans may very well disagree. It may also account for why chimps remained in the trees, while we conquered the savannah.

This article didn’t surprise me. As a former youth baseball coach, I can’t imagine any gorilla or chimpanzee hitting a 95 mile-per-hour fastball; or backhanding a grounder in the hole at shortstop - then throwing out the runner at first base.

And while throwing is apparently an integral part of our evolution, overuse underlies most pitching injuries. If Homo erectus had thrown sticks and stones with the same regularity as a pitcher hurls baseballs - they likely would have had the same physical breakdowns that pitchers commonly have today. A starting pitcher may throw 100 (or more) pitches every five days and a reliever 20 or 30 pitches two (or more) consecutive days.

Our ancient ancestors threw their weapons only when necessary to acquire a meal, say an antelope or elephant, and those that had difficulty hitting the target would soon have been eliminated from the breeding pool, either by starvation or trampling.

Personally, whenever I get the opportunity to take a really deep look at the mechanics of a pitcher like Matt Harvey, it amuses me to know that he can out throw any chimpanzee in Cameroon.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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