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    Batter Up!

    Pitcher Scott Proctor, Photo Keith Allison on Flickr

    Pitcher Scott Proctor, Photo Keith Allison on Flickr

    I’m famously sports inept. So who would have thought I’d have something in common with major league pitchers who hurl hardballs at 95+ miles per hour? Turns out, our Achilles heels may be our shoulders. I have managed to wreck each of my shoulders at different times—not, I can assure you, by throwing a ball at any speed.

    Everyone who has suffered a shoulder injury knows that it is painful, incapacitating, annoying (when it is the result of nothing in particular or your own stupidity–my personal cases), and that the recuperative period can be long. In the case of major league pitchers, they invite disaster on a daily basis simply because of what they do, how often they do it, and the force with which they do it.

    However, apparently a small change in the height of the pitcher’s mound may lead to longer careers and less risk of injury. Unfortunately, I don’t work on a pitcher’s mound, so this discovery can’t help me.

    Science Friday on April 3, 2015, featured a program on baseball, as spring is finally here bringing spring training and the opening of the baseball season with it. Among others, host Ira Flatow interviewed William Raasch, Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, who doubles as the team physician for the Milwaukee Brewers. Raasch explained that research funded by the MLBA discovered that by reducing the height of the surface from which pitchers pitch, they might be able to reduce the risk of injury to—and lengthen the careers of—pitchers.

    While helping pitchers rehabilitate, it was noticed that they felt fine when practicing their throws on flat ground, but when they moved to the pitcher’s mound, they discovered they were not as healed as they thought. The pitching mound is just 10 inches high. (Of course, on television, it looks much higher, but then wheels on cars also turn backward on TV.) Apparently that is enough to make a world of difference. It is, explained Raasch, a matter of timing. The pitcher’s arm is rotated differently at the time the front foot makes contact with the ground.

    Don’t expect the pitcher’s mound height to decrease any time soon. Baseball players are rated as among the most superstitious of sports figures. Trying to convince them to give up the advantage—even it’s only psychological—over the batter will be impossible. And don’t try to get him to alter his pitching performance, either. If the pitcher has a quirky pitch that puts his shoulder at risk, but gets batters out, says Raasch, it’s unlikely the pitcher will give that up and possibly end his career earlier than a dicey shoulder.