Neuroscience and Pitching: Building Better Command Training (A Thought Experiment)

I was a pitcher in high school and slated to be one in college as well. Being a pitcher comes with the universal cue of “Just Throw Strikes”, as if it were just that easy. I always had pretty decent command and on several occasions I was informed by coaches that I threw too many strikes in the zone, which in itself is an odd observation. I always was curious as to why command was something that was easy for me and difficult for some of my teammates? As I often do before I start going into experimentation with things I like to try to piece together ideas/research and build a wide web of hypotheses so we have a general idea where to scale out the idea. Is this the best way to do this? I have no idea.

I’d recommend refreshing yourself on The Use of Proprioceptive Training for Skill Acquisition before reading further.

Wrist Proprioceptive Acuity

After reading a journal that Han et al., 2015 found ankle proprioception scores were significantly and positively correlated with sport performance level in soccer I wondered if wrist proprioception could be correlated to cutting the baseball or even command. Han et al., argued that elite soccer players could focus more attention on locating teammates and opponents and less time processing and interpreting proprioceptive information. The argument has a valid point. Imagine if the pitcher didn’t have to focus his/her attention on grip, grip pressure, or feel. What if they could allocate all that cognitive processing to more external goals? I think this would be a great starting point, measuring wrist proprioception and testing its correlation against K/BB ratios. Taking it a step further could there be a correlation to specific wrist position deficiencies and specific pitch types? If a pitcher failed wrist adduction could it be linked to an issue in the changeup or could abduction be linked to an issue with cutting the fastball? Granted this is pure speculation, but it is interesting to consider.

I liked the ideas in this article for measuring wrist joint proprioceptive acuity. (Wrist joint proprioceptive acuity assessment using inertial and magnetic measurement systems) Assessing the degrees of freedom in the pitching wrist using this technique could pose an interesting connection to pitch spin axis and spin efficiency. Trying to reason out a step further, could we predict misses more accurately based on degrees of freedom deficiencies?

ROM data with fitted ellipses, showing a polar view of the ROM at different directions. Black triangles indicate mean ROM values in that direction across subjects. (Li, Li, & Li, 2019)

Improving Proprioceptive Feedback

After an extensive experience using the Axebat Speed Trainer bats and scaling out differential learning environments we came across a question that no one could answer “Why aren’t there any offset center of mass training baseballs?” Discussing it with a few entities we were continually given the same answer, its just not possible to build one because of how the string has to be wrapped around the core. So we attempted to build our own with fish weights and gorilla glue. While it did work initially the first high intent throw saw fish weights litter the facility. So we built a better version of the baseball using a laser and better weights.

Fish weights drilled into a baseball

Command training has frequently followed the same ideological process, repeat the exact same motion and you’ll be more accurate. Then pitchers are put back up on the mound and asked to repeat the same task with little variation. Driveline has developed their differential command baseballs and V-flex has a command trainer that we currently use. However, not much more seems to be available outside of those resources.

It is well established that differential learning has demonstrated enhanced motor learning performance when compared to repetitive learning. Differential learning not only leads to increased acquisition rates but also to increased learning rates. (Henz & Schollhorn, 2016) With this in mind adding variation to pitching command training such as blending in tennis balls, softballs, and whiffle balls should increase learning rates. As well as offsetting plates and creating plate targets from a variety of distances. Create problems that are just above the current skill set of the pitcher with a clearly defined goal to get the pitcher into a flow state.

A somewhat promising and very understudied proprioceptive training method is Vibrotactile Training. Haptic Vibrotactile Training in the realm of this thought experiment would include applying vibration to the pitching hand or wrist area (possibly both). This would add additional tactile information and could benefit the processing of proprioceptive signals. In a systematic review of vibrotactile feedback and its use in sports, Breda et al., suggested huge potential for sports science and its use of vibrotactile feedback. However, it currently has not yet been supported by scientific evidence in the realm of athletic development. (Breda et al., 2017)

Applying vibration to the finger tip improved the proprioceptive reaching target localization in a study by Mikula et al., 2018. In the study the vibrations were applied to the left hand and the right hand had to guess the positioning of the left hand behind a barrier. If we applied this concept to the pitching hand would it make the pitcher more aware of release and enhance feel? So is it even possible to rewire our proprioception? According to neuroscientist Richard Masland yes our senses are malleable and the brain can in fact rewire them. If we can rewire proprioception, in theory I believe we can scale out better pitching command protocols.

Knowing what we know now we begin with small scale experimentation. As we develop results we will update in a future post.


Level of competitive success achieved by elite athletes and multi-joint proprioceptive ability

Wrist joint proprioceptive acuity assessment using inertial and magnetic measurement systems

Differential Training Facilitates Early Consolidation in Motor Learning

Vibrotactile feedback as a tool to improve motor learning and sports performance: a systematic review

Vibrotactile information improves proprioceptive reaching target localization

The Brain Reshapes Our Malleable Senses to Fit the World

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