Chaos theory: Explaining the difference between a 90 mph and 85 mph fastball…

Dynamic systems can exhibit chaotic behavior.

“Lorenz had discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome. The term chaos as used in mathematics was coined by the applied mathematician James A. Yorke. The concept means that with a complex, nonlinear system, very (infinitely) small changes in the starting
conditions of a system may result in dramatically different outputs for that system.”

(“Chaos Theory”

As applied to pitching/throwing mechanics, especially at the highest levels of performance, small changes in mechanics can create significant results in terms of speed, location and/or movement. And for anyone whose job it is to work with and hopefully develop high level throwing or swing performance, the concepts/principles of dynamic systems and chaos explain much of the

Some golfers may be familiar with the “Iron Byron” swing robot that was used to test golf balls. The simulation in Figure 2 has the same attributes except that it is throwing a ball rather than swinging a golf club. The maximum ball speed in this simulation is approximately 86 mph.

In Figure 2, everything is the same as in Figure 1 except I have changed the length of time that the arm stays flexed. In Figure 2, I am holding the arm flexed for .02 seconds into the simulation. In Figure 3, I am holding the arm flexed for .01 seconds into the simulation. A difference of only .01 seconds. Yet this change has dramatic results on the final throwing of the ball, achieving a maximum speed of only 78 mph—an 8 mph difference from the previous simulation.

The point of these simulations is to demonstrate the effect of chaos on dynamic systems; i.e., that small changes in throwing mechanics can have dramatic effects on the results of the throw. This is something that is not fully understood or appreciated by most who engage in what is called pitching mechanics.

More often than not, words such as “style” or “talent” are used by coaches and instructors to explain the unexplainable.