This is the season when you finally learn how to hit a curveball. But better yet, you will be able to see the curveball right out of the pitcher's hand and not be fooled. It's not about the bat or your gloves or even your stance in the batter's box. It's about what's under your helmet. From the split second your eyes pick up the ball's spin and trajectory, your brain is performing multiple calculations and recognizing the slightest patterns so you can consciously identify the pitch and then make a swing/no-swing decision.
Most of us have heard the quote from the late, great Ted Williams, the last MLB player to hit .400: ''I've always said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. The hardest thing—a round ball, round bat, curves, sliders, knuckleballs, upside down and a ball coming in at 90 to 100 miles an hour, it's a pretty lethal thing."
But in the same New York Times article back in 1982, Williams also shared a nugget about his concentration level: "I used to say, 'I got to be quick, this guy's faster than he looks.' I had to hang in there. It's like saying, 'Nothing is going to disturb me as far as my intensity to go into the ball.'"
"This guy" is of course the pitcher whose job it is to make you look foolish. Watching an approaching object in three dimensions is incredibly hard, and he knows it.
"Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting that timing," said Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn. Expecting a fastball? Your brain will auto-switch to the pre-set perception-action pattern that has allowed you to successfully hit a fastball in the past. Then the guy throws the off-speed stuff and your timing is upset, giving your brain less than a half second to adjust to the different speed and flight path of the ball.
At the speeds of high school and college pitchers, it is not enough to say "keep your eye on the ball"—thanks to a fun little physics concept known as angular velocity. Think of watching cars go by on a freeway. Off in the distance your eyes can easily track them as they approach. But once they get to about a 45-degree angle to your position, they seem to speed up and whiz by, even though their speed is constant. It's the same with a pitch. Once the ball gets to about 10 feet in front of the plate, your eyes can't track it through so many degrees of movement.
This makes those first few milliseconds of the pitch so critical for your eyes and brain to recognize and agree on what's coming. Of course, batting practice against live pitching is the best training possible. But you only get so much time in the cage, and your body can only take so many swings per day before fatigue sets in.
The good news is that technology is solving that problem. Being able to sit on the couch with your laptop or iPad and watch hundreds of simulated pitches can fine-tune your visual perception and train the most important part of hitting—pitch recognition.
Who better to design a system to improve visual perception than a couple of Ph.D. neuroscientists. Jason Sherwin and Jordan Muraskin started deCervo to study high-speed decision making, and baseball hitting was their first project. But instead of creating another app that looks like a pitcher throwing at you, they added some live neuroscience. Attaching an EEG cap to a player's head while using the deCervo system gave Sherwin and Muraskin a real-time view of the player's actual brain activity. By comparing the electrical neural signals recorded with the simulated pitch timeline, the system gives hitters new insights about their decision making that no coach or observer ever could.
"The deCervo approach to pitch recognition is to measure exactly when a player decides neurally that he or she recognizes a given pitch," said Sherwin. "Then we can see that decision made physically just afterwards."
There's something uniquely different about seeing heat maps and decision points from their own brains that helps players formulate ideas for how to improve.
"Let's say that you're a rising high school player and you have problems with how to hit a curveball," said Sherwin. "The pitch recognition part of the system is then a necessity to see the few times when the brain is getting that decision right. Then with targeted practice, you can aim your visual system to the more informative parts of the pitch trajectory to see the breaking ball sooner and with more confidence."
Of course, at the core of visual perception is vision itself. Most athletes get their eyes checked for standard 20/20 visual acuity, basically by reading an eye chart. Even with corrected vision, tracking a fast-moving object requires optimized visual alignment, flexibility, recognition, tracking and depth perception.
In addition to baseball-specific training, advanced vision training boosts the underlying abilities of the eye-brain connection.
"Visual skills impact timing, balance, decision making and consistency of play," said Dr. Barry Seiller, an ophthalmologist and creator of the Vizual Edge Performance Trainer. "Elite athletes are just now discovering the value of visual skills and the role they play in on-field performance."
Many young athletes are adding visual skills training to their overall athletic training regimen. The goal is to "see the ball earlier" in the pitch zone, allowing for more time to perceive rotation and trajectory. More time translates into increased confidence and increased batted ball velocity.
Players are not the only ones who are using these systems. MLB scouts and college coaches are using systems like deCervo and Vizual Edge to screen draft prospects and recruits by establishing a common denominator of visual skills and decision making across teams and leagues. By identifying deficiencies early in the process, scouts and coaches can make better decisions about player personnel.
Pre-Season To-Do List
So, no excuses this year. Doing the same training as last year won't get you the new results you want this year. Here is your checklist of what you can do right now to improve your hitting:
- Get your vision tested. In addition to the standard visual acuity tests (20/20 eye charts), look for more advanced sports vision exams that check your eyes' ability to track moving objects, perceive depth and shift between focal points.
- Sit behind the plate of lots of high school or college games to watch and identify hundreds of live pitches.
- If you can't make it to games in your area, start watching MLB games using the Gameday feature on MLB.com. Watch the game either live on your TV or on MLB.tv (subscription required), then check the PITCHf/x data on Gameday (for free) to see if you can correctly recognize pitches.
The more pitches you see, the more neural connections your brain can make to boost your hitting. Because Yogi Berra was right: "Baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical."
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock