When spring arrives, we all know that baseball will return, along with die-hard fans trying to make their way to spring training fields to enjoy some baseball, sun, and fun. While it can be exciting to watch great hitting and 6-4-3 double plays, many admire great pitching even more.
Pitchers in the Major Leagues have an entire arsenal of weapons—the curveball, slider, and change-up. However, the one that is likely most feared by batters is one that every top-notch pitcher must possess: the fastball. These are generally timed 90 miles per hour or more, so it can be hard to imagine how a player could see the baseball traveling at that speed, let alone hit one. However, seasoned hitters are able to miraculously connect with the baseball each spring, sometimes even sending the baseball out of the stadium 400 or more feet.
Has it ever piqued your interest to wonder how some of the best hitters in the Majors see and actually hit a fastball? If so, then keep reading, as this article takes a deeper and scientific look at overcoming one of the more feared weapons of Major League pitchers.
How is it possible for a batter to hit a baseball that is travelling at 90 or more miles per hour? Here is a look at how the process happens.
As the pitcher performs his pre-pitch routine, he is likely gathering some information from the hand signals from the catcher behind the plate, as he decides how he will proceed to throw the ball toward the plate. In the event that he makes the decision to throw a fastball, the baseball will travel to home plate in roughly one-third to one-half of a full second—about 500 milliseconds. To explain just how fast this it, it takes you roughly 300 to 400 milliseconds to blink.
At the plate, the hitter’s brain takes approximately 100 milliseconds to fully process the image of the baseball after light and image hits his eye to actually see that the baseball is coming at him. In the event that the hitter decides to take a swing, it takes 25 milliseconds for the brain to inform the body to make a move. Then, it takes another 150 milliseconds or so to actually swing the bat and create contact. This leaves only 125 to 225 milliseconds for the batter to assess the direction of the baseball that the pitcher threw and make a decision as to whether to swing before acting on that decision.
Breaking down the way a fastball is hit shows just how amazing it is that any individual is able to hit one. However, Ted Williams—who is considered one of the best hitters in history—hit over 520 home runs and had a .344 batting average for his career (which means that he had 34 hits for every 100 times he was at the plate).
However, even the best all-time hitters may be unable to tell you exactly how they achieve what they do. Another celebrated hitter, Mickey Mantle, has previously said that he couldn’t explain, but he saw the baseball as large as a grapefruit.
So, what talents or characteristics did Williams and Mantle possess—enhanced eyesight, baseball eye training, reaction time, or something else entirely—to be able to see and hit the baseball? Let’s dive a bit deeper…
While it is true that eyesight can make a difference in seeing a baseball, how important is eyesight to MLB organizations?
The answer is easy and direct—scouts for the MLB look for players that have outstanding eyesight, or more specifically, 20/12 vision when assessing prospects for a team. It goes without saying that a baseball player with clearer and stronger eyesight will be able to see the ball better.
Let’s look at anticipation by referring back to the middle of the pitch when the hitter has between 125 and 225 milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing at a fastball. If the batter decides to take a swing, it will be when the ball is roughly 25 to 30 feet in front of the home plate.
The body requires about 25 milliseconds to recognize this decision from the brain, which leaves between 100 and 200 milliseconds to execute the decision, which is roughly the length of human reaction time and the time it takes to actually swing the baseball bat. The result is an almost instant decision and response.
David Epstein, who is the author of The Sports Gene, says that first-rate hitters are great at recognizing the unfolding situation and then acting on it. As batters practice the sport, eye training during real-time, live practice can help in the sharpening of their ability to see what’s relevant, including body movements and how to hit the ball as it comes across home plate.
Science is in agreement with Epstein’s theory. Vision scientists from the University of California at Berkeley have located a part of the brain that is able to track the trajectory of a moving object, and this is true even if said object is traveling at incredibly fast speeds.
According to these scientists, once the brain is able to recognize there is a ball and informs the body to react, it is already put away as old information. If the baseball is traveling 100 mph, the ball travels roughly three feet before a hitter even recognizes that there is a baseball and 15 feet before the hitter decides to take a swing. So, as the hitter is swinging, the body is acting on old, processed information, which may make it difficult—if not impossible—to actually make contact with the moving fastball.
Essentially, the only answer is that the brain could make up for the delay in one way or another. Gerrit Maus, lead investigator on the study, along with some of research colleagues, were able to locate and see the prediction mechanism within the middle of the brain’s temporal region of the visual cortex while it was computing the moving object’s trajectory. The team used functional MRI to track various visual processing capabilities.
He reported that the image that actually hits the eye and is later processed by the brain isn’t truly in sync with the “real world,” though the brain is smart enough to compensate for that loss.
Now you are familiar with what goes into throwing and hitting a fastball, which may make the sport of baseball that much more fun and exciting. Just make sure you don’t blink when your favorite team’s Ace is on the mound and preparing to throw a potential fastball to the opposing team’s best hitter or you may miss it all.
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