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Hitting a Fastball – What Does Vision Have to Do With It

“See the Ball, Hit the Ball” was Pete Rose answer when asked how he became such a great hitter. “Hitting is Timing” was what Warren Spahn said. The Batting Stance Guy shows you just how important or unimportant stance is, depending on how you look at it. All these factors must be taken into account to be a successful batter. We are going to “focus” on vision in this article (pun intended) obviously because the is the EyeInfo blog, not the StanceInfo or TimingInfo blog.

The vision factor kicks in the second the pitcher’s wind-up commences. We are going to break down the batters timing into sections based on the motions of the pitcher and the ball.

Motion 1: Retinal Image Motion (click HERE for information on the structures of the eye)

The visual system of the brain takes cues from where the image of the pitchers wind-up lands on the back surface of the eye (the retina). When the image of the wind-up hits the retinas of the eyes, the brain starts calculating based on the batters observation of (1) where the pitcher’s eyes are focused, (2) the speed with which the wind-up occurs and (3) the angle of his shoulders in relation to the rest of his body.

Motion 2:  Visual Cues and Retinal Disparity (binocular depth cues)

At the point of release of the ball from the pitchers hand, the brain takes the image of the ball and calculates an approximate value of where the image of the pitch might fall on the retina.  At this point, the eye locks onto the ball with the center of the retina and adjusts calculations for an estimated trajectory from the pitchers hand to the plate. An interesting phenomenon, the “grapefruit” phenomenon, has been described in batters who are confident and hitting well, where the ball achieves super large visual dimensions from the point of release by the pitcher until the batter makes contact. The opposite has been observed for batters in a slump; they describe the ball as a “raisin” or an “aspirin” and have difficulty connecting. The image of the ball has a corresponding location to a point on each retina. The disparity between the images is interpreted by the brain for depth information and the image of the angle along which the ball travels from the pitchers hand across the plate is used by the brain to estimate the eventual position at which the ball  might cross the plate. The brain uses these cues to determine what plane to place the swinging bat within. The better the estimate, the better the chance the ball is connected with. There are, of course, millions of more subtle visual calculations that are used as well, such as brightness, glare, color, contour etc, but we have described the major factors that help the brain determine timing when hitting a baseball.  The indeterminate factors include ball spin, wind, friction and other physical or physical influences on the ball.

Motion 3: Motor (coordination) and Vestibular (Balance) Input

The motor cortex and vestibular system swings into action as the batter moves through the stance motions towards connecting with the ball. Signals are sent to the fingers, hands wrists, forearms, elbows and shoulders as well as to the feet, legs, hips and torso for movement that will align the bat along the trajectory of the ball. The goal is to have the bat end up in the same plane as the ball as the ball crosses the plate. This all has to occur while the eyes remain peeled on the “target” – the ball and preferably with as little head motion as possible. When the head moves, the image of the trajectory of the projectile (ball) shifts, necessitating a micro-second recalculation. A micro-second too late, and STRIKE! The less head movement, the better chance the ball will be hit. The head may move slightly forward or backward in space, as the batter has to “step into” the ball to hit it and it would be impossible to swing a bat at the velocity batters swing in the majors and have no head motion at all, but the batter wants to minimize any lateral and rotatory movements of the head. This is managed by the vestibular system of the brain. The vestibular system kicks in to keep the head level and motion as close to relative to the postural plane the batter chooses while the motor system “swings” into action.

Vision ties together the information from (1) the retinal image (2) other visual cues and (3) information from the motor cortex and vestibular system – the complexity of this motion is so poignantly and succinctly delivered by one of baseball’s greatest in the statement by Pete Rose

Copyright 2010

Courtesy of the Doctors at Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care; Optometrists, Ophthalmologists and Opticians working together to help you see better.  Serving the Rockville, Potomac and Gaithersburg Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC for over 40 years. For more information visit youreyesite.com or call (301) 670-1212

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