Study Examines Baseball/Softball Hitting Movement Through Use Of Tee-Batting

Despite plenty of baseball pitcher film study, situational analysis, pitch recognition training, and visual perception improvement, the bat still needs to hit the ball. In the three dimensional space around home plate, one moving object needs to be maneuvered at a precise height, angle, depth and timing to make contact with another object traveling through the same space with deceptive speed and flight.

A study from researchers in Japan digs deeper into understanding how hitters anticipate a pitch’s location and coordinate their body movements to be sure the sweet spot of the bat arrives on target and on time to connect.

Teaching the brain and body what it feels like to make contact at different locations around the plate is the goal of most tee-batting practice drills. Set the tee up higher and closer to the batter to experience that inside fastball, then lower and further away to simulate a slider.  These three dimensions, height, depth (a point from home plate to the pitcher) and course (a point across the width of home plate, close to or away from the batter) must be calculated by the batter for each pitch if contact is to be made.

Anticipating a pitch type and location triggers this estimation process (i.e. expecting an inside fastball). The hitter’s brain preps his eyes and body to start the swing on time and at the right angle. If you’ve set-up the brain-body code to swing high and tight, the slider away won’t give you enough time to adjust the program and initiate an alternative bat swing.

“With numerous hitting experiences in both practices and games, batters develop the visuomotor process of perceiving how a pitch approaches them and how to modulate a bat’s movement depending on pitch trajectories,” wrote the sports science researchers of Daito-Bunka University in the Journal of Sports Sciences. “Therefore, improving one’s ability to respond to flight paths of different pitches is accompanied by learning how the impact location should be shifted depending on pitch trajectories.”

Using a computational model, batters learn to combine muscle movements to reach the different impact points of different pitch flights. These internal models, stored in the brain, are accessed as needed either pre-pitch and/or during the flight of the ball.

“In this sense, the mental representation, which is based on the intention and decision regarding how to hit the ball, corresponds to an internal model in the computational process. From this perspective, the batter’s preferred impact locations in tee-batting reflect corresponding mental representations regarding ball–bat impacts for different pitches.”

The researchers recruited ten experienced college players to participate in a two-part experiment. First, they stood at the plate and were asked to place their bat at the preferred impact point given nine different pitch trajectories (high/inside, middle/middle, low/away, etc.) Next, a tee with a ball was placed at each of their nine impact points. The players were asked to take a full swing at the ball while their movements were captured with a high-speed motion capture camera.

After analyzing the players’ movements, the researchers discovered some interesting details about how approach angles were modified slightly to reach certain impact points.

“Batter decisions regarding the impact locations for different heights and courses and their modulation of movements were revealed to be systematic so as to utilize biomechanical characteristics of body and bat movements,” they concluded. “However, according to the duration of bat movement, such an advantage of systematic change in impact locations can be a drawback due to the fine timing adjustments required for inside or outside pitches. This result implies that to produce a batting movement, batters put more emphasis on the spatial coordination of movement for gaining mechanical effect rather than on the timing aspect of movement.”

Of course, hitting a stationary ball off of a tee is much different than one in flight. The point of tee-batting is to allow the brain to learn how to organize the limbs to reach certain impact points.

“There are more movement parameters that we can analyze, such as the stepping movement of the front foot, the hand and wrist movements to manipulate a bat and more details regarding joint movements of limbs, including the right arm and lower extremities.”

Combining a pitch recognition video training system with actual swings would move players towards a more realistic learning environment without the wear and tear on muscles from actual batting practice.

Dan Peterson is a writer/consultant specializing in the cognitive skills of athletes. 

Righties vs Lefties – The Importance Of Handedness Training In Hitting

It happens in the late innings of just about all close games. To exploit the ideal pitcher-batter match-up, opposing managers play a cat-and-mouse game of lineup changes for pinch hitters and relief pitchers, all designed to get the statistical advantage of handedness.

Most batters would prefer to face an opposite-hand (OH) pitcher, righty vs lefty and vice versa. With the dominance of right-handed pitchers in the game, the left-handed hitter comes to the plate with a built-in advantage. But what exactly is that advantage? What would happen if the pitcher population in the league was more balanced, righties to lefties? Two sets of researchers set out to dig a little deeper into this phenomenon of visual perception.

While studies of handedness show that only 10% of the general population are left-handed, the proportion of left-handed MLB players is closer to 39% of hitters and 28% of pitchers, according to 2012 data. This surprising abundance of lefties in baseball is even more pronounced when compared to the NBA (7%) and NFL QBs (7%).

In a 2016 study, 1.3 million play-by-play data points were analyzed from MLB games covering the 2000 to 2012 seasons. Looking at on-base plus slugging (OPS) percentages, a complete measure of at-bat productivity, left-handed batters (LHB) enjoyed a .787 pace against right-handed pitchers (RHP), while sinking back to a .698 percentage versus left-handed pitchers (LHP).

Similarly over those thirteen seasons, when right-handed batters (RHB) faced opposite-hand pitchers, their OPS was .781 but still were able to hit .723 versus RHP pitchers.

So, the tactical moves to take advantage of OH is clearly shown in this data. But the researchers had one dilemma, “we are unable to explain why the left-handed batters have a larger OH advantage,” not to mention a lower performance against same-hand (SH) pitchers.

Thinking about possible reasons why OH match-ups favor the hitter, there are two main arguments, self-defense and the breaking ball. With a right-handed release to a right-handed batter, the ball seems to be coming right at him. This slight hesitation to stand in against a 90 mph heater may be enough to disrupt the reaction time needed to hit it. The same pitch coming from the opposite side provides a better view across the body. Also, a curve ball from a same-handed pitcher will typically break away from the hitter, causing a reach across the plate.

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Still, why would RHBs hit 25 percentage points higher versus SH pitchers than LHBs? Enter a study by Dr. Ethan D. Clotfelter of Amherst College where he collected and sorted MLB data across 49 years from 1957 to 2005. Hitters and pitchers were sorted by batting average and earned runs average, respectively. He noted that there was no significant difference in using batting average versus OPS or other offensive stats.

When sorting by handedness in pitchers, he counted the number of innings pitched by either righties or lefties. So, comparing at-bat performances of hitters vs pitchers was closer than just counting the number of RHPs or LHPs in the league.

To his surprise, he found that, “both right- and left-handed batters were significantly more successful, and conversely pitchers were less successful, in years with a high ratio of right to left-handed pitchers.” In other words, when there were significantly more innings pitched by righties, all hitters, from both sides of the plate, performed better. In the same way, in seasons with a more balanced number of innings pitched by both righties and lefties, hitters had a lower batting average.

As we saw in the first data set, the OH advantage is still there but when hitters saw more RHPs, they hit better, even from the right-side, then when the balance of pitchers was more even.

Dr. Clotfelter has an explanation for this, something he calls cognitive representations.

“A useful analogy for the interpretation of these data comes from biological predator-prey systems. Predators are thought to form cognitive representations, called search images, of specific prey types to maximize detection and capture efficiency.”

“Baseball batters may form cognitive representations analogous to search images, and these representations are likely to be strengthened by sequential priming. Such representations may be essential for successful hitting at an elite level, as direct visual information regarding the ball’s trajectory is insufficient or incomplete, particularly for batters facing pitchers of the same handedness.”

In other words, seeing a righty delivery over and over, game after game, builds and strengthens the visual cues necessary to recognize different pitch types. Seeing a more balanced mix of righties and lefties doubles the perception workload, even in OH situations.

This learning curve can be shortened by using technology tools that allow pitch recognition training using video of actual pitchers, both RH and LH. If a player can’t get enough reps in batting practice, they can tailor a virtual pitch recognition session to get just the right ratio of RHP to LHP to improve on their weaknesses.

Dan Peterson is a writer/consultant specializing in the cognitive skills of athletes. 

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Game Fatigue Can Hurt Cognitive Skills of Baseball Hitters

For most baseball players, live batting practice (BP) provides the best time to work on pitch recognition, timing and swing mechanics. Typical pre-game BP sessions offer a couple dozen swings facing medium-speed pitches with the goal of warming up muscles and focusing vision to the ballpark lighting and background. During rare in-season team practices, hitting and fielding are often isolated training activities, except for the occasional scrimmage.

While that separation of tasks helps players focus on the finer technical points, it doesn’t simulate the physical and cognitive stress of a full game. Long innings during a competitive season can start to drain energy needed to stay focused on the job, especially in the batter’s box. In fact, the core cognitive functions of attention, perception and reaction time can begin to suffer in the later innings unless training sessions are used to factor in fatigue to maintain or strengthen cognitive reserve.

Last month, South African researchers published a study confirming that these cognitive skills can deteriorate over a 3-4 hour game. But instead of baseball, they focused on cricket. With the similarities of pitchers (bowlers) and batters (batsmen), both sports share the 1v1 battle of hitting a pitched ball at high speeds. In addition to fatigue, both baseball and cricket batters face a interwoven set of variables that can impact performance.

“Batters consistently have to modify information processing sequences to adapt to the associated challenges,” write the authors in their paper published in the Journal of Sport Sciences. “Distraction by opponents, crowd dynamics, previous performances as well as batting psychology can also influence batters’ focus. Attention is further affected by match status, e.g., runs needed to win, information from coaching staff, personal factors and other extraneous variables (the umpire’s decision).”

To understand how fatigue can dull the brain over time, they used a simulated game format that combined plenty of hitting with the aerobic requirements of cricket batsmen to run the pitch and score runs. Dr. Laurence Houghton of ACE Cricket Coaching explains this simulation, which he created and named BATEX, in this paper and in this video.

With a volunteer group of cricket players from a local high school team, the simulation started with baseline measurements of cognitive abilities. Hitting a 90 mph pitch requires not only high visual acuity but also pattern recognition, decision making and quick reaction time. Using computerized tests from Cogstate, an Australian cognition measurement company, assessments were also taken three times during the simulation and again at the completion of the four hour BATEX.

During the batting/running sequences, sprint speeds and heart rates were also captured. The researchers expected the players’ foundational cognitive performance to decline as fatigue increased.

And that’s just what happened. While reaction time tests stayed roughly the same, the tasks requiring advanced thinking involving memory and decision-making, known as executive functioning, suffered.

“We found that prolonged batting impaired cognitive function in complex tasks (higher-order), and less so in simple (nonexecutive) tasks,” wrote the authors. “Therefore, fatigue induced through repeated shuttle running, impairs executive batting processes to a greater degree than simpler processes.”

What does this mean for coaches and players? Several suggestions come to mind from this data:

  • Batting practice should be conducted at the end of a practice after a fatigue-inducing activity like wind sprints.
  • Include base-running into batting practice. Taking turns, have hitters run full-speed to second base after 3-4 swings, then return to the cage for additional rounds.
  • Before a game, perform cognitive warm-ups such as pitch recognition drills and eye tracking exercises.

As with most sports, the closer that training sessions can mirror real game scenarios and stressors, the better the transfer of skills between practice and performance.