Keeping Your Eyes On The Ball Takes Practice

There’s no argument that a baseball batter’s ability to track an incoming pitch is critical to hitting performance but it’s the details of how his eyes perform that task that researchers are still figuring out. While previous studies have confirmed that expert hitters are better than novices at tracking a moving object, we still need to breakdown the process if we want to build better training tools for athletes.

A study released this month in PLOS ONE took a big step to understanding this visual perception of athletes.

Dynamic visual acuity (DVA), the optometrist’s name for this skill, is the ability to pick out details of either an object in motion while our head stays still or a stationary object while our head moves. Imagine standing on a street corner while cars whiz by. Look to your left and pick out one car to follow with just your eyes as it passes by you. This is known as dynamic-object DVA. Alternatively, imagine being in a fast-moving car trying to read a billboard as it flies by. The object is fixed but your eyes and head need to move to stay focused. This static-object DVA uses different tactics to allow the brain more time to take in the visual information.

Facing a baseball pitch requires a little of both methods with the early flight of the ball requiring dynamic-object DVA until the last few feet when the ball crosses in front of us. For faster pitch speeds, it has been shown almost impossible to “keep your eyes on the ball” for the entire trajectory, so hitters compensate by judging the ball’s early flight then trying to use a “catch-up” saccade (eye movement) at the very end to make contact with the bat.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia recruited 23 members of their varsity baseball team to test their DVA using a custom and unique vision test.

“A close relation has been shown between DVA and level of expertise in various ball sports such as baseball, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, tennis, soccer and water polo,” they wrote. “These studies show that athletes outperform non-athletes, and that experts exhibit better DVA than novices. Baseball players also show superior static visual acuity. However, it is unclear which factors lead to such DVA advantages.”

While the players stared at a computer screen, an eye tracker device attached to the monitor looked back at them to capture the movement of their gaze. On the screen, they were asked to watch for a moving circle which after a quarter second would convert to a “C”, also known as a Landolt-C ring (see image), which would rotate so that the opening in the C would point in one of four different directions. The Landolt-C would be displayed for another .25 seconds.


The player’s job was to track the object and then identify which direction the C opening pointed. The test would get increasingly harder or easier depending on the accuracy of the player’s response. It was hypothesized that a combination of smooth eye pursuit and saccadic eye movements combined for high DVA.

“Smooth pursuit eye movements aim to match the speed of gaze with that of small, moving visual targets, and can be used to track objects travelling at speeds of up to ~50 degrees of visual angle per second,” explained the researchers. “At higher target speeds, when gaze lags behind the target, the eyes use fast catch-up saccades to compensate for position and velocity errors.”

Back to a baseball pitch, once a batter has picked up the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, his smooth eye pursuit locks in until the ball is about 10 feet from the plate where the visual angle becomes too much for the eyes to follow. Then, a quick saccade follows to the estimated point of contact. Which is why a pitch that breaks late is so hard to hit.

They found that among this group of college players, “dynamic visual acuity is related to two distinct eye movement metrics: minimum position error and the frequency of reverse saccades. Minimum position error corresponds to how well gaze is aligned with a moving object of interest, such as a baseball. The occurrence of reverse saccades likely reflects a failure to produce or learn optimal saccade control.”

Reducing this position error and avoiding these reverse saccades would improve their DVA and produce better hitting results. The researchers recommend sport-specific vision training that builds this skill over many repetitions.

“In recent years, visual and perceptual components have become a core component in athlete performance assessment. Our study reveals the importance of smooth pursuit eye movements for the ability to resolve spatial detail in moving objects and identifies patterns that might enhance perceptual performance. Eye movement tasks could be useful additions to perceptual training programs for baseball and might potentially provide useful tools in assessing and recruiting athletes.”

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

Lack Of Pitch Recognition Affects Swing Mechanics

“Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing,” said the winningest left-handed pitcher in MLB history.  “A pitcher needs two pitches, one they’re looking for and one to cross them up.” Consistently crossing up hitters is what kept Warren Spahn in the big leagues for 21 seasons, amassing 363 wins including a Cy Young award and World Series championship in 1957 with the Milwaukee Braves, where he spent all but one season. To which Ted Williams is known to reply, “Hitting is 50% above the shoulders.”

It’s a Catch-22 at the plate; if a hitter doesn’t try to anticipate a specific type of pitch, he typically won’t be able to make a decision quick enough after release to make contact. But if he preloads an expected pitch into his brain, he has half a chance of being fooled. The necessary biomechanics to begin a swing take valuable milliseconds during the half second the ball is traveling to the plate.

If a batter is able to correctly predict the pitch type, his swing movement will be timed in unison with the pitcher’s throwing motion. Tomohisa Miyanishi and So Endo of the Graduate School of Sports Science at Japan’s Sendai University set out to actually measure the correlation of the mirrored movements.

“Previous biomechanical studies of baseball have investigated separately the pitching and hitting motions, and they have provided useful findings,” in the paper they presented at the 34th International Conference on Biomechanics in Sports in Japan. “However, an actual match-up between a pitcher and a batter forces the batter to predict what the pitcher is going to do before swinging the bat with correct timing to hit the ball successfully. There has never been a study that investigated the batting motion in an actual match-up against the pitcher.”

So, they designed an experiment to examine the changes that batters make to their swing kinematics when they are told the pitch type coming versus when they are not informed of whether the pitch will be a fastball or an off-speed pitch (curveball or slider). With nine college pitchers and nine hitters, they set-up motion capture cameras to record the synchronized motions of both during a pitch/swing sequence.

In Figure 1 below from the paper, each motion sequence is broken down into phases, so that the timing and duration of each segment can be measured and compared.

 Flgure I: Definitions of each phase for (a) the pitchlng and (b) the batting motions. Flgure I: Definitions of each phase for (a) the pitchlng and (b) the batting motions.

After recording and comparing the sequences across 185 pitches where the batter was told the pitch type, then with 185 pitches where no pitch tip was given, the researchers noticed a significant difference. Across the five different phases of pitching and hitting, including the total time, the two sequences were statistically correlated when the batter knew what was coming. This makes sense as the hitter knows the speed and trajectory of the pitch so can time his swing almost perfectly with the arrival of the ball.

However, when the pitch was unknown to the hitter, this paired timing was not seen.  

“Batting is probably more difficult in the unknown situation than in the known situation, and the unknown situation possibly makes the batter spend more time deciding how to hit the ball, which in turn forces him later to use an increased speed for the bat swing,” explain the researchers. “In other words, in contrast with the known situation, in the unknown situation the batter waits a relatively long time to hit the ball, until the ball is close to the batter, and then uses greater rotation speed of trunk and bat.”

In fact, this hesitation causes a big change in swing mechanics as the legs and trunk have to hold back until the last possible millisecond while waiting for instructions from the brain.

“Thus, controlling the bat not with the legs but with the arms would be important in order to address the pitched ball in the unknown situation,” wrote the researchers.

By training pitch recognition skills, hitters gain back those milliseconds so their swing can maximize rotation and bat speed, not to mention accuracy of contact. By first anticipating a pitch type from the game situation, then confirming their guess with early visual perception, their mechanics can remain consistent.

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

Visual Perception Tests Help Explain Poor Hitting By Baseball Pitchers

During the 2014 MLB season, according to Baseball America’s editor Matt Eddy, pitchers put up historically low batting stats. Since the DH era began, those pitchers, mainly in the NL, who did visit the plate created an out 86.2% of the time. Their on-base percentage was 48% worse than non-pitchers while their slugging percentage was 39% less productive.

While the calls for the National League to adopt the DH rule get louder, the effect of over four decades of most pitchers not hitting has entrenched itself throughout all levels of baseball. “I think much of the reason for (the declining production of pitchers hitting) is the increased specialization at the youth levels,” one NL farm director said. “As amateurs, many pitchers focus entirely on that craft and don’t play a position when they’re not on the mound.

Despite the debate, this dichotomy of one set of players not practicing hitting for years while everyone else takes daily batting practice has created an opportunity to see what all of that time in the cage can do for sensorimotor skills. Are pitchers just guys who could never hit? Does seeing thousands of pitches sharpen the core visual skills of everyday hitters? Do pitchers and non-pitchers all start with the same level of perceptual cognitive abilities, (i.e. the same “hardware”) and then diverge based on hours of deliberate practice (improving the “software” of the brain)?

To find out, a team of researchers at Duke University dug into a treasure trove of data on over 500 baseball players who had been tested using the Nike Sensory Station (now Senaptec) between 2010 and 2014. Their research was recently published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.

The data set included 112 high school, 85 college and 369 professional players as they completed nine sensorimotor skill tests independent of any baseball context. Also collected prior to the testing was information on age, height, handedness, eye dominance, occurrence of eye surgery, and lifetime number of concussions, so that any other variables could be controlled to isolate just the pitcher versus non-pitcher question.

Using a large HD touchscreen and a remote input device, the system included these tasks:

  • Visual clarity
  • Contrast sensitivity
  • Depth perception
  • Near-Far quickness
  • Target capture
  • Perception span
  • Eye-Hand coordination
  • Go/No-Go
  • Response time

Each of the three playing levels, (high school, college and pro), were considered separately. First, for both high school and college, there were no significant differences across the nine tests between pitchers and non-pitchers. This seems somewhat logical as pitchers are still hitting at the high school level and just beginning to diverge in the relatively new DH world of college baseball. The research team concludes that these athletes have not specialized as much to allow deliberate practice effects to take hold.

“First, these younger and less experienced athletes may not yet have accumulated sufficient deliberate practice experience to engender such differences. Secondly, among high school and

college baseball players there is less position fidelity, with many athletes devoting time to both hitting and pitching activities. Lastly, it is possible that the smaller numbers of pitchers, relative to hitters, in the high school and college sample may have reduced power and sensitivity to differences in performance scores at these levels.”

However, when looking at just professional players, there were statistically significant differences between pitchers and non-pitchers in two of the nine tests, visual acuity and depth perception.

“Visual acuity and depth perception, the abilities to extract visual details at distance and determine disparities in depth, are two domains of vision that aid batters in spotting the movement of a pitch,” explain the researchers. “That enhancements in these abilities, among the nine tested, differentiate hitters from pitchers speaks to the underlying capabilities that are learned by extensive practice in professional baseball players, and more broadly implicates the importance of these visual skills in high-level athletes.”

So, all players could be taught to hit well, the limited practice time available forces choices.

“It’s really a question of time and value,” said an NL assistant GM. “We don’t have much time for our guys to practice, so we choose to make sure they practice the pitching side of things rather than the offensive side of things.

New technologies to help train baseball-specific hitting skills can leverage this limited time by allowing players to see video clips of hundreds of pitches and fine tune their pitch recognition skills without swinging a bat.

“Such training programs have been advanced greatly in the past few years by sports-specific training techniques that target anticipation and decision-making abilities of athletes, as well as new digital technologies that train general visual, perceptual, and cognitive skills critical for sporting performance,” concluded the researchers.

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

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.

See More Pitches right on your phone! 

Available for Baseball and Softball

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. 

Increase your Batting Avg. and Slugging % by 20% or more

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Research Finds That Pitch Recognition Skill Is Linked With Season Walk Percentage

“Yeah, but will it transfer out to the field?” It is the most asked question about any type of sports training. Tools, techniques and technologies all seem logical in their theory and approach but the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. It’s no different in baseball. Coaches, parents and most of all players would like some empirical evidence that there is a transfer of learning from drills to statistical performance at the plate.

That’s why we were excited to see the results of a recent study, the first of two by Dr. Sean Müller and Dr. Peter Fadde, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer at gameSense Sports, that found a significant link between the visual anticipation skills of hitters, also known as pitch recognition, and their actual statistical performance during a season.

The researchers gathered 34 professional baseball players, single A minor leaguers from an MLB organization with at least 100 plate appearances, to participate in a pitch recognition test using a technique called visual occlusion. They were shown video of a pitcher from the perspective of just behind the batter’s box, looking over the catcher’s shoulder.

At four different time intervals, the video was stopped or occluded so that the remainder of the ball flight could not be seen. It would be like standing in the batter’s box and closing your eyes before the pitch arrived at the plate.

Three pitch types (fastball, curveball and change-up) were shown and occluded at four different time intervals (when the pitcher’s front foot landed, when his shoulders were squared to the plate, ball release and a no occlusion control condition.)

The players were asked to identify the pitch type in each situation. Their overall accuracy was then compared with their 2013 full season statistics, including batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks, strikeouts and walk to strikeouts ratio.

The overall results showed that a player’s pitch recognition at the pitcher’s front-foot impact was significantly correlated with their walk percentage, meaning the better the anticipation the better the walk percentage. Also, for recognition between fastball and change-up at ball release, often cited by coaches as the most important anticipation skill, the batters’ performance was correlated with walk and on-base percentage.

“What this study did, which hadn’t been done before, was to correlate hitters’ scores on the video Pitch Recognition test with their batting statistics for the season,” said Dr. Fadde. “It’s not really surprising that the strongest correlation was with walk rate.”

“What’s remarkable is that professional hitters can pick up information about pitch type before the ball is even released. That’s been shown in a previous study using this same video test with Australian Baseball League hitters and also other sports skills such as return-of-serve in tennis.”

“The implication for talent identification is that scouts could give a video test on an iPad that could predict a hitter’s “eye”. The test can also help with coaching. If a hitter lacks plate discipline (low walks, high strikeouts) but is OK on the PR test, then you work on his approach. If he scores low on the PR test, then a coach needs to work on his pitch recognition.”

To get an idea of how this pitch recognition training works, register for free and try it out!

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

Study Confirms That First Third Of Ball Flight Is Key For Baseball Hitters

A baseball hitter relies more on pitch information during the first third of ball flight than the final third. Nothing new there as coaches have been teaching pitch recognition that way for years.

But sometimes a well-designed academic study comes along to confirm what may be obvious. That’s exactly what a group of Japanese sports scientists did when they incorporated occlusion glasses, a pitching machine and a group of college baseball players.

“Previous studies on elite batters have reported their superb ability to use the early part of the ball trajectory to successfully hit the ball,” wrote the researchers in a paper published in PLOS ONE. “Moreover, it seems that it would be difficult to correct the trajectory of a moving bat once the bat head has reached a certain speed. Therefore, we hypothesized that a longer visible time improves the hitting accuracy except visual information about the 150-ms period before ball-bat contact, because this is approximately the time required to react to a visual stimulus.”

In other words, if we divide the ball’s path from pitcher’s hand to home plate into thirds, we can examine segments of about 150ms adding up to the total of about 450ms for the full flight. In their experiment, the researchers identified the first third as R+150 or “Release plus 150ms” and the final third as A-150 or “Arrival at the plate minus 150ms”.

First, the pitching machine was set to two speeds, a fastball at 90.7 MPH and a changeup at 71.8 MPH, both with backspins of 1,836 RPM. Next, a pair of liquid-crystal occlusion eyeglasses, similar to the old Nike strobe glasses, were customized to receive instructions from a remote software app. Before each pitch, a random instruction was sent to the eyeglasses for three different conditions; no visual occlusion (the batter sees 100% of the ball flight), R+150 or A-150. 

With this set-up, the college players, with an average of nine years of playing experience, stepped into the batter’s box. In the first set of 36 pitches, each hitter saw the fastball under a random but equal number of occlusion scenarios (12 pitches at each setting).

Then, each player hit a second set of 36 pitches with the same occlusion scenarios but now the changeup.  While they did know what pitch was coming, they did not know how long they would see it before the occlusion glasses would block it out. 

Of course, making contact is good but quality contact at the bat’s sweet spot will result in line drives and higher on-base percentages (OBP). So, the researchers marked the bats with the sweet spot’s target and asked the hitters to make contact there. Using high-speed cameras, they then measured the distance between the target and the actual point of bat-ball contact.

Missing the target on the horizontal plane or along the length of the bat will affect the horizontal direction of the batted ball. If you swing too early, you’ll most likely make contact towards the end of the bat, pulling it to left field. Not terrible from an on base perspective unless its a foul ball. However, making contact above or below the sweet spot in the vertical plane will force pop-ups or ground balls, often lowering OBP. 

So, how did the college hitters do?  Take a look at Figure 1, a scatterplot of all of the pitches and points of contact (or misses) for both the fastballs and changeups.

 Figure 1:  Figure 1:

At first glance, the data points are much wider and distributed in the R+150 occlusion than the A-150 setting. But then notice that the A-150 plot is very similar to the no occlusion setting.  In other words, there was very little improvement seeing the last 20 feet of the pitch versus seeing the entire pitch. This tells us that the accuracy of the “no occlusion” condition was gained during the first third of ball flight not the last third.

Think about standing on the side of a freeway. As you watch cars approach in the distance, going 70 mph, your eyes are better able to focus on and track them than when they zoom past you horizontally in the last few feet. In the same way, this angular velocity perception applies to tracking a baseball approaching at the same speed.

This study confirms that pitch recognition training needs to focus on the first third of ball flight, picking up cues of arm angle, ball spin and early trajectory.

This is exactly what the gameSense system accomplishes through occlusion-based learning.

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

In-Game Pitcher Video Is Effective For Pitch Recognition Training

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When teaching a new motor skill or game tactic, coaches rely on their athletes being able to take what they learned in practice and apply it during a game despite multiple changes in the environment, emotions and minute by minute situations.

For baseball hitting instructors, this is especially true when teaching pitch recognition and plate discipline. Facing the same pitchers in batting practice every day doesn’t provide the breadth of delivery mechanisms and early ball flight cues that players will see from multiple pitchers during an entire season.

Even with a single game, pitchers can change. For six to seven innings, hitters may begin to pick out hints from the right-handed starter tipping them off to a change-up versus a fastball or a curve versus a slider. Then, a lefty is brought in from the bullpen with an entirely different pitching motion and pitch inventory. Being able to quickly change visual perception to adapt to this new stimulus is the goal of learning transfer theory.

“This means that learned visual anticipation skill needs to be adaptable to variation in visual–perceptual information that is encountered in a game setting in order to maintain visual–perceptual motor performance,” wrote Sean Müller, Peter J. Fadde and Allen G. Harbaugh, authors of a new study recently published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. Dr. Fadde is Professor of Learning Systems Design & Technology at Southern Illinois University and Chief Science Officer at gameSense Sports.

In other words, if a team can’t hit the reliever, then the opposing coach made a great pitching change. This ability to generalize pitch recognition learning from one pitcher to another is often the sign of an expert hitter with the years of experience to know what to look for.

To speed up this process, pitch recognition training systems are designed to show hundreds of pitch repetitions to a batter so that his brain can build a visual memory framework to use during a real game. Seeing the same pitcher in batting practice every day just doesn’t offer enough variation to be able to adjust on the fly.

To further the research on learning adaptability, Muller, Fadde and Harbaugh set out to measure the pitch recognition skills of expert and near-expert hitters as they viewed a left-handed pitcher (LHP) and a right-handed pitcher (RHP) during the same testing session. Hitters from two major league baseball organizations were tested during spring training.

In the researchers’ definition, an expert hitter was one that had playing experience in Major League Baseball, Triple-A or Double-A leagues while a near-expert hitter played in Single-A or lower leagues. The total population sample was 125 players, 30 experts and 95 near-experts, who had distinguished themselves from novice players by being signed to a professional contract.

The two groups of players were shown video footage of two pitchers, one RHP and one LHP, with a variety of pitch types, inside and outside of the strike zones. Their job was to identify the pitch type (fastball, curve, or change-up) and the pitch location (strike or ball), using a temporal occlusion method that didn’t allow them to see the entire pitch. This means that the video was stopped at four different times across the testing period; at ball release, 80 milliseconds after ball release, 200 ms after release and then the entire pitch sequence as a control group. The total time for a pitch to reach the plate was 440-520 ms.

The video footage was recorded during an actual minor-league game from behind the plate. The view was cropped to show just the pitcher, the batter, the umpire and the catcher (see Figure 1). Using this point of view was intentional by the researchers to understand if batters could predict pitches just as well as when they were standing in the batter’s box. As a practical scouting matter, real game video is much easier to obtain from a seat in the stands behind home plate during a game than arranging staged pitching sessions to record video.

Over 48 different pitches, each participant recorded their answer in a booklet with six choices: fastball strike, fastball ball, curveball strike, curveball ball, change-up strike or change-up ball.

As the researchers expected, both the expert and near-expert groups were able to adapt well between the two pitchers, scoring above simple guessing probability in both pitch type and location across all of the temporal occlusion tests.

However, there were a few subtle differences. Both groups had a little more trouble with the LHP and the near-experts were less accurate than the experts in the early ball flight scenarios (at pitch release and 80ms after release.) Not having as much exposure to LHP helps explain their struggle there while more experienced players have advanced their anticipatory skills earlier in the ball flight.

“It’s incredibly valuable to have normed pitch recognition scores from hitters in major league baseball organizations,” said Dr. Fadde. “Now, other professional hitters, college hitters, and advanced youth hitters can be tested and compared to these scores.”   

The practical benefit of using in-game video footage was another key finding. Pitchers engaged in a competitive battle present a more realistic motion and intensity that cannot be captured with simulated, staged video recordings. So, if a coach or scout can capture video of opposing pitchers from the stands, it can be inserted into an occlusion training system to prepare hitters for upcoming games.

“Opponent movement patterns that are captured in-game create highly representative visual–perceptual information in the temporal occlusion paradigm because it displays the opponent striving at an optimal level to impart constraints such as time stress of object velocity to defeat the performer,” wrote the researchers.

Do you have in-game video of opposing pitchers that you would like to show your players in a pitch recognition training system? Contact us to learn how to import your footage into gameSense

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

A Pitcher’s Facial Emotions Can Help A Hitter’s Pitch Recognition

The stakes were extremely high going into Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the best-of-seven series, the Texas Rangers, trying to win their first championship, were up 3 games to 2 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Leading by two runs in the bottom of the ninth, the Rangers were one strike away from locker room champagne. Instead, the Cardinals’ David Freese hit a triple off the wall driving in two runs and sending the game to extra innings.

After Josh Hamilton hit a towering 2-run home run in the top of the 10th, the Rangers once again were up by two runs and one strike away in the bottom of the inning. The Cardinals did not flinch, hitting three singles to tie the game. Finally, in the bottom of the 11th inning, Freese became a Cardinals’ legend by hitting a 3-2 pitch over the center field wall for a game-winning home run, forcing a Game 7.

The final game was less dramatic, with the Cardinals winning 6-2, but the emotional roller coaster of a seven game series was evident on the faces of the players, who showed the entire spectrum of reactions from joy to nervousness to anger.

Baseball players, like most athletes, are not emotionless robots. The pressure of the moment can affect their performance. Think of the pitcher-batter duels in Game 6, where one team is one swing away from victory or defeat. The well-trained brain of the pitcher knows what to throw and the experienced batter knows what to expect. Yet, athletes can’t always mask the stress they’re feeling, giving away possible cues to their opponent. Staring back at the pitcher, a hitter might be able to subconsciously detect fear or uncertainty which may help him predict the type, speed or location of the next pitch.

That interaction is what Dr. Arik Cheshin of the University of Haifa wanted to understand. With a team that included researchers from the University of Amsterdam, he designed an experiment to measure the ability of athletes to read their opponent’s emotions so that they could anticipate their next move. The pitcher-batter face-off seemed like the ideal scenario.

“The players stand opposite each other in one of the two most famous duels in sport. The two sportspeople look each other in the eye; one makes a move, and the other responds to it. We wanted to see whether the expression of emotion offers a clue about this move — and we found that it does,” said Dr. Cheshin, whose study was recently published in Frontiers in Psychology.

From that infamous 2011 Game 6 and 7, as well as Game 7 from the 2012 World Series, he captured 92 two-second video clips of just the pitcher’s face right before the start of their throwing motion. Eliminating the rest of the background, Dr. Cheshin wanted to capture the facial emotion, if any, of each pitcher before delivering what could be a game changing pitch.

Next, he showed these clips to 213 Dutch undergraduate students, who had no baseball experience, and asked them to identify if the pitcher looked happy, angry or worried.  That process created a subset of 30 video clips that had the highest agreement on emotions among the students.

A second group of 34 students were then showed these 30 clips and were asked to predict the speed, accuracy, and whether the batter would swing at the pitch. Using this information, the students were able to link emotions with a guess of what the pitcher might throw.

“The participants predicted various properties of the pitches according to the pitcher’s emotion. When the pitcher showed anger, this led to the prediction of faster and more difficult pitches,” said Dr. Cheshin. “The expression of happiness led to predictions of more precise pitches and a higher probability that the batter would attempt to hit the ball. The expression of worry led to predictions of imprecise pitches and fewer attempts to hit the ball.”

Interestingly, when pitchers were judged to be happy, the students correctly predicted that the batter would swing more often.

“It is possible that the batter’s reaction is not conscious but evolutionary. There is a lot of pressure and tumult around the batter, and accordingly the batter sees the pitcher’s expression of happiness as a positive sign that encourages him to try to hit the ball,” said Dr. Cheshin.

“Whether this is an authentic emotion or a strategy,” he added, “the expression of emotions has a social impact in sports as in other areas. Controlling the expression of emotions and the ability to read emotions in order to predict behavior can make the difference between a strike and a home run.”

The science of pitch recognition often focuses on the ball, the pitcher’s arm mechanics and the angle of release.  However, Dr. Cheshin’s research reveals a new source of information available to hitters, the pitcher’s pre-pitch emotions. Even experienced MLB pitchers, who would be expected to keep a poker face, can show slight facial expressions that our subconscious eye can pick up for clues.

Training for pitch recognition is best accomplished with video of real pitchers throwing in a real game. Without the pressure of competition, a pitcher may not reveal those subtle hints that add to a hitter’s arsenal of information.

Pitch Recognition Training Dramatically Improves Runs Per For Southeast Missouri State Baseball

 Coach Steve Bieser (AP Photo/Rogellio V. Solis)
Coach Steve Bieser (AP Photo/Rogellio V. Solis)

Peter Fadde Ph.D., Chief Science Officer at gameSense Sports, has been on the front lines of pitch recognition science for over 20 years. Over the last three years, his hands-on coaching has helped the Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) baseball team to dramatically improve their offensive stats.

In 2013, SEMO averaged 5.7 runs per game. That ranked #108 nationally among 295 D1 programs. In 2014, the first year using Dr. Fadde’s system, the Redhawks improved to an average 7.9 runs per game, which ranked #8 in the country. In 2015, 8.0 runs per game, good for #3 in the nation. This year, 7.9 runs per game, again ranked #8.

“We had two goals,” Fadde said in a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article. “We wanted to stay true to the scientific principles, and that’s the occlusion method. The other part was we really needed it to fit with what they do with the players — not some new exotic thing.”

Steve Bieser, recently named head coach at the University of Missouri talks about the program that he, hitting coach Dillon Lawson and Dr. Fadde initiated at SEMO, ““People look at pitch recognition and think it’s about being passive, the ‘Moneyball’ stuff with Billy Beane, (about) seeing more pitches.”
“It’s nothing about seeing more pitches. It’s about seeing the pitch that you can handle and being ready for that pitch, whether that at-bat lasts one pitch long or seven pitches long.”

Coach Lawson, now with the Tri-City Valleycats, Class A in Troy, N.Y., was able to work video-based pitch recognition drills into their current instruction. 

“We created a program to fit into what we were already doing,” Lawson said in the same STL Post-Dispatch article. “Guys already hit off the tee. They already would stand in and track pitches during bullpens. They already watched video. We were trying to add little bits and pieces of pitch recognition to their normal daily routines. We were able to do it and be quite successful with it. It gave us a huge competitive advantage at SEMO.”

Read the full articles here:
Bieser brings fresh ideas to Mizzou baseball
Pitch recognition program helped change SEMO baseball