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Keep Your Eye, or Maybe Your Head, on the Ball

Do we actually keep our eyes on the ball and if so, how?

“I think without question the hardest single thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball

  • Ted Williams (1918-2002), the last major league player to hit .400 for an entire season

Hitting an object that is being thrown at you is actually pretty difficult and I think most would agree with the quote above from Ted Williams. We should agree with him—you don’t get nicknames like “The Splendid Splinter”, “The Thumper”, and “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” unless, well, you were a really great hitter!

Whether it’s in little league, major league or beer league, hitting is hard. In a prior post “This Is Your Brain On Baseball” I wrote about decision making in hitting about when to swing. Here I want to focus on what science can tell us about about how we pick up information about the object we want to hit—that little ball—using vision.

Let’s keep in mind—or maybe in sight—how fast all this is happening. According to Nicklaus Fogt and Aaron Zimmerman at Ohio State University, a batter receiving a pitch thrown at 90 miles per hour will find the ball arriving at the plate just over 400 ms later. Since the swing itself may take ~180 ms, this leaves only about a little over 200 ms—just 1/5 of a second—for the batter to make a decision about if, when, and where to swing. All of that is cued by what the batter sees of the ball on the way towards home plate.

But how is it happening—do batters really keep their eyes on the ball? Fogt and Zimmerman conducted a really neat study related to this question. Their study, “A Method to Monitor Eye and Head Tracking Movements in College Baseball Players” was published earlier this year in Optometry and Vision Science. They measured the eye and head movements of Division 1 College baseball players tracking tennis balls fired at them from a pitching machine.

The really interesting observation was that players tended to use head movement throughout the ball flight and to help fixate vision on the ball. This kind of tracking makes use of the innate network of coordinative reflexes we all possess to make sure we can keep our vision and movement organized with the environment by tuning eye, head, and neck motion—the vestbilo-ocular and cervico-ocular reflexes.

The general conclusion from this work is that we do keep our eyes on the ball when we’re trying to hit it. The wrinkle is that it helps if we use the movement of our heads to do it! We cannot ask Ted Williams what he’d think of these scientific observations. Despite that, I think given the evidence “Teddy Ballgame” would agree that, in hitting, the eyes have it! But revising the old saying from “keep your eye on the ball” to “keep your head and eye on the ball” is probably not going to catch on anytime soon.

But it’s worth a try. In any case, play ball!

© E. Paul Zehr (2014)