High Velo, Late Break: Trust Your Eyes or the Data?
Coaches, players and analysts would all agree that hitting stats are impacted by not swinging at balls outside the strike zone and doing damage to balls in the strike zone.
“Hit strikes hard, pound strikes, feast on mistakes.”
Mantras are all premised on the recognition and timing of hittable pitches. Clearly, 1-0 is better than an 0-1 count. Chase rates and strikeouts continue to affect individual and team offense.
If you need hard proof on count leverage, take a trip to Providence College in Rhode Island one day if you want a crash course on baseball stats and life. Ask for Father Humbert Kilanowski (wearing a white robe and a baseball cap) or find the softball field where he and his colleagues assemble to watch games. He was busy compiling stats for the Cape Cod Baseball League when I asked for his divine help.
“In the major leagues from 2008-2021, batters show an increase of 37 points of weighted on-base average (wOBA) for balls put in play when the count is 1-0 as opposed to 0-1, relative to the league average for each season," Humbert said. "The difference becomes even more pronounced when the hitters fall further behind or ahead in the count. This shows the extent of the benefit of taking the first pitch, rather than chasing it, when it is outside the strike zone."
No surprises with Father Humbert’s revelation. Hitters are less likely to do damage when pitchers get ahead.
Who has the edge these days in the bat-to-ball game, pitchers or hitters?
Pitch velocities continue to increase and pitch movement seems to have given pitchers the competitive advantage.
What have the hitters done to equalize the new weapons being deployed from the mound?
With the availability of pre-game pitch data and iPads in the dugouts, hitters and coaches have more intel on tendencies and video visuals on pitch movement than ever before. Pitchers are always being filmed and scrutinized for pre-pitch tip cues that may help the hitter predict pitch type.
Swing efficiency has improved thanks to the work of great swing coaches and bio-mechanists joining forces. We all love the scissor kicks, anchors, cradles, connections, sequencing and pumping movements today’s hitters use to increase exit velocity.
VR, video occlusion and vision training games profess to improve strike zone mastery. Time allocation and transferability questions still haunt these training programs. As one neuroscientist said, “if it’s not in live three-dimensional space, the brain may not process or find the activity worthy of remembering.”
Dr. Daniel Wolpert, professor of neuroscience at Columbia elaborates:
“Our brain breaks down our continuous stream of sensorimotor experience into distinct contexts such that the consequent creation, expression and updating of memories supports flexible and adaptive behavior. Therefore, we associate different skills or motor memories with different contexts (the location or time) and recall them when appropriate (i.e. when we are back in that context). The sequelae of this are that skills may not transfer across contexts, not because the skill is lost, but because it cannot be accessed or expressed in a different context.”
So why does it appear that pitchers seem to have the advantage?
Opinions from major league hitting coaches and others were plentiful on the topic.
Dominick Johnson, a former player and a San Diego-based private pitching coach to several MLB stars shared the thoughts of many of his students.
“Pitchers are loving it these days with hitters fixated on iPads and reports telling them what to look for in every situation. We see more hitters freeze on mistake fastballs than ever before. Tough to hit when so many hitters these days don’t trust themselves and stay committed to their own plan based on their eyes.”
There was no shortage of big league hitting coaches who wanted to chime in on the topic.
One major league hitting coach added the following:
“Hitters now would rather guess because then they have an excuse when if it fails. It's crazy. With of all the pitch percentages, tipping (not a sure thing) and video available, now we get guessers. It's an excuse so they don’t have to calm themselves down, see the ball and trust their subconscious self to hit."
A second major league hitting coach shared his thoughts.
“As an industry, we have been inundated with a tsunami of information. Some players reject most of it, while others want to process all of it. The successful ones have learned to get the information they need to prepare for the event that they will be facing that day. Who is pitching? How are they playing me? How can I use my strengths to win the day? Then they trust their preparation and their eyes. When it is time to perform, they think with their eyes. They know that as soon they get internal (conscious), their reaction will suffer and more than likely will be late or in between.
"The information can certainly be helpful if we use it properly and according to that day’s challenge. We need to see all the information as a buffet. There are a lot of options, but the key is to go for the healthy ones and to not eat too much. Trying to process too much information will either give you paralysis by analysis or just get you in between making you look like you are searching for the wrong pitch.
"We have a lot of information about how the body should work during the swing process (mechanics) and even more information about the game (analytics), but we keep having the same performance problems. Until we crack the timing code (visual strategies), inconsistency will be a big part of the offensive environment.”
A third major league hitting coach chimed in.
“I think hitters today rely too much on the data and don’t trust the visual aspect of hitting. They have all the data, vertical movement, pitch usage, but the one thing they lack is the ability to trust the visual plan. Some hitters might say they have it but what ends up happening is that if it is changed in any way by the pitch they saw or by the count most hitters will abandon it.”
Former MLB great and big league hitting coach Chili Davis had no issue with his name being shared regarding the subject.
“Chase rates and strikeouts are a by-product of top-down influence. Decision makers have chosen to focus on data that causes hitters to doubt their training. Data overload is hurting hitters. Indecision causes poor ball/strike decisions, which causes the swing to break down. Building better hitters requires training hitters to trust their brains. Spatial information from the eyes is processed by the brain. We should focus more on assisting it. Most things coaches use only complicate the ball/strike signaling of the brain.”
On the amateur side, I reached out to a few college coaches that have been outliers in the “see ball, hit ball” battle.
Cliff Godwin, head coach at East Carolina, said this:
“NCAA time constraints force us to be more efficient with our practice time. We don’t have time to incorporate independent explicit computer-based vision training drills or equipment. Our guys do a great job at swinging at strikes, and it linked to how we focus more on training the brain to make better decisions faster through implicit vision training during our batting practice.”
Matthew Swoop, Maryland's associate head coach, shared similar thoughts:
“I’ve abandoned all drills regarding timing and visual cues because implicit training takes care of that. We have also limited mechanical drills and cues because we know the brain is working most efficiently respecting the individual mover’s profile.”
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Tim Nicely, the brain child behind V-Flex, a neuro-based training device that helps train the brain to improve ball-strike decisions, went further:
“Over the past 20 years the chase rate percentage has held steady at around 30%. For the record, the 'swing' at a ball isn’t all bad. Any swing whether at a ball or strike provides the brain with physical time and location of the pitch and resets the reverberating visual impulse info of the previous pitches to a more neutral state neurologically. The swing basically resets the neurological pitch count to 0-0 or 1-1 regardless of the actual or cognitive based pitch count. The true negative associated with swings at balls is that it places hitters in bad hitter's counts cognitively."
Nicely provided insight on the distinction between the mind versus brain approach:
“Mental/cognitive solutions designed to reset the neurological pitch count to 0-0 or some more neutral position which is more aligned with neuro-physics have all failed to resolve the chase rate problem. If anything, they make it worse. Space remains the “constant” and the warfare between the (cognitive pitch count) and (neurological pitch count) rages on. The industry is more interested in quieting the mind then helping the brain become more efficient at interpreting spatial information. I hope that one day baseball will abandon most of its mental approaches to resolving the chase rate problem and move towards a more neuro-based solution.”
If the strike zone is more of a visual reflex, how can hitters improve this skill with an expanded practice model?
There is no magic bullet in facing 100 mph fastballs with late movement but listed below are a few teaching strategies, topics and cues that are starting to show up in hitting coaches’ toolboxes to combat the speed and movement today's hitters face.
“When I look at nothing, I see everything.”
This was Manny Ramirez’s telling insight more than a decade ago that introduced the baseball and softball mavericks to Open Focus. In his own way, Ramirez shared how the visual search strategies of elite players allow them to process more information at higher speeds with this non-judgmental seeing approach and fixation on space.
Stay in good space. Elite hitters focus more on the space where the ball will be traveling and not the ball itself. Implicit training is premised on a yes or no decision, irrespective of the pitch once the ball enters the go zone (time to decide to swing or take).
Talk less about spin and more about patterns and shapes. Neurologists tell us that the brain doesn’t have the time or energy to process spin to help in the decision-making process. Do the math; the speed of light travels at 186,000 miles per second. The fastest "thinking" type impulses are much slower and typically travel at around 67 mph. The brain uses light and space neurons to process ball flight, not thoughts and cognitive processing.
Get out of the strike zone during pregame and hitting practice. Reward the brain (dopamine) with balls thrown outside the strike zone as a visual reinforcement that takes are good.
Watch the eyes, face and upper body “flinching” for early decision red flags. Staying visually neutral longer allows for a hitter to handle late movement more effectively.
The brain likes to be challenged. It improves decision making in chaos and when unpredictability replaces redundancy. Incorporate two ball flips, dueling pitching machines and hitter viewing stations from behind the pitcher’s mound to see full ball flight.
Share the more popular reboots today’s best performers use to reset their eyes during a high stress at-bat: Manny Ramirez’s Shrek gaze, Pete Alonso’s contact point marker.
Instill in hitters that the inherent fear of being late must not affect their time for the decision-making process. Let hitters understand how they must control the runway (space between them and the pitcher).
Define sitting, hunting and looking for a pitch or location and know that there is a time and place for this strategy and a time in which it works against the hitter.
Know that every hitter has a preferred visual search strategy (VSS) that allows them to have better “timing” at ball flight and optimizes their ability to “subconsciously process pre-pitch cues from the pitcher."
Old-school focus on the hitter and shift to the window may not be how each hitter is wired to maximize information. Edgar Martinez said it best to me a few years ago.
“I couldn’t explain it to a teammate, but I saw something that helped me be on time," Martinez said.
Understand or use the V-Flex or any other implicit training tools that take away the cognitive process of strike-ball decisions. Trust that much of what the hitter is seeing, and processing, is more about the front of the head (eye-brain connection) than the back of the head (mindfulness and thoughts).
Blending the data along with the trusting of one’s eyes is the key to improving a hitter's efficiency. In data we trust, but at some point, when does the data disrupt the brain’s ability to say yes or no?
The master teachers and elite hitters know the answer.
Tony Abbatine has worked with several college programs, Major League teams and Olympic athletes over the past 20 years. His recent book, "Beyond the Ball; The visual and emotional habits of high performers" is a resource for coaches and players trying to integrate the visual part of mental skills training. He teaches Sports Psychology at several universities and is the Director of Performance at Frozen Ropes, based in New York.