We’ve all seen those swings so terrible that a batter can’t help but smile. Swings like this one from Brandon Phillips last year.
Were Phillips batting not for a last-place club but one contending for the postseason, we might gnash our teeth. Couldn’t he see that was a slider? What was he thinking? What was he looking at?
The answer to that last question, turns out, is way more complicated than it seems. Phillips clearly should have laid off a breaking ball that failed to reach the plate. He clearly has done that — otherwise, he wouldn’t have had a major-league career. So what happened? What did he see? Or not see? Ask hitters and experts that question, and the answers are vague, conflicting, and sometimes just strange.
There are those who are sure they see spin. “I’m just trying to pick up spin,” said San Francisco infielder Joe Panik of what he’s looking for out of the pitcher’s hand. “I see spin on breaking balls,” agreed teammate Brandon Belt. “I see spin pretty well,” said Zack Greinke, this decade’s best-hitting pitcher.
Here’s the strange thing about seeing spin, though: there’s evidence that the part of the brain that batters employ when a pitch is released isn’t the part of the brain that sees motion. It’s the part of the brain used for detail and color.
No problem. Imagine a flashing red/white mess — you can extrapolate from the color what spin is coming. It’s basically what Preston Wilson said on the MLB Network, when he said he could see if the ball was “more red or more white” and that helped him know what pitch it was. That appearance inspired this whole post.
Greinke thought that was a real possibility. “It’s the color you see, and the color will be moving in a different direction, and you know what that means,” he said. It’s funny, though, because people will swear it’s not that way. Boston’s Chris Young was pretty sure: “I see spin. I don’t see color. I don’t see red,” he said before a game with the Blue Jays. He thought for a second, though. “Maybe I do and I don’t think I do.”
Whatever the neural mechanism, most batters to whom I spoke claimed to see spin of some sort. Could they see spin rate? Today’s stat du jour is most often though of as an innate statistic that judges pitch quality, but spin plus arm slot equals movement, and we’ve always had movement. Could spin rate be actually about deception?
Rich Hill would say yes, as suggested by his comments about “mirroring” his high-vertical-spin curve with his high-vertical-spin fastball, in the opposite direction. Responses from hitters were mixed, however. “You can’t see the speed of spin,” thought Young. “The changeup is going to spin slower, I assume, but I can’t see the speed of the spin.” Jason Ochart, Head of Driveline Baseball Hitting Research and Development, said his hitters report that “with changeups (and, in particular, split fingers), they see a lack of spin.”
Greinke agreed about spin as deception, calling back to his experience as a hitter facing different changeups: “I couldn’t see [Johnny] Cueto‘s change, as well as other pitchers’. Some guys have really tight spin on their changeup and it’s hard to see. Low-spin, you can probably see the spin, and it moves more. [Kris] Medlen’s, I couldn’t see the spin at all.”
There has to be a decent amount of instinct and programmed reaction going on in these responses, though, because there’s no time to think. “Think, and this game will grasp you and take you away,” said Atlanta rookie Dansby Swanson.
A recent Washington Post report brought out the science behind that eloquent missive from Swanson. The part of your brain working on object recognition works with the part of your brain that controls your body, and the brain actually reduces blood flow to the frontal cortex, the part of your brain that you use when you make decisions that require some kinds of reflection.
Watching a Blake Snell start, I thought maybe I was seeing him “wrap” his curveball, meaning that he was cocking his wrist hard, or supinating heavily in his grip, in order to get more movement on the pitch. That’s fine, and it can lead to more movement as Trevor Bauer found, but it might also make the curve more obvious to the hitter, as some scouts have suggested to me.
Can hitters see fingers? If so, they’d be able to see those wrapped fingers. But Snell didn’t think so. No hitter reported being able to see fingers on the release, but I hardly talked to all hitters ever. “It’s really hard to see fingers on top,” reported Panik. Steve Carter, Project Prospect scout and hitting coach, thought that some of his hitters could see them.
Take a look at a major-league pitcher — Caleb Cotham — releasing a four-seamer and a curve, overlaid on each other. Driveline Baseball used a high-speed camera to capture these images at the same point, and, well, seems pretty tough to see those fingers, at least to my eyes. Maybe you can see the different release point?
Interestingly, this is true even of non-professional baseball players. Another study compared youth baseball and softball players to young people who didn’t play ball, and found that, even in the youth ranks, ballplayers had better visual skills.
Obviously it’s probably a selection thing — if you can’t see the ball well, you don’t play baseball maybe — but there also seems to be a learned component to this whole thing. Here’s Swanson, on what he thinks his brain is doing: “If you’ve faced a guy a couple times, get at-bats against them and then you get an idea of what they want to do, and you sort of visualize before the pitch comes, it’s almost anticipatory.”
Swanson’s point brings us to another consideration: focusing too hard on the moment of release ignores the fact that this is a process that begins as soon as the pitcher begins his delivery.
Jim Lyons, Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University, agreed that the central vision (cones) most used by players are sensitive to color and detail but not motion, and that the peripheral visual system (rods) are motion sensitive. But he said we can be accurate at estimating the velocity of an approach object “like a baseball or a fist” because of “retinal expansion — the image of an object on the retina, as it gets closer, expands.” He calls the visual information “continuous.”
That’s important for spotting a fastball, which might be the most important thing a batter can do. For Machado, it’s the only thing he can do. “I don’t pick any of that stuff up,” he laughed. “I see fastball, I swing. You know how fast the pitcher can throw, so you can see it coming out of his hand. If it’s coming in hot, I’ll swing at it. I can’t tell out of the hand if it’s going to be a slider or a changeup.”
He’s not alone. Oakland’s Khris Davis could see some spin, but focused more on targeting fastballs and spotting location. “You can see some location early, too,” he said, pointing out that the angle of the hand and the ball coming out could tell him if the ball would be up or down. “I like to look for release location,” he added. “Lots of guys have different release points. Some hide it better than others.”
So there’s the other thing that’s important about the fluidity of the moment: there are hints about what’s coming out of the pitchers’ hand that batters can spot in the delivery. Coach Carter echoed Davis (“You can generally see direction of the pitch, based on wrist and arm angle as it ‘comes through'”) and also talked about curveball deliveries being different (“forearm lay back”). Greinke focused on changeups, but talked about delivery cues: “Some pitchers will drop down a little, or slow their hand.”
This stuff may be more important than what happens at the actual release point. A famous study of cricket bowlers isolated experience, delivery cues, and information after release to find which were the most important aspects. The first two were very important. The last? “Additional ball flight information provided no more advantage to this discrimination ability” — i.e., information after release wasn’t very important.
Hold on. The release-point information isn’t important? Maybe. Batters have to access the “swing” motor program before the pitch is released, really, and so there’s little time to change that, Professor Lyons pointed out. You can really just halt it.
But what about this, I asked Lyons? This swing was started, not halted, and yet somehow Vladimir Guerrero did this.
As much as hitters don’t like to think too much — Belt said “When I get myself in trouble, it’s when I guess and anticipate too much” — it looks like anticipating the pitch is huge.
Recently, I was at Pitch Talks in Toronto, talking backstage with Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe about baseball, and we ended up talking about David Ortiz, as one does. We first talked about how Ortiz spent a replay delay talking about how Matt Andriese would throw him a first-pitch curveball. The pitcher did, and Ortiz homered.
If that’s not a sufficiently impressive display of anticipation — one that might, for instance, explain some of the slugger’s late-career excellence — there’s more. Abraham mentioned something about Xander Bogaerts enjoying the spot in the batting order ahead of David Ortiz. When I raised an eyebrow, he explained. It seems that Ortiz will often follow along in Bogaerts’ at-bats and try to alert him to when a certain pitch is coming with chirps and whistles from the on-deck circle. What anticipation!
It’s hard for me to completely discount the value of information received at the moment of release, but it’s also interesting how many hitters had no idea what happened at that moment.
Some excerpts from the players themselves…
MVP candidate Mookie Betts:
“I don’t really know what I see. I see this white thing coming, and I somehow try to read it. I try to look at a window where his slot is and try to pick it up as fast as possible. You try to read spin, but the way I do it, I have no idea.”
“I just see the ball, it’s white or red, but I try not to think, and I don’t want to start thinking.”
“It’s hard to talk about.”
Astros hitting coach Dave Hudgens:
“I know when a hitter is locked in, or in the zone, nothing is in their mind and everything slows down.”
“Some of the best hitters I’ve ever coached will “black out” when they hit. Very interesting. I’ll ask them what pitch they hit, or what location the pitch was, and they won’t remember. ‘Idk coach, I just see ball, hit ball.'”
This experience of “blacking out” probably speaks to the lack of frontal-cortex activity during the moment — hitters aren’t using the part of the brain that’s best for mapping out complicated, deliberate decisions, so maybe it’s not surprising they bypass the frontal cortex and use deeper, darker parts of the brain. Some have never thought about this action using the speaking part of their brain — “Nobody’s ever asked me that question,” said Betts. When the major work is unlocking motor programs, or chunks, how do you explain that?
That doesn’t mean we can’t try to put words to it using the best research and player quotes at our disposal. Call this a conclusion, but not the type of conclusion you put on the end of an academic paper. Just imagine a big, blinking neon sign alternating between the words “maybe,” “probably,” and “could be” above this paragraph.
It looks like anticipating the pitch is a benefit. Combining that idea of the pitcher’s tendencies with pre-release delivery information might be more important than the information at release. At release, hitters might access motor programs (primed by anticipation) for each type of pitch, and then use the release information to stop their swing if it doesn’t line up with what they expected. That info on release is probably mostly velocity, with some movement extrapolated from changes in color (and then called “spin” in the parlance of our times), but every hitter reported that sensitivity to that information came and went. Once the ball is in flight, if they’re wrong, it could be a matter of luck (and maybe a little geometry — think of the flat swing) if they swing and still manage to hit the ball.
All of this has ramifications for coaching! Professor Lyons suggested doing a study to see what hitters could do with a ball with white seams, which seems like a great idea. Brian Dozier even complained that current balls all look “brown” because of the mud — perhaps spin and seam movement is over-reported and overemphasized. Coach Ochart seemed to suggest that this sort of research is planned for Driveline Hitting, so we can look forward to more results soon, maybe.
If that aspect of coaching is overrated, we might have already had clues in this direction. Russell Carleton found evidence that hitting coaches mostly affect the patience or passivity of their teams, and that might be the rudder here. How early do you get your hitters going, and how quickly can you get your hitters to stop swinging, while possibly helping your batters align their swings geometrically with the outcomes that fit their athletic skill sets: that seems to be the work of a hitting coach. Perhaps you can help them “build a mental database” about pitchers, as Coach Carter refers to it. That should help with anticipation, after all. But then even he says they have to “go off instinct” at the plate.
Certainly coaches shouldn’t get mad at the hitter with whom they’re working. The whole thing — hitting 2400 rpm at 96 mph with a blink of an eye of time to figure it out — seems pretty impossible, after all.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.