Close Your Eyes and Swing

Since the Twins are in the doldrums and my fantasy baseball team has crashed on takeoff–I think my team ERA is around 7.00–I’ve been looking elsewhere for baseball fun. This LiveScience article on pitching and hitting is interesting:

Your Little League coach probably didn’t know it, but every time he sent you to the plate with the instruction “keep your eye on the ball,” he was giving you an impossible task.

And if you followed the coach’s advice of positioning yourself directly under a popup, you probably struggled to catch balls in the outfield, too.

At the Major League level, pitchers sling fastballs between 90 and 100 mph and sometimes a tweak faster. The ball moves far too swiftly for a batter to watch for its entire journey to home plate.

“In the last few feet before the plate, the ball reaches an angular velocity that exceeds the ability of the eye to track the ball,” [Ken] Fuld [of the University of New Hampshire] told LiveScience. “The best hitters can track the ball to within 5 or 6 feet of the plate.”

After that, they shift their eyes to where they anticipate the ball will cross the plate. Some players “take” the first couple pitches of an “at bat” as they try to calibrate the movement and speed of a pitcher’s offerings.

But a hitter is at the mercy of what the pitch does in those last few feet.

Read it all; the theory is plausible, but it makes you wonder how anyone ever gets a hit. We’ll take this up with Bill James next time we interview him on our radio show. In the meantime, it brings to mind a radio interview with former Twins manager Tom Kelly. Kelly was asked how he prepared his batters to hit against flamethrowing pitchers like Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. Kelly replied that he told his players: “Swing hard, in case you hit it.”

Pretty good advice for many aspects of life, if you think about it.

PAUL adds: It used to be said of Ted Williams that he could “see the ball off the bat.” I never quite believed this, and it’s not clear that Williams did either, although he apparently smelled it a few times:

GAMMONS: Does anyone ever see the ball off the bat?

WILLIAMS: Now if the ball’s coming real slow and you swing early, you can come real close. I’ve seen what I thought was the ball going over my bat — I think.

BOGGS: You can’t see the bat hit the ball if you’re generating any bat speed. If you’re just laying the bat through the strike zone, sure, maybe. Ted, ask Don the question you asked me about the bat burning.

WILLIAMS: Have you ever smelled the smoke from the wood burning?

MATTINGLY: I’ve had it happen. Yeah. Twice, for use. All of a sudden, I smelled a real big burn, and at the same time I was thinking, “I just missed that one.” Two or three times I’ve never told that to anyone, because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I think one of the bat burns came off Nunez, too.

BOGGS: That’s the damndest thing I’ve ever heard. I thought I’d heard everything about hitting, but that’s unbelievable. Amazing.

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