Reacting to a fastball coming in at 100 miles per hour is one of the most difficult feats in professional sports. A hitter has a mere four-tenths of a second to react to a pitch. When a baseball travels that quickly, the margin for error is razor-thin.
A batter can have all the power in the world, but if their timing is off by a fraction of a second, that’s the difference between fouling off a pitch and parking a ball in the stands.
There are many muscle groups working in unison for a hitter, but no muscle group is more important than a hitter’s eyes. Although those ocular muscles can’t be “bulked up” in a traditional sense, there are ways for a hitter to train their eyes to see more clearly at the plate.
That’s the mission of Bill and Ryan Harrison: the father and son duo behind the esteemed vision training company Slow the Game Down. They’ve worked with everyone from former MVP George Brett to the 2015 American League East Champion Toronto Blue Jays.
Ryan is a certified sports performance vision trainer who helps pro and amateur athletes by using visual and mental drills to see better, which can translate to improved results on the field. He worked closely with the Blue Jays organization from 2011 to 2015, helping players like Jose Bautista, Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins train their eyes.
It sounds simple, but with a ball barreling towards them at speeds of 100 miles per hour or more, a hitter has to execute a perfect set of steps to square up that pitch. Harrison explains how he helps train baseball players to “slow the game down” and give themselves a fighting chance at the plate.
We evaluate how the eyes and muscles work and how the eyes and the brain interact. The brain uses vision based on past experiences. The more pitches someone sees, the more ability they know how to react to what they see.
When it comes to the fastball, you can get away with some bad visual habits. That’s why you can get a guy who can train off a pitching machine and hit a fastball all day long, but when it comes to the game, it’s a lot more challenging to react. They have to have a heightened visual awareness to perform efficiently.
The best hitters on the planet are capable of inhuman things on the plate, but it’s physically impossible for the human eyes to track a fastball coming towards them at 100MPH. This is where a hitter uses repetition to fill in the blanks so it becomes second nature. They use thousands of pitches’ worth of experience to predict where the ball will go.
When most people think of “vision”, their mind goes towards the typical “better or worse” lens test performed by an optometrist. Static vision tests barely scratch the surface for athletes like baseball players who rely so heavily on their vision for reaction time. Harrison says that all MLB teams perform a standard vision test on their players, but not all clubs administer an advanced baseball vision test.
The basic vision test is black and white. It’s static, the person doesn’t move and it’s just basic standard clarity. Where baseball vision is more about contrast sensitivity, the ability to see under movement and also how the brain uses the eyes for depth and where they see the ball.
The basic vision test is for basic visual skills like driving and walking the street. A lot of players will say ‘I’ve already had my eyes checked’, but they’ve never really had a full-in depth baseball vision test.
Testing vision is standard practice for most professional teams, but not all clubs go beyond the rudimentary eye exam. It’s modern practice for teams to employ their own internal high performance department, which may or may not delve into vision training.
If vision training isn’t offered at the professional level, MLB players often seek out baseball vision training programs on their own accord. During the offseason, Randal Grichuk enrolled in vision training in an attempt to improve his plate recognition.
Baseball is so much about timing, but it’s also about getting the eyes and the brain to work in unison. There’s a distinct difference between hearing and understanding, just as there’s a difference between seeing something and processing the information your eyes have seen.
Players with good visual habits are able to pick up the spin on a baseball and determine within a fraction of a second whether or not they’re going to swing at the ball. Just as much as pitchers study hitters, hitters scout pitchers to pick up release points and arm slots to give themselves a fighting chance at the plate.
Bad visual habits don’t just affect professional athletes, it can impact everyday people. Harrison likens it reading a book or an article, but being distracted or not fully immersed in reading the words. Afterwards, the mind can’t recall what your eyes just saw.
That can happen to pro hitters if they get in the box and they’re thinking too much or trying to do too much; they never recognize what their eyes are aimed at. If you don’t see the ball early and you don’t track it because you’re lost in thought or your eyes aren’t in the right spot, you shorten that distance from the mound to home plate.
By not picking up the ball or looking in the wrong location, in essence, the hitter does what Harrison suggests; it gives the pitcher an advantage start by shortening the distance to home plate.
Traditional strength training focuses on specific muscles and the results are measurable. The eyes are a different story; they involve a specific set of muscles, but how does one exactly train them? Harrison explains:
There are 14 muscles of the eyes, 12 of which are involved in tracking a ball. And those muscles are very strong – they can’t get any stronger, but they could be more fluid and the neurons could fire a lot better.
Under stress, those muscles tense up and the eyes don’t track as well and everything starts to look the same speed.
Back in January, Hall of Fame baseball writer Peter Gammons mentioned Jose Bautista by name on MLB Network, saying, “his vision was really bad”. It stemmed an interesting conversation about Bautista’s struggles and whether they were vision-related.
Traditionally, he was one of baseball’s best pitch trackers, sporting MLB’s second-best walk rate (15.5%) from 2010 to 2017. Only Joey Votto had a better walk rate (17.5%) during that eight-year span.
How could a baseball player’s eyesight to deteriorate that quickly? As with most things, it isn’t a simple black and white issue. Without working with Bautista closely, Harrison couldn’t provide a thorough diagnosis, but he has some clues about why he thinks the former Blue Jays slugger struggled in 2017.
He’s trying to force things a lot more, instead of allowing his vision to work for him. I think there is some clarity issues Bautista has as well, which can create some reaction timing issues.
It’s like your car being out of alignment. It still works, it’s just not working at optimal ability. Your eyes are working, but they’re just not working at an efficient, easy level.
Those issues aren’t big enough issues to prevent someone from driving, but it prevents them from seeing that contrast, spin and the change of and direction of the baseball more clearly.
It’s almost like he’s trying to play with a backpack of weights on him. He’s an athlete, so he’s going to fight through it, and he’s experienced, and there are sometimes he’s going to be smarter than his eyes and get lucky.
Harrison recalls working with another former Blue Jays heavyweight with vision issues: Carlos Delgado. Upon a recommendation by his teammate Carlos Beltran, Delgado and Harrison worked together on some exercises while the Mets were on the road in California prior to the 2008 All-Star break.
Delgado’s second-half numbers increased dramatically, as he went from a .784 OPS in the first half of the 2008 season to a .991 OPS post All-Star break. Harrison remembers the advice he gave Delgado; telling the Mets’ first baseman he had essentially blocked his eyes from working for him.
It’s not that you’re old. The problem is, you’re not giving yourself enough visual time to make the proper reaction.
Vision training is slowly gaining traction around Major League Baseball and many clubs see this avenue as a valuable tool. Harrison notes that some clubs have adopted his teachings related to baseball vision, but others have yet to realize the tangible benefits of a program like “Slow the Game Down”.
It’s a lot easier to work on strength and mechanics because you can see the benefits, the exterior side of it. With visual, some people think you either see or you don’t see. In pro ball, even though we’ve been doing this for a very long time, it’s still slow to adopt.
As word gets around baseball and other professional sports, visual training is gaining prominence as an important resource. In the past, evaluators looked for fluid swings for hitters, but Harrison says good visual habits are paramount at the plate.
You can have the most beautiful swing, but if you don’t see the ball, it doesn’t matter.
Ian has been writing about the Toronto Blue Jays since 2007. He enjoyed the tail-end of the Roy Halladay era and vividly remembers the Alex Rodriguez "mine" incident. He'll also retell the story of Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS to his kids for the next 20 years.
Your decisions this fall are critical as they impact your upcoming season. One decision is what you are doing or not doing regarding the training of the visual side of the game.
The visual side of the game includes early, accurate recognition of the ball’s actions, tracking the ball, staying visually focused at contact or until it is secured in the glove.
One consideration is that either poor visual habits or poor visual skills result and reacting to the ball later. On the other hand, high level visual skills and habits result in seeing and reacting to the ball sooner. There is power in small wins and slow gains.
Consider searching for 1 percent visual improvements in the visual side of the game in all your players. Improving by just 1 percent isn’t notable. Sometimes improving by just 1 percent isn’t even noticeable. But it can be just as meaningful, especially in the long run. It’s the sum of many small reactions — a 1 percent improvements here and there — that eventually leads to success.
As a cautionary consideration, continuous, small, slower reactions work the same way in reverse. For example, if your defensive players read the hit ball 1 percent later, they are going to be 1 percent slower in their reactions. The same is true with your baserunners. Hitters that see the ball later are going to be 1 percent slower in their reactions.
Initially, there may be little observable difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between the players who make slightly faster reactions and those who don’t. Therefore, small choices don’t make much of a difference at the time, but add up over the long-term.
During the upcoming seasons, if you find your players stuck with bad habits or poor results, it’s usually not because something happened overnight. It’s the sum of many small choices — a 1 percent decline here and there — that eventually leads to a problem.
Almost every habit that your plyers have — good or bad — is the result of many small decisions made over time. The most common decision is to demean dismiss or put down the importance of the visual side of the game.
Let that be your opponents. Make the decision to get your players visually better, visually quicker, and to react faster.
Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day. In contrast, failure is simply a few errors in judgment, typically visual, repeated every day. It’s so easy to overestimate the necessity of one defining major change or accomplishment and underestimate the value of making continuous, better choices daily.
The truth is that most of the significant things in life are the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse.
Now is the time to consider SlowTheGameDown, the Visual Performance Experts with almost 50 years of sports vision training. With SlowTheGameDown visual training and products, you can take your team to the next level. SlowTheGameDown specializes in training players to increase visual recognition, speed of recognition and speed of processing. These skills will translate into more consistent performance with each player on the field. Not to mention the confidence each player will gain by using our techniques and products.
Our company can tailor a program specifically to your needs.
Check out our website at www.slowthegamedown.com or give us call. Let’s get your team ready for their next challenge.
We can’t wait to hear from you!
One day a frog was sunning himself on a lily pad when a centipede came walking by. The frog was immediately entranced by the centipede’s flowing and graceful movement across the pad. He marveled at what an amazing ability the insect had to both time and co-ordinate all of those legs so that the end result was so smooth and precise. While he was a great leaper and strong swimmer, the frog couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of the centipede’s skills. After all, his job was so easy, having to coordinate only two legs and two arms, while the centipede’s was so much more complicated, having to balance one hundred.
Hoping to be enlightened by the insect’s tremendous skill, the frog said to the centipede: “Kind sir. I am most impressed by your flowing athleticism and your ability to closely synchronize all those legs of yours. I must admit that I myself could never coordinate 100 legs the fine way that you do. Would I be out of line if I asked you, how in the world do you do that?”
Why the Game Speeds Up When it Formerly Slowed Down