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.