"I think without question the hardest single thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball."
That's a quote from Ted Williams, a man some consider the best hitter in the history of Major League Baseball. Williams is also the last big leaguer to compile a .400 batting average for a full season, doing so in 1941.
Over 70 years later, a faculty member in the EIU Department of Kinesiology and Sports Studies is using technology Ted Williams could've never imagined to see if there are ways we can train hitters to improve at their craft.
Brent Walker, himself a former college pitcher at Bradley University, is at the center of this research, which has been in the works since September 2010. His past involvement in the game, coupled with other research he read on the subject, piqued his interest in finding an answer to two questions: Can a hitter pick up a baseball out of the hand and immediately make a decision on what kind of pitch it is, and can we actually train better hitters by developing methods to hone their pitch recognition skills?
"If a pitch is thrown 90 miles per hour, you only have about a half-second to decide what the pitch is and then another fraction of a second to execute a swing," said Walker in a November interview. "So in theory, hitters who are able to pick the ball up faster would be more effective at hitting."
It's a thought that elicits other interesting questions.
"Can you train hitters to actually hit better by training their pitch recognition skills? Can we actually train someone to be better at the skill, and how does that transfer to hitting? Do hitters with better batting averages actually recognize pitches better?"
To begin the search for answers, Walker and the master's thesis students with whom he has worked have employed the use of a high-speed video camera. As opposed to a regular camcorder with a frame rate of 30 frames per second, this equipment give them 300 frames per second. The resulting video and images are then employed in various recognition exercises with hitters from two levels of competition: high school and Division I college.
"We wanted to see if there was a difference between the two groups," said Walker. "Are college players more experienced or better at recognizing pitches than high school players? Is it just an exposure issue, or do college players tend to be better players and therefore that's part of the reason they hit better?"
Research to find those answers was conducted in two different ways. In one, subjects were shown a pitcher delivering a baseball. Just after release of the pitch the screen would go blank, giving them only a couple frames of the ball coming out of the hand to make a decision on what pitch they thought was being thrown. A second one was to just flash a hand with a baseball in it; hitters would have to identify the pitch based on that fraction of a second.
So far, two thesis students have taken part in the project. One, Paul Gray, presented his research in 2010 at the Association for Applied Sports Psychology's annual conference in Providence, R.I. Another, Nate Sutton, is still involved with plans to base his thesis on the research and hopefully present it as well.
"It has been a great experience working with the athletic department and the baseball team," said Walker. "Skylar Meade, the pitching coach for Eastern's baseball team, has been very helpful in getting pitchers to throw for me. Additionally, grant money paid for some of the equipment we used. We used millisecond software to actually do the videos — it'll actually measure reaction time.
"In our first study, we would show a clip of the video and then the hitters would write down what they thought the pitch was. With the millisecond software, we can actually use a keyboard and as soon as they recognize a pitch, the hitters can hit a key on the keyboard and allow us to measure reaction times."
Still thinking like a pitcher, Walker also points out that this research could benefit more than just hitters.
"You start to see the mistakes (pitchers) make," pointed out Walker. "If they have poor mechanics, they give the baseball away and make it easier for hitters to pick up the baseball and hit the baseball. When you slow the pitchers down, what you see is that some pitchers show the baseball three times before the pitch is ever delivered. Sometimes you see it behind their back, sometimes behind their head, and all the way through to the pitch. So when you hear the notion of someone that hides the ball well, that's actually true."
Walker has also found some classroom uses for this work.
"There are some examples in sports psychology related to decision-making, so I will show it in my sports psychology classes to give the students a practical example of some of the things we do," said Walker. "Quick decision-making and the notion of having a clear mind when you perform.
"We don't really have a large enough pool to break this out statistically, but if you think about hitting a baseball and this notion of pitch recognition and being able to train that, what players actually do is think through logically what a pitcher is going to throw. So in a lot of ways, they're actually guessing. The more they do it, the better they become at guessing. Something the research bears as well is that if you give players a count, they'll change their decision-making process because in that context they know what to expect based on tendencies. We're stripping all that away; just look at the baseball and see what's coming at you."
There's still plenty of work left to do. Walker would like to employ hitters from a broader range of competition levels, using players from pre-high school age groups along with subjects from various levels of college play. There is also a training aspect of the project that remains to be seen.
"Realistically, a long-term perspective would be to create a software program where you can actually train batters to be able to recognize pitches faster," said Walker. "From a performance standpoint, but also from a potential injury standpoint. We want to determine if the pitch was a fastball, curve, or a change-up, but also on that limited information determine if it is a ball or a strike or if it could even hit the batter."