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Science, the human brain and hitting a fastball

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer

How do you hit, say, a Justin Verlander four-seamer? Let the brain take over.
How do you hit, say, a Justin Verlander four-seamer? Let the brain take over. USATSI

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As a baseball devotee, you've no doubt heard variations on something like this: "A major-leaguer hitter has 0.2 seconds to decide whether to swing at a fastball."

The word "decide" is what calls to mind what we mere mortals imagine to be the hitter's running internal monologue ...

I think his fingers are riding the seams. That's a fastball spin, two-seamer based on what I saw of the grip. Pretty sure I felt the catcher shift inside during the windup. Slider count, though. Nope, two-seamer. Just look at it. Bet it breaks over inner half. Do I have time to pare my nails momentarily? Should I call time? No. I don't care for this hitting background. It's too ... chartreuse. Is that chartreuse? Should I arrange for some Steely Dan walk-up music? Oh, the pitch. I like it. I shall swing with strength and vigor!

Of course, it's nothing like that -- how could it be? Even though I lack the fast-twitch reactions to be able to relate properly, I've always suspected instinct, and not any kind of conscious decision, is the driver in such moments. As it turns out, that's precisely the case.

Science-y scientists at Cal-Berkeley (alma mater of Jeff Kent!) have discovered how the human brain helps us to do what we can't do by normal means: hit a major-league fastball. Lisa M. Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News writes:

The brain perceives speeding objects as further along in their trajectory than seen by the eyes, giving us time to respond, according to research by Gerrit Maus, lead author of a paper published in Wednesday's issue of the journal Neuron.

This clever adjustment -- compensating for the sluggish route from the eyes to neural decision-making -- "is a sophisticated prediction mechanism," he said.

"As soon as the brain knows something is moving, it pushes the position of the object moving forward, so there's a more accurate measure of where this object actually is," said Maus.

Unlike the side-view mirror, objects in the brain are farther away than they appear, at least when said object is a weapons-grade fastball. That's because we can't really catch up to a fastball via the usual see-process-react way of doing things. In some ways, it's the "set the bedside clock five minutes fast" philosophy of life management. Otherwise, we'd be late all the time and get fired. So it is with professional batsmen.

So thanks, adaptive powers of the human brain. Without you baseball would be entirely devoid of runs (and off-speed pitches).

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