ESPN Sports Science on Pitch Recognition

By Dan Peterson

Last year ESPN Sports Science did a great feature on just how tight the timeframe is for baseball players standing at the plate against major league pitching. It’s a great visual complement to everything that we’ve been talking about on the blog around the gaze patterns of athletes, high-speed decision making and the way that elite athletes become highly tuned to the visual cues that guide anticipation.

From an earlier post on the anticipatory skills of athletes:

Research out of Brunel University and the University of Hong Kong have shown that when watching tape of opponents, the areas of athletes’ brains associated with observation and prediction light up, and that those athletes then react quicker to their opponents’ movements than non-experts (summary, abstract).

This anticipatory expertise has been observed in a number of different types of athletes. Baseball players have been shown to have the ability to predict what type of pitch is coming without even seeing the pitcher release the ball, and they can predict pitch position based on just a few feet of flight (Article). Tennis players have similar skills with respect to serve type and position (Article). These studies are carried out using a technique called temporal occlusion–the selective withholding of information with respect to time. Batters are shown video of a pitcher in his windup, but the video cuts out just as the ball is about to be released.

Based on athletes’ reports and technology that tracks their eye movements, we know that athletes anticipate what’s coming next by focusing only on the most relevant cues in an opponents’ movement pattern. And that this skill changes and becomes refined with training. The eyes of novices are all over the place, whereas athletes’ focus is much more targeted and economical (Article). Across a number of different sports, expert athletes demonstrate similar “visual search strategies”. Their eyes focus on fewer targets, jump around less, and they stay focused for longer periods of time than do the eyes of novices.

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15 Responses to ESPN Sports Science on Pitch Recognition

  1. Peter Fadde says:

    Softball Batting

    Here’s another ESPN “Sports Science” feature on softball, showing a 68 mph softball pitch as affording even less recognition/reaction time than a 90 mph fastball. However, softball pitchers provide more pre-release cues in delivering different types of pitches (e.g., straight front knee to get over a drop ball; bent front knee to get under a rise ball) so pitch recognition skill is even more critical.

  2. Joaquin says:

    That’s interesting. I was thinking about anticipatory cues while watching the Federer V. Nadal match this weekend and wondering how far in advance tennis players start reading cues during free-flowing play. I’d imagine it must be pretty early, as the way that a player slows and shuffles his feet as he approaches the ball (or begins to slide on a clay court) already begins to give away what type of shot is coming next.

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