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Sun, Dec. 08

Kobritz: Hitting a baseball is virtually impossible
BEYOND THE LINES

“Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports.”

—19-year pro Ted Williams to The New York Times, 1982.

Heading into the last weekend of the 2019 regular season, the 30 MLB teams had hit a record 6,647 home runs, 542 more than the previous high mark. Given those figures, the average fan might think hitting a baseball is a fairly easy task.

But the avalanche of home runs tells only one side of the story. Strikeouts are also at historically high levels, exceeding base hits. The number of pitchers with 10 or more strikeouts per nine innings climbed to 20 this year, eight more than last year. Prior to 2016, the figure never exceeded five. Professional baseball has become an all-or-nothing affair - a home run or a strikeout. Despite the increasing frequency of home runs, hitting remains a difficult task.

More than half-a-century before the great Ted Williams uttered the words above, another superstar acknowledged the obvious. In 1927, during a post-season barnstorming trip, Babe Ruth told a San Francisco reporter, “I couldn’t explain the secret of it (hitting) to you if I wanted to. A lot of times, I never see the ball…when I sense the ball is coming in a certain place, I just close my eyes and swing.”

Ruth’s comments were accurate, even though they were doubted at the time. Studies have shown it takes 400 milliseconds from the time a pitcher releases the ball until it reaches the front of the plate. Humans perceive the world about 80 milliseconds behind reality, so for the batter, the 400 milliseconds are closer to 300. A Japanese study in 2016 determined the hitter has perhaps half that time to recognize the pitch - it takes normal people, in lab conditions, about five times as long to identify a pitch. Then he must determine its speed and spin, and predict where and when it will arrive at the plate, before he loses sight of the pitch for the last 150 milliseconds. In other words, batters swing where they “think” the ball is going to be.

In 1947, Yogi Berra, another Hall of Famer, was told by Yankees manager Bucky Harris to think before he swung the bat. Berra promptly struck out. Upon his return to the dugout, he asked rhetorically, “How can you think and hit at the same time?”

In 2012, researchers at Columbia University measured electrical activity in hitters’ brains as they tried to identify pitches. Their findings, published in an article in Frontiers in Neuroscience, “You Can’t Think and Hit at the Same Time,” confirmed Berra’s doubts. The authors concluded that hitting is essentially a leap of faith. In the last milliseconds when the hitting process is happening, hitters become, essentially, spectators.

Without the benefit of science, Ruth, Berra and Williams all came to the same conclusion. Hitting is so difficult that batters, even home run hitters, essentially take a leap of faith when they swing.

“I know this,” Babe Ruth concluded in that 1927 interview: “A man can’t worry and hit home runs.”

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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