Reading the Pitch

by David Moore

Cigarette card by A. Boguslavsky Ltd, London. Colorful image ca. 1925 of baseball player George Sisler at bat.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Asked what he could make out of a baseball coming out of a pitcher’s hand, one of the best hitters of the past decade, Mookie Betts, replied, “I don’t really know what I see. I see this white thing coming, and I somehow try to read it. I try to look at a window where his [arm] slot is and try to pick it up as fast as possible. You try to read spin, but the way I do it, I have no idea.” Baseball writer Eno Sarris noted that players differ on the key question of whether or not they can detect spin on the ball rocketing toward them, which would reveal information about pitch type; some swear the feat is entirely subconscious. Another coach described players who “black out” at the plate. 

Professional athletes may not be highly introspective by nature, and may also, naturally, want to guard their trade secrets. But when they’re asked to break down their experience of the thing they’re best at in the world, making contact with a baseball, it’s a realm that resists unpacking, remaining almost repressed, kept out of analysis. 

This makes sense—underneath the often placid-looking pitches in the dirt is a fearsome velocity. Glimpses of video from the catcher’s or umpire’s position behind the hitter show basically one thing: Holy shit those pitches are coming in insanely fast. The physics going into any given hit are a marvel: a typical 90-mph pitch takes only 400-500 milliseconds to reach home plate, and a hitter can only begin to grasp information about a pitch’s spin or placement 175 milliseconds in, leaving just 50 milliseconds in which to “decide” whether to initiate a swing. If its timing is off by only seven milliseconds—even if the swing is on target to the pitch location—the ball flies foul.

It’s a paywall, but a small one

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