Washington Nationals go beyond the eye chart with vision training

When Bryce Harper showed up at last season’s playoffs with contacts that made his eyes glow red, he wasn’t weeks early for Halloween — he was embracing the gospel of the team’s optometrist, Keith Smithson. (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)

During spring training last year, Corey Brown was sure his eyes were the reason he kept striking out. The Washington Nationals outfielder had 20/15 vision and never needed contact lenses or glasses, but he couldn’t always pick up off-speed pitches out of pitchers’ hands and react while batting. The communication between his eyes and brain just wasn’t happening fast enough.

The team’s consulting eye doctor, Keith Smithson, recommended Brown do a variety of drills to improve the problem: toss around colored balls, field a ball with corners that made it roll unpredictably, and catch a tennis ball on one leg while wearing a pair of glasses that make it harder to see by creating a strobe-like effect.

Brown made the exercises part of his routine. He enjoyed a career-best season in Class AAA Syracuse last year, cutting down his strikeout rate, raising his batting average to .285, launching 25 home runs and earning three call-ups to the big league team. Brown also tweaked his swing, but he insists the eye training was a major reason for the improvement.

“I really felt like it was helping me during spring,” he said. “I actually rarely ever struck out, which was surprising to me because it was a huge, drastic change for me.”

Of all the major professional sports, baseball is most dependent on the eyes. Pitchers read the fingers of a catcher signaling a pitch more than 60 feet away. Fielders watch the spin of the ball and track its trajectory in the sunlight, twilight or stadium lights. Hitters zero in on a three-inch-wide white ball and discern the spin of its red laces in fractions of a second.

The Washington Nationals held tryouts Saturday to find its next team of Racing Presidents, the giant-headed mascots that sprint around the field during the fourth inning of home games at Nationals Park. (Nicki Demarco/The Washington Post)

While few major league teams offer extensive vision training, the Nationals are hoping to further incorporate it. Players such as Bryce Harper, Steve Lombardozzi and Brown swear by it. This season, the players will have an extra training room at Nationals Park where they can have easy access to the equipment and integrate it into their daily workouts. By this time next season, the Nationals hope to have all minor league players in Class A and Class AA under vision-training programs.

“We think that it’s the next frontier of improvement,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It’s part of our player development, it’s part of our strength and conditioning. We condition the eye as a muscle and Keith does a lot of innovative and cutting-edge stuff.”

Trying to buy time

Smithson’s foremost mission is to test players’ eyes and provide corrective lenses. A pitcher, he said, can do fine with 20/20 vision, but he is more likely to push a position player with the same eyesight to use contact lenses, which can improve the acuity to 20/15. (He doesn’t perform corrective laser surgery, but provides referrals for the procedure.) He also provides the colored contact lenses to help with the sun and different hitting backgrounds, like the amber-colored ones Harper wore during last season’s playoffs.

But after the basic eye testing, Smithson wants to help the Nationals make quicker decisions and improve their reaction speed. There are seven muscles around the eye, and Smithson teaches players to fine-tune them.

For a pitcher, it could help with control or to get out of the way of a comebacker. For a hitter, it could help improve hand-eye coordination or the quick decision-making after recognizing a pitch. A hitter has two- to three-tenths of second to decide whether a pitch is a fastball, curveball or change-up and commit to swinging.

“What we attempt to do is shorten that time,” said Smithson, who is also the team optometrist for the Washington Wizards and D.C. United. “If we have two-tenths of a second, let’s shorten it to one. Let’s buy them a tenth. And if we can buy them a tenth, they either foul it off if where they were going to miss it or they get a hold of it and put it in play.”

The biggest proponent of vision training on the Nationals is, oddly enough, a player with naturally perfect vision. Lombardozzi first started practicing vision exercises in high school because his father, a former major league second baseman, did a version of the training when he played.

Lombardozzi, who lives near Columbia in the offseason, has trained with Smithson at his Arlington office for the past two winters, visiting two to three times per week. As part of his routine, Lombardozzi has to touch one of the 32 red buttons that light up across an electronic reaction board that hangs from the wall. His best score is a 4,900 — far above the score of 2,500 that Smithson establishes as a baseline for players.

For warmups, Smithson tosses Lombardozzi a ring with four large colored balls attached to it — a favorite exercise of former slugger Manny Ramirez. Smithson calls out “red,” “blue,” “yellow” or “white,” and Lombardozzi has to catch the ring on the corresponding ball as it spins through the air.

Every time before he enters a game, whether as a starter or pinch hitter, Lombardozzi tracks smaller baseballs in the batting cages without swinging while wearing strobe glasses. Like a flashing strobe light, the glasses block out what a player sees at different speeds and rob the brain of images.

“You take those off and it makes it seem like the guy throwing is moving slower,” Lombardozzi said. “You’re slowing the ball down and you’re just taking that feeling into the game.”

Harper, who says his eyesight would be “terrible” without contact lenses, started using the strobe glasses when he was in Class A Hagerstown in 2011 after consulting with Smithson. He would wear the glasses while hitting soft toss.

“Everything that I’ve worked on with him is huge,” he said. “Seeing things really quick.”

Since college, Danny Espinosa has been using cards that contain two images and force him to make them one, a focus exercise for his eyes. The cards were developed by Bill Harrison, a renowned Southern California-based sports optometrist who famously worked with George Brett, Frank White, Jason Giambi and others.

“Sometimes I feel like I see the ball extremely well after I do my stuff,” said Espinosa, who is also going to try a computer program this season recommended by Smithson.

It’s not for everyone

Not all teams flocked to adopt vision training. The Milwaukee Brewers, for example, once employed a vision-training computer program but stopped two years ago when it became too labor intensive to keep up. Plus, the program’s company couldn’t provide proof that players’ performances had improved, according to the team’s director of player development, Reid Nichols.

“To my knowledge, there’s not a lot of teams and not a lot players that do the training,” Harrison said. “They’re consumed with strength and conditioning and mechanics and they don’t have time to take on something additional.”

Jayson Werth met Harrison after the Baltimore Orioles drafted him in 1997. He started using Harrison’s “Slow The Game Down” cards then, and later used more exercises while with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He tried the strobe glasses and even occasionally threw around the ring with colored balls in 2010 with then-Phillies teammate Raul Ibanez.

But Werth never made it part of his routine, in large part because even though he has long worn contacts to combat astigmatism in one eye, he hasn’t struggled to see the ball or pick up its spin.

“There’s something to [the vision training], for sure,” he said. “But it’s not something that I’ve not really bought into. It has a value. But there’s so many things to do in the day. For me it usually gets left off the list, unfortunately.”

Smithson has more ideas for improving the Nationals’ vision. Two weeks ago, while checking the eyesight of all the players in the visitor’s training room in Space Coast Stadium, he also tested for a pigment in the retina that acts almost as the eye’s internal sunglasses.

He wants to compare the day and night batting averages, earned run averages and strikeout-to-walk ratios of players with high and low pigment concentration. And he hopes to test the results again after he gives some players an approved nutritional supplement of vitamins and natural oils that helps increase that macular pigment.

Smithson also will encourage more players who are rehabbing from major injuries to focus on training their eyes while out of game action and reduce their rustiness when they return. And with the training room at Nationals Park, players like Lombardozzi — and maybe more — will have access to training that may help them.

“The most important thing in this game is you have to see,” Lombardozzi said. “If you’re not picking up the baseball, you can’t really hit it. I just think it’s a no-brainer. Some guys are into it and some guys aren’t. I think it’s been a big help and something I’ll continue to do.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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