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.
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.