Here’s the windup and the pitch.
And in less time than it takes to read this, the batter swings.
That five-ounce white ball leaves the pitcher’s hand like a lightning bolt, often swerving as it comes. In Major League Baseball, a pitch takes less than half a second to reach home plate, but by then it’s much too late to react. A good batter, though, can hit even the fastest pitch, sometimes even knocking it out of the park.
How do the muscles and the nerves and the brain manage to work together to get this accomplished, in next to no time? As Yogi Berra said (or is said to have said, anyway), you can’t think and hit at the same time.
At the highest levels, hitting a baseball is a seemingly impossible task. Once it leaves the pitcher’s hand, the ball, typically traveling 85 to 95 mph, takes 400 to 500 milliseconds to reach home. But hitters have much less time than that to decide what to do.
Information about the pitch — its speed, trajectory and location — takes about 100 milliseconds, or a tenth of a second, to go from eye to brain. It takes another 150 milliseconds for the batter to start a swing and get the bat over the plate.
This leaves 150 to 250 milliseconds — a quarter of a second at most — for the hitter to decide whether to complete the swing and, if he opts to do so, where to place the bat.
Hitters somehow manage to succeed at this deeply complex task, generally getting a hit about a quarter of the time. But exactly how they do it remains a mystery. Being quick or strong is no guarantee of success: There are many examples of athletically gifted players who didn’t make it because they couldn’t hit well enough.
Now, two neuroscientists have focused on an understudied aspect of hitting: the brain. They have developed a way to measure brain activity just before and during the act of hitting, and they think their approach can help unravel the neural processes that underlie the skill — and perhaps help hitters improve.
The pair, Jason Sherwin and Jordan Muraskin, are currently working with two major league teams, gathering data about how players’ brains respond to pitches. “Often, people talk about hitting a baseball as ‘reflex’ or ‘instinct,’ ” Muraskin says. “What we’re seeing is that it’s the brain being able to perceive and act in a more efficient way. That’s what allows you to be a good hitter. Hitting is in large part a brain skill.”
The project began five years ago, when Sherwin and Muraskin were working in the Columbia University lab of neuroscientist Paul Sajda; Muraskin was pursuing his PhD, while Sherwin was a postdoctoral research scientist. Sherwin and Sajda were studying how musicians’ brains react to music and how this response differs from that of non-musicians. Muraskin, a New York Yankees fan, asked Sherwin, who roots for the Chicago Cubs, whether the musician work would translate to baseball, especially to hitting.
They decided to pursue this question, and have since published five studies on hitting and the brain. Their work, which evaluated players from Columbia, has identified a specific neural pattern for expert hitters. In 2014, Sherwin and Muraskin, who are in their early 30s, started a company, deCervo, to offer their expertise to college and professional teams and players. (The name is a modified version of “de cerveau,” which means “of the brain” in French.) Sajda — who likes the New York Mets — is also involved in the company as an adviser.
Brent Walker, the associate athletics director for championship performance at Columbia, worked closely with the researchers when they studied the school’s players. “They’re definitely on to something,” says Walker, a former collegiate pitcher who has a PhD in sports psychology. “I definitely think this could be really useful to players.”
Arizona State sports science researcher Robert Gray, who focuses on decision-making and the brain, tends to be skeptical of claims that brain training can improve athletic performance; there is a lot of “pseudoscience” in this domain, he says. But Gray says Muraskin and Sherwin are doing solid research. “This is really well-designed and rigorous work,” he says. “They’re using a good approach.”
Their work involves several brain imaging technologies, including real-time magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). For the professional teams, they are using electroencephalograms (EEGs), which gauge electrical activity at spots throughout the brain. While wearing fitted caps embedded with sensors, players watch simulated pitches on a laptop and “swing” at the ball via a button or remote control. The sensors take measurements 500 times a second, giving the researchers precise data on how and when the brain reacts to each pitch. “We get very good information on the sequence of brain events,” Muraskin says. “We can see when and where the brain makes a decision.”
Many scientists focus on how the brain makes quick decisions, but only two or three groups have looked into this question from the perspective of baseball. Muraskin and Sherwin say they are the only ones to combine EEGs and MRIs with pitching simulation, an approach that they think provides the most specific data on how batters think.
Sherwin and Muraskin think they’ve identified a pattern of brain activation in professional hitters. One key area is the fusiform gyrus, a small spot at the bottom of the brain that is crucial for object recognition. For baseball players, this region is much more active during hitting. Recent data also suggests that in experts the fusiform gyrus may be more connected to the motor cortex, which controls movement. Sajda says this has important implications because the increased connection could indicate that experts’ brains are more efficient at transforming data about the pitch into movement.
The expert hitters also tend to use their frontal cortex — a part of the brain that is generally in charge of deliberate decision-making — less than nonexperts do when hitting. (When we decide to order a baked potato rather than french fries, it’s a good bet that our frontal cortex is deeply involved. However, this part of the brain tends to make decisions more slowly and meticulously; it is not adept at split-second choices.)
This diminished frontal participation is crucial, they say. “Players seem to make the decision in their motor cortex rather than their frontal cortex,” Sajda says. “Their brains recognize and act on pitches more efficiently.”
Another key area that appears to be more energized among expert hitters is the supplementary motor area (SMA), a small region at the top of the brain. It is involved in the coordination of sequences of preplanned movements such as hitting. In expert hitters, this area is especially active as the pitcher winds up and as the pitch approaches the plate. In essence, the researchers say, experts are better at preparing to swing.
Muraskin thinks that the SMA plays a key role in helping hitters choose when not to swing. Many good hitters — the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy is known for this — have a preternatural ability to wait for the “right” pitch, the pitch they can hit. In other words, they excel at inhibiting their swing. “When you choose not to swing, that’s a choice,” Muraskin says. “It is a learned expertise.”
This year, he and Sherwin have tested about 100 players, mostly minor leaguers. The players received an evaluation before the season began, are being monitored through the summer and will be tested again after the season ends. “We’re finding out some interesting things,” Sherwin says. “Our aim now is to get an accurate measurement, so we can help them get better. Because the brain can be rewired.”
The pair are working to pinpoint neurological glitches that might affect players’ abilities to react to pitches and on strategies to help players overcome these weaknesses. They’ve also created a phone app that they say helps players improve their recognition of pitches (fastballs, curveballs, sliders, etc.) as well as whether a pitch is a ball or a strike. Using the app is a bit like taking batting practice via smartphone. There are many such tools, among them an app called Game Vision, but Muraskin and Sherwin say theirs is more precise, in part because they’ve incorporated data from the brain-imaging into the design.
Sherwin says early feedback has been positive. He says one prominent player told him the software helped him see the ball better during at-bats, making the pitch seem to take longer to reach the plate; and many players, he says, have asked to download the deCervo app on their phones.
The three researchers agree that the approach has potential beyond baseball. They say that it could be applied to other sports and, really, to any domain that requires quick decisions, such as policing, the military and financial trading. Sherwin points to football as one obvious target: On a typical passing play, the quarterback has about three seconds to decide where to throw the ball before being besieged by massive linemen and speedy linebackers.
“We think this is definitely transferable,” he says. “The goal is to show it works in baseball, and then expand from there. All of these areas require quick decisions. For us, it’s just a question of figuring out how to measure these decisions in the brain.”