The advice to “keep your eye on the ball” is literally impossible

Monday, March 8th, 2021

When David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance came out, I bought it in hardcover and enjoyed it immensely — but physical books don’t lend themselves to blogging. So, when I saw that the Kindle edition was on sale for $1.99, I “picked up” a copy and reread it.

The opening chapter explains how the Pepsi All-Star Softball Game was contested by Major League Baseball players — until one year, when they brought in a true softball pitcher from Team USA, Jennie Fitch:

As part of the pregame festivities, a raft of major league stars had tested their skill against Finch’s underhand rockets. Thrown from a mound forty-three feet away, and traveling at speeds in the upper-60-mph range, Finch’s pitches take about the same time to reach home plate as a 95-mph fastball does from the standard baseball mound, sixty feet and six inches away. A 95-mph pitch is fast, certainly, but routine for pro baseball players. Plus, the softball is larger, which should make for easier contact.

Nonetheless, with each windmill arc of her arm, Finch blew pitches by the bemused men.

For four decades, scientists have been constructing a picture of how elite athletes intercept speeding objects.

The intuitive explanation is that the Albert Pujolses and Roger Federers of the world simply have the genetic gift of quicker reflexes that provide them with more time to react to the ball. Except, that isn’t true.


A typical major league fastball travels around ten feet in just the 75 milliseconds that it takes for sensory cells in the retina simply to confirm that a baseball is in view and for information about the flight path and velocity of the ball to be relayed to the brain. The entire flight of the baseball from the pitcher’s hand to the plate takes just 400 milliseconds. And because it takes half that time merely to initiate muscular action, a major league batter has to know where he is swinging shortly after the ball has left the pitcher’s hand, well before it’s even halfway to the plate.

The window for actually making contact with the ball, when it is in reach of the bat, is 5 milliseconds, and because the angular position of the ball relative to the hitter’s eye changes so rapidly as it gets closer to the plate, the advice to “keep your eye on the ball” is literally impossible. Humans don’t have a visual system fast enough to track the ball all the way in.


So why are [All-Star batters] transmogrified into Little Leaguers when faced with 68-mph softballs? It’s because the only way to hit a ball traveling at high speed is to be able to see into the future, and when a baseball player faces a softball pitcher, he is stripped of his crystal ball.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Ted Williams claimed he could see the stitches on the ball after it was thrown.

  2. Kirk says:

    I don’t know what it takes to be a superstar-level player at anything in particular, but I do know that the people who are have something I don’t, and that even when they try to describe it, they can’t do it in terms I find at all understandable.

    I used to work with a guy from Guyana who spent his weekends playing “futbol”, or as we benighted colonials call it, “soccer”. This guy was scary-good as a goalkeeper, because you’d watch him and you’d get the general impression that he had eyes on the back of his head, and he knew what the ball was going to do before it did it. I watched him reach out and catch a ball, once, where he was completely blocked from being able to see it by the general scrum of assholes around his goal net–All you saw was this hand reach out of the mass, and grab the ball. There was no damn way he could have seen that thing coming, or even known that the damn thing was being kicked, and… Yet… There it was, in his hands, and getting rocketed back down the field from his goal before anyone realized what the hell was going on.

    I asked him how on God’s green earth he’d been able to do that, and he just looked puzzled for a minute and then said something to the effect that he’d just known the ball was coming, and reached for it. The whole thing was done so smoothly that everyone else around the goal failed to realize he’d even gained control of the ball before he sent it winging back down the field–It was that fast and smooth. Even his own team was standing around going “What just happened here…?”.

    ESP? You tell me. That was one of the more surreal sporting experiences I’ve ever had, and I think you would find that an awful lot of “star athletes” can do the same damn thing. How, I’ve no idea.

  3. Grasspunk says:

    Reminds me of the testing they did with Cristiano Ronaldo where they kicked a ball to him and turned off the lights and he had to score in the dark, which he did even when they turned off the lights before the ball was kicked. I cued up the link to the relevant section.

  4. Isegoria says:

    Even with the lights out, Ronaldo is much better looking than the amateur.

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