The Ultimate Guide to Vision Training for Baseball and Softball Hitters | Pitch Recognition Science Secrets Revealed
March 14, 2023
39 min read
It’s no secret that hitting is tough.
Hitting a round ball with a round bat, traveling toward you at any speed – especially at 90 mph or 70 mph for softball – requires complex perception, decision-making, and muscle coordination.
Indeed, at all levels, successful hitting is more than just getting in your reps and practicing good form.
Vision is vital.
But, there's good news. The science behind pitch recognition supports the notion that vision training can enhance a baseball or softball player’s offensive performance.
In this ultimate guide, we’ll cover what vision training is, how it improves your hitting performance, and showcase some of the best methods and tools for accelerating your vision and pitch recognition.
While dug into the batter’s box, there’s a whole lot going on.
You need to take in and process tons of visual, auditory, and tactile data from the world around you in this present at-bat – while taking into account past times facing this pitcher, how your teammates did against them, and similar in-game situations you’ve been in during your career – and then make a decision on whether to swing or not, and, if so, exactly when to swing and how.
Whew. That last sentence was pretty complicated.
But the complexity inherent to hitting a baseball or softball from an informational processing standpoint, at least, is much greater.
And that’s why we need models.
📚 Definition: Models are theoretical frameworks that seek to explain elaborate mental and physical processes.
One of the oldest and most well-known for information processing is called the Welford Informational Model. It was developed by British psychologist Alan Welford in the early 1960s.
The model posits that there are three main stages of information processing: input, output, and storage.
Input refers to the process of taking in information from the environment.
Output is the process of sending information to the outside world.
Storage is the process of keeping the information in memory for later use.
The model also includes several sub-processes, such as attention, perception, and decision-making. These sub-processes help to explain how we select and interpret information from the environment.
Welford’s Model, and others like it, such as Whiting’s Model, have been applied to just about any human endeavor you can imagine.
But we're fans of a much more recent model put forth in 2018 by Daniel Laby, MD and David Kirschen, OD, PhD, FAAO.
Their brief and refreshingly accessible ideas can be read here.
And Dr. Laby isn’t a desk-ridden academic – he uses this stuff with the world's best athletes – serving as the staff ophthalmologist for several professional sports teams in MLB, NHL, NBA as well as the US Olympic team.
He’s been a part of 5 World Series Championship teams and an American League Championship team, so the man knows how to apply vision training insights toward effective in-game performance in baseball.
His model is a bit more nuanced and three-dimensional, taking its cues from cutting-edge physiology, neuroscience, and machine learning insights.
Dr. Laby’s Model is still made up of similar components to Welford’s, however, but they’re now called “networks”:
But the two main differences in this new model are how it addresses nonlinear and interconnected learnings within these networks and how it leaves room to explain how well-trained athletes shift and adjust in micro ways on the fly to find successful outcomes.
It’s hard not to think that Dr. Laby had constantly adapting MLB hitters in mind when coming up with these two points of differentiation for his informational model.
Professional baseball players often have better than 20/20 vision – with the average being 20/13.
This last bit means that pros can see from 20 feet away what most people can only see from 13 feet.
Finally, based on hard to ignore recent studies like this one, many MLB organizations are now considering using vision assessment data to help decide which players to draft.
Because vision is so important to reach the highest levels of professional baseball and softball, ballplayers have started turning toward vision training to enhance their visual acuity and give them an edge at the plate.
Experts agree that vision training is beneficial to baseball and softball players, but there’s still debate over how best to implement it.
As a result, several different techniques and methods have emerged, all marketed as ‘vision training’ for baseball and softball athletes.
Vision training could be anything from pitch recognition exercises to basic eyesight drills. As more research comes out about the benefits of vision training on batting, more tools, programs, and apps are being developed to address it.
In the last section of this guide, we'll go through several of the top vision training drills and pitch recognition tools for baseball and softball players.
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Visual recognition time doesn’t measure reaction like visual reaction time but, instead, tracks how quickly baseball and softball players can identify an incoming pitch.
With elite pitchers throwing around 90 mph in baseball or 70 mph in softball and adding movement to their pitches, recognizing an approaching pitch quickly enough to make a decision is a crucial part of vision training.
It’s also been found that a higher degree of pitch recognition leads to a higher batting average.
Researchers Alan W. Reichow, Kenneth E. Garchow, and Richard Y. Baird studied visual recognition amongst college baseball players using a tachistoscope, which is a tool that measures recognition.
Their study showed a positive correlation between visual pitch recognition and batting average for the collegiate baseball players who participated.
Perceptual training refers to the improvement of perception or decision-making skills in athletic performance.
Some sports, like baseball and softball, require high perceptual abilities. As a result, coaches and athletes turn to specific training methods to enhance these skills.
Approaches to perceptual training vary, especially since sports science research on the subject is ongoing.
What all these perceptual approaches have in common, according to professor of skill acquisition Damian Farrow, is that they’re:
Technologies related to perceptual training include game analysis programs, virtual reality applications, and video feedback that allows real-time and augmented reality displays.
Other professional sports organizations have even turned to video games like FIFA Soccer and Madden NFL for their elite players – as modern versions of the games have highly realistic qualities that can be adapted to training simulators.
Temporal occlusion is editing moving images to provide selective vision to their viewer.
In a baseball or softball context, the video-occlusion method means taking a filmed recording of a pitcher from the batter’s perspective and blacking out, AKA occluding, specific moments.
During a blacked-out segment, the athlete viewing the film must decide what kind of pitch is coming, whether they’ll swing, or some other metric that tests reactivity.
Video-occlusion is considered a type of perceptual training and is one of the oldest techniques for training athletes who carry out ballistic movements.
In 1965, the first study applying this idea to sports was conducted by M.J. Haskins, with tennis players. And in 1984, W.A. Burroughs used video-occlusion with baseball players, to study pitch recognition and coordinated motor actions.
As more research was done on video-occlusion, it’s been incorporated into modern vision training programs.
PJ Fadde, for example, was able to develop a training program based on temporal occlusion by studying more-skilled and less-skilled Australian baseball players.
He took his findings and created instructional drills for recognizing pitch type, pitch location, and zone hitting.
This video from his pitch recognition app, GameSense Sports, demonstrates what athletes see in a video-occlusion film.
And it found that the highest-performing batters had delayed saccade movement.
🔑 Key Insight: This means that the best hitters spent slightly more time gathering visual information about a pitch before starting their swing.
Hopefully both ballplayers and coaches reading this guide take that last sentence to heart, because it’s an important insight.
As we’ll see in our vision training tools and methods section at the end, studying saccades is useful for gathering information about hitters’ eye movements when they’re facing a pitcher and then developing drills to further improve in-game their outcomes.
#The Science Behind Vision Practice and Pitch Recognition for Baseball and Softball
Why do vision training and pitch recognition practices work?
Early experts proposed that perceptual training is beneficial to athletes because it removes extra environmental variables that may be distracting to athletes in real game situations.
With certain occlusions, for example, athletes might be able to focus solely on recognizing the incoming pitch without having their attention diverted elsewhere in the environment.
As time went on and more research emerged, this benefit became more relevant to beginner and novice level athletes, though.
Young hitters are helped by training their eyes and nervous system to focus and react to pitches in lower pressure and less realistic scenarios.
Coaches have long known that removing variables and complexity is a great way to teach newer athletes, so this evidence-backed insight also makes intuitive sense.
But expert and even just advanced athletes instead profit most from perceptual training that more closely mirrors game situations.
Farrow, in his exhaustive review of perceptual training applications in sports, thinks this is because expert athletes have greater anticipatory skills and a stronger link between their perceptions and their action.
Training their perceptual skills in a game-like environment can, therefore, directly produce better performance.
As we explore in-depth in our ultimate guide to feel vs. real in baseball and softball, a ballplayer’s physical movements do not always match their mental and emotional perceptions of what’s happening.
🔑 Key Insight: Coupling video analysis’ objective feedback with the vision training methods proposed in this guide goes a long way toward unifying feelings and reality in an athlete – and channeling them into successful performance outcomes.
Believe it or not, we still haven’t even scratched the surface of the body of work investigating the relationship between vision and sports performance.
So before we dive into training methods and tools, the following are three more examples of important studies in baseball vision training specifically that have led to developments in pitch recognition.
The Axon Sports program uses video occlusion and pitch recognition.
When a university baseball program started using Axon Sports for the 2013 season, the players had significant increases in team home runs, runs scored, and slugging percentage.
The program was player-administered, the coaches didn’t lead sessions with the Axon Sports system.
The conclusions from this case study provide strong evidence that perceptual-cognitive skills not only make a difference in baseball and softball, but that they can also be enhanced.
At the time this study was published, the authors Patrick K. Belling and Paul Ward noted that many baseball programs hadn’t integrated vision training into their regimen at all, despite evidence that it works.
In the five years since the study, however, vision training has become much more popular.
Commercial, affordable products for pitch recognition exist on the market now and it’s not uncommon to see coaches and trainers sharing drills targeted specifically toward vision and perception training.
#Case Study: EYEPORT Vision Training and Little League Players
The EYEPORT training device uses a series of flashing red and blue lights to train your eyes’ focusing abilities.
Bowen and Horth asked 12 Little League players to train with the EYEPORT device 10 minutes per day, six days per week, for three weeks.
The researchers conducted this study to see if standard vision training, meant only to improve the eyes’ ability to focus and refocus, could also help baseball players pick up the spin on a curveball.
They pitched curveballs to the batters with a pitching machine before and after the vision training and noticed a 90 percent increase in the average number of hits.
Although the study had its obvious limitations – like lack of control group and a small sample size – the results were too significant to ignore completely.
The researchers were able to draw a close connection between visual acuity and hitting performance.
#Case Study: University of Cincinnati Baseball and General Vision Training
In 2011, a group of researchers set out to see if a variety of vision training techniques could improve the offensive performance of the baseball team at the University of Cincinnati.
Instead of just one tool or program, like the Axon Sports case study, they employed several traditional and technological techniques meant to improve vision and reaction time.
Basically, they went all in.
Their methods included:
Dynavision, a hand-eye coordination device
A tachistoscope, which trains the brain to recognize images faster
A Brock string, a visual training aid using a string and colored balls
A rotary, a vision pursuit device
Strobe glasses, LED lenses that pulse-block eyes
Testing saccades, which, again, are rapid eye movements
Near far training, which tests the eyes’ quickness is focusing in and out
EYEPORT, a device with a series of flashing red and blue lights to train your eyes’ focusing abilities
Don’t worry, we promise to revisit exactly what all these tools listed are in detail soon.
The researchers devised a preseason training program for athletes that lasted six weeks.
To measure the results of the vision training, they compared the team batting average from the 2010 season to the 2011 season and saw an increase from 0.251 to 0.285.
They further noted that the batting average for the rest of the Big East conference (in which the team competes) fell by 0.034 between 2010 and 2011.
Cincinnati also moved from number 12 in the conference to tied for fourth. The researchers attributed the team’s stark success to the vision training.
The significance of this study isn’t just the importance of vision training in baseball and softball hitting performance. It also shows how these methods can be implemented in a college baseball program.
One of the biggest hurdles of vision and perception training in baseball and softball has always been translating research and expertise into actionable practices.
#How to Start Improving Your Vision for Baseball and Softball
While the science behind vision training is fascinating, it doesn’t help your hitting performance much if you don’t know how to apply it to your own training.
Following are eight techniques and tools you can use to test and improve your visual acuity to make yourself a better hitter. They’re in no particular order.
You can make your own Hart Chart by printing off a small letter and a large letter on two separate charts.
The small letter chart stays up close and the large letter chart is placed farther away.
This exercise tests the focus of the lens in your eye.
Quickly switching back and forth between near and far objects can usually cause strain. If you train with this drill, however, you can strengthen your eyes.
Focusing on near and far objects quickly is important as a batter – your eyes have to adjust from watching the pitcher’s hand 60 and a half (or 43) feet away to watching the incoming pitch in less than 0.4 seconds.
This video is a good example of Hart Chart training in action.
The Dynavision device uses light training to improve hand-eye coordination.
It’s supposed to gauge reaction time based on visual stimuli. Since visual reaction time is critical to hitting in softball and baseball, the Dynavision system could be beneficial for athletes wanting to improve hand-eye coordination.
You can watch a football player using the Dynavision system in this video.
The tools focus primarily on pitch recognition, using recorded footage of pitchers from a batter’s point of view.
This gives ballplayers a hyper-realistic experience of facing a pitching.
The recording will stop before the ball arrives at home plate and batters have to guess what type of pitch is coming based on release point and spin. We're sure you know by now, but this is occlusion training.
The Applied Vision tools are based on the idea that visual acuity in athletics can be improved through repetitive training.
Aside from occlusion, it offers many other training modules based on cutting-edge visual training research.