August 29, 2013

Baseball eyesight question

In my review of David Epstein's The Sports Gene, I relay his surmise that major league hitters are distinguished less by quick reaction times than by phenomenal eyesight, 20/10 uncorrected being not uncommon among big leaguers. (Here's a list of bespectacled ballplayers: Chick Hafey, Reggie Jackson, and Dick Allen are the only top hitters. No mention of hitters with contact lenses or Lasik surgery available.)

To the extent that this is true, what's the maximum number of books you can read as a boy and still grow up to hit big league pitching? And does this have anything to do with the difficulties sportswriters have getting interesting quotes from sluggers?

49 comments:

Anonymous said...

"To the extent that this is true, what's the maximum number of books you can read as a boy and still grow up to hit big league pitching?"

Bit of a non sequitur, no? From what I can remember, it's not so much reading (or watching TV) that would affect sight so much as being indoors. So you can read as much as you want - outdoors.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't appear to be reading per se. It's exposure to sunlight. Of course kids who read a lot stay inside to read, so they end up getting less sunlight. When you're inside, even with all the lights on in the middle of the day, the actual light you're exposed to, measured in lumens, is much less than you'd be exposed to just being outside. Baseball of course is played outside, in the afternoon when it's often brightest out, and during spring and summer. If anything, being outside all the time as a kid and playing baseball may contribute to major leaguers' good eyesight.

http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/06/01/myopia.causes/index.html

"While the belief that prolonged close-up activities like reading and playing computer games cause short sightedness (myopia) is popularly held, new research indicates that a deficiency of sunlight is the true culprit."

Anonymous said...

Along with eyesight, shouldn't hand-eye coordination also rank high? Hitting, catching, throwing...

Also, being able to quickly judge a fly ball is also a gift. It's your brain and body performing differential Calculus on the fly. If you consider that most ball players from Latin-America never even took Algebra, it's actually really interesting that they are so great at knowing exactly where to be before the ball gets there.

Anonymous said...

From what I can remember, it's not so much reading (or watching TV) that would affect sight so much as being indoors. So you can read as much as you want - outdoors.

I equate watching TV or working in front of a monitor to be the same as staring into a light bulb. I always dim both.

Anonymous said...

Your eyes are still focusing on the book 2 feet away. Being outside wouldn't make a difference.

John Mansfield said...

Going on with this theory, what are those sharp-eyed boys doing when not playing ball? For previous generations, they would have been shooting rabbits, or at least plinking sparrows. What do they do today with less access to places to shoot and less cultural support for that activity?

691 said...

Bernie Williams used to be in commercials for some LASIK doctor talking about how great his surgery was.

Anonymous said...

OT: Brilliant Daily Mail article on UK benefits recipients by region of origin.

Hunsdon said...

Slightly tangential, but didn't Chuck Yeager have simply phenomenal eyesight? I thought I'd read that, even in middle age, he had something better than 20/10. And you could get good quotes from Yeager!

slumber_j said...

Bernie Williams had Lasik surgery while playing with the Yankees.

Well, not while actually playing. But you know what I mean.

Anyway, I thought at the time that I'd be really, really worried about that if I were he. Seems to have turned out okay though.

Alex said...

Steve, I think it's genetic and doesn't have anything to do with reading. I was a classic bookworm as a kid - sucked at ball sports, picked last for everything, never got hits in little league, etc etc. I was a pretty good ski racer but that is it. I read constantly, as much as anyone else I have ever known. And yet even now, with a job where I have stared at computer screens for ten years, I have tested vision better than 20/10, as do my brother (very good baseball and hockey player), sister (national class rower, very good soccer player), and daughter (age 5, h/e coordination probably below average). All my dad's family has amazing vision and none of them are particularly good at sports except one uncle who is phenomenal at ping-pong and tried out as a place kicker for the Cowboys. Provided kids get outside some and rest their eyes periodically, I don't think reading will prevent anyone from seeing a fastball. I would guess that superhuman vision is a limiting factor and that the critical pieces of the puzzle are reflexes and the learned ability to focus on the ball, both of which I lack / never developed.

Z said...

I have 20/10 vision and I was not a great hitter. I also read a lot, but I did not watch much TV. On the other hand, I never liked hitting as much as pitching and fielding so maybe it was the Gladwellian Effect.

Eyesight and hitting probably works like this. A good hitter picks up the breaking pitch early in the delivery, right at the release point. That allows for adjustment to the speed of the ball. It is why late action on a hard cutter is so devistating. Therefore, it is not just excellent vision, but excellent vision within 55-65 feet, along with exceptional coordination, fast twitch muscles and nerve response.

carol said...

I knew three people with perfect eyesight, and trust me they never read for fun...and one was a certified reading teacher in calif. Said she just never got into it, and read only what she needed for work or school.

Thing is, kids who love to read probably overdo it.

Anonymous said...

HOF batter Rogers Hornsby was like that. He refused to read books or go to the silent motion pictures where he'd have to read the subtitles. He believed that reading fine print would harm his batting eye.

Ted Williams, was indeed one of the well known members with 20/10 eyesight.

Still, reaction time has to play a major role as well. Chicken or egg? If you have quick reflexes you can react to the ball quicker. If your eyesight is exceptional but you're slow reflex wise, then what? You can see the ball quicker but can't react any quicker than normal. That probably would even out.

jim sweeney said...

Dom DiMaggio was always bespectacled; they called him The Little Professor remember. Being a major league player is per se great eyesight abd, because there are so few of them, all must have it save, perhaps, pitchers. Umpires need not have any eyesight at all.

Anonymous said...

Better not be too witty Steve, your readers won't understand.

Anonymous said...

I read once where some "behavioral" tests were conducted on Willie Mays [as I recall?!?], and the researchers found that he had absolutely phenomenal "peripheral vision" - many standards of deviations better than average?

But that was years ago when I read about it - it could have been Ted Williams or Hank Aaron or somebody else - yet I'm pretty certain in my memory that it was the "peripheral" aspect which was so strong in the great hitters.

I've also heard it conjectured that the same is true of the great basketball wizards, like Bob Cousy, Pete Maravich, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, and their ilk - that they could see off to their sides much more strongly than could "normal" basketball players.

ziel said...

I recall hearing that Rogers Hornsby wouldn't even go to the movies for fear of hurting his eyesight.

Of course in Reggie's case him wearing glasses is no surprise, what with that 168 IQ of his:)

tenneby said...

Former MVP and three time batting champ Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins has been seen off-the-field wearing glasses and allegedly wears contact lenses while playing. Current Twin and former MVP Justin Morneau and ex-Twin Michael Cuddyer have both had LASIK surgery.

Regarding the lack of "good quotes" proferred by sluggers, there's nothing to be gained by bad-mouthing your opponents and a lot to lose. The only reason sportswriters and tv/radio people even ask for quotes is because most media people are too stupid and/or lazy to put any effort into actually analyzing the game and offering insight into what is happening on the field of play. Most of the media don't understand or pay attention to the games they are paid to cover so the media resorts to asking the players to do the media's job for them. When the players don't do the media's job with enough enthusiasm the players get called stupid, boring, lazy and spoiled. If the players do say something interesting the players get called stupid, lazy, spoiled and racist/sexist/homophobic/etc.

One thing I have heard is that baseball players at least are more pleasant to deal with than in the past. With all the new stadiums in baseball there are larger clubhouses and more training, meeting, and rehab rooms the players can hide out in away from the media. So while it's harder for the media to get at players today, when they do get access to them the players are more pleasant to deal with. Presumably if you only have to deal with the media for a set amount of time, it makes it easier to "grin and bear it".

Like the first anonymous comment, I've read that it is the lack of being outdoors in sunlight, especially as a young child, that hinders eyesight development and it's not reading per se that causes poor eyesight.

Randy Numbagenaratta said...

Could you make reading glasses that allowed the eye to focus at an arbitrarily far distance while reading a book 10" from your face?

Intro to physics was a long time ago.

MC said...

Bernie Williams had Lasik and it benefited his career pretty substantially.

Deckin said...

Mark McGwire needed vision correction. He wore contacts for most of his career, but then got Lasik as a Cardinal. That was his reason, at the time, cough, cough, for his incredible prowess late in his career.

If I recall, Ted Williams was reputed to have the best vision any opthamologist who'd ever examined him had ever seen.

james wilson said...

Having better than 20/20 vision may be a factor in hitting, but there are bigger ones.

A careful study at Stanford (to my recollection) showed that at higher levels of baseball hitters were able to track the ball far closer to the plate. A college hitter did not lose track of the ball until it was 12' from the plate, a mlb player, 8'.

There is a vast difference in hitters of any eyesight in the ability to pick up the spin of the ball. This, I will call it "quick twitch" or "freeze" function of the eye, is also related to the ability to see the position of the pitchers hand at the release of the ball. Tony Guinn amused himself by calling each pitch from the dugout at the point of release.

BTW, your comment verification is a disquised IQ test. You are never going to get comments on baseball from Lenny Dyktra.

Svigor said...

Assuming you're right, and anony#1 is wrong...that's kinda sad; you have to be a dipshit to be a slugger?

Anonymous said...

I recall Jay Bell being a decent hitter who had glasses.

Anonymous said...

Actually, short-sightedness is quite strongly correlated with intelligence, and its intelligence that causes the reading of books, not the reading of books that causes the short-sightedness.

Anon.

David Davenport said...

This is a follow-up to Steve's column about 3-D printing. Three dimensional "printing" with metal is on the way:

Metallics Make Comeback With Manufacturing Advances

By Graham Warwick, Guy Norris
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

“Metallics are dead, long live metallics!” This could be the rallying call for a manufacturing domain that is reinventing itself in the wake of a dramatic loss of ground to composites.

...

But the technology that perhaps has the aerospace industry most excited by its potential is additive manufacturing (AM)—building parts layer by layer rather than removing metal cut by cut. “We are really just entering the phase where additive manufacturing is beginning to be viewed as a real capability for production parts,” says Oldfield. “It has been a long time in its creation, but is becoming a credible production solution.”

GKN sees applications for three approaches to AM. One is large deposition technology to create pre-forms by feeding wire into a laser or electron beam to melt the metal and build up the part. Another is fine deposition technology to add local features such as bosses or pads to a simple forging using wire-fed laser melting. “This is in production in Sweden for parts of the [Rolls-Royce Trent] XWB engine,” Oldfield says.

The third approach is powder-bed additive manufacturing, which enables complex parts to be “printed” using a laser or electron beam to melt layer after layer of metal powder. The three approaches have different speeds, accuracies and scales. “Large deposition can produce parts on a big scale,” says Oldfield. 'With powder bed, you can pick up the part, it is good for high-value, high-performance parts that you want to optimize to a high degree.”

...

Anonymous said...

Okay, I have super good vision and never liked reading.

I also do not have great reflexes, so I would not be good at swatting a baseball.

I would challenge the assumption that reading books ruins good eyesight. Rather these guys are slightly farsighted to begin with and looking at images close up is uncomfortable. That is part of why I didn't like reading. Also, when I am driving, I look far out ahead of me because that is where it is more natural and relaxed to focus. My eyes and get tired looking at things close up.

Anecdotal, but I think there is some truth to it.

My older son's school program requires about 10,000 pages of reading in History and Literature per year. He also complains that it makes him feel fatigued. But he can take batting practice for hours and not feel as tired. He got my great vision. So much so that the optometrist noted that our retinal scans were almost identical. My poor younger son got some of dads near sightedness and is nowhere near as good at sports.


Anonymous said...

by Dave Shinin in the Washington Post

On the day Bryce Harper walked into the eye doctor’s office, he was, he would say later, “blind as a bat.” Keith Smithson, the Washington Nationals’ team optometrist, asked Harper to read an eye chart, then looked at him with astonishment and said, according to Harper: “I don’t know how you ever hit before. You have some of the worst eyes I’ve ever seen.”

That was on April 19. The next night, fitted with a new pair of contact lenses, Harper, batting just .231 at the time for the low-Class A Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League, had a double and a single against the visiting Hickory Crawdads. The next night, he homered. And the night after that, he singled, doubled, homered and drove in six runs.

“It was like I was seeing in HD,” Harper said.

Suffice it to say Harper’s hi-def vision is a huge upgrade over standard-def. In 20 games since his visit to the eye doctor, Harper is hitting .480 (36 for 75) with a .547 on-base percentage and an .893 slugging percentage — with 7 homers, 10 doubles and 23 RBI.

Harper added:

“I needed [the contacts] in college,” he said. “But I tried them for a while in high school, and they gave me headaches really bad. So I just got by without them. But these are a new kind [of lenses], and they really help. The difference [in vision] is huge.”

Which has me wondering… The Nationals, like other major league teams, give players physical exams on the first day of spring training. That seems pretty obvious for a professional sport where the players are expected to engage in daily strenuous physical activity for a period of nearly eight months.

But don’t the exams include eye tests? Can they really be investing tens of millions of dollars in some of these players without doing regular eye exams? Come on, now.

Anonymous said...

Ted Williams is another famous example of that. I don't know if any of the book learning stuck on him but he was smart enough to survive be a Marine fighter pilot in WW2 and Korea. Apparently the Navy docs in Pensacola who did his entry physical indicated he had phenomenal eyesight even amongst a pretty keen eyed group.

Kevin Michael Grace said...

Wade Boggs had lasik surgery to improve his eyesight to 20/10. Is this cheating? This is a serious question.

Anonymous said...

That makes sense. The more accurate your vision, the more data you can collect on a baseball's trajectory before you take action. Acute hearing might also be helpful since the spin state of the ball is linked to the hissing sound it makes in flight, which can be used as a range marker.

James Kabala said...

Rogers Hornsby claimed that reading, going to the movies, and (I think) playing cards all hurt the eyesight. That seems to eliminate pretty much all leisure activities besides sports. (Presumably TV and internet would have been also condemned if they had been around in his time.) I think they say he liked to sit in hotel lobbies and people-watch.

E. Rekshun said...

I started becoming near-sighted after earning my BS in Comp Sci then working as a Software Engineer for four years. In 1987, I had RK done on my right eye, and the improvement was dramatic. In 1998, I had Lasik in both eyes; the improvement was magical, but had fully regressed after ten years.

Scott said...

Your view of vision is bit too narrowly devoted to the eye. Much of vision is brain-based. I would be shocked if MLB hitters did not have especially well-developed brain motion processing systems (see area MT/V5 in cortex).

Power Child said...

Yogi Berra notwithstanding...

Jim said...

When Mickey Mantle was 21 he wrote his autobiography. It was ghost written by Ben Epstein. Mickey said it was the first book he had ever read. He also said he liked it.

Anonymous said...

I also had 20/10 vision as a young man but, since I was a pitcher, I didn't get much opportunity to hit. I was also a quarterback and it certainly helped in that sport. But I wonder if it isn't more to do with visual processing. They say Gretsky could slow down the play on the ice, mentally, while making those fabulous passes.

Anonymous said...

the 'amazing peripheral vision' story i remember is from the classic new yorker piece on college undergraduate bill bradley


(my memory is better than my vision)

GLS said...

Edgar Martinez had a condition called Strabismus, which has something to do with how the eyes are aligned with one another. He had to do eye exercises everyday and reportedly couldn't watch TV or read or use a computer on game days.

Anonymous said...

So if you read Ted Williams book 'The Science of Hitting' it screws up your eye's so much you can never be a big league hitter. That is one book that should be an audio book.

warm enough to be outdoor s said...

If the indoor/outdoor thing is true, this would traditionaly tend to advantage eye sight closer to the equator. Do southerners have better vision? Are they better batters?

Anonymous said...

Why no HBD research about myopia?
What is the Myopia correlation with IQ, Education, Income across nations and time. Why are young more myopic than older generations. Genetics vs Environment in those trends. Why is myopia does disproportionately affect races differently? What about Genetic research in human genome for myopia?

secretariat the exception said...

Gary Carter used to make a fake semi yawn, eyelids as far apart as possible, before every pitch. Frank Howard wore glasses but was more of a slugger than a hitter(Alabama football, too). Research would probably support a theory that a pro league of 400 elite athletes from a population of 300 million (ie the number of MLB players born in the 50 states) is going to have much, much less eloquent participants than the same pro league in a country of 125 million (to the extent that eloquence is a trade-off - teeter-totter, as Epstein would say - with elite athletic genes, including the antimyopia and antireading genes). The odds of seeing another George Theodore (Mets infielder, one of the models for Seinfeld's Kramer) another Bob Uecker or another Joe Garagiola are super-duper diminished by the force of numbers inherent in our greater population.

Auntie Analogue said...


In a 1969 (if I recall correctly) issue of 'Sports Illustrated' I read an article on Ted Williams. The author interviewed Williams, at one point as he and Williams strolled along a beach, whereupon the reporter remarked to Williams on the attractiveness of a swimsuit-clad female some distance away. Williams replied to the report that the girl's legs were too hairy for his liking, and as the pair neared the girl the reporter - as he recorded in his article - was amazed to observe that the young woman did, in fact, have hairy legs.

This was either an instance of Williams's fabled superlative eyesight, or it was an instance of Williams having seen the young woman on an earlier walk, or walks, along that beach, so that his "she's too hairy" remark was premeditated - canned, if you will - and guaranteed to play up the legend of his superb visual acuity.

BB753 said...

How do you explain the modern prevalence of myopia? Being indoors most of the time?
In the 1970´s,nearsightedness in the US stood at around 10 % of the population, while nowadays it´s over 40%!
It´s a massive change, yet nobody seems to care. It can´t be wholly genetic.

To my knowledge, the only country where the problem has been addressed is Singapore. There myopia is over 70%!



James Kabala said...

Auntie Analogue - I've also heard(can't remember the source, though) that at other times Williams would deny that he had exceptional eyesight and say that the various colorful stories about it were all false. I wonder if he eventually realized that that saying he had exceptional eyesight could be construed to mean that he was just a natural freak who didn't need to perfect his craft to get ahead. The fact that he wrote a book called The Science of Hitting seems to imply that he wanted to be a Gladwellite avant la lettre rather than a natural master.

pat said...

It seems to bolster your case that Reggie Jackson is among those with bad (normal) vision.

Jackson I think belongs in the 'Hall of Fame'. He was and is famous. But does he belong in the 'Hall of Effective Players'?

He hit a lot a Home Runs albeit not the most of all time. He did strike out the most of all time. He, more than any other, epitomized the 'swing for the fences only' kind of player.

Maybe he didn't see well enough to hit a single?

Albertosaurus

Anonymous said...

How do you explain the modern prevalence of myopia? Being indoors most of the time?
In the 1970´s,nearsightedness in the US stood at around 10 % of the population, while nowadays it´s over 40%!
...
To my knowledge, the only country where the problem has been addressed is Singapore. There myopia is over 70%!


Higher IQs = more myopia