Baseball Players See the Ball As Way Bigger Than You Do

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Hot-hitting Cubs second-baseman Javier Báez.Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

According to Major League Baseball, the league’s namesake object has an objective reality. “The ball shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together,” the official rulebook reads, and it shall weigh in at about five ounces with a nine-inch circumference. And yet baseballs, like so many things in life, are relative.

You can see it absorbed into the culture of the game. “I never really could explain it,” Yankee legend Mickey Mantle reportedly said after hitting a 565-foot home run. “I just saw the ball as big as a grapefruit.” Conversely, if you’re skidding, the ball looks tiny: During a hitting slump, St. Louis Cardinals great Joe Medwick once said that he was up there “swinging at aspirins.” While this may seem like colorful ballplayer language, the field of ecological psychology — which is concerned with how people interact with their environments — is finding evidence that your perception of things in the world (steep hills, far distances, and speeding fastballs) depends on your ability to interact with them.

For a 2005 paper, research psychologists Jessica Witt and Dennis Proffitt set up a table beside a softball game in Charlottesville, Virginia, the home of their school, the University of Virginia. For a free sports drink, ballplayers — 47 in all — were asked to partake in a brief psychology experiment. They were shown a poster with eight black circles on it, ranging from 9 centimeters to 11.8 centimeters in diameter. They were then asked to pick which circle corresponded the best with the actual size of a softball, which measures 10 centimeters. After selecting their circle, they reported their stats: at bats, hits, walks, and the like. The result: The better they hit, the bigger circle they selected. “If you’re hitting well the ball looks bigger, and if the ball looks bigger, you’re going to hit better,” Proffitt tells Science of Us. “What that suggests is that there is a reciprocal relationship between the perceived size and how well you’re going to do, and how well you do is going to be reflected in how big you perceive the object.”

Before and since then, Profitt and Witt (who is now at Colorado State University) have found tons of parallel data. Proffitt happened upon this principle in the 1990s, when he was studying visual perception. He recalls being in the Bay Area for a three-week NASA workshop in 1989, and being confounded by San Francisco’s ample hills — though the city’s steepest hill is just 18.5 degrees, it appears to be a 60-degree slope. He looked through the literature to see if anyone had documented that disconnect, and there was just one qualitative study. So, back in Charlottesville, he started documenting people’s judgment of hills around the UVA campus, asking them to give verbal judgments, perform a visual matching task, and using a tilting board with an unseen hand to give a haptic, or felt-touch, measure. He found that people consistently overestimated the steepness of the hills. When participants went for an exhausting run as part of the experiment, their estimates got more exaggerated, reflecting their fatigue. Then, one day, his grad student came back with an odd report: The latest study subjects hadn’t overestimated nearly as much as the others, even after going for a run. Turns out they were the women’s varsity soccer team, “conditioned athletes who ran up hills as part of their training,” as Profitt later wrote. Owing to their exceptional fitness, the soccer players “did not appear to show any signs of exhaustion at the end of their runs and reported that they were not tired.” Could that help explain why they were better at estimating the steepness of the hills?

While we walk around with the common-sense assumption that everybody sees the same objective reality, Proffitt says that nobody sees the same reality. The geometry your brain takes in isn’t the “disembodied” geometry of yardsticks, meters, and inches, which mean a lot in the abstractions of engineering or physics or math, but the “embodied” geometry of your physical form: The most accurate measurement, to an individual, is the most personal. That a basketball hoop is ten feet high means something very different to you if you’re five feet or seven feet tall. While hoops and goals and roads have objective qualities, what we see and perceive is profoundly shaped by the subjective — by your ability to interact with them. The research backs this up: Golfers who are putting well see holes as bigger; football placekickers who score more field goals see the uprights as wider and the crossbar lower; successful dart throwers recall targets being larger. If you’re obese, you’ll judge distances as being farther compared to if you’re slim. If you’re a capable swimmer, you judge underwater distances as shorter, and you’ll do the same if you’ve been wearing flippers. If you’re holding a tool that helps you reach for things — like how you grab toilet paper off the top shelf in the bodega — then you’ll judge distances as shorter. Same if you’ve just been driving a car.

In psychology, this dynamic between an object and the things you can do with an object is called an “affordance,” coined by Cornell University psychologist and James J. Gibson, who is something of a Martin Luther–type figure in the study of visual perception. To Gibson, an affordance is the way an object and a subject fit together. “We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in particular,” Gibson wrote in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. It can be natural like a ledge or rock or artificial, like a couch or a bleacher. “The color and texture of the surface are irrelevant,” he continues. “Knee-high for a child is not the same as knee-high for an adult, so the affordance is relative to the size of the individual. But if a surface is horizontal, flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to a perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon.” Regardless of what the object is, if it fits a sittable set of qualities, then you can take a seat. It affords that to you.

That question, then, is what is the affordance of a well-pitched baseball: What goes into being able to make contact? Like the best basketball players, elite batters aren’t just making the most of their physical gifts, but have cultivated a staggering degree of perceptual intelligence. It’s not a matter of reaction time: Human reaction time is fixed at 200 to 300 milliseconds, and superb baseball players aren’t exceptional at it. (Test yours here.) Albert Pujols, one of the greatest hitters of all time, was just in the 66th percentile for reaction time compared to a randomly selected group of college students at Washington University in St, Louis, David Epstein reports in his 2013 best seller, The Sports Gene. Indeed, you could say that, given the insane demands of hitting baseballs, batters are more predicting the future than reacting: The common advice to “keep your eye on the ball” doesn’t fit with the body’s abilities.

“A typical major league fastball travels about 10 feet in just the 75 milliseconds that it takes for sensory cells in the retina 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,” Epstein writes. “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 leaves the pitcher’s hand — well before it’s even halfway to the plate.”

This is the key: The best batters are world-class recognizers, and they pair their behavior to the scene developing before them — or that, more accurately, they’re participating in. Same with players of volleyball, tennis, field hockey, and other athletes — including chess players. Apparently, one of the fruits of practice and experience is that you gain a superhuman ability to find what’s relevant in a visual scene. Tennis players respond “significantly faster” to serves from human opponents than from machines, since they can read the subtle body movements of the server before the ball comes out. Epstein writes of how top volleyballers can recognize a ball in a photo in 16 milliseconds, and how chess grandmasters, through their repeated play, form a mental database of millions of board layouts. Indeed, it was the study of chess that led to a breakthrough in understanding human memory: Experts “chunk,” or find patterns of patterns, thereby reducing complexity and aiding recall. So what used to take slow, conscious deductive reasoning is arrived at by unconscious processing.

The genius of the best batters, then, is in being hyperattuned to how pitchers pitch and the different bodily movements that foreshadow the movement of the ball, even before they release it. That’s also why, in an incident already part of baseball lore, women’s softball ace Jennie Finch was unhittable when she played in the MLB All-Star Softball Game in 2004. Pujols struck out; Barry Bonds, the home-run king, wouldn’t take the bat off his shoulder when he faced her. “Since Pujols had no mental database of Finch’s body movements, her pitch tendencies or even the spin of a softball, he could not predict what was coming, and he was left reacting at the last moment,” Epstein writes.

Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, was so deadly for the converse reason, says Proffitt: “Rivera had only two pitches, but the body language between the two were identical,” he says. His cutter, (a pitch that, for Rivera, cut away from right-handed batters by eight inches before it reached the plate), and was only 1.2 miles an hour slower than his fastball, with a two-degree difference in release angle — making for a hall-of-fame-level disguise. That’s also, Proffitt says, why young pitchers might look like the next Sandy Koufax their first time around the league, then start getting pummeled as batters adapt to their game.

The batter uses the cues that he has to predict what and where the pitch will be, and that detection triggers the swing — it’s a feeling the batter has. “The body knows how to play baseball. The parietal lobe knows how to play. The conscious part is there for the ride. But it’s got to trust the rest of the body when it gets to the plate,” Proffitt says, “or it will get in the way,” in the form of choking, where you’re overanalyzing, overconceptualizing the experience. It’s better to have a Zen-like focus: attending to the pitcher, the ball, the weight of the bat in the hand. It’s not that you think and then do, or even recognize and then react. Rather, the subject and the object, the batter and the ball, are coupled: The seeing is part of the moving, the action is part of the perception. That’s why, Proffitt says, Yogi Berra was right: You can’t think and hit at the same time.