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major league pitcher can throw a baseball up to 95 miles per hour -- some can move it even faster. At this speed it takes about four-tenths of a second for the ball to travel the 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitcher's mound to home plate, where the batter, with muscles as tense as coiled springs, like a predatory animal about to pounce, waits for the precise moment to swing at the ball. Baseball is a game played at the edge of biological time, just within the limits of a human's ability to react.


Charley Metro: "It's a very difficult thing to do, to hit a moving ball at 95 miles an hour in one-tenth of a second!"

 

By the time the ball has traveled a dozen feet from the pitcher's mound, the batter has a good visual fix on it. In a thought process much too quick for deliberation, he has decided whether or not the pitch is a fastball, curveball, slider, knuckleball, screwball, or whatever -- yet a good deal of data has gone into this instantaneous and non-verbal decision.

Charley Metro: "The good hitters get their tip-off from the pitchers. And there are many, many ways that a pitcher tips off his pitches. He grips it like that [fingers straight over top of ball]; there's your fastball. When he throws a curveball, he chokes the ball [wedges it between his thumb and forefinger, gripping it on the side so it sticks out]. Now see how much white of the ball shows on a fastball? And how much more white shows on a curveball? . . . Another thing is when they bring the ball into the glove, when they come in with a flat wrist like that, that'll be a fastball. When they turn their wrist like that, it's a breaking pitch. There are many, many ways, and the good hitters pick out these things . . . facial expressions . . . human habits and characteristics will tell."

During the entire middle portion of the pitch, the batter must time the ball and decide where to swing. If the batter decides to swing, he must start when the ball is approximately 25 to 30 feet in front of the plate. The ball will arrive at the plate about 250 thousandths of a second later -- about the limit of human reaction time. The bat must make contact with the ball within an even smaller time range: A few thousandths of a second error in timing will result in a foul ball. Position is important, too. Hitting the ball only a few millimeters too high or too low results in a fly ball or a grounder.

Exactly how humans are able to estimate the expected position of a quickly moving ball is unknown. Obviously, this remarkable skill is learned through long practice. Eye-brain-body coordination is acquired only by going through the motions over and over; even so, the batter misses most of the time. Getting a hit three times out of ten at bat is considered an excellent average. It's interesting that George Schaller and other ethologists have observed that lions and cheetahs are also successful only about a third of the time in capturing their prey.