Just "how good" are big league pitch recognition skills? Who really has the best pitch recogntion skills in the MLB?
Two questions worth answering.
Short answer: Very good. Hitting a 95+ mph fastball while making the adjustments to a pitch that breaks, sinks, cuts, drops or comes flying at your head is hands down the hardest thing to do in all sports.
Based on what we;ve been able to dig-up on the "inter-webs" is that well...
...hitters like Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Tony Gywnn, and Pete Rose were the elite of the elite when it came to baseball vision, pitch recogntion and the ability to hit a round baseball on the sweet spot, consistently.
Here some of things we found that made these hitters the elite of the elite.
The Pitch Recognition Skills of Barry Bonds
My approach consists of "catching" the ball with my bat and letting the pitcher supply the power.Barry Bonds
Dr. Harrison (sports vision expert) has said in half a century of testing big-league pitch recognition abilities, Barry Bonds set a whole new bar to what hitters are capable of.
Bonds had the most refined "hitting specific" eye-sight of any hitter in history.
His ability to not swing at borderline "balls" off the plate while still attacking what hitters consider "good pitches to hit". Bonds has a gift.
“I have a battery of tests which I have performed on Major League players going back to the early ’70s for a number of organizations,” said Dr. Harrison.
“In testing the pitch recognition of thousands of big-league hitters, Bonds measured out with the highest pitch recognition readings of any ballplayer we had ever worked with.
We first saw him in 1986 during spring training as he came out of high A ball after signing a professional contract with the Pirates’ organization after playing D1 ball for Arizona State University.
Apparently, he was not considered a legitimate Major League prospect for the Pirates at that time.
“Barry Bonds was the only hitter to have achieved 100 % in each of those vision and pitch recognition categories and afterword received a 100 100% with "high-level binocularity." (The ability to focus on a single object with both eyes while creating a single stereoscopic image)
To this day, I have never seen a ballplayer who had the baseball vision skills or pitch recognition ability as Bonds. He's someone truly special.
Somehow, he was able to visually track pitches more efficiently, that allowed him to see pitches deeper in the zone to square the ball up more consistently.
The Elite of the Elite
Looking back at all of the hitters I've evaluated at the professional, college and high school level, Barry Bonds is the "Gold Standard" for pitch recognition skills in my opinion.
He could not only recognize various types of pitches in each phase of the pitch plane, but he could also anticipate balls or strikes consistently out of the pitcher's hands.
“I've had the chance to work with many great hitters including players like George Brett, Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn. Edgard Martinez, Rod Carew.
What they all had in common was the ability to see the ball quickly out of the pitcher's hands. Sooner than most.
Great hitters have an uncanny ability to let their body go on automatic pilot.
But Bonds is the elite of the elite.
The Pitch Recognition Skills of Ted Williams
The key is to get a good pitch to hit. Even if that means taking the first strike.Ted Williams
Everyone knows that Ted Williams had the greatest pair of eyes that have ever been tested in the Naval cadet program. I've been told by doctors that people who are under great stress don't have the benefit of their best eye-sight"
- Gene Mauch - Former Twins Manager
Ted Williams: Last person to ever hit .400 in a season. 500 plus dingers? Ever heard of him. Of course right?
Well, legend has it that his baseball eyesight was...well, legendary.
Rumor has it, he could see the individual laces of a 90+ mph fastball. Also - apparently you could write a word on a baseball, throw it to him and he could tell you what the words were. He's even been known to call out misspellings.
Sure, these sound like exaggerations of a bygone era but the Naval optometrist who carried out his initial physical examination tested Ted Williams’ vision at 20/8 a one in 100,000 occurrences.
No wonder he was just an effective Naval Pilot.
His approach at the plate was to "get a good pitch to hit". He'd even take the first pitch to hone in on his pitch recognition, timing as well as the pitcher's rhythm.
The Pitch Recognition Skills of Tony Gwynn
Good eye-sight, a good pair of hands and hard workTony Gwynn
Tony Gwynn is hands done one of the most mechanically efficient hitters in the history of the game.
A short stride, minimal head movement, and a short compact swing.
How good were Tony Gwynn's baseball vision and pitch recognition skills?? Well - a good friend of Gwynn, said his vision was 20/10. That’s just shy of Ted William's 20/8 vision.
Also - while most left-handed hitters are left eye dominant, Gwynn was left-handed but was also right eye dominant.
Meaning his elad eye, the eye closest to the pitcher was his dominant eye.
Though studies have failed to show causation with eye dominance and success at the plate, there are a handful of correlations with hand-eye coordination and performance at the plate. Obviously.
The Pitch Recognition Skills of Pete Rose
Am I seeing the ball well? For me, when I'm struggling in the batter's box, before trying to change my stance, swing or approach, I ask myself Am I seeing the ball well?Pete Rose
Pete Rose was a no-nonsense, practical, hard-nosed type of hitter. His approach to hitting was simple.
See the ball. Hit the ball.
Not the prettiest swing. His stance wasn't exactly "hitter-ish"...but the dude could swing it.
Arguably the greatest hitter to ever live. His career hits record supports that.
One things he's been known to say is "I like to keep hitting simple. I'm no rocket scientist. How do I know this? A rocket scientist could never hit a fastball! They would think too much".
What you can learn from Pete Rose and what seems like was one reason why he saw the ball so well was that his pitch recognition worked because he was relaxed with a simple approach.
To see the ball as well as humanly possible, and to take an aggressive swing.
Everything else is just details that may or may not help your performance at the plate.
In closing, what looks like common trends for the players with elite Pitch Recognition skills is that they were effective at using their eyes to pick up the pitch out of the pitcher's hands, anticipate pitch types in all three phases of pitch plane while judging balls and strike from spin, shade and game situations.
Sure, their level of baseball vision is what you would call "god-given ability", but you'd be surprised at what aspect of pitch recognition you can train to optimize your ability to see the ball better.
Just like anything else, it's about knowing what skill you need to develop as a hitter, and then quality repetitions at game speed.
Who's Your Favorite Pitch Recognition Hitter?
Who are some big leaguers who showed elite level pitch recognition and vision skills at the plate? Rod Carew? Ichiro Suzuki? Edgar Martinez?