On occasion, we get an email from a player, parent or coach asking "can baseball players see the ball off the bat?"
The short answer is "no". The hitter's optic nerves don't function fast enough to see the ball make contact with the bat and change direction.
When a hitter makes hard contact and is showcasing superior pitch recognition they're actually swinging at where they believe the ball will end up after recognizing spin, speed, and location starting from the release point of the pitcher.
We call this Pitch Path Prediction. More on this in a bit.
Keeping Your Head On The Ball
You’ve probably heard your coaches say again and again, “Keep your eye on the ball”, or “Keep your head down”, or “See the ball, hit the ball” or something similar.
Why do coaches parrot this phrase so much?
Because it’s a fairly common problem among younger hitters. They often pull their heads away as they swing or take their eyes away from the batter’s box.
SIDENOTE: I wrote an entire post on "Hitting Mechanics Flaws That Ruin Pitch Recognition".
But as players get older and refine their swing, does this maxim still apply? Is it possible to really see the ball off the bat?
Keeping Your Eye on the Ball
At the major-league level, “keeping your eye on the ball” comes at an even larger challenge. With pitchers who can locate their secondary pitches just as consistently as their fastball as well as begin to throw at consistently higher velocities, giving hitters less time to react...
...it's a miracle how hitters are even able to achieve the amount of success that they currently have. It's also a phenomenon that scientists are still trying to understand more and more.
Do big leaguers have better eyesight or train their eyes extensively to see the ball off the bat?
The short answer is "yes". Baseball players have, on average a 20/12 vision, whereas almost half the general population only has 20/20. But improved visual acuity is only part of the equation here.
“Seeing” the ball isn’t really about "seeing". It’s about "tracking".
The eyes track movement through “smooth pursuit” and “saccade.”
Smooth pursuit makes the eye move to track an object as it moves and saccade is when your eye jumps to a new position.
Since a pitch takes 4/10 of a second to arrive at home plate, hitters have to rely on saccade to track the ball. (Pitch Path Prediction)
That is, they don’t actually see the ball all the way from the pitcher’s hand into the batter’s box right in front of them. They watch the release and then their brain makes a quick calculation as to where the ball will end up, and they shift their gaze to that spot.
With this movement, hitters are able to decide if they should swing at the pitch or not based on the pitch-type, spin, speed, and location.
Applied Vision Pitch Recognition Training App
So does this mean that your coach is right by constantly telling you to “keep your head down?” Technically, yes. And with practice, you can improve how well you “see” the ball.
This is why we made the Applied Vision Baseball Pitch Recognition Training App.
To help you simulate live at-bats and train to hit elite-level pitching.
Final Thoughts On "Can Baseball Players See The Ball Off The Bat?"
Now when you hear your coach say “Keep your eye on the ball” you have a better understanding of what to do.
While you may not be able to see the bat off the ball, training your eyes to track the pitch more accurately will help you to slow the game down and Win The At-Bat.