LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — Why isn’t more time spent training the eyes to see pitches better, fielding the ball more cleanly or training pitchers to have more command with more focused vision?
Dr. Bill Harrison, the most renowned visual performance specialist the game of baseball has ever witnessed, has spent nearly 50 years studying how to train the vision of athletes at the highest level possible.
He has worked with a who’s who list of current and future Hall of Famers in Major League baseball led by Barry Bonds, George Brett, and Greg Maddux, just to name a few. He’s also worked with more than half of the major league clubs, several colleges, universities and academies, including the original Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy.
Dr. Harrison has taught many other Major League hitters, fielders and pitchers how to improve their outward vision and internal vision skills to levels which have helped them excel. He has been instrumental in educating numerous coaches in the pro level about vision as well as on the college level and high school levels.
In almost 50 years of vision testing Major League hitters, Barry Bonds has no equal, according to Dr. Harrison.
Bonds may have had the greatest hitting specific vision of any batter in history the way he could stop from swinging at marginal pitches and go after pitches he could drive hard the vast majority of the time.
“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 thousands of Major League hitters, Barry Bonds tested out with the highest vision readings of any baseball player we had ever worked with. I first saw him in 1986 during spring training as he came out of A ball after signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization after playing for Arizona State University. He was not considered a legitimate Major League prospect for the Pirates at the time.
“When I tested Barry Bonds, I gathered all the information on him and left the room. Barry is the only player who had achieved 100 percent in each of those categories and subsequently received a 100 percent in terms of high level binocularity. I then talked to Syd Thrift, general manager of the Pirates. I told Syd that the last player I saw (Bonds) was the most visually gifted of all the players I had evaluated since 1971, which was 15 years at the time. I had never seen a baseball player as gifted visually and mentally as this guy.
“Barry Bonds was in AAA for the Pirates’ organization that year. Around May, the Pirates’ AAA team was playing in Phoenix, and Syd Thrift asked me to watch and work with some of the players. I saw Barry in action for the first time, and he looked terrific. That evening, I called Syd and told him this guy really was phenomenal because he visually tracked every pitch, saw it deep and squaring the ball every time. Syd jumped on a plane the next morning for Phoenix.
“In the middle of the contest the next day, Syd called Bonds out of the game and asked the manager to get the young ball player on a plane to Pittsburgh immediately. And the rest was history.
“As I look back at evaluating many hitters on the professional, college and even high school levels close to 40 years now, Barry Bonds is still my gold standard. Barry had the whole picture when it came to all the aspects of vision I look for. He not only could he see pitches deep. But over time, he saw the ball early out of the hands of pitchers.
“All the great hitters I have been around, which include people such as Barry Bonds, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, among many others, really bought into the idea of seeing the ball right out of the pitcher’s hand. The method of getting there can be variable. It will only happen if the hitter is highly visual. I refer to being highly visual as almost being out of the body as the hitter is totally unaware of what the body is doing. They let their body go on automatic pilot. Generally, it will only work if the athlete is totally thought free.
“So being totally free of thought, being totally unaware of the body and being able to turn the light switch on just as the pitcher releases the ball toward the catcher is vital. When they do that, these premiere hitters aren’t even aware of what the pitcher’s motion is or who the pitcher is a lot of times. Hitters who are really good at this aren’t concerned with a pitcher telegraphing a pitch.
“We first want to find out if they have a slight eyesight problem that is limiting their performance. Do they need glasses, contacts or laser surgery? We check their visual acuity. Then we check what is called contrast sensitivity, a vital element in hitting a baseball. This is seeing an item on something that doesn’t have much contrast. Contrast is the degree of blackness against whiteness.
“When you think of a baseball, the seams are red. When they start spinning, they look gray or brown. It’s hard to see the red. And that’s poor contrast. For hitters, this is a big problem at dusk under poor lights or a dirty ball. Contrast sensitivity can be altered and improved but not very much.
“Then we assess their eye alignment which is the tendency of their eyes to turn in or out. We don’t find too many problems with that.
“But probably the most critical thing we evaluate is their binocularity. This is how the seven muscles of one eye work with the seven muscles of the other eye. The ability of the brain to utilize the two eyes together is known as depth perception. At a higher level, it is known as stereo acuity.
“One can only have high level binocularity if they score high in depth perception, contrast acuity, visual acuity, eye alignment, and eye muscle vergence skills.
“I also assess visual memory and visual projection skills which combined is their visual thinking ability. Great binocularity with excellent visual thinking ability provides the player a great set of visual and mental tools.
“So we assess this to find out what the player sees and try to understand what they can do visually. Then we start the training program based on what our measurements are. Keep in mind that we have been doing this testing since the early ’70s.”
Be Totally Visual
Dr. Harrison said that when an athlete is being observant visually, that is when everything looks slower with more detail and absorbed through the mind more thoroughly.
“When that occurs, we can’t over think and worry about mechanical issues or other distractions the game may have such as poor umpires, the weather, etc. When we are really visual, we can’t think. Now if you internally talk to yourself, we can’t see nearly as well and as quickly with details. We have proven this with all sorts of testing through the years.
“We utilize the visual system to develop visual pictures in the mind which essentially is what I call visual memory or visual projection. Visual memory and visual projection are two separate components of visualization. Visual memory is of the past and visual projection is related to the future. Baseball players see what they look for. If they don’t look for the right thing, they simply won’t see it even though it’s right in front of them.
“Since it was successful with our work with the Kansas City Royals in the mid-70’s, we would like to see baseball players take more time to visualize in their minds what they will do before they actually do it in practices or games with visual memory or projection.
“Al Endriss, former head coach at Redwood High School (Larkspur, Calif.), had the team sit under a tree prior to practice as they would close their eyes and mentally visualize how the practice would go as he described what was about to take place. It only took five minutes each day, but his team practiced this concept because the kids came from many different types of classes. It allowed the players to transition from being academic students to athletes.
“If a coach doesn’t encourage this, it is a good idea for the athlete on his own to visually project in his mind great defensive plays, perfect throws, leads when stealing and slides…anything he will be doing on the practice field. You want hitters to visualize in their minds a series of high quality at bats they have had in the past off righthanders or lefthanders.
“What we have found is when a player visualizes in this fashion prior to practice, they are in the proverbial zone more times than not. Their mind is in the zone before they even go on the field.
“Who does this? Carlos Beltran of the Mets does this. David Dellucci of the Cleveland Indians does it. George Brett, former Hall of Famer with the Kansas City Royals, did it during his career along with Edgar Martinez of the Mariners and Jason Giambi of the Yankees, just to name a few. There are a lot of players who have done this over the years with great success.
“The point is that they go into batting practice with the right mind set. They are in the zone when they step in to bat, play defense or pitch. After they complete this drill, athletes tell me that they mentally feel calm, focused, and confident but ready to be aggressive. There is some dead time out there prior to practices or games when they are stretching. This may be an ideal time to do this for athletes. It is a powerful technique for successful athletes.”
Brett Hitting Approach
Dr. Harrison said that Hall of Famer George Brett realized how important vision was in processing pitches as 90-plus mph fastballs and nasty breaking pitches came toward the catcher’s mitt.
“When you step in against incredible pitching and let a pitch go by with the ball looking like a beach ball, it shows you how well you are able to see the ball. Many times when you go up against a pitcher of this level, the ball seems to be a blur. Seeing the ball big is your goal.
“George Brett used a terrific technique when he stepped out of the box after a pitch. He would automatically ask himself one question. How well did he see the pitch? It wasn’t, ‘That didn’t feel good or I need to lower my shoulder.’ It was never a mechanical thing. It was very visual. His thought was that if he could see the pitch very well, his odds went up for getting a hit. If he didn’t see a pitch well, he needed to make the adjustment in his focus effort so he saw the ball well the next pitch.
“He was a visual thinker and visual hitter. It was critical to him that he saw the ball really well. We try to help hitters today think in those terms. Did the hitter see the ball as well as he saw it when he took a pitch? Sometimes that alone allows a hitter to become more visual.
“It has been extremely rare when I have worked with a hitter who saw the ball well and didn’t have a pretty good at bat. That doesn’t mean they always got a hit. But they didn’t feel like they were overmatched.”
Dr. Harrison was asked if all hitters should take the first pitch of an at-bat so the ball will appear slower.
“No, not necessarily. If they are struggling, it is a good idea. And particularly early in the game, it is a good idea. It also depends on the level. Hitters must be smart and know what the opposition will be throwing them. On the high school level, that first pitch in all likelihood will be a fastball. Many times it will be a fastball away.
“If it sails right down the middle, a batter certainly doesn’t want to take that pitch. George many times told me, as have numerous other major league players, when he was 100 percent focused on slowing the ball down, tracking it all the way, he could actually see the ball hit the bat. We recognize that certain eye tracking research suggests that this can not be done, but eye trackers, being limited in their scope, do not take in to consideration the player’s ability to project the ball’s action and to make a rapid eye movement to the exact intended contact point.”
To read more about how to achieve great baseball vision, purchase the May 7, 2014 edition of Collegiate Baseball or subscribe by CLICKING HERE.