Book Excerpt: The Last Nine Innings

The following is an excerpt from The Last Nine Innings, a new book by Charles Euchner that chronicles Game 7 of the 2001 World Series between the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks. To learn more about the book, including how to purchase it, click here.

Four-Tenths of a Second

Everything—the pitcher’s motion that medical researchers say involves the most violent act in all sports, the hitter’s complex calculations about speed and movement of a five-ounce ball traveling upwards of a hundred miles an hour, the swing of the bat that generates about ten horsepower of energy, the eight thousand pounds of force of the bat against the ball—happens so fast.

From the time the pitcher releases the ball to the time the ball arrives near the plate, sixty feet and six inches from the mound, only about four-tenths of one second elapses. The batter has about half that time—two-tenths of a second—to decide what to do. As the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand, the batter has to make countless complex calculations.

The batter tracks the ball coming out of the hand and notices the arm angle, gets a glimpse of the ball’s spin, and assesses the speed of the arm’s whipping action. The batter uses these calculations to make a decision about what to do with the bat when the ball is about twenty feet out of the pitcher’s hand. Since it takes the batter about two-tenths of a second to swing, he has to decide what to do long before the ball approaches the plate. He has to figure out whether it’s a fastball before the ball sizzles anywhere near the plate, a curveball long before the ball bends, a cutter or a splitter long before one of those exotic missiles burns in on the hands or off the plate.

When the batter makes his decision to swing, he needs to mobilize a whole army of muscles to do his bidding. The muscles activate the way troops charge over a hill, with precision and pulsing strength, in wave after wave, each supporting the other.

When the batter’s eyes and brain and muscles do their job, they smash the ball in a period lasting roughly one one-thousandth of a second. For that brief interval, the ball gets squashed like a bean bag. The ball momentarily stops. The bat, which had been whipping forward at eighty or eighty-five miles an hour, gets pushed back. The bat and ball burn with the heat generated by the collision. Different sounds vibrate across space—crack when the ball is hit well, on the sweet spot of the bat, clunk when the ball is hit on other parts of the bat.

Donald Stuss, a neuropsychologist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, has found that different parts of the brain contribute to processing high-speed information. Neurons in the front of the brain—specifically, the top middle area of the brain’s frontal lobes—create a state of readiness for responding to high-speed stimuli. To the left of that part of the brain, a different set of nerve cells determines how and when the body should respond.

On the opposite side, a different group of nerve cells determines what stimuli to filter out of consciousness. The brain cannot treat all information equally. The brain’s “executive function” gathers all of this information and makes and carries out a decision about whether to swing, when, and how.

Baseball is called a “game of inches,” but it’s really a game of milliseconds and millimeters. Tiny fragments of time and space can make the difference between swinging and missing, fouling the ball to one side of the diamond or the other, hitting the ball on a line to the outfield or in a screaming arc over the outfield fence.

Derek Jeter, the shortstop for the defending world champion Yankees, doesn’t analyze hitting much. His attitude is that if he keeps his body strong and flexible and pays attention to what’s happening, his brain and body will be able to synthesize what he needs to know and do.

Jeter—the first batter in the seventh game of the 2001 World Series—guesses fastball on virtually every pitch. That way, he has enough time to adjust if he judges that the pitcher is throwing something else. Figuring out what pitch the pitcher throws can be tricky. Hitters look for clues in the speed and angle of the pitcher’s arm. The best pitchers—Curt Schilling among them—throw different pitches with indistinguishable arm motions.

So hitters need to look for other clues. If the ball’s red seams spin to produce the appearance of a pink dot, Jeter knows the pitcher has thrown a slider and has the time to make the necessary adjustment in his swing. If he can see the ball’s red stitches turning toward him, from twelve o’clock to six o’clock, he knows he’s getting a curveball.

Talking about hitting, Jeter has the nonchalance of a veteran stockbroker explaining the basics of Wall Street to a rookie trader.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t even think about it too much,” Jeter says. “I think a lot of times you can think too much and it gets you in trouble. I’m aggressive, swing early. I don’t guess pitches. It’s just more of a reaction. You just try to pick up the seams on the ball as it comes out of the pitcher’s hand, as soon as possible, to tell if it’s a fastball, slider, or split [fastball], whatever. Some guys pick it up sooner than others and other guys never pick it up. Seeing it isn’t enough. You can see the seams and still not hit it.”

References & Resources
The Last Nine Innings, by Charles Euchner

Using Recurrent Neural Networks to Predict Player Performance
Technology is rapidly advancing possibilities in decision-making.

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