MARION — Seeing the baseball and hitting it are so last year.
Dr. Peter Fadde, a professor at SIU that is the director of the learning systems design and technology graduate program, has helped develop a computer program that can help advanced players hit something they see for less than the blink of an eye. According to Fadde, the average hitter has 200 milliseconds or less to decide if he's going to swing against a 90-mile-an-hour fastball.
Most of the time, those hitters don't even see the barrel of the bat hit the ball, but if they can recognize the pitch early enough, they might just give their brains enough time to orchestrate one of the most difficult skills in sports.
"If you're an experienced ballplayer, you know the bodily adjustments you have to make to hit a slider," Fadde said. "You know the adjustments you need to make to identify a curve, and not let your weight get out over your front foot, is the key for most guys. Your body knows these things. They're well-practiced things. All you need to know is how to fire that program."
Fadde's gameSense program aims to do just that. Players dial up a video of a pitcher standing on the mound. After he finishes his wind-up and throws the ball about a third of the way to the plate, the program stops and asks if the pitch will be a fastball, curveball or slider, and if it'll be a strike or a ball.
The program varies the pitchers and how much, or how little, hitters have to see the flight of the baseball. Players have about two or three seconds to answer after each pitch is delivered, in order to train them to make a fast decision.
Wait too long, and the pitch would be past them, anyway. A 90-mile-an-hour fastball takes approximately 400 milliseconds to go from the pitcher's hand to the front of the plate, according to Fadde's research. Most players take 200-300 milliseconds to swing the bat from their shoulder through the hitting zone, which leaves about 200 milliseconds to make the decision to swing or not.
Fadde spent last season filming multiple Frontier League pitchers, some of them Southern Illinios Miners, in order to show this year's squad what they look like. The Miners began working with the program this summer, and continue to practice on their own time.
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Craig Massey, one of two Miners all-stars that is leading the team in hitting with a .299 average, said the program is only helpful if you use it off the field.
"It's something that you have to know ahead of time, that you can't carry that over to the game. That's just practice," Massey said. "Focus on it when you're in here, but once you get out of the clubhouse, you just go back to your instincts, and just let that take over."
Fadde stresses the program can't turn a .175 hitter into much more if he can't get the bat on the ball. It only helps players that can already make solid contact when they know what they're swinging at.
Recognizing the skinny wrist a pitcher shows before throwing a curveball, for example, could be a huge advantage for a hitter. After watching hundreds of curveballs, and how they break from left to right to a right-handed batter, hitters that use the program learn how to either lay off one out of the zone or put their bat right between the stitches.
"If you recognize spin, if you recognize the pitch out of the hand, if you recognize that that's a strike or a ball. Is it a breaking ball or not? Those are important features in hitting, so, we talk about see the ball, hit the ball," Miners manager Mike Pinto said. "Well, what am I seeing? I'm seeing spin. I'm seeing location. I'm seeing in or out. Is this going to be a strike? I think it's a lot more complicated than 'See the ball, hit the ball.'"
Arkansas, Indiana, SIU, Lousiana-Lafayette, Evansville, South Alabama and Southeast Missouri State have already invested time with the software. Fadde typically talks with coaches and/or players as they start to use it, to understand how it could help, then leaves them to practice with it on their own time.
A former video coordinator for the football team when he was studying at Purdue, Fadde has also worked on programs for football players to help foresee plays, tennis players returning serve, soccer players and corner kicks, and softball hitters. He hopes the program, through subconscious decision-making, can help athletes develop a reaction time past their normal capability.
"Think of Josh Donaldson. A fairly average frame. The amount of power he generates with his torque, everything that goes into it, the vision system, and all these systems acting in sync," Fadde said. "The bad news about that is it's easy for one of those systems to go out of sync, and now you're in a slump, but it also means that you can, potentially, improve your performance by improving any one of those areas."