MLB Vision (20/12) vs. Good Vision (20/20)

MLB Vision (20/12) vs. Good Vision (20/20)

Baseball vision: When 20-20 eyesight just wont cut it.


FORT MYERS, Fla. – If you have 20-20 vision – “perfect” vision, in common if imprecise parlance – you have better vision than half the American population.

You also don’t have close to the vision necessary to play major-league baseball.

A 90-mile-per-hour fastball takes less than half a second to get to the plate. A player must decide to swing and swing in that time: 0.434 seconds. That means the hitter must see the ball and gather enough information about its flight path in about 100 milliseconds to decide whether to swing or not.

The faster he can gather that information, the more time he has to decide. The better his vision, the faster he can gather that information.

Most eye charts go to only 20-15 and stop there. The average major-league baseball player, in the experience of Red Sox ophthalmology consultant Daniel Laby, has vision that measures around 20-12 or has been corrected to 20-12.

The limit of human vision is around 20-8 – meaning a person can see from 20 feet what the average person can see from 8. Laby has never seen anyone in his Massachusetts practice at 20-8, but he sees a few baseball players in spring training who measure at 20-8.

“If you come in and you’re 20-20 and you’re playing major-league baseball, we’re not going to leave you there because that’s not going to be good enough,” said Laby, who has worked with the Red Sox since 2003 and has started work with the Chicago Cubs this spring. “I’m going to get you to more of the normal vision.”

Kevin Youkilis has been reported to have 20-11 vision, and he said this week he’s still “somewhere around there.” Dustin Pedroia wrote in his 2009 book that he has “something like 20-10 eyesight” – not a surprise given his incredible hand-eye coordination.

“Maybe that’s the key sometimes for some guys – on-base guys that can draw walks and see pitches more, sometimes the spin of the ball, the way the ball’s moving,” Youkilis said.

The natural gifts bestowed upon elite baseball players extend beyond arm strength and foot speed. Not only do they see with more precision than the average person, their brains tend to process what they see more effectively.

In one study, baseball players were able to solve a three-dimensional stereovision random dot test (similar to a “Magic Eye” puzzle) at three times the rate of the population at large. Similarly, in a test similar to a fairground “Whack-a-Mole” game in which a participant must touch green lights when they blink but avoid touching red lights when they blink, major-league baseball players performed significantly better than the population at large.

That visual acuity is essential to the performance of a hitter.

Hitting major-league pitching successfully requires being able to perceive the rotation of a pitched ball 60 feet, 6 inches away. The rotation of a curveball looks different than the rotation of a fastball. The sooner a hitter can identify the pitch, the sooner he can adjust his timing accordingly – swinging earlier at a fastball, later at a breaking ball.

All of that must happen within 100 or 150 milliseconds so that a hitter can start his swing motion in time to get the bat on the ball when it arrives at the plate.

“The better you see the ball, the faster you can pick up the rotation, the better hitter you can be,” Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald said. “They said Barry Bonds used to pick up the rotation as soon as the ball left the pitcher’s hand. That’s pretty good.”

Vision correction – glasses, in other words – used to be unusual enough that it became what defined certain players. Dom DiMaggio was nicknamed “The Little Professor” thanks in large part to his eyeglasses.

Thanks to the widespread use of contact lenses, it’s next to impossible to keep track of who’s correcting their vision or not, and to what degree. Players who see 20-20 naturally still might be wearing contact lenses to get down to 20-12.

Up to 20 percent of players, Laby estimated, now wear corrective lenses on the field. Jacoby Ellsbury, who said he doesn’t know offhand how his uncorrected vision measures, has worn contact lenses for years.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia had worn contact lenses off and on for four or five years before deciding to stick with them full-time last May. Perhaps not coincidentally, Saltalamacchia hit .216 with a .273 on-base percentage in April and .259 with a .321 on-base percentage over the next four months.

“Once you wear them full-time, you start to realize, once you have them out, how much better it is,” Saltalamacchia said. “The more clear you can see, the more things slow down. If your vision is better, things slow down for you a little bit. When I could see the seams, I was able to slow down the pitch, I was able to take more pitches, I was able to see pitches and hit them on the sweet spot.”

Outfielder Ryan Kalish had gone his whole life without being prescribed any type of vision correction. An eye exam this spring revealed astigmatism – a refractive error that can cuase blurred vision – and so he embraced the opportunity to sharpen what he sees.

“My vision has been fine my whole life, and it’s probably even fine if I’m living every day,” he said. “But, for baseball, they said, ‘You can see like this, or you can see like this.’ It was different. It was a little more crisp. It’s like, ‘Why not do that to be a better hitter?'”

Each passing year brings with it more tools with which the hitters can improve their ability to track the ball – and, thus, to hit it. Those tools don’t just include contact lenses.

“We’ve had different people come in throughout the years and show us how we can optimize our vision, little tools we can use to strengthen our vision,” McDonald said. “It’s evolved a lot since I signed and started playing. People didn’t talk about anything that should be used to strengthen that.”

Manny Ramirez went to Laby and the Red Sox ophthalmology team midway through his career in Boston to ask about ways he could fine-tune his vision. Ramirez was shown a plastic ring about 1 foot in diameter with four colored plastic balls attached to it.

Doctors would throw Ramirez the ring, spinning it through the air. When the ring was halfway to him, someone would call out “Blue!” or “Red!” or “Yellow!” and Ramirez would have to catch cleanly the ball with the applicable color.

When that became too easy for him, they threw him two rings at once. When that became too easy, they drew stitching and dots on the ball to distinguish fastballs from sliders. That’s the exercise he liked the best.

Exercises like that can be used to improve the eye-brain coordination required to make the whole thing work.

“When you have these guys who are 20-25 or 20-20, if their brain is only able to do 20-20, I can give them glasses until the end of the world, and they’re not going to see better,” Laby said. “Most of the time, people who come in having prescriptions, their brain isn’t able to do it as well, so we can get them better, but we can’t get them to 20-8.”

But some players still want to get fixed. The increasing popularity of laser eye surgery, and the importance of crisp vision for baseball players, means the topic naturally comes up a few times at spring training each year.

Outfielder Ryan Sweeney said he’s still satisfied with the results of the laser eye surgery he had before the 2009 season.

“My eyes weren’t really bad, but I wore contacts, and I was dealing with the wind and the dirt and all of that stuff – especially at night with blurry vision,” Sweeney said. “Ever since I did it, it’s a lot better. … It was definitely something I’m glad I did, because I don’t have to deal with the contacts anymore.”

But laser eye surgery can only correct vision to around 20-17, Laby said, which is still below-average for baseball players. The procedure also brings with it the risks of halo or glare effects that can be career-ruining.

Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann underwent laser eye surgery after the 2007 season, but he was experiencing blurry vision by 2009. He was hitting just .195 when he went on the disabled list in April. He had to wear glasses for the rest of the season before undergoing the procedure a second time.

Laby and the Red Sox ophthalmologists start their work with players as early as they can, even visiting the team’s Dominican program to work with players who are 16 or 17 years old – years away from making it to the major leagues.

Below-average vision can be enough to ruin the aspirations of an otherwise supremely talented athlete – and that’s what the doctors are trying to avoid.

“The earlier they are in their career, the more important it is,” Laby said. “They have raw talent, but if they’re held back by their vision, that would be a shame. What, 5 percent of minor-leaguers make the major leagues? It’s not very easy. If we can give these guys the ability to have a better chance, it’s better for everybody.”