Baseball has often been called “the thinking man’s game.” Even former New York Yankees catcher and frequent ruminator Yogi Berra once observed, “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.” New brain-decoding technology promises to exploit the cerebral side of the game even further, giving baseball scouts the ability to evaluate hitters based on how quickly their brains identify and react to different pitches.
Batters facing professional or collegiate pitching must make extremely quick perceptual decisions—a pitch takes only about 600 milliseconds to cross home plate after the pitcher releases it. As if a ball traveling upward of 140 kilometers per hour isn’t difficult enough to see (much less hit), pitches can also be thrown with a variety of rotations that cause the ball to change its path en route to the catcher’s mitt. The sooner hitters can recognize a pitch—fastball, curve or slider, for example—the better their chances of connecting.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Laboratory for Intelligent Imaging and Neural Computing (LIINC) have spent the past few years studying what happens in a batter’s brain as a pitch approaches. With the aid of electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and software that interprets neural signals read by each, the researchers are investigating how quickly hitters can correctly identify a type of pitch as well as the time it takes for them to make a decision whether or not to swing.
EEG measures electrical signals that pulse through the brain at different frequencies as brain cells communicate with one another. Meanwhile, fMRI gathers information about the location of subtle changes in brain blood oxygenation. Neuroscience researchers have for the past decade used these technologies jointly to better understand the timing and location of brain activity. Now, LIINC’s Jason Sherwin, a postdoctoral research scientist, and Jordan Muraskin, a PhD candidate, have co-founded a start-up called Neuroscout intended to provide the results of such analyses to sports teams.
Scouting batters’ brains
As part of LIINC, and in preparation for launching Neuroscout, Sherwin and Muraskin developed a computer program that simulates baseball pitches from a catcher’s perspective behind the plate. They have tested baseball players and nonplayers alike by having them lie in an fMRI scanner wearing a 43-electrode EEG headset and looking at a screen that roughly simulated an oncoming baseball.
During the original simulation, they tested nonplayers’ abilities to identify a fastball, as opposed to a pitch that curves—in this case a slider. The ball is actually a dot that expands as it moves to make it look like an approaching pitch. The person in the simulator tapped a button if the pitch they saw matched the one they were told to look for, “just like a hitter swings at or takes a pitch,” Sherwin says. “As a hitter, you want to make your decision as soon as possible. We’re listening in to that decision-making process as it’s unfolding.”
Subsequent experiments included players from Columbia’s baseball team. Centerfielder and psychology major Jordan Serena has tried Neuroscout’s simulator several times. Although Sherwin and Muraskin didn’t provide him with specific numbers about his reaction times to the simulated pitches, Serena says he was fascinated by their description of how players perform compared with nonplayers. “I found it interesting that the sport I’ve been playing for so long can change the way my brain works,” he says.
In general, players show greater activation than non-players in certain brain regions that are indicative of expertise, Muraskin says. The researchers plan to further define these differences in an upcoming paper.
Future areas of research might include examining the decision to swing or hold up when participants face pitches that share similar trajectories—such as a slider and a curveball or a fastball and a changeup. Eventually, the researchers would like to create a more detailed simulation that likewise takes into account factors including the ball’s rotation and the biomechanics of the pitcher's release, both of which provide hitters clues about the type of pitch being delivered.
Neuroscout is not to be confused with Cambridge, Mass.-based NeuroScouting LLC. That company likewise offers “elite sports/human performance” analysis based on neural activity and was co-founded by University of California San Francisco researcher Wesley Clapp and neuroscientist Brian Miller. When contacted, Clapp was unwilling to go into detail about NeuroScouting's services, saying only that the company has been working with Major League Baseball since 2008.
Mind games
Sherwin and Muraskin also see other ways that their technology could be useful to sports team. One idea came in part from sports psychologist Brent Walker, who learned about Neuroscout when he read a paper that the two published last year and from some baseball players at Columbia, where he serves as associate athletics director for championship performance. He is interested in possibly developing some sort of brain-training regimen with Neuroscout that could improve the team’s hitting and extend to other sports as well.
By breaking down the information that Neuroscout can provide, such as how quickly hitters are recognizing different pitches, coaches could potentially work with players to address specific weaknesses, says Walker, who played baseball and basketball as an undergraduate at Bradley University. If a player is slow to recognize a pitch, for example, one option might be to compensate for this lag by adjusting his swing, he adds.
Although Neuroscout does not have a formal working relationship with Walker, Sherwin says the psychologist has been instrumental in their thinking about next steps for extending his and Muraskin’s baseball work to other sports—such as tennis and soccer goaltending. “We work out biceps, so why not basal ganglia? That's the question we both agree on,” Sherwin says.
The researchers have considered the possibility that their tests could introduce bias against a player who performs poorly during simulations—such as scoring below their peers in terms of how quickly they identify pitch types. “It’s not an all-or-nothing assessment,” Sherwin says. “The tests are designed to quantify how well a player sees the ball but cannot predict whether he will hit a particular pitch.”
Neuroscout says they have spoken with several Major League Baseball teams, although they won’t reveal which ones. Sherwin says, adding, “Reactions range from ‘I want it,’ to ‘That’s a cool science project, but how will it help me decide who should be in the lineup?’”