The SF Giants’ pathetic lack of offense in a 1-0 loss last night had me grinding my teeth, against the advice of my dentist (probably a Dodgers fan). Then, in this morning’s NY Times, comes an article (How Do Athletes’ Brains Control Their Movements? by Zach Schonbrun). Two Columbia University neuroscientists, Sherwin and Muraskin, have been using EEGs to look at a batter’s decision to swing at a pitch (the moment he makes that choice shows up as a burst of neural activity on the EEG), and then correlating their measurements with performance outcomes. They are applying what is known as rapid perceptual decision-making to the sport of baseball.
Schonbrun points out that a 95-MPH fastball travels 60 feet 6 inches from the mound to home plate in just 400 milliseconds (the blink of an eye), and by then, given the maximum speed of nerve conduction/activation, the time available to react has already been cut in half. A good batter has to respond to his nerve activations in a very different way than normal people. Quick: Is this a fastball or a slider? At which millisecond does the batter decide to swing at, versus to take, a pitch?
In my second novel, Fourth World Nation, Benn Marr– who possesses certain uncanny abilities due to his unique genetic makeup– has his turn at bat:
Suppressing his excitement, Benn nodded at Hank, picked up a bat and stepped up onto the field. A thousand hostile baseball fanatics, many wearing black PWE uniforms, glared at him. A metallic voice announced the substitution, to a chorus of catcalls and booing. Even the programs clutched in the fans’ hands—supposedly there to provide objective analysis of the game—reacted poorly. The crowd rained scorn on Benn as he stood at home plate, their expletives addressing everything from his Asian ethnicity to the “gouging” water rates set by Hydra.
Benn, however, focused his thoughts and heard none of the noise; to his ears, the diamond was still and quiet. Behind him, the mobile QI umpire adjusted his mask. The catcher shifted stealthily to the outer half of the plate, his shoes grinding into the red clay. The pitcher Helmut rolled the ball deep in his glove, his fingers seeking its seams. To Benn’s eyes, events unfolded as if in slow motion: he anticipated the limited wind-up; the delivery from a low release point; the seams spinning centrifugally; the appearance of a red dot at the center of the ball. It was a slider, unhurried in its journey toward home plate, where Benn waited patiently. He flexed his knees, shifted his front foot forward, then planted his lower body firmly. As the ball curved low and away, Benn extended his arms and kept his body balanced. On impact, the bat exploded into a hundred shards.
“There it goes, a high fly ball!” yelled the robotic announcer, whose positronic eyes calculated the arc of the ball’s flight, its velocity leaving the bat, and the distance to the warning track, where it bounced off the wall above the leaping right fielder. All this data was instantaneously transmitted to the fans’ programs, which murmured their grudging admiration. “The Giants have a double!” the announcer added, when the play was over. “So the game is tied up at two runs apiece. Ladies and gentlemen, please… further throwing of trash from the bleachers will result in ejection from the park.” Discarded programs continued to land on the infield. Many of them were still gushing about the inside-out swing and the broken-bat, opposite-field RBI double.