While seeing the ball is typically the first skill kids are taught, it is many times the first thing they forget as soon as the game begins. The young hitter will look up early, before contact, to see where the ball will go.
Even experienced hitters encounter periods where they are not seeing the ball well. One reason can be attributed to improper focus. When the hitter has moments of internal focus they allow unwanted thoughts (swing mechanics, the game situation, fears of striking out, etc) to enter their mind. An internal focus causes millisecond lapses in vision, acting to speed the game up.
In games, hitters must relax and clear their mind. One effective method of accomplishing this elusive goal is by externally focusing, one hundred percent, on seeing the ball. While external focus on seeing the ball may sound simple, training the hitter’s mind in this way can require years of dedicated effort.
This article contains many tips and options for improving seeing the ball, appropriate for both younger players and experienced hitters. To be sure, seeing the ball is a crucial hitting fundamental which should be refined throughout a player’s career.
Seeing the Ball Defined
Seeing the ball well is the ability to see clearly, recognize what you’re seeing, track what you’re seeing, and relay information to the brain, which then signals the body how to react to the pitch.
The hitter must identify three facets of ball flight. The hitter first determines the location of the pitch, then the speed of the pitch, and finally the rotation/spin of the ball, in that order.
To do this, the hitter must see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, and turn the head slightly (nose to ball) to track the ball all the way to contact.
Benefits of Seeing the Ball
The why of see the ball:
- Picking up the ball, at the earliest possible moment, is a huge advantage. The location, spin, and type of pitch can be detected much earlier.
- Early tracking translates to greater consistency. The earlier the hitter picks up the ball, the more time they have to determine if they are going to swing.
- Often you hear great hitters remark they are “really seeing the ball well right now,” or “the ball just looks big to me right now.” One hundred percent focus on the ball during games at bats prohibits thinking, allowing movements to become automatic. Seeing the ball has a direct correlation to confidence, slowing the game down, and performance at the plate.
“See the Ball, Hit the Ball” is a Matter of Milli-Seconds
Of all the terminology thrown around baseball and softball, one effective verbal que, come game time, is a hitting philosophy of “see the ball, hit the ball”. A player must understand the importance of good vision at the plate and then deliberately practice skills which will help them see the ball better. How well the hitter sees the ball separates the good hitters from the great hitters.
Improving ability to see the ball is multifaceted and intricate. Yes, if the young hitter’s head is not turning to watch the ball into the contact area, then coach and hitter can conclude they are not seeing the ball at least the last ten feet. Correcting this fault is an effective first step. But for more experienced hitters, further improving the ability to see the ball is a matter of small adjustments, of vision improvements measured in milliseconds.
Vision Check First
If the hitter reports they have been trying hard to pick up the ball early but are really struggling to see the ball clearly, the first thing to check is their eyesight. If the hitter hasn’t had their eyes checked in a few years it might be a good idea to do so. The hitter needs to have the eyesight problem fixed before they can reach their potential at the plate. Don’t waste time getting the problem corrected!
How to See the Ball Better
Here is a checklist of tips to increase hitters’ seeing the ball skills:
- Eye Position.
• Eyes level. A tilted head increases difficulty judging the flight of the ball.
• Both eyes face pitcher. Not seeing the pitcher with the rear eye affects depth perception.
• Head steady. Just as a camera blurs when it is moving, to retain the clearest vision the head and eyes should remain as still as possible.
- Timing of Concentration.
• Hard focus describes staring intently at a point. This usually can only be done for a few seconds.
• Soft focus is a more relaxed looking.
• A soft to hard focus is involved in focusing on the pitcher’s release.
• A hard focus too early gives the mind time to interfere with concentration.
• A hard focus too late means the eyes must race ahead to pick up the ball, giving the impression the ball is quicker.
- Release Point.
An effective dugout activity, with each new pitcher faced, is for players to observe where the hand of the pitcher is when the ball is released. This varies quite a lot with baseball pitchers. Some release over the top, ¾, or side arm.
Each hitter should know where the pitcher releases before they step into the batter’s box. This is great mental practice and helps players get focused on the upcoming at bat.
Once the release point of the pitcher is identified, various techniques can be utilized for picking up the pitcher’s release of the ball:
• Visualize a box (hard focus) around where the pitcher will release the ball. Other movements of the pitcher are not followed, rather the hitter’s eyes remain focused on the release area. This requires the player to look through to center field as they wait for the ball to appear in the visualized box. Pick up the ball as it enters the one foot square area where the ball comes out.
• Visualize a box around where the pitcher will release the ball, but soft focus initially on a point of the pitcher’s body, near the release point. Then shift eyes to the box with a hard focus as the ball appears. This removes the necessity of initially looking hard past the pitcher.
• If the pitcher is not hiding the ball behind their body, following the ball from the moment it separates from the pitcher’s glove can also work well.
These techniques will require experimentation to find what works best for the individual hitter.
- Tunnel Vision.
The hitter can visualize a tunnel between the pitcher’s release point and the strike zone. Block out everything else. Then track the ball as it travels through this tunnel. Any pitch which travels outside the tunnel should be a check swing.
Consistently tracking the ball from release point to contact, through a tunnel, should be practiced and honed. Confidence will increase when practice time is regularly devoted to this type of mental practice.
- Improve Mental Approach.
Vision is dramatically affected by the mental state of the hitter. Most importantly, while in the batter’s box, the hitter should stay relaxed and keep their mind clear by staying focused on a single thought, seeing the ball. Thinking about anything more than seeing the ball, is too much. Don’t think. Prepare yourself to hit and let your eyes take over.
Drills to Improve Seeing the Ball
- Four Way Drill.
Hitting a ball moving at various speeds and to different locations is a difficult skill to do. Often times missed balls are due to poor timing, or with younger hitters, lack of experience hitting that particular arc of ball flight. However, this drill will help the hitter externally focus on seeing the ball.
#1 After every swing and miss, the batter identifies why they missed the ball. Were they early or late or did they swing over or under the ball.
#2 The hitter remains focused on the point of contact for a couple seconds after follow-through.
#3 After contact, the batter puts their finger on the spot where the ball hit the bat.
#4 The hitter takes pitches by watching the ball all the way to the catcher or backstop.
- Nose to Ball Drill.
“Nose to the ball” is meant to help the hitter visualize an imaginary line extending from the tip of the nose to the ball. The goal is for the hitter to keep this imaginary line moving back toward the hitting zone. The hitter’s head should turn as the ball approaches contact.
It may help to put a few objects on the ground, but in the path of the ball from mound to plate. and have the hitter track the ball over each object.
- Small Bat and Small Ball Toss.
Use a dowel or speed bat to hit tossed golf ball wiffles.
- Other Ball Toss Drills.
Short distance front tosses, flips from the side, tosses from behind the hitter, standing on a chair and dropping the ball straight down, two balls of different color tossed at same time, and many other similar drills will all help the hitter see the ball better.