16 Steps to See the Ball Better
The Mental Approach to Hitting Series
Baseball and Fast Pitch Softball
Typically, seeing the ball is the first skill taught. Then, it is the first thing kids forget as soon as the game begins! The young hitter looks up early, before contact, to see where the ball goes. Even experienced hitters sometimes push improvements in vision to the back burner. Hitters become focused on all sorts of things, thinking that seeing the ball is too basic. But the fact remains, vision abilities often separate the great hitters from the good hitters.
Seeing the Ball Defined
Seeing the ball well is the ability to see clearly. To recognize what you’re seeing. To track what you’re seeing. Then to relay information to the brain, which signals the body how to react to the pitch.
The hitter identifies three facets of ball flight. The hitter first determines the pitch’s location, then the pitch’s speed, and finally, the ball’s rotation/spin.
To do this most effectively, the hitter sees the ball out of the pitcher’s hand. And then directs their gaze to track ahead of the ball all the way to contact. Improving the ability to see the ball is multifaceted and intricate. Especially for more experienced hitters, improvements to vision are often a matter of small adjustments early in ball flight — measure improvements in terms of milliseconds.
Benefits of Seeing the Ball
The why of seeing 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 will 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.” Seeing the ball directly correlates to confidence, slowing the game down, and performance at the plate.
A Matter of Milli-Seconds
Improving the ability to see the ball is multifaceted and intricate (see the 16 Step Checklist below).
Especially for more experienced hitters, making improvements to seeing the ball is often a matter of small adjustments. Vision improvements are measured in milliseconds.
Vision Check First
If the hitter reports they 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.
16 Step Checklist
To See the Ball Better
Are you ready to get started seeing the ball better?
Start tracking your percentage of hard-hit balls (HHB%) and watch the rate go up!
Here is Building Rome Series step by step, comprehensive list, from beginning to advanced, to improve seeing the ball:
Step 1 to See the Ball – “See the Ball, Hit the Ball”
One verbal cue stands out as especially useful. Come game time, Pete Rose’s hitting philosophy of “see the ball, hit the ball” can help all hitters clear their mind and get in the “zone.” Once the hitter steps into the batter box, they strive to think about nothing else.
Step 2 to See the Ball – Turn the Head to Follow the Ball
If the youth hitter’s head is not turning to watch the ball into the contact area, they do not see the ball the last ten feet. Correcting this fault is a practical step.
Watching the ball to contact becomes more difficult as pitching speeds increase. Nevertheless, watching the ball helps keep the head and shoulders static, essential for establishing a consistent swing path. When the barrel stays in the same plane, all hitters can better control the sweet spot to the middle of the ball.
Step 3 to See the Ball – Eyes Level
As the pitcher releases the ball, eyes level improves vision; a tilted head causes vision to blur slightly. The hitter establishes a level head and eyes in their stance and then maintains level eyes during the gather and stride phase. Most hitters’ heads then tilt slightly inward as they turn hips and shoulders.
Step 4 to See the Ball – Both Eyes on Release and Ball Flight
Hitters are often surprised when they realize they are only seeing release with the front eye. Crucially, not seeing the ball with the rear eye affects depth perception. Try playing catch with one eye; it is not easy. Hitters don’t see the ball with both eyes simply because their head is turned too much toward the plate. To correct, the hitter habitually turns their head so the rear eye can see release and ball travel just as well as the front eye.
One reason some players open up their stance is to get both eyes on the pitcher’s release. If you are in an even (square) or closed stance, and you find it uncomfortable to turn your head far enough to get both eyes on the pitcher, then opening up may be right for you.
Step 5 to See the Ball – Athletic in Stance
Most youth hitters and many experienced hitters should set up in their stance in an athletic posture. An athletic stance enables the hitter to maintain a static inward leaning posture from stance through follow-through. The benefit, eyesight remains more stable.
Step 6 to See the Ball – Maintain Posture During Gather, Stride, and Approach
Just as a camera blurs when it moves, retaining the clearest vision requires the head and eyes to remain as still as possible. Good hitting mechanics facilitate good vision. The youth hitter should set up athletically in their stance. Then, gather weight rearward and make their forward approach without head and eyes dropping or rising; posture (spine angle) remains fixed. Most hitters’ heads and eyes move toward the pitcher during the approach phase. But head and eyes remain level, on the same horizontal plane, as the forward transfer of weight occurs.
Step 7 to See the Ball – Maintain Head Centered During Gather, Stride, and Approach
Head centered denotes the hitter stabilizes their head, centered between their feet, as they move out to toe touch. The hitter’s head moves toward the pitcher close to the same distance as their stride length. They control their upper body (stay back) by not allowing their head to travel toward and over the front foot (lunging). Lunging affects vision seriously. By executing only the necessary head movement toward the pitcher, the hitter’s eyes can focus more clearly on the ball to determine location, speed, and spin.
Step 8 to See the Ball – NO Head Movement During Rotation
After the torso comes up against the firm front side, approach ends, and core rotation begins, there is NO head movement.
Inexperienced hitters commonly “pull” their head, where the hitter moves into a more upright posture (reducing spine angle) as rotation is occurring. The head, moving with the upper body, inhibits seeing the ball as it approaches the hitting zone. It is tough to see the ball deep anyway – don’t make it harder by pulling head even an inch!
Step 9 to See the Ball – Improve Mental Approach
A hitter doesn’t go up to the plate, thinking, “I’m not going to watch this pitch closely.” While a hitter would never be intentionally thinking that, it is often the reality (see Dome XXVI: Mental Training). Vision is dramatically affected by the mental state of the hitter.
Improper focus is the primary reason hitters fall out of habit for seeing the ball well. The hitter allows unwanted thoughts (swing mechanics, the game situation, fears of striking out) to enter their mind causing millisecond lapses in vision – overthinking acts to speed up the game.
To get in the “zone,” athletes in many sports (tennis, golf, wide receivers) switch their mental focus to an external object, a ball flying through the air. While in the batter’s box, the hitter stays relaxed and keeps their mind clear by a “laser” focus on a single thought, seeing the ball. Thinking about anything more than seeing the ball is too much. One hundred percent focus (click on link for details about how mental focus can improve practice and performance) on seeing the ball allows no performance reducing thoughts to creep in. Think of the times you were able to block out all distractions. You had the same one hundred percent focus on what you were doing.
While an external focus on seeing the ball may sound simple in concept, training the hitter’s mind in this way can require years of dedicated effort. Even into high school, hitters sometimes fall into the trap of thinking about potential adverse outcomes as they prepare to hit. The terrific player, unexpectedly, turns into an unproductive, tentative hitter.
Don’t think. Prepare your mind to hit aggressively and let your eyes take over!
Step 10 to See the Ball – 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.
Step 11 to See the Ball – Improve Vision of Pitch Release
A productive dugout activity, with each new pitcher faced, is for players to observe where the pitcher’s hand is when the ball is released. Release varies quite often with baseball pitchers — some release over the top, ¾, or sidearm.
Each hitter should know where the pitcher releases before they step into the batter’s box. Observing the release point is great mental practice and helps players get focused on the upcoming at-bat.
After identifying the release point of the pitcher, utilize one of these various techniques for picking up the pitcher’s release of the ball:
- Visualize a box (hard focus) around where the pitcher will release the ball.
Do not follow other movements of the pitcher. Instead, the hitter’s eyes remain focused on the release area. The player must look through to center field as they wait for the ball to appear in the visualized box. The hitter picks up the ball as it enters the one-foot square area.
- Visualize a box around where the pitcher releases 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 method 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 require experimentation to find what works best for the individual hitter.
Step 12 to See the Ball – Utilize “Focal Point” Routine
Look at the barrel, then something pitching distance away, then back to the barrel. Just take a second or two to do this.
The Focal Point Routine is a useful trick to get your eyes ready to see the ball coming at you. Significantly, many college and professional hitters get their eyes ready before every swing. Give it a try!
Step 13 to See the Ball – Utilize “Vunnel” 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 moves outside the “tube” is a check swing. The more experienced hitter can take this idea a step further by vunneling the pitch. To vunnel, first know the zone you would like the pitch to enter; then try to gaze just ahead of the path of the ball to predict, as early as possible, whether the pitch arrives in this zone. Regularly devoting time to this type of mental and visual training increases confidence, especially with two strikes.
Step 14 to See the Ball – Improve Ability to Predict the Pitch
Even if a batter has elite ability to see and track the ball, they’ll be unlikely to take advantage of this skill if they do not have a good idea of what pitch might be coming.
Step 15 to See the Ball – Improve Early Pitch Type Recognition
Skilled batters may be better able to account for uncertainties in ball flight through advanced cues. At higher levels of competition, vision and pitch recognition are recognized as essential for high productivity.
The hitter can start by making a list of keys for recognizing pitches that work for them. These keys can be specific to individual pitchers or pitchers in general. Develop the list through keen observation during live pitching, scrimmages, and games or by watching pitchers warm-up:
- Spin angle, dots, and colors.
- Different wrist angles (skinny wrist for curveball).
- Different finger positions.
- Different hand movements.
- Different release points.
- Different arm speeds.
- Different body positions (e.g., muscling up on fastball compared to changeup).
After developing the list of keys, the hitter must now purposefully practice reacting productively to the type of pitch identified by the keys until reactions become automatic.
Step 16 to See the Ball – “Gaze” Ahead of the Ball to See Contact
Hitters who direct their vision further ahead of the ball have higher performance than those who directly follow the ball.
“It was shown that, on average, elite batters directed their gaze farther ahead of the ball compared to club batters and had better performance at the plate. These findings held regardless of whether an expert batter was an adult or youth.” (Aucoin, 2019)
One way to gaze ahead is to try to see where the ball makes contact with the bat. That is, the hitter can “park their gaze” at contact.
In fact, expert batters aligned their gaze with the ball at contact 90% of the time. Developing hitters only aligned their gaze with the ball at contact 13% of the time. (Aucoin, 2019)
Researchers speculate that despite not using late ball-flight information to aid in performance, it may serve batters well to track pitches for as long they can. Not trying to see the ball to the hitting zone may well affect how the batter sees the ball during the critical first half of travel.
Drills to Improve Seeing the Ball
- Four-Way Drill.
The four goals in this drill will help the hitter create a habit of focusing one hundred percent on seeing the ball.
Goal1 – 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.
Goal2 – The hitter remains focused on the point of contact for a couple of seconds after follow-through.
Goal3 – After contact, the batter puts their finger on the spot where the ball hit the bat.
Goal4 – 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 in the path of the ball from mound to plate. 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 simultaneously, and many other similar drills will all help the hitter see the ball better.
- Stand in on pitcher warmups.
Standing in is very helpful and also very much underutilized. Use this valuable opportunity to practice seeing release point, spins, making swing decisions, and perfect timing.
- Hit off a fast pitching machine.
Final Thoughts on Seeing the Ball
Seeing the ball is a crucial hitting fundamental which should be refined throughout a player’s career.
Building Rome Series Blog: The Mental Approach to Hitting Series
Here are the videos and articles in The Mental Approach to Hitting Series:
Building Rome Series Books: Building the High-Level Swing Series
See Building the High-Level Swing for a detailed and comprehensive description of 100 hitting fundamentals and 140 step-by-step drills that efficiently construct the batting swing from the ground up.
In the Building Rome Series of books, the construction of skills are in functional order, providing a “roadmap” to becoming a great hitter.
All baseball and fastpitch softball players can “climb the Roman Coliseum steps” to become a powerful and productive hitter.
Enjoy the quest!