Four words no baseball player wants to hear: Strike three. You're out.
The University of California, Riverside's baseball team heard those words less frequently in the 2013 season after participating in novel brain-training research that significantly improved the vision of individual players and may have added up to four or five games to the win column.
The results of that study appear in a paper, "Improved vision and on-field performance in baseball through perceptual learning," published in the Feb. 17 issue of the peer-reviewed Current Biology.
Most studies of visual abilities focus on mechanisms that might be used to improve sight, such as exercising the ocular muscles. Improvements in vision resulting from those experiments typically do not transfer to real-world tasks, however.
A team of UCR psychologists -- professors Aaron Seitz and Daniel Ozer and recent Ph.D. graduate Jenni Deveau -- combined multiple perceptual-learning approaches to determine if improvements gained from an integrated, perceptual learning-based training program would transfer to real-world tasks.
Before the start of the 2013 NCAA Division 1 baseball season the UCR researchers assigned 19 baseball players to complete 30 25-minute sessions of a vision-training video game Seitz developed. Another 18 team members received no training. Players who participated in the training saw a 31 percent improvement in visual acuity -- some gaining as much as two lines on the Snellen eye chart -- and greater sensitivity to contrasts in light.
"The vision tests demonstrate that training-based benefits transfer outside the context of the computerized training program to standard eye charts," Seitz said. "Players reported seeing the ball better, greater peripheral vision and an ability to distinguish lower-contrast objects."
The researchers found that the trained players had 4.4 percent fewer strikeouts -- a decrease not experienced in the rest of the Big West Conference. The UCR team also scored 41 more runs than projected after controlling for skills improvements players would be expected to gain over the course of a season. Ozer arrived at this number by using the runs-created formula developed by baseball historian and statistician Bill James.
The longtime baseball fan then used the Pythagorean Winning Percentage formula, a statistical tool used by sabermetricians to compute a team's wins and losses based upon their runs scored and runs allowed, to estimate that the training resulted in as many as four or five more wins.
(The team had a season record of 22-32, but later was forced to vacate eight wins due to an ineligible player.)
UCR's year-over-year improvements were at least three times greater than the rest of the league in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks and strikeouts, the researchers determined.
"Elite baseball batters use various kinds of sensory information to be successful batters, but most weight is given to visual feedback," Seitz said. "This has motivated other vision-training approaches to focus on exercising the ocular muscles, producing mixed results. Our integrated training program is unique in that we focus on training the brain to better respond to the input it receives from the eyes and in that we examined both standard measures of vision as well as real-world performance in elite players. The improvements are substantial and significantly greater than that experienced by players in the rest of the league in the same year."
Baseball is a very visual game, and the ability of batters to tell the difference between pitches and ball speeds is critical, longtime UCR Head Baseball Coach Doug Smith said in explaining why he allowed his players to participate in the research. "I thought if this would help our players see more clearly we would have a chance to make a big breakthrough," he said.
Baseball players typically have excellent vision, so the extent of improvement surprised the researchers. After completing the vision-training program, some players' vision improved to 20/7.5. This means that what the average person can read at 7.5 feet away these players can read at a distance of 20 feet. Normal vision using the Snellen eye chart is 20/20. The UCR researchers said it's too early to know if changes in vision were solely responsible for the improved play or if brain-training combined with unmeasured factors bettered batting performance.
Smith was surprised, too.
"I didn't think we would see as much of an improvement as we did," he said. "Our guys stopped swinging at some pitches and started hitting at others. Their average strikeout total went down and batting went up. There is such a high percentage of failure in our game. Even the best players fail (to hit) 70 percent of the time. Everyone is looking for an edge to be that little bit better. Our guys are more confident now when they come to the plate."
The research results strongly suggest that an integrated approach to perceptual learning-based training has great potential to help not only athletes looking to optimize their visual skills but also individuals with low vision engaged in everyday tasks, the psychologists concluded.
"We use vision for many daily tasks, including driving, watching TV, or reading," Deveau said. "This type of vision training can help improve not only sports performance, but many of these activities in non-athletes as well."
Seitz, Deveau and Ozer are beginning a second year of study with the UCR baseball team and will add the UCR women's softball team to the research project this season.
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