Taking a Good Route to the Ball

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One of the things scouts – such as (mythical) M.E. Sequoyah – watch for is the route outfielders take to the ball. It’s one of the hardest things to teach, and it’s not easy to explain in either baseball or mathematical terms.

Major League Baseball has a new tracking system that captures and distills this information. Here’s a video from a game-saving catch by Jason Heyward last year.

(Here’s a link if the embedded video doesn’t work.)

Starting about 30 seconds in, the clip shows the computer-generated straight line from where Heyward was standing to where the ball will land. Then you see Heyward running hard – perfectly straight down that line. There’s some minor left-right shifting as his visual center shifts with each step, but he’s dead on line.

So what?

Probably four out of five big-league outfielders cannot do this. I’m not talking about Heyward’s speed or his full-layout three-and-a-half-pike-with-double-twist dive. (I’m kidding about the pike.) Rather, most outfielders will take a slightly curving path, triangulating the ball’s position with each step. According to a¬†January 2010 study by the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, outfielders don’t predict the landing point but track it visually against the sky (or dome) and make subtle course corrections.

That’s what most outfielders indeed do.

But the really good ones know from the first step where it will land, and head straight for that spot. How do they know? A combination of experience, the sound off the bat, the initial launch angle, a visual sense of how good/hard the swing was, and… voodoo, maybe. We don’t know. What we do know is that some fielders can do it, but most can’t.

With some fielders, half the fans can tell they take a poor route to the ball. With most, it’s a small difference, amounting maybe to one or two tenths of a second off the optimal time. As you can see from the clip, that tenth of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing.

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