Hitting a baseball at the highest level not only takes elite power and an optimized kinetic chain but an elite hitter reaction time and anticipation time to hit a 95mph fastball or a 90mph slider. The hitter reaction time is faster than a blink of the eye which is around 0.4 seconds. There is a great FSN Sports Science episode on the science of how fast the batter must react to hit a 95mph fastball.
"When the ball is released, the image of the ball enters the batter's eyes where it is broken down into electrical impulses. The brain takes 110 milliseconds to decode this data. By now the ball has already traveled 15 feet. While the batter is calculating the pitches trajectory and whether to swing, the ball has traveled another 15 feet. Now is the moment of decision. He must start his swing with the ball still 25 feet away from the plate or it will be too late. In the last 15 feet, the brain and the eyes cannot work together fast enough and the ball is essentially invisible. At 95mph a pitch reaches home plate at 0.395 seconds. Less than four-tenths of a second, that is in fact, faster than a blink of the eye (Brenkus, 2008)."
To truly understand how hitter reaction time can impact performance we must first define what hitter reaction time and anticipation time is and how it is measured and developed.
The Science of Hitter Reaction Time
Reaction time is the amount of time it takes to respond to a stimulus. Anticipation time is the amount of time it takes for a prior action to forestall a later action. Evidence suggests that hitter reaction time and anticipation time are significantly correlated especially at the younger ages but as the athlete gets older they develop better motor plans and begin to rely less on hitter reaction time and more anticipation time performance (Thomas, Gallagher, & Purvis, 1981). We also see evidence of this mainly when studying baseball players. Baseball players have shorter simple Reation Time (RT) and Go/NoGo RT than nonathletes but similar simple RT and Go/NoGo RT than basketball players (Nakamoto, & Mori, 2008). Simple RT is a measurement of the athlete's reaction to a simple stimulus, like is the light on or off. Go/NoGo RT is measured by asking the athlete to recognize when the light was in the zone or not, Go meant it was in the zone and NoGo meant it was not. It is interesting to learn that only baseball players have shorter Go/NoGo RT at higher levels of the game than basketball players. Baseball is a unique sport in that the better players have mapped better motor skills to help them anticipate better plans for success. Therefore, baseball is a game of reps and those who can continue to perform better reps move up higher levels of the game.
The Challenges of Hitter Reaction Time
The problem with the conventional wisdom of baseball is that it believes you are either born with the better motor plan or you can learn it by over repping to advance to higher levels of the game. This couldn't be farther from the truth and this is why baseball has such a problem with injury. Fits and Posners was one of the first to map out the process of developing a motor skill to the autonomous level (Magill & Anderson, 2017). If you read their 3 stages of learning a motor skill, you will find that the first stage or the cognitive stage has most of the errors. Mainly because the athlete isn't proficient in the movements they are learning and they are making many mistakes due to not knowing the sequence of the efficient movement. The next stage the associative stage has less error because they are less cognitive and using specific environmental cues with the movements required to achieve the goal of the skill. Finally, the last step of motor skill development is the autonomous stage where the athlete is no long cognitive of the movement and has become proficient. Those who struggle to achieve this final stage or who require many more reps are those who do not have the abilities needed to master the initial steps. For example, if a hitter can anticipate there is a high probability the pitcher will throw a fastball on this pitch to the inside corner and he is correct, he now has more time to react. The problem is if he cannot hit a ball on the inside part of the plate at 95mph because his kinetic chain is moving too slow. This means he must develop more force production to increase the speed of this movement. This development of force production must come by hypertrophying fast twitch muscle fibers in the proximal muscle groups while adjusting the sequencing for this added energy to not disrupt the timing of his motor control.
The most success I have had with baseball hitters who need to improve anticipation time is to have them study film of pitchers. The better than can get with predicting pitches in certain situations the better they anticipate the pitch. The problem is those who have good hitter reaction time and anticipation time but poor power production, it takes time to hypertrophy fast twitch muscle fibers and train the motor control to adjust to this new explosive movement.
Hitter Reaction Time Reference:
John Brenkus (2008, June 4). Out of Control. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrZVRuK77EE
Magill, R. A., & Anderson, D. I. (2017). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Nakamoto, H., & Mori, S. (2008). Sport-Specific decision-making in a go/nogo reaction task: difference among nonathletes and baseball and basketball players'. National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya, 106, 163-170.
Thomas, J., Gallagher, J., & Purvis, G. (1981). Reaction Time and Anticipation Time: Effects of Development. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport Volume 52 - Issue 3