I'm not sure what to make of this seemingly correct fact, but I find it so interesting, I feel that it must have some deep significance to those of us who aren't professional baseball players.
In the course of rereading a chapter in Robert Burton's book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, I came across his analysis of baseball pitchers and hitters in the "When Does a Thought Begin?" chapter.
Here's the crux of the issue:
Professional baseball pitchers throw with velocities in the range of 80 to 100 miles per hour. Elapsed time from the moment of release to the ball crossing home plate ranges from approximately 380 to 460 milliseconds.
Minimum reaction time -- from the instant the image of the ball's release reaches the retina to the initiation of the swing -- is approximately 200 milliseconds. The swing takes another 160 to 190 milliseconds.
The combination of reaction and swing time approximately equals the time it takes for a fastball to travel from the pitcher's mound to home plate.
So how is a batter ever able to hit the baseball?
It can't be by following the path of the ball with their eyes, deciding it is a hittable pitch, and then swinging their bat at the ball. Physics and human biology don't allow for that. Burton explains what actually happens.
Once the ball is in flight, it is too late for detailed deliberation. The batter sees the release and the beginning of its path, and then goes on automatic pilot. Sounds suspiciously like an inner machine at the helm, some robotic neuronal clumps that are responsible for a hitter like Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds.
Yet we all know that a hitter's skill, beyond mere athleticism, is dependent upon prior practice and extensive study of the game. Great hitters keep extensive notes on the tendencies of opposing pitchers, including what type of pitch and where it will be thrown in various conditions.
A 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded is more likely to be down the middle than a 0-2 pitch with the bases empty. The combination of circumstances is infinite, yet each hitter develops a probabilistic profile of the speed, trajectory, and location of the next pitch. It is in this realm that great players have a greater accuracy than novice players.
The act of hitting the ball involves two fundamentally different strategies inextricably linked together -- conscious analysis prior to the event, and reliance upon nearly instantaneous subconscious calculations at the onset of the event.
The cortex sets out general guidelines for when to swing and where, then hands the controls over to quicker subcortical mechanisms.
A simplified schema provided by a computer scientist-engineer after extensive study of the physics of a pitch:
"We divide the pitch into thirds. During the first third the batter gathers sensory data; during the middle third he does computations (predicting where and when the ball will collide with his bat); during the last third he is swinging. During the swing he could close his eyes and it would not make any difference. He can't alter the swing. The most he can do is check the swing." (Italics mine.)
Lastly, Burton explains why an onlooker thinks the batter should have been able to do better with a pitch, and how conversation is a lot like pitching a fastball and trying to hit a fastball.
To further complicate the problem of the timing of perception, consider how different the approaching baseball looks to the batter and to you, an observer sitting behind home plate. The pitcher fires three successive ninety-five-miles-per-hour blazers.
The batter whiffs the first and fouls off the next two. He prepares himself for another smoker. Instead, the pitcher lobs a deceptive sixty-five-miles-per-hour change-up. The batter swings far too early and strikes out. You watch in amusement and ask yourself how the batter can make five million a year and so misjudge a ball that, to your uninvolved eye, a Little Leaguer could hit.
The difference is that while the batter's decision to swing begins prior to his full conscious appreciation that the pitcher has thrown a slow pitch, you have the luxury to see the ball's entire path toward the plate. By not being forced to immediately decide whether or not to swing, you see a batter being badly fooled by a pitch that doesn't fool you.
The basic neurobiological principle is that the need for an immediate response time reduces the accuracy of perception of incoming information. Though most of aren't involved in high-speed sports, we all experience these limitations in the most crucial of daily activities -- normal conversation.
In fact, conversation is as much a high-speed competition as a top-flight table tennis match.
First, consider the act of listening. We are bombarded with the rapid presentation of individual phonemes strung together to make words, phrases, and sentences. Processing takes time. A word may not be initially decipherable; only with further speech is it clarified.
...Now visualize conversation as a means for the exchange of complex ideas with each participant's response dependent on whether or not he believes the idea is correct. Instead of throwing a fastball, each discussant is throwing an idea at the other.
If the listener judges the idea as correct, he will not swing (he will accept the idea as is). If he thinks the approaching idea is incorrect, he will swing (formulate an immediate rebuttal and/or interrupt the speaker to interject his correction).
Here's the windup, and here's the thought. The listener's decision as to the thought's correctness will be based upon a quick glimpse of the idea leaving the other's lips, snap judgements of body language, sighs, gestures, facial expressions, and all the various verbal and nonverbal contributions to interpretation of the spoken word.
If the listener is forced to make a quick response, the decision as to the thought's correctness will be subject to the same physiological restraints as a batter's assessment of an incoming pitch.
...How different conversation sounds when we don't feel obliged to respond. As uninvolved spectators luxuriating in our more leisurely processing time, we easily see the shallowness, evasiveness, and lack of real exchange of ideas in most dialogue.
...Sadly, the problem is at least in part a matter of the physiology of conversation. As we move from silent observer to active discussant, we become mired in the very processing problem we're trying to overcome.