During spring training last year, Corey Brown was sure his eyes were the reason he kept striking out. The Washington Nationals outfielder had 20/15 vision and never needed contact lenses or glasses, but he couldn’t always pick up off-speed pitches out of pitchers’ hands and react while batting. The communication between his eyes and brain just wasn’t happening fast enough.
The team’s consulting eye doctor, Keith Smithson, recommended Brown do a variety of drills to improve the problem: toss around colored balls, field a ball with corners that made it roll unpredictably, and catch a tennis ball on one leg while wearing a pair of glasses that make it harder to see by creating a strobe-like effect.
Brown made the exercises part of his routine. He enjoyed a career-best season in Class AAA Syracuse last year, cutting down his strikeout rate, raising his batting average to .285, launching 25 home runs and earning three call-ups to the big league team. Brown also tweaked his swing, but he insists the eye training was a major reason for the improvement.
“I really felt like it was helping me during spring,” he said. “I actually rarely ever struck out, which was surprising to me because it was a huge, drastic change for me.”
Of all the major professional sports, baseball is most dependent on the eyes. Pitchers read the fingers of a catcher signaling a pitch more than 60 feet away. Fielders watch the spin of the ball and track its trajectory in the sunlight, twilight or stadium lights. Hitters zero in on a three-inch-wide white ball and discern the spin of its red laces in fractions of a second.
While few major league teams offer extensive vision training, the Nationals are hoping to further incorporate it. Players such as Bryce Harper, Steve Lombardozzi and Brown swear by it. This season, the players will have an extra training room at Nationals Park where they can have easy access to the equipment and integrate it into their daily workouts. By this time next season, the Nationals hope to have all minor league players in Class A and Class AA under vision-training programs.
“We think that it’s the next frontier of improvement,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It’s part of our player development, it’s part of our strength and conditioning. We condition the eye as a muscle and Keith does a lot of innovative and cutting-edge stuff.”
Trying to buy time
Smithson’s foremost mission is to test players’ eyes and provide corrective lenses. A pitcher, he said, can do fine with 20/20 vision, but he is more likely to push a position player with the same eyesight to use contact lenses, which can improve the acuity to 20/15. (He doesn’t perform corrective laser surgery, but provides referrals for the procedure.) He also provides the colored contact lenses to help with the sun and different hitting backgrounds, like the amber-colored ones Harper wore during last season’s playoffs.
But after the basic eye testing, Smithson wants to help the Nationals make quicker decisions and improve their reaction speed. There are seven muscles around the eye, and Smithson teaches players to fine-tune them.
For a pitcher, it could help with control or to get out of the way of a comebacker. For a hitter, it could help improve hand-eye coordination or the quick decision-making after recognizing a pitch. A hitter has two- to three-tenths of second to decide whether a pitch is a fastball, curveball or change-up and commit to swinging.
“What we attempt to do is shorten that time,” said Smithson, who is also the team optometrist for the Washington Wizards and D.C. United. “If we have two-tenths of a second, let’s shorten it to one. Let’s buy them a tenth. And if we can buy them a tenth, they either foul it off if where they were going to miss it or they get a hold of it and put it in play.”
The biggest proponent of vision training on the Nationals is, oddly enough, a player with naturally perfect vision. Lombardozzi first started practicing vision exercises in high school because his father, a former major league second baseman, did a version of the training when he played.
Lombardozzi, who lives near Columbia in the offseason, has trained with Smithson at his Arlington office for the past two winters, visiting two to three times per week. As part of his routine, Lombardozzi has to touch one of the 32 red buttons that light up across an electronic reaction board that hangs from the wall. His best score is a 4,900 — far above the score of 2,500 that Smithson establishes as a baseline for players.
For warmups, Smithson tosses Lombardozzi a ring with four large colored balls attached to it — a favorite exercise of former slugger Manny Ramirez. Smithson calls out “red,” “blue,” “yellow” or “white,” and Lombardozzi has to catch the ring on the corresponding ball as it spins through the air.