If you’ve ever played baseball, then you have first-hand experience on what it takes to play the game, one of the major abilities you need is a quick reaction time. Baseball players are in the upper echelons in regards to pitch recognition and ability to process information (Clark et al, 2012).
Some people, however, believe that there is an ‘IQ cutoff’ in regards to baseball; since general intelligence is supposedly correlated with reaction time (RT), then those with higher RTs must have higher intelligence and vice-versa. However, this trait—in a baseball context—is trainable to an extent. To those that would claim that IQ would be a meaningful metric in baseball I pose two question: would higher IQ teams, on average, beat lower IQ teams and would higher IQ people have better batting averages (BAs) than lower IQ people? This, I doubt, because as I will cover, these variables are trainable and therefore talking about reaction time in the MLB in regards to intelligence is useless.
Meden et al (2012) tested athlete and non-athlete college students on visual reaction time (VRT). They tested the athletes’ VRT once, while they tested the non-athletes VRT two times a week for a 3 week period totaling 6 tests. Men ended up having higher VRTs in comparison to women, and athletes had better VRTs than non-athletes. So therefore, this study proves that VRT is a trainable variable. If VRT can be improved with training, then hitting and fielding can also be trained as well.
Reaction time training is the communication between the brain, musculoskeletal system and spinal cord, which includes both physical and cognitive training. So since VRT can be trained, then it makes logical sense that Major League hitting and fielding can be trained as well.
David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene says that he has a faster reaction time than Albert Pujols:
One of the big surprises for me was that pro athletes, particularly in baseball, don’t have faster reflexes on average than normal people do. I tested faster than Albert Pujols on a visual reaction test. He only finished in the 66thpercentile compared to a bunch of college students.
It’s not a superior RT that baseball players have in comparison to the normal population, says Epstein, but “learned perceptual skills that the MLB players don’t know they learned.” Major League baseball players do have average reaction times (Epstein, 2013: 1) but a far superior visual acuity. Most pro-baseball players had visual acuity of 20/13, with some players having 20/11; the theoretical best visual acuity that is possible is 20/8 (Clark et al, 2012). Laby, Kirschen, and Abbatine show that 81 percent of the 1500 Major and Minor League Mets and Dodgers players had visual acuities of 20/15 or better, along with 2 percent of players having a visual acuity of 20/9.2. Baseball players average a 20/13 visual acuity with the best eyesight humanly possible being 20/8. (Laby et al, 1996).
So it’s not faster RT that baseball players have, but a better visual acuity—on average—in comparison to the general population. Visual reaction time is a highly trainable variable, and so since MLB players have countless hours of practice, they will, of course, be superior on that variable.
Clark et al (2012) showed that high-performance vision training can be performed at the beginning of the season and maintained throughout the season to improve batting parameters. They also state that visual training programs can help hitters, since the eyes account for 80 percent of the information taken into the brain. Reichow, Garchow, and Baird (2011) conclude that a “superior ability to recognize pitches presented via tachistoscope may correlate with a higher skill level in batting.” Clark et al (2012) posit that their training program will help batters to better recognize the spot of the ball and the pitcher’s finger position in order to better identify different pitches. Clark et al (2012) conclude:
The University of Cincinnati baseball team, coaches and vision performance team have concluded that our vision training program had positive benefits in the offensive game including batting and may be providing improved play on defense as well. Vision training is becoming part of out pre-season and in season conditioning program as well as for warmups.
Classe et al (1997) showed that VRT was related to batting, but not fielding or pitching skill. Further, there was no statistically significant difference observed between VRT and age, race or fielding. Therefore, we can say that VRT has no statistical difference on race and does not contribute to any racial differences in baseball.
Baseball and basketball athletes had faster RTs than non-athletes (Nakamoto and Mori, 2008). The Go/NoGo response that is typical of athletes is most certainly trainable. Kida et al (2005) showed that intensive practice improved the Go/NoGo reaction time, but not simple reaction time. Kida et al (2005: 263-264) conclude that simple reaction time is not an accurate indicator of experience, performance or success in sports; Go/NoGo can be improved by practice and is not innate (but simple reaction time was not altered) and the Go/NoGo reaction time can be “theoretically shortened toward a certain value determined by the simple reaction time proper to each individual.“
In baseball players in comparison to a control group, readiness potential was significantly shorter for the baseball players (Park, Fairweather, and Donaldson, 2015). Hand-eye coordination, however, had no effect on earned run average (ERA) or batting average in a sample of 410 Major and Minor League members of the LA Dodgers (Laby et al, 1997).
So now we know that VRT can be trained, VRT shows no significant racial differences, and that Go/NoGo RT can be improved by practice. Now a question I will tackle is: can RT tell us anything about success in baseball and is RT related to intelligence/IQ?
Khodadi et al (2014) conclude that “The relationship between reaction time and IQ is too complicated and revealing a significant correlation depends on various variables (e.g. methodology, data analysis, instrument etc.).” So since the relationship is too complicated between the two variables, mostly due to methodology and the instrument used, RT is not a good correlate of IQ. It can, furthermore, be trained (Dye, Green, and Bavelier, 2012).
In the book A Question of Intelligence, journalist Dan Seligman writes:
In response, Jensen made two points: (1) The skills I was describing involve a lot more than just reaction time, they also depended heavily on physcial coordination and endless practice. (2) It was, however, undoubtedly true that there was some IQ requirement-Jensen guessed it might be around 85- below which you could never recruit for major league baseball. (About one-sixth of Americans fall below 85).
I don’t know where Jensen grabbed the ‘IQ requirement’ for baseball, which he claims to be around 85 (which is at the black average in America). This quote, however, proves my point that there is way more than RT involved in hitting a baseball, especially a Major League fastball:
Hitting a baseball traveling at 100 mph is often considered one of the most difficult tasks in all of sports. After all, if you hit the ball only 30% of the time, baseball teams will pay you millions of dollars to play for them. Pitches traveling at 100 mph take just 400 ms to travel from the pitcher to the hitter. Since the typical reaction time is 200 ms, and it takes 100 ms to swing the bat, this leaves just 100 ms of observation time on which the hitter can base his swing.
This lends more credence to the claim that hitting a baseball is more than just quick reflexes; considerable training can be done to learn certain cues that certain pitchers use; for instance, like identifying different pitches a particular pitcher does with certain arm motions coming out of the stretch. This, as shown above in the Epstein quote, is most definitely a trainable variable.
Babe Ruth, for instance, had better hand-eye coordination than 98.8 percent of the population. Though that wasn’t why he was one of the greatest hitters of all time; it’s because he mastered all of the other variables in regards to hitting, which are learnable and not innate.
Witt and Proffitt (2005) showed that the apparent ball size is correlated with batting average, that is, the better batters fared at the plate, the bigger they perceived the ball to be so they had an easier time hitting it. Hitting has much less to do with reaction time and much more to do with prediction, as well as the pitching style of the pitcher, his pitching repertoire, and numerous other factors.
It takes a 90-95 mph fast ball about 400 milliseconds to reach home plate. It takes the brain 100 milliseconds to process the image that the eyes are taking in, 150 milliseconds to swing and 25 milliseconds for his brain to send a signal to his body to swing. This leaves the hitter with 125 milliseconds left to hit the incoming fastball. Clearly, there is more to hitting than reaction time, especially when all of these variables are in play. Players have .17 seconds to decide whether or not to hit a pitch and where to place their bat (Clark et al, 2012)
A so-called ‘IQ cutoff’ for baseball does exist, but only because IQs lower than 85 (once you begin to hit the 70s range, especially the lower levels) indicate developmental disorders. Further, the 85-115 IQ range encompasses 68 percent of the population. However, RT is not even one of the most important factors in hitting; numerous other (trainable) variables influence fastball hitting, and all of the best players in the world employ these strategies. People may assume that since intelligence and RT are (supposedly) linked, that baseball players, since they (supposedly) have quick RTs. Nevertheless, if quick RTs were correlated with baseball profienciency—namely, in hitting, then why are Asians 1.2 percent of the players in the MLB? Maybe because RT doesn’t really have anything to do with hitting proficiency and other variables have more to do with it.
People may assume that since intelligence and RT are (supposedly) linked, that baseball players, since they (supposedly) have quick RTs then they must be intelligent and therefore there must be an IQ cutoff because intelligence/g and RT supposedly correlate. However, I’ve shown 2 things: 1) RT isn’t too important to hitting at an elite level and 2) more important skills can be acquired in hitting fastballs, most notable, in my opinion, is pitch verification and the arm location of the pitcher. The Go/NoGo RT can also be trained and is, arguably, one of the most important training systems for elite hitting. Clearly, elite hitting is predicated on way more than just a quick RT; and most of the variables that are involved in elite hitting are most definitely trainable, as reviewed in this article.
People, clearly, make unfounded claims without having any experience in something. It’s easy to make claims about something when you’re just looking at numbers and attempting to draw conclusions based on data. But it’s a whole other ballgame (pun intended) when you’re up at the plate yourself or coaching someone on how to hit or play in the infield. These baseless claims would be avoided a lot more if only the people who make these claims had any actual athletic experience. If so, they would know of the constant repetition that goes into hitting and fielding, the monotonous drills you have to do everyday until your muscle memory is trained to flawlessly—without even thinking about it—throw a ball from shortstop to first base.
Practice, especially Major League practice, is pivotal to elite hitting; only with elite practice can a player learn how to spot the ball and the pitcher’s finger position to quickly identify the pitch type in order to decide if he wants to swing or not. In conclusion, a whole slew of cognitive/psychological abilities are involved in the upper echelons of elite baseball, however a good majority of the traits needed to succeed in baseball are trainable, and RT has little to do with elite hitting.
(When I get time I’m going to do a similar analysis like what I wrote about in the article on my possible retraction of my HBD and baseball article. Blacks dominate in all categories that matter, this holds for non-Hispanic whites and blacks as well as Hispanic blacks and whites, read more here. Nevertheless, I may look at the years 1997-2017 and see if anything has changed from the analysis done in the late 80s. Any commentary on that matter is more than welcome.)