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Duke Health researchers found players with higher scores on computer-based vision and motor tasks had better on-field performance. In this photo, a Duke student demonstrates some of the tasks. Photo: Shawn Rocco, Duke Health

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 35 days, 16 hours and 5 minutes, as of this writing.

In that month-plus, Major League Baseball scouts, managers and coaches may have a new tool in their arsenal to predict who is going to have a big year at the plate.

A computer evaluation of vision and motor tasks on large touch screens shows that the best-scoring of the professional baseball players showed better hitting discipline statistically, as reported in the latest Scientific Reports.

“We wanted to quantify the links between an athlete’s senses such as eyesight and motor control using task scores and game performance,” said Kyle Burris, a statistician at Duke University and lead author of the paper. “This information could be useful in scouting, as well as providing possible training targets to improve on-field performance.”

The 252 players came from both major and minor league teams. They sat at machines called Nike Sensory Stations, and the tasks involved tracking and touching flat shapes as they crossed the screen. The reaction time and accuracy measured similar split-second skills as hitting a curve ball – or even noticing the pitcher’s grip of the ball in the moment before the ball leaves his hand, they explain.

The perception-span task, which measured remembering and recreating visual patterns, was statistically associated with better on-base percentage. Hand-eye coordination and reaction time were linked to better rates of drawing walks. And better scores on spatial recognition meant fewer strikeouts.

“Players who perform better on the tasks had better batting statistics that captured their ability to make contact with the ball,” said L. Greg Appelbaum, senior author, and a Duke associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science.

However, the tasks had no bearing on slugging percentage – a good statistic to gauging power hitting. The scores also did not have any correlation on pitchers.

Burris, a postdoctoral researcher, is expected to have an internship with the Cleveland Indians this summer.

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