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The amazing thing Neil Walker’s brain allowed him to do … and the Pirates’ toughest test to date


Travis Sawchik | Tribune-Review


CINCINNATI – In the ninth-inning last night, Neil Walker had quite a scare.


Reds closer Aroldis Chapman unleashed a baseball that traveled 100 mph toward Walker’s head. A 100 mph fastball traverses 60 feet and six inches in 0.412 seconds, and with Chapman’s extension his release point makes that distance perhaps, say, 57 feet.


Walker had less than .4 seconds to try to avoid the pitch. He just avoided the pitch as it narrowly missed striking him in the face.



That will wake you up.


This is worth noting not only because 14 Reds and Pirates hitters have been hit by pitches over the teams’ last seven games. It’s worth noting not only because it takes some courage to play baseball, this can be a dangerous game. It’s worth noting to remember how difficult it is to hit — and avoid — 100 mph fastballs.


I want no part of Aroldis Chapman. Would you? MLB hitters have serious guts.


It’s worth noting because of this: Walker – or any human – was not able to to track the ball for its last 12.5 feet. He made a guess of where to go, to escape. I was doing some quick Google research on tracking a 100 mph and I stumbled upon this UC Berkeley study on how the human brain tracks a 100 mph fastball. …


There’s a 100 millisecond delay between the moment your eyes see an object and the moment your brain registers it. As a result, when a batter sees a fastball flying by at 100 mph, it’s already moved an additional 12.5 feet by the time his or her brain has actually registered its location.


How, then, do batters ever manage to make contact with 100 mph fastballs—or, for that matter, 75 mph change-ups?


In a study published May 8 in the journal Neuron, UC Berkeley researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to pinpoint the prediction mechanisms in the brain that enable hitters to track pitches (and enable all sorts of people to envision the paths of moving objects in general). They found that the brain is capable of effectively “pushing” forward objects along in their trajectory from the moment it first sees them, simulating their path based on their direction and speed and allowing us to unconsciously project where they’ll be a moment later.


Hitting, and even ducking, a 100 mph fastball is a pretty amazing piece of our evolutionary, survival architecture.


The human brain is a pretty amazing thing.




I asked Clint Hurdle prior to yesterday’s series opener if this series – in the Great American Ball Park, against the Reds, without 80 percent of his Opening Day rotation – was the toughest test his club has faced to date.


Hurdle said “doesn’t rank” things, but acknowledged this is going to be a tough series.


Charlie Morton vs. Mat Latos today. Advantage: Reds


Jeff Locke vs. Bronson Arroyo Wednesday:  Push


Brandon Cumpton vs. Homer Bailey on Thursday: Advantage: Reds


Many have noted the Pirates have used 11 starters this season. But here’s the thing, the Pirates haven’t been without No. 1 starter A.J. Burnett or second-best starter Wandy Rodriguez that long.


Burnett has missed one start.


Rodriguez has missed two.


Burnett and Rodriguez figure to miss at least four more combined starts, and how the Pirates weather this stretch is critical. Big-picture, the Pirates are very unlikely to sustain this start if Burnett and Rodriguez have serious setbacks. The good news for the Pirates is Rodriguez told me yesterday that his 40-pitch bullpen went well. He’ll throw another Thursday and head to Indy for a rehab outing Sunday.


Pitching depth can be a fleeting thing. And it is pitching that is key for the offensively-challenged Pirates.


Baseball Prospectus believes ($ pay site) the Pirates are in for some for regression regardless of the health of their staff:

Pittsburgh Pirates

Original Projected ERA Playing Time-Adjusted Projected ERA Observed ERA Difference
4.033 4.06 3.13 -0.93

Closest call: Wandy Rodriguez (3.71 Projected, 3.59 Actual)
Biggest miss: Jeff Locke (4.71 Projected, 2.19 Actual)

Reliever Tony Watson is the only Pirates pitcher over 30 innings who hasn’t beaten his projection. As a staff, the Pirates have struck out about half a batter per inning more than they did last season. Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon have been dominant at the back of the bullpen, a mechanical fix has helped Francisco Liriano get more movement on his pitches while cutting down on his walks, and Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett have been on their best behavior.

There is some cause for concern here, though. The Pirates have outplayed their Pythagorean record by four wins, and their .271 staff BABIP/.728 Defensive Efficiency are the best in baseball. Russell Martin’s skills behind the plate could be leading to less hard contact (and more K’s), and Starling Marte’s presence in left has helped Pittsburgh’s outfield gobble up fly balls, but the likes of Jeff Locke (2.19 ERA, 3.82 FIP) won’t look this good for long.


Even if the Pirates stay healthy they’ll likely face some regression. But if the top of their staff stays out too long they could face significant regression.

– TS




  1. Brendan says:


    Travis, I imagine you’ve already seen this, but for those who havent, from Baseball America with link to read in full. Of note, Jim Callis mentions, “Even with 2011′s top overall pick, Gerrit Cole, getting promoted to Pittsburgh last week, space on our Bucs Top 10 will be at a premium because the system has a nice collection of high-ceiling talent.”

    1. Jameson Taillon, rhp
    $6.5 million man has better feel than Cole and his stuff isn’t far behind.
    2. Gregory Polanco, of
    Keeps getting better and might be a five-tool center fielder.
    3. Austin Meadows, of
    This year’s No. 9 pick might be a five-tool center fielder, too.
    4. Josh Bell, of
    Now that he’s healthy, showing why his bat earned him a $5 million bonus.
    5. Tyler Glasnow, rhp
    Breakout prospect has an unhittable fastball/curve combo, needs more command.
    6. Reese McGuire, c
    No. 14 choice in June has above-average catch, throw and bat skills.
    7. Alen Hanson, ss
    This feels low for an offensive shortstop with average defensive tools.
    8. Nick Kingham, rhp
    Like Glasnow, he’s a projection righty coming into his own this season.
    9. Luis Heredia, rhp
    Very polished and has two pro seasons under his belt at age 18.
    10. Tony Sanchez, c
    Showing signs that he just might be a big league regular.

  2. Nate83 says:

    Now the big question is how many get in the top 100. I would think Hanson should get in. That would be 7. Heredia is probably outside but by no fault of his own. The Pirates are being very cautious with him with good reason. Kingham could even sneak in if he keeps up what he has been doing in the second half of the year.

    Pretty nice turnaround to the system. It even has some depth after the top end guys. Thanks for sharing Brendon.

  3. Nate83 says:

    Thanks again Travis for your great coverage and out of the box reporting on things like the human brain comprehending a 100 mph fastball. I’m sure my face would have been hit and it would have hurt really, really, really bad.

    Hopefully the Pirates pitchers inevitable regression corrosponds with their offense heating up. It would be interesting to see how many regular position players are below projections for the season. I would think maybe 6 of the 8 with maybe Marte and Martin being the exceptions.

  4. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks for sharing.

    A really, really deep top 10 if Heredia is 9th.

    The Meadows ranking is aggressive, but I do like the prospect.

    Glasnow’s stock is way up and deservedly so.

    I’d drop Hanson down, mostly because I think he’s headed to 2b

  5. Matt Beam says:

    only if Jordy Mercer proves to be the long term answer at SS

  6. radio wave says:

    Plus 1

  7. Chuck H says:

    There is no room in baseball for pitchers who deliberately throw at a batter, especially a
    bean ball pitch. The umpire should immediately eject any such pitcher from the game, and the league should levy a large fine and/or suspension. The same is true for base runners who deliberately bowl over a catcher, trying to knock the ball loose. I, personally, do not
    condone this practice, any many times, the catcher, who is like a football pass receiver, defenseless, trying to catch the pass, is severely injured. A player who tries to injure another player is not a true sportsman, and doesn’t belong in the game.

  8. Travis Sawchik says:

    Great question, Nate. And it’s one I’m going to blog about today. Could the Pirates have nine top 100 talents. That’s what the Royals produced in 2011. And that was considered a historical cache

  9. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, Nate. That question has me intrigued

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