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

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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.

 

THE TOUGHEST TEST 

 

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

(@Sawchik_Trib)

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