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March 19, 2010

Under The Knife

Frickin' Laser Beams, Part III

by Will Carroll

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It's been over a month since my LASIK surgery, time enough for my eyes to heal and for me to adjust to my new vision. A one-month checkup at the 20/20 Institute, where I had my elective procedure, showed that my right eye was better than 20/20, but my left (dominant) eye was slightly less than 20/20. Given my previous prescription, this is a success. While I could elect to have a second "touch- up" procedure, that's something for another day. Knowing that I can read, drive, and perform all of my daily activities without glasses makes this enough of a success for me.

But is it a success for baseball? That remains to be seen. Now let's be clear: I'm a baseball writer, not a baseball player, so these tests are really poor proxy for an actual baseball player. Still, I was curious to do some form of before-and-after testing. After consulting with several specialists in the field and some baseball officials, we decided that a two-fold test would be the best possible solution. Each would be done before and after, in as identical of conditions as possible.

The first test is one of visual acuity, adjustment, and reaction time. Designed initially to gauge the effect of time on pilots, this test was done on a computer. As I saw certain events, I tapped the corresponding button. I had to adjust to movement, clarity, and several other factors. This test is very standardized and easy to correlate results before and after. The second test was a bit more subjective and had to be altered due to my color blindness. Several baseball teams use a training device that fires baseballs with a colored dot on them. The player "reads" the dot, calls it out, and in many cases, hits the pitch. We made the alteration of putting one of four symbols on the ball—an X, an O, a triangle, and a squiggle. 

Prior to my procedure, I performed each of these tests both with and without my glasses. As expected, I did significantly better with glasses. While my reaction time did not change on a computerized test, my acuity and adjustment were both nearly twice as good with glasses than without. On a portion of the test designed to bring words into focus, the improvement with glasses was almost three times relative to no glasses. Given my prescription, the test's proctor told me there were well within expected ranges and that my reaction times were "very good." 

In the baseball portion of the test, the results were even clearer, so to speak. I was able to identify only six of 25 symbols correctly without glasses, but I got 14 correct with glasses. At the batting cage, we decided to try something we hadn't planned. Using a pitching machine that was able to throw both changeups and curves, I grabbed a bat. This was less scientific and more about seeing if I could do what a player would need to do. It's one thing to pick out a squiggle at a ball coming in at 75 mph, and it's another one entirely to pick up the spin and put the ball in play. 

Since I didn't have to worry too much about location—it's a pitching machine, not a pitcher­—we decided that I would both try to call out the pitch type and make contact. On 25 pitches, broken down 15, five, and five, I was able to correctly identify two without glasses and made contact on six. This is an intriguing result on the surface, but of those six, all were fastballs. With little motion, I was able to hit, but I was unable to make adjustments. None of the fastballs I hit came after one of the other pitches, indicating that I could time up the fastball even when I didn't recognize it. With my glasses on, the results were better, but no scouts would be impressed. I picked up 13 correct pitch types while making contact on seven. 

After being cleared at my one-month appointment, I went back and on successive days and repeated the tests. The results were as expected. With my surgically enhanced vision, the results were directly in line with my corrected (glasses) vision. The slight improvement in the results of the computerized test showed that my brain was adjusting to the new vision. While corrective lenses are very good, they still create an additional layer of complexity for the brain to deal with in translating what the eye is seeing. This is especially true for objects in motion. The curvature of the lens and loss of some peripheral vision creates the deficit. My improved scores were promising.

In the batting cage, however, came the real test. Using the same pitching machine, same lighting condition, and even going so far as to wear the same things and use the same bat in order to eliminate as much variance as possible, I stood in. I picked up the correct symbol on 16 of 25 balls. While subjective, I also felt I was picking them up more clearly and further out. That would show more when I picked up the bat. Again, using conditions as similar to the initial test as possible, I stood in. I was able to pick out the proper pitch type 15 times while making contact nine times. I again felt as if I was picking up the spin in the same way I had been with the symbols, which made me wonder if the pitching machine was actually a hindrance.

I also wasn't sure that was enough. As I was swinging the bat, a local high school pitcher had been tossing a pen in the lane next to me. Anyone who knows me knows I'm competitive and I wanted a chance to hit real pitches. Sure, I might have had to basically call him out, but as long as he didn't bean me, it was going to be a good test. This wasn't planned, and certainly a 15-year-old is going to be very inconsistent, but I wanted to know if I was correct—could I pick up the spin "out of his hand"? The clear answer was yes. I was able to identify 22 of 25 pitches correctly1. (It could be 23. He threw a slider that I called fastball and it hung.) Granted, these pitches were perhaps a bit slower than the machine and less consistent, but if I could do it, it showed that using the pitching machine might actually be a hindrance in determining pitch type.

The conclusions are hardly scientific, but nonetheless intriguing. The improvements were subtle, going from glasses to post-LASIK vision, but both are designed to leave the vision "normal," not to make it superhuman. This is in line with the findings we had in our first article, where it was difficult to find any sort of improvement in pre- and post-LASIK batting. Baseball players have incredible vision that allows them to perform feats most of us simply cannot. As Brian McCann showed last year, the very odd shift from LASIK back to glasses—the result of an eye infection—wasn't devastating. He was able to continue playing at an MLB level, though there was some drop-off. Whether that's more on the switch to glasses or the infection is impossible to tell.

In other words, Greg Maddux might be right. LASIK may be more about convenience than performance. Maddux said in 1999, "But I went in before the surgery 100 percent convinced that it's not going to make me a better pitcher. I didn't do it to become a better pitcher. I did it for me. I did it for the same reason I got a golf membership, or got married (laughs), or bought a car. I did it for those reasons. I did it for pure convenience for me." LASIK won't turn me into a major league hitter—or anyone else. In fact, it may not even give much of an advantage, if at all. 

It comes down to comfort and convenience, I believe. Baseball players are creatures of habit, so a small change often creates a tension, either positive or negative. My experience with the operation has been nothing but positive, making me believe that the largely positive results on the field are the result of players having similar experiences to mine off the field. While there's never likely to be a large-scale, scientific study on this topic, I think that the performance enhancement aspects are minimal, but that the lifestyle enhancement aspects make it worthwhile for many.

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1 It's even less scientific, but I stood about fifty feet away from Octavio Dotel while he threw a bullpen session at the Pirates' spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla. While he was calling his own pitches, I could clearly see the differing spin. I was able to get a better look at pitches during a pen session by Brian Bass. He was working on a sinker and I could pick up the spin from just behind the catcher.

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