A psychologist named Samuel Renshaw invented a method to allow Allied fighter pilots to make split-second identification of fighter airplanes in WWII. Could a variation of his method work in baseball?
In the Second World War, fighter pilots faced a difficult problem. They would often encounter other planes in battle conditions. It was critical that they be able to distinguish friend from foe, and that they do it quickly and accurately. The conventional training method was to drill pilots on the special characteristics of different planes – the WEFT system (standing for Wingshape, Engine configuration, Fuselage shape and Tail type). When confronted with an unfamiliar plane, the pilot would run through these characteristics and pattern-match to the planes he had memorized.
Problem was, this system took time and was difficult to train. An American psychologist and professor, Samuel Renshaw, came up with a different approach. He had previously designed a program that dramatically increased reading speeds among his students at Ohio State, using machines called “tachistoscopes” which flashed words and images for fractions of a second. He believed that the eye and the mind could be trained to identify pertinent details in aircraft using a similar system, much more quickly and without the conscious thought process of the WEFT system.
At first, people were skeptical:
"The idea of trying to recognize anything by breaking it into parts outraged everything Renshaw knew about how the eye and mind operate in the miracle called seeing. He prescribed a program which began exactly like the reading-skill course, with numbers flashed on a screen by a tachistoscope. Then he added slides showing silhouettes of planes. He boldly predicted that when flight cadets could recognize those magic-lantern pictures at one-hundredth of a second, they would be able to do the same thing in combat. Furthermore, he declared, in the same instant they would be able to count the planes and tell how many of each kind there were.When that kind of talk got to Washington, it, of course, sounded like ridiculous — even dangerous — nonsense. A Navy brass hat came to Columbus to give Renshaw his comeuppance. Renshaw put on a demonstration with students. They missed only one plane out of twenty. When the brass hat himself tried to match the performance of these Renshaw-trained youngsters, he not only could not spot a single plane at one one-hundredth of a second but on most tries saw only sudden meaningless flashes. At least partly convinced, he recommended that a Navy training school be set up at Ohio State."
Renshaw’s technique was based on training the eye to absorb the full picture, holistically, and to maximize the information submitted to the brain. As children (up to about age six) we relate to visual images in this way. But once we start to read, we are trained to focus on details. It is counter-intuitive, but when people try to relate to (say) an 8-digit number flashed for 1/100 of a second holistically, they remember far more than if they try to memorize it digit by digit. Most of the work of visual perception is done in the brain, but the brain’s ability to “see” is limited by the data it receives.
As an illustration, here is a simple test. Look at this image for as long as you want, and see if you can identify what it is. A hint – people trained by Renshaw almost all recognized the image immediately, but most adults (including me) were unable to do so.
Toronto Blue Jays
Now, for those of you with a small child readily available, have them look at the image and say what they see. Many children – without any Renshaw training – find this puzzle obvious.
Still not sure what the image represents? This picture might help.
So what does all this have to do with baseball?
A hundred-mile fastball reaches the plate in about 400 milliseconds. To hit it, a batter needs to recognize it and react in about 250 milliseconds. For context, a fast blink of the eye takes about 300 milliseconds.
As I noted in a previous article, plate discipline (i.e. swinging at strikes but not at balls) is hard, largely due to this short time to react. Suppose a hitter could recognize the pitch earlier – or even just recognize a few of its characteristics? Would this have an effect similar to the mental “slowing down the game” that some writers ascribe to the very best hitters? And could a form of Renshaw training help batters to achieve this effect?
The bottom line
It is entirely possible that some teams are already using Renshaw Visual Efficiency training, or some more recent variant. And it is also possible that this technique, modified to be used with video rather than still images, might not work in a baseball context. But in this world of Rapsodo, Trackman, Diamond Kinetics et al designed to improve a pitcher’s arm, might there be room for a tech that improves the batter’s eyes?
And for those of you wondering about Renshaw and WWII? “Eventually 4000 instructors were trained … in the Renshaw Recognition System, and they in turn trained 285,000 preflight cadets throughout the country. In addition, every Navy ship which left port after the early part of 1943 had aboard at least one recognition officer, schooled in Renshaw’s method. After a year and a half in the thick of the Pacific fight, one such officer wrote: “We have never fired a shot at any of our own stuff, and never missed a shot at (the enemy)”.