As reported in the offseason, Pablo Sandoval had LASIK eye surgery performed on his left eye. At separate times in his career he has worn corrective goggles, contacts in one or both eyes and even nothing at all. How important are Pablo’s eyes to his hitting? Is this negative aspect of Pablo’s body responsible for him not achieving his full potential as a hitter? Will this corrective procedure see statistical improvement? Let’s try to figure it all out and see.
So how important is vision to a Major League ballplayer? I think many of us remember hearing “Keep your eye on the ball” from our dads or coaches. We have all heard some form of the quote attributed to Ted Williams about hitting being the hardest thing to do in sports and he was the last guy to finish the season with a .400 batting average. Pete Rose famously said “See the ball, hit the ball” and that’s coming from the guy with the most career hits in MLB history. To “Charlie Hustle”, vision is at least 50% of the equation. Hardly scientific but we can all agree it is an important part of hitting.
In an article by Tim Kurkjian of ESPN from 2006, he referenced a quote from Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. In 1998, during the World Series with the Yankees, Tony had complained “I can’t see like I used to.”
A writer asked “So, what is your vision now, 20/20?”
Tony said “No, it’s 20/15. But I still can’t see like I used to.”
Hall of Famer Wade Boggs even claimed to have 20/12 vision. As talked about in this USA Today article “The eyes have it” from 1996 by the great Bill Koenig, it explains that Boggs, a career .334 BA going into the 1992 season would only hit for a .259 BA that year. Boggs had noticed he was having trouble recognizing the forkball when he was hitting. Boggs got an eye test and found out that his eyesight had deteriorated to a mortal man’s 20/20. He then got corrective contact lenses to better his vision which he wore for most of the remainder of his career.
1992 – 1999 with eventual career totals for comparison
It does appear that Wade Boggs performed better for the remainder of his career (age 35-41 seasons) in contrast to 1992. In fact,he did have a better OPS in each of his remaining 8 years after 1992. However, in the partial seasons of 1994 and 1995, his OPS was 30% and 17% higher respectively than his 1992 OPS. This is in contrast to the remaining seasons which were just 4% – 9% better than 1992. The year after he got the lenses in 1993 saw the smallest increase to his OPS with just a 4% increase. Perhaps the minimal increase in 1993 can be explained as an adjustment period? No one knows. It should also be noted that Boggs did have LASIK surgery done by Antonio Prado in the offseason prior to his 1999 season. It was that year where he famously hit a home run for his 3000th hit. Prado also performed LASIK on Denard Span and it is all talked about in this great article by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Eduardo A. Encina from 2008 so please read more.
Now this doesn’t prove anything either way. It does however illustrate how much ballplayers feel about the importance of their vision. It also gives us some numbers in what may have been the visual acuity scores of two great Hall of Fame hitters. It also tells us that the one major thing Boggs noticed during his 1992 season was his inability to pick up the rotation of the forkball. The inability to pick up the rotation of the pitch can disable you as a hitter from properly projecting where to swing.
Arm angle, release point, trajectory, estimated velocity and pitch identification are all computations the hitter considers in less than a half second. Pitch identification comes from seeing the rotation of the ball in flight, seeing where the pitcher’s hand ends up after the release, whether he snapped his wrist or if the pitcher has a tell in their motion. With your eyes and then quickly with your brain one can then estimate the movement of the ball and ultimately figure out where the ball will be as your muscles twitch for you to swing.
This also means that the reaction time of your brain and muscles (hand-eye coordination) are also very important. Regardless of how good your eyesight is, it does not mean you will be a great hitter without that quick reflex ability to react almost as fast as you think. Repetition and muscle memory play an integral roll in allowing your swing to achieve what your brain is telling you to do. If you want to read more on the topic and find out how hitters seem to slow the pitch down in their mind, then please read the Bill Koenig article from above. There you can find all kinds of great information on the role of the eyes in hitting. This further punctuates the importance of vision and how it’s coordination with brain and body are the basis of hitting.
Now Pablo has had great success in 2 of the 3 mostly full seasons he has played in. Throughout his career we have been made aware of the vast amount of problems Pablo has had finding the right help for his eyes. As Giants beat writer Henry Schulman reported in this offseason article prior to 2010, Pablo was attempting to use goggles to correct the fuzziness in his left eye. The prescribed goggles were reportedly being used to correct the 20/30 vision in his left eye.
Pablo said at the time “Things are so much clearer now, I feel comfortable. I can see the ball better this way.”
All things pointed to Pablo improving on or at least maintaining what he did in 2009. Obviously the drop from a .943 OPS in 2009 to a .732 OPS in 2010 showed the Panda did neither. As previously explained in The Negatives – Overweight, many separate factors including Pablo’s weight may have played a separate role in his hitting demise. Prior to the beginning of the 2011 season, we learned more in another great Schulamn article. Pablo, at some point during the 2010 season started wearing a contact lens in his left eye. We must now consider that an inability to correct the poor vision may have also played a part in his dismal year. The article then goes on to explain that Pablo would wear contact lenses in both eyes going into the 2011 campaign as prescribed by an optometrist.
Just after the 2011 season we learned Pablo had LASIK surgery in November. In a post by Giants beat writer Andew Baggarly in his blog Extra Baggs for the Mercury News (now Andrew is with Comcast Sports Net Bay Area) he interviewed Pablo’s agent Ryan Morgan. Morgan explained that the Panda had LASIK done to improve what was then tested as 20/40 vision in his left eye. He went on to explain that Pablo had yet to be tested but said he was seeing equal to or better than his right eye which is 20/20. The article also notes that although Pablo had a successful 2011 campaign he was not hitting as well as he had in 2009 from the right side of the plate (which is his natural side to hit from). His agent felt that his inability to hit as well as a right handed hitter was due to weakness in his left eye. It should be noted that your left eye is your lead eye when hitting as a right hander.
|vs RHP as LHB||139||474||427||134||30||5||19||40||68||.314||.373||.541||.914||3||0||4||13||7||.334||94||133|
|vs LHP as RHB||71||159||145||55||14||0||6||12||15||.379||.428||.600||1.028||1||0||1||0||2||.392||118||165|
|vs RHP as LHB||145||461||422||119||28||2||12||35||56||.282||.336||.443||.779||1||0||3||11||4||.300||112||107|
|vs LHP as RHB||71||155||141||32||6||1||1||12||25||.227||.284||.305||.589||0||0||2||1||6||.265||62||60|
|vs RHP as LHB||109||367||330||107||23||2||20||30||44||.324||.373||.588||.961||0||0||7||7||2||.319||111||155|
|vs LHP as RHB||43||95||93||27||3||1||3||2||17||.290||.305||.441||.746||0||0||0||2||1||.329||65||97|
|vs LHP as LHB||4||4||3||0||0||0||0||0||2||.000||.000||.000||.000||0||1||0||0||0||.000||-100||-100|
These split stats first point how well Pablo hit from the right side in 2009 with a 1.028 OPS. A 118 tOPS+ that year also points out that he didn’t just have a great year from the right side but a larger relative portion of his total .943 OPS came from that side instead of the left (94 tOPS+). If we focus on tOPS+ we can see that his scores were similar in both 2010 (62 tOPS+) and 2011 (65tOPS+). Keeping in mind that most of the relative portion of his total .732 OPS in 2010 and .909 OPS in 2011 both came from the left side with a 112 tOPS+ and 111 tOPS+ in their respective years. Even though Pablo vastly improved in his total OPS from 2010 to 2011 and returned to a similar level as 2009 with a .900+ OPS in 2011, he still had the same greater relative level of success as left handed batter. This also shows that Pablo achieved most of his 2009 .943 OPS more commonly from the right side. Overall, he was more evenly distributed that year than in his next two years. It is amazing to think that Pablo even came close to his 2009 OPS as he did in 2011. Consider that he was getting most of his total .909 OPS production that year from the left side. His final .961 OPS while hitting left handed points that fact out clearly.
This is definitely not enough data to prove his poorer performance as right handed hitter in 2010 and 2011 was due in any part to his failing vision. It does point out a trend in seeing a smaller part of his overall OPS success in each of the years following his successful 2009 campaign coming from the right side of the plate. Since we can’t prove for fact the reason for his deterioration, we can project what his number might have been like had he performed similarly to how he did in 2009 from the right side. Pablo had a right handed hitting 1.028 OPS in 2009 but we will instead settle on using a median number found between his 2009 OBP and SLG and his 2011 OBP and SLG.
If we round up his median on base percentage it would be a .367 OBP (actual is .3665) and his median slugging percentage rounded up would be a .521 SLG (actual is .5205) for a total .888 OPS median (actual is .887). We will not tamper with his numbers in the 3 AB that Pablo had against LHP from the left side. Those AB were due to an injury which prevented him from hitting right handed. In 2011 we will change some of his right handed numbers by replacing 6 outs with 6 hits to give him a theoretical .368 OBP then add 7 total bases to give him a theoretical .516 SLG which becomes a .884 OPS (pretty close to median). Now we have manufactured a theoretical season as a right handed hitter close to the median level between 2009 and 2011. We can then plug those numbers into his totals (which roughly works out be 6 singles and 1 double instead of 7 outs) to calculate what his total OPS would have been in 2011.
When added, it gives Pablo a .370 OBP and a .568 SLG which equals a .938 OPS. So had he just hit at an almost median level between his 2009 and what he actually did in 2011 from the right side, he would have raised his total OPS by a substantial .029. This illustrates the importance of performing better as a right handed hitter even though those opportunities come much less often because they obviously have a major impact on your total numbers.
What has LASIK done so far? Here is an article On The Benefits of LASIK surgery: A Quick Analysis by Jeff Sullivan from LookoutLanding.com that took a group of 26 Major League ballplayers who have had LASIK surgery. A comparison is made between their collective wRC+ before and after the surgery. Amongst the chosen was David Dellucci who I have referenced in previous posts. He had LASIK done prior to the 2005 season and went on to set some career highs in BB and HR in 2006 at age 31. He also saw solid time starting and had over 500 PA for the first and only time in his career. The findings did show a considerable increase to the wRC+ of the group after they had LASIK. It may not be concrete proof of improvement but it does show that it could be potentially beneficial.
As the article above and this fantastic read Under the Knife by Bill Carroll from BaseballProspectus.com points out in separate examples that the the large performance increase are sometimes predicated by a large drop off in performance. This can skew the numbers into making players look like they are playing the best ball of their lives when in reality the wRC+ of the group was higher two season prior to LASIK, rather than the year after it. Baseball Prospectus points out a similar trend in the Contact % of Jhonny Peralta where he dipped pretty hard statistically in the season right before the surgery and then saw the year after his LASIK surgery improve. The improvement however was close to the same level at which he performed in the season prior to his dismal year. Although success is not proven, we can assume that perhaps a consistent and longer term solution, along with a desire to get back to the same level of performance in previous years were reason enough for Pablo to go through with the procedure.
I think the examples point out that LASIK will not make you better than you ever were but it will allow you to play at the same level you used to. That in itself can have a huge impact on a players career by allowing them continued success. In Pablo’s case, he is coming off a great year and while we cannot expect him to be better than he was in any season prior. We can assume that changing his vision in his left eye from 20/40 to 20/20 will allow us to rule out vision as a reason to blame a poor year as a hitter on if he has one (unless complications arise of course). We can assume this because he has already had various degrees of success in seasons prior using a contact or goggles already.
Vision is what enables a hitter to recognize a pitch. This recognition and coordination with the body is the basis for hitting. Some of the best hall of fame hitters may have had extraordinary eyesight. Those eyes may require some upkeep to maintain that extraordinary level after they deteriorate. A deterioration in vision can cause a drop in performance.
I will carefully watch Pablo Sandoval all season long like a hitter enhancing his ocular conditioning by seeing the numbers on a passing ball. In my eyes if see an improvement in Pablo as a right handed hitter then it is safe to say I will also be seeing the LASIK surgery as a success.
by Raul Rekow Jr.