PORT CHARLOTTE -- It has been argued quite successfully that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports.
A fastball thrown at 95 to 100 mph reaches home plate in about 0.4 seconds and it takes humans 0.15 seconds to voluntarily blink their eye in response to visual signals, former Yale University professor of physics Robert Adair wrote in his book “The Physics of Baseball.”
In citing the great hitters and not discounting athletic skills, Adair writes success lies primarily in the brain.
Hitters have two-tenths of a second to process all the information before deciding to swing at a pitch. So if your brain is not functioning at a level most would consider above human standards, you are likely going to miss.
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New Tampa Bay Rays infielder Jeff Keppinger subscribes to the brain theory, which is a reason he is one of the hardest guys to strike out in the history of baseball.
“He never wastes an at-bat,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Last season, Keppinger was the National League’s toughest hitter to strike out. He fanned only 24 times in 400 at-bats with the Houston Asros and the San Francisco Giants. The 31-year-old might sound a little baffled at his success, but he attributes it more to his mental approach than his physical skills. He is hitting .351 this spring and has struck out only once.
Keppinger has been a tough strikeout going back to his youth league days. He was forced to adapt to make contact because he played with his older brother, which forced him to face older pitchers.
“During my senior year of high school I only struck out three times,” he said. “I played with older kids because of my brother, and it was difficult. They always threw harder than what I should’ve been accustomed to for my age, and it was just about trying to put the ball in play and not trying to do too much with it.
“That approach kind of stuck with me over the years, and I guess that is why I don’t strike out much. That’s my logic to it. Good hand-eye coordinator? I don’t know.”
At 6 feet, 185 pounds, Keppinger doesn’t have the build to power the ball out of the park and doesn’t try to do it, which is another reason he makes contact more than most.
Heading into this season, Keppinger ranks second among active players with a career mark of one strikeout per 16.11 plate appearances. In his three-year career at the University of Georgia, he struck out just 44 times in 714 at-bats.
He is even more valuable in clutch situations especially when pitchers have to throw strikes. Since 1974, Keppinger has the fourth-highest career batting average with the bases loaded (.477).
Keppinger said athleticism helps, but it’s the mental approach and mind that determines whether ball and bat make contact. And that moment when ball meets bat lasts only 1/1000th of a second, according to Adair.
“If you hit the ball you can’t strike out, right?” Keppinger jokes. “I just try not to do too much. Instead of trying to drive the ball all the time, I try to put it in play. Early in the count when most guys are trying to drive the ball, I try to make contact.
“Certain pitchers that are strikeout pitchers are strikeout pitchers for a reason. You’ve got to start off trying to touch them a little and see what happens from there. It’s an approach I’ve always stuck with.”
It’s also an approach that fits right in with the Rays’ way of doing things and a key reason they went after Keppinger.
Along with Keppinger’s ability to make contact, Maddon likes the way the right-handed-hitting Keppinger hits lefties and his ability to play anywhere in the infield.
“He is doing great. Kepp is a great professional and has a great at-bat every time he goes up there. We are playing him at different positions and he has done a great job everywhere,” Maddon said.
Maddon also wants Keppinger to learn first base because he would be a good person to plug in when left-handed-hitting first baseman Carlos Pena needs a day off and the Rays are facing a left-hander. Keppinger has a lifetime .325 average against lefties.
The Miami native has played 280 games at second base, 178 at shortstop, 102 at third base and eight at first base.
Keppinger said he has never started the season with a team that had so much promise. Maddon says Keppinger’s versatility and bat skill fit in with what the Rays covet.