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Visual cortex training: coming to a baseball team near you

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This is fun. Some neuroscience researchers at UC Riverside had the UCR Highlanders baseball team take part in an experiment aimed at sharpening the way their visual cortex processes stimuli. Specifically, they looked at patterns on cards called Gabor patches, designed to increase vision and perception. The results were dramatic. From the research abstract, published in Current Biology:

We applied this training program to the University of California Riverside (UCR) Baseball Team and assessed benefits using standard eye-charts and batting statistics. Trained players showed improved vision after training, had decreased strike-outs, and created more runs; and even accounting for maturational gains, these additional runs may have led to an additional four to five team wins. These results demonstrate real world transferable benefits of a vision-training program based on perceptual learning principles.

The study is explained more generally at the L.A. Times.

The big caveat to all of this: the measurement of how much the team improved was based on sabermetric analysis of the team’s performance compared to performance from the previous year, with researchers finding that “the Highlanders’ improvements exceeded what would be expected from simply maturing and playing additional games.” My suspicion is that variation and uncertainty in any projection/prediction of how a baseball team does — especially a college team, which has way less of a body of data behind it than big league teams — is pretty great. Maybe there was marked and significant improvement. But how much is probably extremely wide open given how inexact a science baseball projections represent compared to your average neurological research data.

Still: intriguing. If time with some pattern recognition exercises is truly effective, might time in the batting cage be cut a few minutes each day?

Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery could share Cubs’ rotation spot in 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01:  Mike Montgomery #38 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Six of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 1, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon hasn’t selected a fifth starter for his 2017 rotation yet, but told reporters that he could envision left-handers Brett Anderson and Mike Montgomery sharing the spot throughout the year. Neither pitcher was stretched out to the full 200-inning threshold last year, Maddon added, and suggested that the two could alternate innings out of the rotation and bullpen as needed (via MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat).

Anderson, 29, was acquired by the Cubs in January on a $3.5 million deal. He’s coming off a rough 2016, during which he underwent back surgery and missed all but 11 1/3 innings of his last season with the Dodgers. His last full, healthy year in the majors yielded a 3.69 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 5.8 SO/9 over 180 1/3 innings with Los Angeles in 2015.

Montgomery, meanwhile, is vying for a rotation spot after pitching almost exclusively from the bullpen during the second half of the Cubs’ 2016 run. The 27-year-old lefty put up a 2.82 ERA, 4.7 BB/9 and 8.9 SO/9 over 38 1/3 innings for Chicago last year, returning in the postseason to post a 3.14 ERA during the Cubs’ championship finish.

Maddon also mentioned the possibility of throwing a sixth starter into the mix, which would help prevent his other starters from getting overworked too early in the year. Either way, Anderson and Montgomery are expected to get a lot of looks early in spring training as rotation spots are finalized in the weeks leading up to Opening Day.

Michael Bourn to miss four weeks with a broken finger

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 6:  Michael Bourn #1 of the Baltimore Orioles looks out of the dugout as he waits to get on deck to bat during the sixth inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on September 6, 2016 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Orioles’ center fielder Michael Bourn is expected to be sidelined for four weeks while he rehabs a broken ring finger on his right hand, according to reports from the Baltimore Sun’s Peter Schmuck. Bourn broke the finger while playing catch with a football after a spring training workout.

The veteran outfielder re-signed with the club earlier this week on a minor league deal and was prepared to compete for a bench role this season. He’s in line to receive a $2 million salary if he makes the major league roster and can make an additional $3.5 million in incentives based on a set number of plate appearances. Now, however, his chances of cracking the roster out of spring training look considerably diminished, as his current timetable gives him an approximate return date of March 25 if all goes well.

Bourn had an impressive, if short-lived run with the Orioles following his trade to Baltimore last August, batting .283/.358/.435 with two home runs and a .793 OPS in 55 PA. While still somewhat removed from the totals that brought him an All-Star nod with the Braves in 2012, his defensive chops should give the Orioles some depth in center once he’s healthy again.