Catching a fly ball may look easy, but scientists know that it’s anything but: it turns out it’s the hardest hit to catch.

Researcher Ken Fuld became curious about this when his son began playing professional baseball. He says, “An outfielder is computing a collision course between the ball and the fielder in much the same way as a bird of prey tries to intercept another bird also in flight for its meal or an insect tries to contact a member of the opposite sex for the purpose of mating. Fielders must figure out the trajectory of the ball and combine that with information about their own movement in a way that requires a quick initial calculation of this information and then constant updating of information to correct for slight errors.”

Surprisingly, of all the balls hit into the outfield, those hit directly to a fielder are the most difficult to catch. Fuld says, “Good fielders do not run to a place where the ball will land and then wait for it, but rather catch the ball while running. Without a side view of a ball, a fielder has mostly only information about angular velocity with little information.”

It’s easier to catch a baseball when you’re playing indoors under a dome, since there are fewer, if any, shadows, and less glare. “The worst time of day, as any ball player will tell you, is twilight,” Fuld says.

For batters, fastball is the easiest pitch to hit, despite the fact that they can reach speeds of 100 mph, because a fastball has the straightest trajectory. On the other hand, the curve ball with a good downward motion, the forkball, and the split-fingered fastball are more difficult to hit. The split-fingered is the hardest to hit because, according to Fuld, it has a spin that “looks like that of a regular fastball, but the ball is slightly off-speed and has that downward trajectory.”

Even the best hitters can’t keep their eye on the ball for the entire length of a pitch. Fulds says, “Good hitters fixate on a pitcher’s release point and then make an eye movement to begin tracking the ball for as long as possible. A good hitter can track the ball to within about five feet, while a not-so-good hitter loses eye contact at about 10 feet.” A hitter who lets a perfectly good pitch go by without swinging may be trying to calibrate its track.

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