Vision program has Mariners' Russell Branyan seeing improvement
Mariners first baseman credits a new eye-strengthening program to improved vision at the plate — and far better results.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mariners @ Texas Rangers, 5:05 p.m., FSN
For Russell Branyan, the secret to landing an everyday major-league job might have literally been right before his eyes.
The journeyman slugger had crossed paths for a decade with Chicago ophthalmologist Dr. Barry Seiller, or one of his colleagues in major-league clubhouses. But Branyan never took Seiller up on his offers to try the computerized vision-training program he had pioneered in the sports world.
Branyan, now the Mariners' first baseman, had dabbled with the CD-ROM software produced by Seiller's company, Vizual Edge. But it wasn't until spring training with the Milwaukee Brewers last season, when Branyan's up-and-down career was headed for the minors, that he finally embarked on a full-fledged eye-training program.
"I would do it off and on, but I never got on a program where I was doing it three or four times per week," said Branyan, 33, who is with his eighth organization and never has had more than 378 at-bats in a season. "But last year, I said, 'What the heck. I'm going to give this thing a shot. I'll do an eye program.' "
The exercises strengthen eye muscles and improve focus at the plate. All of a sudden, the career .230 hitter found he was swinging in front of the ball instead of behind it. The all-or-nothing slugger, whose strikeout rates had overshadowed his natural power ability, was now connecting on pitches he used to miss.
Branyan's batting average skyrocketed to .359 at Class AAA, earning him a late-May call-up by the Brewers. Jack Zduriencik, then Milwaukee's assistant general manager, liked what he saw. When hired as Seattle's GM in October, he offered free-agent Branyan a full-time job at first base.
This season, Branyan's .289 batting average is roughly 60 points higher than his career total. He still has power; leading the Mariners with seven home runs, seven doubles and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .935.
And while he's still prone to strikeouts, he's now fanning once every 3.3 at-bats instead of every 2.5.
"I think it's helped me really pinpoint and focus on the ball," Branyan said. "I see the ball exactly where it is."
Branyan spends 10 minutes a day, usually at home, training his eye muscles by donning special glasses and following a moving set of three-dimensional arrows on his laptop with help from a joystick. He can adjust the arrows' speed and vary programs — dealing with depth perception, tracking, focus and other visual areas — as he becomes more adept at following the images.
"We call it weight training for the eyes," Seiller said. "What we do is, we work on the speed and efficiency of the eye movements. And when you do that, you give the batter more time."
There are two components to Vizual Edge: the training program and an evaluation process that identifies visual strengths and weaknesses.
Zduriencik and the Brewers used both. Zduriencik has introduced Seiller's evaluation program into Mariners scouting, and the team has begun 15-minute eye tests on most amateur prospects being considered for the June draft.
"It helps you identify which players may have gifted vision," Zduriencik said. "And also, if any red flags pop up, you can look into it further to make sure it's not a serious issue that can come back to bite you later."
The Mariners are exploring whether to use the training part of Seiller's program.
"I don't want to say it's all because of this," Branyan said of his new success after 11 big-league seasons. "You never know what the future holds. But, I mean, I was a .230 hitter."
Various forms of visual training have long been a part of baseball. Former Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez used to sit in front of his locker before games doing eye exercises with a string and some beads
Seiller's computerized training program, launched in 2002, uses the same approach, but in a more structured, high-tech manner. He counts the Brewers, Astros and Royals as major-league clients using the training program. Also using it are the NHL's Blackhawks, the U.S. national softball team and some college programs.
"We've known Russell through many different teams," Seiller said, adding that he'd often come across Branyan while working with his teammates. "He finally got motivated last year while with the Brewers. Got a little more serious about his career."
A independent study last year at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi found that the velocity on balls hit by the school's baseball team increased significantly after using the program. Another study this year found the program can improve a hitter's pitch recognition.
Branyan has no objection to his Mariners teammates doing this training.
"I think they should set aside a special room for this kind of thing," he said. "A room with computers, where the players can go and train their eyes. I mean, I know what it's done for me. I think it would be a great investment for any team."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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