We, along with almost everyone else, have already gone over the amazing Ichiro (!) run-scoring play from the first inning of Monday night’s New York/Baltimore game. While most “analysis” of the play consists of dropped jaws and a barely audible “wow,” there is more to look at than the amazing agility of the 38-year-old Yankees left fielder.

However, before we delve into whether or not this run should have counted, let’s spend a little bit of time adding to the praise heap for Ichiro’s efforts on this play, which represent a level of game intelligence I don’t think I’ve never seen before in baseball. Watch as he dodges one, two and three tags all in the span of less than a three seconds. To someone like me, who has trouble navigating his own bedroom without bumping into a desk or night-stand, Ichiro’s dodging and weaving movements seem beyond human.

In a way, they are. At least the way Ichiro uses his mind is different from how the average human uses his or hers, and this is what allows him to react in the fashion that we see above. Generally speaking, the brains of athletes act more efficiently than regular people’s.

In the case of Ichiro, his mind sets the goal of touching home plate without being tagged by Matt Wieters with the ball. From there the brain begins issuing commands, while simultaneously predicting the result of those commands. If the commands don’t assist in reaching the ultimate goal, they’re revised. According to this neuroscience study from 2008, the brain does more than issue rigid commands, it updates its solution to the problem of how to move the body to reach its goal. We see athletes performing better in these types of situations because their brains act faster in finding superior solutions than ours do.

However, what we might refer to as a heads-up play is not just the result of biology, but also the hours and hours of practice that actually alter the brain’s anatomy into a more efficient (for the purposes of athletes) organ. This has been realized through studying athletes versus non-athletes doing different tasks. Put simply, it doesn’t take the typical athlete as much brain activity to conduct actions as it might a non-athlete. What we see in Ichiro avoiding a tag and scoring, is this theory in practice.

What’s interesting in this specific case is that the machinations of Ichiro’s mind led him to score safely, but might not have led him to remain within the rules of the game while doing so. According to Chapter 7.08 of Major League Baseball’s official rules:

Any runner is out when –
(a) (1) He runs more than three feet away from his baseline to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runner’s baseline is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely.

Not only does Ichiro likely move three feet from the baseline in his attempt to score, he also curls around home plate, in a fashion that’s definitely wouldn’t be described as a straight line.

Although the rules state no difference at all between bases and home plate, as it pertains to base running, there’s definitely a difference in practice when an umpire is calling a game. What’s interesting to me is whether or not Ichiro’s awareness of that difference factored into his brain activity as he was dodging the tag, or if he was just thinking solely of avoidance at any cost. Would Ichiro have behaved in the same way that he did at home plate on Monday night as he would’ve at second or third base if a throw there were to have beat him by such a large margin?

I think he would have, and that to me, makes all of his split-second movements even more brilliant. Ichiro is like the Einstein of baseball on this play. He sets a goal, assesses options, considers all the factors and scores a run in a matter of two seconds.

Amazing. But not necessarily unique:

Dodged tag to Bill Parker for the video link.