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December 8, 2015

Baseball Therapy

Fiddlesticks, Yeah!

by Russell A. Carleton

Statcast’s rookie season is now in the rearview mirror. And it was a good one. The slightly Orwellian information system gave us plenty of new information to drool over. We learned terms like “route efficiency” and “exit velocity” and “launch angle” and could marvel at just how fast baseball players moved around the diamond, chasing after the little white pearl which was moving even faster still. Baseball might be a game of inches, but it’s a game of inches played at insane speeds.

Still, Statcast doesn’t tell us everything. (Yet?) There’s more to winning a baseball game than an exit velocity of 100 mph. Well… okay, that can go a very long way toward winning a baseball game, but Statcast only sees the stuff that happens on the field. What about the skills that a player needs off the field? For example, how does a player handle it when he has a bad at-bat? Does he sulk or does he get over it? And how does he get over it?

Baseball is a game of failure. There’s of oft-repeated line that Hall of Famers fail seven out of 10 times and if you can get down to six failures out of ten tries, you are a legend. But failure doesn’t feel nice, especially when you do something right like hit a line drive… right into someone’s glove. It’s perfectly natural to feel a little disappointed. And often, it results in someone yelling out the word “Fiddlesticks!” Fiddlesticks, of course, is a very salty word and perhaps not fit for polite company, but we’re all adults here and we know that sometimes, doo-doo happens. And sometimes you just have to yell “Fiddlesticks!”

We might consider it to be irrelevant information that a player yelled “Fiddlesticks!” after he got back to the dugout and that it doesn’t have anything to actually do with team performance. May I present a contrarian view? After all, we know that research in basketball has taught us that teams that engage in more touching rituals (such as high fives) actually perform better. On the flip side, at the end of the 2015 season, when the Washington Nationals were at the end of their collapse (and Manager Matt Williams was about to get fired), Jonathan Papelbon likely said “Fiddlesticks!” to Bryce Harper in the dugout while engaging in a touch ritual. It’s not clear whether the off-the-field problems were a cause or effect of the Nationals’ poor performance, but it sure did seem to go hand-in-hand. There will be plenty of people reading this who would say that establishing the direction of the relationship is nigh impossible. At this point, I think the direction of the relationship isn’t as important as knowing whether there’s a correlation. If we even knew that in hard numbers, that would be eye-opening.

And so, I would humbly request that Statcast should begin recording instances of when players say “Fiddlesticks!” It would be amazing information to have for those of us out here.

Consider for a moment what screaming “Fiddlesticks!” does for a person. After a disappointment, whether a lost game or a lost at-bat, players will naturally feel anger. These guys got where they are by being extremely competitive and they just lost a competition. Anger needs an escape valve. As someone who has worked with people who had anger management issues, you don’t tell people not to get angry. You work with them to find a way to let the anger out constructively. Or at least non-destructively. And more than once, I actually suggested to someone that they yell out “Fiddlesticks!” as a way to release anger. (Not for everyone and certainly not everywhere… but part of being a big person is realizing that there’s a time and a place for most things.)

Humans are creatures of ritual, especially when confronted with strong emotions. When someone dies, we have funeral rituals. When someone leaves for the day, we have separation rituals. And when we are anxious, we have all sorts of superstitious rituals. Because that’s how humans role. Rituals might seem silly, but they serve a very important role in human behavior. What a ritual allows a person to do is to take all of that negative emotion, and do something with it, even if that something is really nothing in the grand scheme of things. But that negative emotion is now part of that act, and that act has been done, and therefore, that negative emotion is not a part of me. It’s kind of like taking it all, rolling it into a little ball, and casting it out into the locker room tunnel.

Screaming “Fiddlesticks” allows the screamer to take all of that pent up angry energy and divert it into… screaming. It’s a forbidden and rather violent word to yell, so the screamer gets the satisfaction of doing something naughty. But at the same time, he’s taking his anger and turned it into an action that hopefully drains the anger, and (assuming that there aren’t any television mics around) the word simply disappears into the air, so no one really gets hurt, and he can move on with life. And that’s important in a game that doesn’t really stop. A pitcher who gives up a home run has some fraction of a minute before he has to throw another pitch. He can’t be sitting out their stewing over the fact that he gave up a gopher ball or beating himself up. Even if he did throw a truly awful pitch, he has to get over it. Soon.

What I’m really talking about here is the ability to regulate emotion and the role that it plays in baseball. Over the course of a three-hour game (and a six-month season), there will be highs and there will be lows. It’s hard enough trying to get enough sleep while playing baseball without lying awake at night thinking about the ball that got away. Joe Maddon’s somewhat famous 30-minute rule where he allows players to celebrate a win or mourn a loss for a half-hour after the game, and then on to the next one comes to mind. That’s all about emotional regulation as well.

Baseball requires intense focus, mostly because there’s just not a lot going on most of the time, but when things do start happening, a player has to move fast. Remember, this is a game of inches played at insane speeds. There’s little room for being distracted. And maybe all this emotional regulation stuff has a small effect here and a small effect there but over time, it can build into real value. The problem is that we have absolutely no data on the subject. It may seem silly to collect data on when players yell out “Fiddlesticks” after a tough break, but it’s the sort of thing that – at least theoretically – could have a real effect on a player or a team’s chances. And emotional regulation skills can be taught. (And they are.)

With better information about when players say “Fiddlesticks” (or some variant of it), we can look to see whether such a strategy works in general, and perhaps for whom. We could look at what happens afterward. Perhaps there’s something wrong with a guy who yells it out a little too often. Maybe that’s just how some people process. But my point is that we have no data at all on the subject and it’s not at all silly to believe that this could have some effect.

Statcast won’t ever be able to give us those data points, and there probably isn’t a practical way to collect it by any other means, but just because it can’t be measured, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important. In a perfect world, we’d have a Fiddlesticks Index, or perhaps a Fiddlesticks Utterance Context Key stat and I’m sure we could adjust it for park and era. But if we even had something remotely close, maybe it would provide an insight into the game that we didn’t have before, and for a team, a place to get some low-cost wins, just by teaching your players how to yell out a simple word. “Fiddlesticks!”

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

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