September 10, 2012
Reading Lolita in Teheran, Part 1: Intro and Losing Focus
I want to do something experimental.
I promise that I'll eventually get back to spattering the pages of BP with the blood and regression coefficients that you've come to expect from me. But for right now, I want to do something different. I want to write a concept album. I want to talk about player development. And I have no idea if this is going to work.
It's something of a forbidden lust for a numbers guy to get into the business of talking about prospects and player development. After all, we stat guys are supposed to be spending our time setting humane scout traps baited with extra fancy stopwatches and radar guns. I used to release the ones that I caught in an abandoned field 25 miles away. They always somehow found their way back with a report about a guy with projectable 70 power, but concerns about how his hit tool would play. Then again, in my head, this makes complete sense. I spent six years in graduate school studying, teaching, and diagnosing problems in child and adolescent development. So, why not apply it to baseball?
On what turned out to be one of the final episodes of "Up and In," Jason Parks answered an e-mail question by encouraging sabermetricians to open up to new ideas of what could be considered a data set. Oddly enough, it was Jason's series on "What Could Go Wrong?" from the beginning of the year that inspired what I am about to undertake... and which will serve as my data set.
The "What Could Go Wrong" series was a veritable catalog of, well, things that could go wrong with the developmental process of a baseball player. It's tempting to think of player development as a nice, linear process by which everyone gets a little bit better as the years go by. The problem is that this doesn't describe development of any kind. It goes in fits and spurts, and there are plenty of pitfalls. Some players who have massive potential never realize it. Some seem to peak at age 22 and never get better. Some actually take steps backward. Need proof?
What do all of those names have in common? They were all recent consensus Top-20 prospects on the annual lists of people like Keith Law, BP's own dearly departed Kevin Goldstein, and the fine folks at Baseball America. Perhaps you've heard of these writers. They're all rather good at this, and they all swung and missed on these guys.
There's an entire field of study devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of developmental problems in children and teens. Maybe there should be a field that studies this in baseball players.
"What Could Go Wrong" is not a numerical data set. But if I wanted to create an entirely new field of pathology and treatment, I would start by collecting field observations from people who have experience with the population in which I am interested. Perhaps a professor who has done some sort of related work. Enter Professor Parks.
My goal is to take different "disorders" that Jason has noted and to expound on them using the expertise that I do have. Perhaps there are issues that can be diagnosed quickly. And, just so I can still occasionally say "Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!" (it's in my contract), maybe some of those can be diagnosed using some numerical gymnastics. But, to be honest, I'm not going to be constrained by the data that are available on hand. I will not shy away from proposing how things could be measured. Perhaps some teams are already tracking these sorts of things internally (and obviously, we'll not know that). This is going to be more theoretical than I usually like to be. And I'm okay with that.
It’s hard to question a pitcher’s fortitude based on personal observation unless that player is a recidivist in his penchant for visible mental collapse on the mound. Perez struggled at times in 2011; he seemed to lose focus when his parts weren’t in sync or his performance not up to par. But questioning his fortitude is rather harsh, and oftentimes I think it is either misguided or speaks to a larger issue with the person suggesting it in the first place. It’s quite common for 20-year-old pitchers struggling at the Triple-A level to experience periods of immaturity or diminished focus, and that’s assuming you can honestly declare that his lack of focus was actually a lack of focus, and not just a perceived lack of focus by the observer. Again, could there be a lack of focus? Sure. I actually assume there has been some. I’ve had a lack of focus so far in this article. It happens. Has a lack of focus been the reason for his struggles in recent years? I’m not sure.
Disclaimer: I've never met Martin Perez. I have no idea if any of what's said below applies specifically to him. But he is probably an avatar for certain players out there who have similar problems.
Baseball is a game that requires sustained attention, because for long periods of time during baseball games, "nothing" happens. For a pitcher, like Perez, it's not as bad, because the pitcher is, by definition, involved in every pitch thrown. But even then, baseball is a low-stimulation game. Now, people vary in their need for stimulation. Some people really are happy sitting there and watching paint dry. Others need more. The problem is keeping your mind away from all of the other things you could be thinking about other than your job. That's what your brain's pre-frontal cortex, the part right behind your forehead, does.
Generally, the four letters most associated with "trouble paying attention" are ADHD. This is unfortunate, because there are a lot of things that can cause difficulties in paying attention: anxiety, depression, sensory processing issues, lack of sleep, or just having an attitude problem. If a player is showing a lack of focus, the next (and more important) step would be figuring out the underlying cause, but let's talk about how to diagnose a lack of focus more generally.
Professor Parks talks about how it's difficult to figure out whether someone is focused just by looking at him. But there is a nice measurable hallmark of inattention: variability in response time. There is a standard test that's used in the diagnosis of ADHD called the Conners' Continuous Performance Task (CPT). You sit at a computer, and the screen presents a series of letters flashing one at a time for 15 minutes. Your job is to hit the space bar every time that you see a letter (except for the letter 'X'), and the computer tracks your response time. The letters appear at different rates during different parts of the test. Some come a second apart, some two seconds, some four seconds. If your attention is prone to wandering, you'll be a lot slower to respond in the low-stimulation sections (every four seconds) than in the high-stimulation sections (every second.)
Perhaps players are already administered the Conners’ CPT and those data are not made public. However, there could be some analogous data. PITCHf/x data does contain a time-stamp for each pitch. There are going to be a lot of confounds in that data set (the batter stepping out, runners on first needing extra looks, etc.), but pitchers who show specific pockets where their time between pitches starts varying wildly might have a focus problem. If that can be mapped to a particular set of circumstances (a cause?), all the better! Another place where variability might come in is in a pitcher's mechanics, which could show up in his release point. Again, if the heat map of the release point tends to spread out in certain circumstances, it might be a clue.
Professor Parks also points out that it's not surprising that Perez, at 20 years old, might go through periods of difficulty paying attention. It's part of the maturing process, after all. And Jason is right. The pre-frontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to develop fully, and it does a good chunk of that development between the ages of 20 and 30. (Think about how many stories that you have that end with, "Yeah, but I was 21 back then...") I've written about this before here in the pages of BP. I am left to wonder what percentage of players who "don't develop" despite having all the physical tools are victims of their pre-frontal cortex not developing in line with their muscles. The ability to focus is intimately tied to the ability to learn new skills.
Treatment for a lack of focus is dependent on the underlying cause. If it's really ADHD, then there are medications that can be (and are) prescribed. But, one easy thing for a coach to do is to build in an attention-reset behavior into a pitcher's (or batter's) routine. Even people with ADHD can maintain focus for a short amount of time. It's holding that attention that's the hard part. But a player can pair a particular event with a mental note of "time to pay attention." For example, Perez might pair stepping on the rubber with resetting his focus. If his trouble with focusing happens more when things aren't going well, he might need to add in "can't think about that now." (Although in another episode, we'll probably talk about why that's a bad idea.)
This is the sort of skill that a player must actually practice. It might seem odd to say, "Instead of practicing actually throwing a curveball, let's practice thinking." But it could easily make the difference between a pitcher’s mind wandering and his focus remaining on the game.