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September 24, 2012

Baseball Therapy

Reading Lolita in Teheran, Part 3: Smoking, Hitting, and the Search for an 80 Brain

by Russell A. Carleton

Once again, let's talk about player development from a scientific perspective. For the past couple weeks, I've been looking at the "What Can Go Wrong" Series that BP's own Jason Parks wrote last winter the way that a trained developmental specialist would and discussing how certain problems that Jason identified can be measured, even if those data aren't publicly available.

The goal is to figure out how we might diagnose problems as they start to develop and then think about targeting interventions. I suppose I should cop to the fact that a good chunk of Jason's critiques of various players focused on the mechanics that a player has (i.e., his swing or his delivery). I am rather unqualified to talk about these sorts of things, so I'll stick to what I actually know. But there's a lot more to the game of baseball than just having the right mechanics or the right physical build. The history of the game is littered with the carcasses of prospects who had all the right tools and mechanics, but never panned out. These are the ones in whom I am most interested.

Today, we'll look at Wil Myers of the Royals and what he can teach us about striking a good balance between activity and passivity. Then we'll talk about the Tigers' Brenny Paulino and what the best environment is for learning.

First, here's what Jason had to say about Wil Myers, Royals outfielder.

It’s then that I’d like to see Myers up his intensity at the plate, taking advantage of pitches he can drive before the pitchers take advantage of him. Being patient has its advantages, especially against quality pitching: it can put you in favorable hitting situations, it can lead to walks, and it can force a pitcher to throw a lot of pitches while also disrupting the deception of sequence. But it can also make a hitter second-guess opportunities, especially if they come early in the count. Hitters like Myers are the opposite of complex league hitters, those that are taught to read and react, looking to drive fastballs early and often in counts. Myers has good pitch-recognition skills and can track a ball from release to glove better than a lot of major leaguers, but the best hitters also know when to attack; Myers can be a bit passive in that regard. At the higher levels, you either drive or you get driven, and without a little more intensity when the situation calls for it, Myers will remain a backseat hitter, waiting on the perfect opportunity to take the wheel. That type of approach, while applauded in certain situations, can get a young hitter run over.

Moneyball wasn't really about walks, and here's a good illustration of why. As an outcome of a plate appearance, a walk isn't a bad thing. If the options are a walk or a grounder to second, I'll gladly take the base. The problem is that while plate discipline is a wonderful thing, sometimes the most disciplined thing that a hitter can do is to take a nice juicy fastball and ping it off the right field wall.

It's fairly easy to diagnose a hitter who is being too passive and to distinguish a disciplined hitter from a merely passive one. A few years ago, I created a system based on signal-detection theory that can do the job quite well. There are some players who walk a lot because they are good at telling balls from strikes, and there are some who walk a lot because they simply don't swing a lot.

But can the disease be treated? If Myers (or some other minor leaguer) is too passive, is there any hope? In general, I've found that a player's swing tendencies are fairly stable from year to year, and changing things might not be as easy as one might think. Consider for a moment how difficult it is to make changes in your own life over things that you have (theoretically) complete control. For example, you may have a friend who has tried to quit smoking. He's fully aware of the health problems that go along with smoking. In theory, it's just a matter of not buying cigarettes and throwing away the ones he has. Of course, it's not that easy. There are still millions of smokers in this country. In theory, getting Wil Myers to swing more is a simple matter of saying, "Hey Wil, just be a bit more aggressive." He's certainly capable of it. But of course, nothing is ever that easy.

The problem is that when one has been doing something so long, it becomes hard to break that pattern, both neurologically and behaviorally. When you practice something, your brain develops neural pathways among the systems that control that action. It does so by strengthening the connecting tissue in the brain that goes from one part to the other, which makes it easier for the brain to send a signal along that pathway. But what happens when you no longer want that behavior? The pathway is still strong, and the brain still wants to take the path of least resistance to send messages.

This can be overcome, and there are several theories of how to do it, but most of them start with the person involved being willing to actively make that change. It’s a difficult process, because even on the most innocuous task, you are fighting your own neurobiology. And that's hard to do when the brain will give you an easy out with that already-strong pathway ready to go. At first, Myers might have to force himself to be more assertive at the plate. The good news is that over time, as he does so, new pathways are laid down in the brain. At some point, the new pathway will become stronger, and the old one will decay a bit. At that point, he might have a new properly aggressive approach and keep it.

Unless he relapses. That happens with smokers and people trying to change any sort of behavior. It could happen to him. But maybe what prospects who show a little too much passivity, or too much aggressiveness need is to borrow a page from substance use treatment. (For what it’s worth, Myers has walked less often and struck out more often this season. His new approach seems to have served him well.)

Now we turn to Brenny Paulino of the Tigers. In February, Jason had this to say about the then-18-year-old Tiger cub.

In the complex league, it’s not uncommon to see pitchers building the foundations of their arsenal, which starts with establishing arm strength through fastball (four-seam) repetition. Because of his age and the present state of his arsenal, Paulino would struggle with a full-season assignment, much like he did during his five-inning snapshot in the Florida State League in 2011. The strength of the fastball suggests an assignment to Low-A is within reason and the weakness of everything else suggests such an assignment could lead to setback. That said, setbacks can be a good thing when they are followed by steps forward, and pitchers with intense raw stuff need to be challenged by more advanced hitters in order to take those developmental steps.

Here we have the classic case of the incredibly talented, but oh-so-raw 18-year-old prospect. He's got all the tools. But can he be taught how to use them? This "disease" is fairly common among prospects. They have a lot to learn before they can get to the bigs. Something that I always think of when I listen to or read what scouts write is that they mostly focus on the player's physical abilities, both current and projected, with the caveat that "if he can harness it" he'll be the next Steve Buchele. There's never a lot of talk about how projectable his learning skills might be.

For one thing, it's hard to observe a player’s learning skills, even with a really fancy stopwatch. But if the ability to learn is key to turning raw talent into actual performance, why not spend some time figuring out if the player has a 20 learning tool or an 80? Many players are drafted based on their physical tools, but what about the guy who doesn't have blow-you-away stuff now, but can develop quickly because he can learn? In general, the closest thing that I hear to this is when scouts talk about "makeup."

Can this learning ability be measured? My answer is "Yes... I think..."

In general, the word most associated with this sort of skill is "intelligence." Intelligence is a slippery word, because no one has ever really given a good definition of it that all can agree on. There are players who have degrees from prestigious four-year universities, and some who can barely spell their own names. That's not what we're talking about. Grades in school are not the same thing as intelligence, especially because, despite what we've been trying to do here at BP for years, playing baseball does not actually involve solving multivariate calculus problems. We're working on it.

There are plenty of different learning styles. Some are visual learners, some auditory, some learn by doing. Some respond well to praise, some to failure. Some work best when you explain step-by-step. Some need to see the whole picture and understand the pattern intuitively. There are tests that can measure these sorts of things. And no, I'm not talking about the Wonderlic, although it presents an interesting model in that the NFL gives it to all the top prospects at their scouting combine. Baseball isn't as organized. But what if someone developed a short test that could be administered by scouts in the field that could determine whether there's any chance of upside in a player's learning abilities? Some intelligence/personality tests have been tried, but perhaps not perfected. If they were, it might cut down on those "wasted" draft picks of guys who looked good at 18, but couldn't make the most of that raw talent.

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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