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January 7, 2013

Baseball Therapy

What Really Happens When a Baseball Player Turns 18

by Russell A. Carleton

In my most recent chat here at BP, a subscriber asked me about Cubs prospect Albert Almora, whom he called "polished" for an 18-year-old. I know very little about who's who among prospects, so I'll assume that Almora really is "polished" (he did get a taste of low-A ball last year), and as a former Lakeview resident, I should be overly excited about him. History has shown over and over that this will certainly end well for the Cubs.

As someone trained in child and adolescent development, I think it's funny the way that the age of 18 is handled in United States culture. It's the point where people are legally considered adults, and I suppose that line has to be set somewhere. What amuses me is that people seem to confuse legal adulthood with the end of development. After all, at 18, a person has survived puberty and will soon have a high school diploma. What more is left to do?

Plenty, and in all sorts of areas. Recent research has shown that at age 18, while the rapid physical development of puberty might be over, there's still a lot of brain development happening, and it doesn't really stop until the age of 30. On top of that, there are plenty of important events that generally happen in the third decade of life. There's an emerging field of research on this transition from adolescence to full adulthood (and all the steps in between). Nothing magic happens on your 18th birthday to make you an adult. It's a process.

Which brings us back to Mr. Almora, and all of his fellow 18-year-old minor leaguers. Let's for a moment take away the title of "baseball player" and focus on what they really are: to borrow a phrase I've used previously, "replacement level adults."

Consider what it really means to actually function as an adult, rather than just be 18. A person must tend to basic needs like meal planning, taking care of hygiene, managing money, and finding a place to live. At this age, young adults need to make decisions about what sort of education or work they will pursue and commit to it. They must develop adult relationships with others (whether romantic or platonic). And most importantly, they must do these things on their own. The flip side of finally having complete control over what you can do is that you actually have to take control of what you do.

A small example from my own life. When I was 22, I moved to Chicago for graduate school. I had lived on campus all four years of college (my school did not allow off-campus living), so I hadn't really cooked for myself on a daily basis before then. I had never needed to develop a coherent plan for meal planning or what to get at the grocery store before then. I'm decidedly in the "eat because it's a good way to avoid starving" camp, so I just needed the basics, but grocery shopping is a skill, not an instinct. It has to be practiced. I did what most people probably do and started buying and cooking the meals that I grew up with, and my approach evolved over time. I assume that most people do something similar. Of course, life is more than simply figuring out the produce section. Imagine what it's like for someone having his first real romantic relationship. That's one that I don't think anybody ever fully figures out.

The good news is that most people eventually do figure out how to handle the skills needed for everyday life, even if it's just by trial and error. But not everyone does. And imagine how that might affect an 18-year-old who is trying to, at the same time, build the skills necessary to be a big leaguer. If he doesn't know how to handle money, he might just be pre-occupied with how he'll pay his bills. If he doesn't know how to meal plan, he might not be in good shape. If he's in a messy relationship, his mind might be elsewhere. It might not be obvious what's going on, and it might take the form of him just... not... progressing. In all honesty, just about everyone has a few trials and a lot of errors in this whole "becoming an adult" project. And some of those errors might derail a prospect on his way to stardom. Sure he has talent, but talent isn't the only thing you need. This is the awkward part of the article where the sabermetrician defends the concept of "makeup."

Of course, teams know this, and the smart ones have developed plans for helping young players through this transition. (Although I sometimes wonder whether teams appreciate how much more they could do and how much it could pay off for them.) Even before scholars of human development started talking about this transition from adolescence to adulthood, teams already had some clue: witness the much derided "veteran leader" or "clubhouse guy," especially on a team of younger players. You know the type: he's probably a replacement level player on the field. He's past his prime. He looks out of place next to the bevy of young stars on the rise. Why do teams keep these guys around, and indeed, seem to swear by them? As annoying as all the clichés about "he knows how to win" or "he knows how to play the right way" are, they hide something that might be a big value to the team.

Let's assume that one of those young stars has a problem in his personal life, whether with his grocery shopping skills or with his significant other. It's a problem that, if left unaddressed, could impact his on-field performance. Part of being a male within United States culture is that it's taboo to ask for help directly. That would be admitting weakness, and especially in a hypermasculine environment like a baseball clubhouse (hint: it's almost all guys...) that's not allowed. (It's a stupid part of United States culture, but it's there.) What is our young player to do? It might be the sort of problem he doesn't want to take to his parents (assuming he even has a good relationship with them). He might not want to talk to his manager, a.k.a. the "old" guy who decides whether he plays or not.

But what about the guy a few lockers over who seems to have his stuff together, is approachable and nice to talk to, has been around for a few years, and can understand exactly where he's coming from? After all, he was once a 24-year-old major leaguer as well, but he's also "just one of the guys." In general, the person most likely to be approached for help is someone who shows competence and warmth and is similar in a meaningful way to the person having the problem. There are some guys who might not provide much value on the field, but are 80 human beings. It's not that every one of these guys is correctly selected or that every player needs that sort of mentorship, but it's not a bad insurance policy to have. And because many of the things that happen behind the scenes are... well, behind the scenes, you may never know it happened. It takes the form of the up-and-coming star who didn't suddenly lose a bit of his mojo.

Aside from the social development that our minor leaguers are going through, there's also the neurological development that happens up to the age of 30. The ever-wise Yogi Berra helpfully pointed out that 90 percent of the game is half mental. Maybe the best evidence of how much that 45 percent of the game matters can be found in the recap of any June draft that's more than five years old (so that we can see what the results have been). The guys who get drafted in the first round all had fantastic physical tools, or at least had bodies that projected to develop those tools. They've all been successful at the high school/college level. Teams spend a lot of time and money scouting these guys. They have knowledgeable pros on the case who do their homework. The question that surely baffles every scouting director, farm director, and GM is, "After all that, why do so many of these guys go wrong?"

Sure, sometimes it's injuries. But I'd argue that another major reason has to do with the neurological development that's taking place between being drafted at 18 and 10 (!) years later, when a team hopes the player will hit his prime at 28. The part of the brain developing the most during that time is the frontal lobe. I've written a lot about the frontal lobe in the past because it does a lot of nifty things, both in baseball and in general. It's in charge of things like pattern recognition, planning and judgment, and attention, all skills important to playing the game of baseball at a high level.

One part of the frontal lobe is the motor planning cortex. This is the area of the brain that coordinates several other systems, such as visual input, decision-making centers, and muscle memory and allows a player (or any human, really) to produce a multi-step motor response—for instance, a major-league swing. Any decent hitter can hit a meatball out of the park. But how many players can recognize a slider out of the pitcher's hand in time to adjust appropriately and then make those adjustments? That takes the ability to coordinate a lot of information quickly. That's the frontal lobe's job.

What's frustrating is that the actual motor cortex that controls movement is not, itself, in the frontal lobe. A player might look great at 18 because he has very well-developed motor skills and he's able to show a scout a beautiful swing or a gorgeous set of mechanics when given enough time. Being able to recognize, at full game speed, when and how to do so is another issue.

Here's the inherent problem in drafting 18-year-olds, or even 22-year-olds. Teams do try to assess the neurological side of things, whether they know that they are doing so or not. Terms like "feel for pitching" are probably nicely correlated with the development of some of these frontal lobe structures. The problem comes from the golden rule of all development (of any kind). It is not uniform, nor is it steady or stable. People develop at different times and at different rates, and the end product is not always equal across the board.

Worse, even if teams could fully evaluate neural development, at draft time they would be doing so closer to the beginning of the process. My sense is that teams base draft decisions on physical tools (and need and signability), make an implicit assumption that neurological development will proceed normally, and then project from there. It just isn't always a good assumption. (In the team's defense, it might be the only logical assumption that they can make given the data available.) This is one way a guy with dreamy tools can turn into a .230 MLB hitter.

All hope is not lost. With this information, teams could make several adjustments to their evaluation process. For one, even though the neurological developmental process isn't complete, players aren't starting from zero, either, and players who have a head start are more likely to keep that advantage. There are tests to assess frontal lobe/executive function, and a little research into which predict results in baseball could lead to some interesting scouting techniques. Also, because some players will be late bloomers, there might be a market inefficiency around toolsy prospects who have spectacularly failed. Often, their failure gets chalked up to some sort of character flaw. They may never realize that potential, but if a guy can be had for a song and the physical tools are still there, why not take a flyer? Finally, a team might monitor neurological development (and no, you don't need to send the players through an MRI machine) and think about how that might affect a player's individualized plan for development.

There's no magic in turning 18. Albert Almora and his friends are just getting started on a fun developmental process. Hopefully for Almora, his will end up at the Friendly Confines.

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

Related Content:  Prospects,  Scouting,  Prospect,  Frontal Lobe,  Brain

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