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March 1, 2010

Baseball Therapy

The Sixth Tool

by Russell A. Carleton

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A good chunk of what passes as mainstream baseball analysis is actually a mish-mosh of half-true folk wisdom, overly-romantic ideas stolen from Hollywood, and (most grating to my ears) really bad amateur psychology. How's that for a thesis statement?

Sabermetricians are often accused of not understanding "the human element" of the game, and maybe that's true in some sense. Sabermetrics is the search for objective knowledge concerning baseball, and it's hard to know objectively, given the available data, what a player's emotional state is in the moment or what a team's "chemistry" is like. As a result of that, sabermetrics has largely fallen silent on the issue, I presume more out of a respect for a lack of relevant data. It's possible that my fellow sabermetricians simply don't care (which is their prerogative), but it's true that very little attention has been paid within the field to contextual variables around performance. The human element, if you will.

But let me, for a moment, concede the whole point. Sabermetricians do not understand the human element of the game. There, I said it. My question is, who died and made (insert favorite MSM punching bag) an expert on the human element? Oh sure, he probably played the game. But then, I drive a car every day, and I have no idea how the thing works. He probably talks a lot about the human element, but talking a lot about something and having an idea of what you're saying are two different things. They're called politicians.

I find it funny when sportscasters talk about, with absolute certainty, that a player can't handle pressure or that he's clearly being bothered by some event or other that happened in the past (Hi there, Mr. Lidge. I didn't see you over there. Remember that home run you gave up five years ago? Would you like to see a replay?) It often drifts into the realm of practicing psychology without a license. Or sometimes, a clue.

I can't say that I blame the pundits, reporters, and commentators for engaging in this sort of talk. They are, at their core, trying to produce an entertainment product for their audience, and people want to feel connected to the emotional experience of the game. There are times, no doubt, when a commentator will nail what a player really is feeling or how the circumstances are affecting him, but most of the time, it seems that the commentator is projecting what he feels into the head of the player on camera. I don't know whether Brad Lidge still has flashbacks to the 2005 post-season at night (as if he were the first and only man to give up a home run to Albert Pujols… or Scott Podsednik… actually the Podsednik one is true, isn't it?) but it sure does seem to get brought up a lot. The problem is that most people accept the authority of the commentator (he played the game!) and so the lines are repeated, and urban legends about how psychology affects baseball begin to take root.

I think it is time to take a look at the human element in baseball, and how it really affects the game. Not through folk wisdom, but through actual science. You don't have to be psychic. You just have to know a little bit about psychology.

What do cosmetics have to do with baseball?

Take your palm. Bring it up to your forehead and (ever so gently!) smack it. If not for your skull (and the skin on your forehead), you would have hit the part of your brain that does all of the stuff that you're most proud of as a human being. It's called the pre-frontal cortex (or PFC), and it's the region of the brain the controls such things as attention, pattern recognition, reasoning, impulse control, and planning. Taken together, these are called "executive functions." What many people don't know is that different regions of your brain control different mental and physical functions. Most people think of the brain as a unified whole, but in reality, it's much more of a network of inter-connected little sub-systems.

There are different sub-systems that take care of things like movement (middle of your brain), emotions (top of your head), and breathing (waaaaay in the back). What's interesting is that they all develop at different times in life and at different rates. While the basic functions are largely developed at birth, the pre-frontal cortex is still developing much later in life. Recent estimates put full development of the PFC in the early 30s.

This may come as a bit of a shock to people, especially those in the audience whose age starts with a '2.' In most cultures, including the U.S., people are considered to be legally adults in the late teen years. The problem is that there's a hidden assumption in there that's not true. At age 18, you're really something of a replacement level adult. You haven't yet hit your peak age. However, the law (and society in general) considers you to be "fully developed." This can be disproven with a simple thought experiment. Were there mistakes that you made when you were 18 that you wouldn't make now because you know better? I thought so.

What can a well-developed PFC do for a baseball player? Let me give one example. Consider what would happen if a batter knew that the pitcher was going to throw a slider down and away on the next pitch. Armed with that knowledge, he can cheat a little bit and perhaps smack the ball a little harder. How might he know that it's coming? Well, human beings are creatures of habit and pattern and the pitcher on the mound is a human being.

Veterans often talk of being able to read a pitcher (i.e., recognizing his patterns) a little better because of their years of experience, and no doubt the repeated exposure has a lot to do with it. However, the pre-frontal cortex deals with pattern recognition. I'd argue that part of what we're seeing is the emergence of a new set of mental skills over a player's career. It's just that no one really talks about mental skills in baseball. Except, oddly, for Yogi Berra ("90 percent of the game is half mental"). I'd argue that the PFC also directly influences the ability to pitch-rather-than-just-throw (planning a strategy for pitches), exercise greater plate discipline (impulse control), and even stay in trouble off the field. There are probably a dozen other examples. Consider the implications for an ability that develops through a player's twenties and into his early thirties. That's the entire baseball life-cycle for some players!

There's a certain mythos around the "five-tool prospect." He can hit for power, hit for average, run, field, and throw. Usually, this rating is based on observing his physical characteristics (build, mechanics, swing, etc.), and it surely whets the appetite of many a scout. Basic physical development is generally complete by age 18 for men and the motor cortex has generally developed around the time a player would be drafted as well. Sure, a player might add some muscle through a conditioning program (… don't say it…) or learn some new techniques from coaches but the raw material with which to work is pretty well set. Plus, the five tools are things that can be (accurately?) measured with relative ease.

Then there's the ever-amorphous concept of "makeup." It's poorly defined, which makes it hard to measure, and the things with which it is most often associated, such as the ability to withstand pressure, "teachability," and "feel for the game" are hard to measure with the naked eye and a stopwatch. Even if they could be measured, I'd argue that many of these skills are directly related to the PFC, which means that when scouting a player at age 18, a scout is seeing a still-developing set of skills. Plus, since most scouts don't have a background in neuroscience, they have no language with which to describe what information they might be able to gather. And so, most of the time, they fall back on folk wisdom and amateur psychology. But I think a good argument could be made that these skills can be the difference between the prospect that makes it and the one who "has all the tools but just can't put it together." Perhaps it's time to recognize a sixth tool.

So, can executive functions be measured? Yes we can! I don't know whether teams are already assessing these as part of their scouting process (whether through some Wonderlic-esque test or an actual neuropsychological exam), but there are well-validated tests for impulse control, pattern recognition, and abstract reasoning available. Even if teams do assess for this, they're only getting a snapshot of a player at one time, but it's better than nothing, and it might identify a red flag or two. A player with very poor executive skills may need intervention or may simply be a bad risk, no matter how good his physical tools. A player with good executive skills is more likely to be able to get more out of his physical skill set.

Admittedly, there are no data (that I know of) on this yet, and even if it existed, there would be ethical issues around it being made public. There is a substantial body of literature on executive functioning, and there's no reason why it wouldn't apply to baseball players. But the point is that if a team really wants to understand the human element of the game and how it might have very real effects on a player, they'd do well to start here.

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

39 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Peter Benedict

I love this article. Thank you. I'd love to see more along these lines, but the problems with data-gathering are apparent.

Mar 01, 2010 07:17 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I can't tell you how many times I say the words "If only..."

Mar 01, 2010 13:25 PM
 
Bob1475

Excellent write-up. Of course, you shifted from "emotional" issues to "reasoning" abilities. Make-up (reasoning) and emotional (confidence) are not necessarily the same thing. I think some psychological testing might be appropriate for MLB considering the large amounts being paid to the top of the draft class. I don't expect that ever to be released.

Mar 01, 2010 07:48 AM
rating: 3
 
Greg Ioannou

So much of this stuff is measurable. I remember at a game in the fall talking with a friend about how Vernon Wells is "less confident" than he was a few years ago. As we talked about it, the examples of this "loss of confidence" were all of measurable behaviours: He doesn't foul off pitches as much as he used to. He swings at more bad pitches. He takes more strikes. (I don't know if any of those are in fact true -- they were based on the impressions of two devoted Jays fans. It would be interesting to test the assertions.)

I think an awful lot of the executive functions display themselves in measurable behaviour.

Mar 01, 2010 07:50 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

I don't see those as measures of confidence. You might be reading into them. They are measures of success. Repeated failures would make us lose our confidence. You may be projecting would we would feel onto Vernon.

Mar 01, 2010 09:24 AM
rating: 4
 
Travis Leleu

How would you create metrics for confidence? Are you really suggesting that we can use "swinging at more bad pitches" and "taking more strikes" as proxies for confidence? If so, you have a serious task to connect those to confidence, before you can draw ANY conclusions.

Mar 01, 2010 09:57 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I don't know that we could create a measure for confidence based on game data (Retrosheet, Pitch F/X, etc.) that everyone would agree is "confidence." But we could take a look at some of these issues and try to make some reasonable conjecture. This is the problem with psychology research more generally. No one is psychic and people lie about their true motivations/emotional states.

Mar 01, 2010 13:42 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

What's in every baseball player's makeup case? HGH since it helps them look younger.

Seriously, it seems teams are taking a harder look at makeup and mental issues. Would a Zack Greinke renaissance have happened ten to fifteen years ago? What about DL stays for depression, anxiety issues or bereavement?

Mar 01, 2010 08:46 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Over the last 30 years, there's been a lot more attention paid to mental health issues. People are beginning to realize that they are nothing to be ashamed of and that they can be treated. Would it have happened 15 years ago? It's less likely.

Mar 01, 2010 13:53 PM
 
baserip4

@ Greg Ioannou (the "Post Reply" function won't work in my browser)... why are those "loss of confidence" and not something like "erosion of skills" or "getting old"?

Mar 01, 2010 08:47 AM
rating: 0
 
Greg Ioannou

The conversation started as "he's really lost his swagger compared with a few years ago" and went from there. I think the difference main is that we were assuming that "lost confidence" could be regained, whereas eroded skills or age are irreversible.

Is losing ability to foul off pitches really something that someone ls irreversible, or does it depend on other variables? I can see arguments both ways. In this case, it could have been any of the above -- or it could have been his wrist injury. Who knows? But my point, that many of these supposedly psychological factors can be broken down or re-expressed in terms of measurable variables, still stands.

Mar 01, 2010 09:23 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

OK, it is an interesting point, but how? I'm not convinced swining at more pitches out of the strike zone or fouling off fewer pitches are signs of psychological impairment as opposed to "erosion of skills", "getting old" as baserip4 suggests or "wrist injury" as you concede as a possibility. This may well be an avenue worth exploring, but right now I can't make out the road.

Mar 01, 2010 09:32 AM
rating: 0
 
Greg Ioannou

I think we tend to see the physical signs and interpret them psychologically. As Russell said, "most of the time, it seems that the commentator is projecting what he feels into the head of the player on camera." And I suspect anyone watching the game does that. So you see Wells (who used to foul off many pitches until he got the one he wanted) swinging at bad pitches or taking strikes, and describe it in terms of lost skills -- or project some psychological explanation onto it. A lot of those "human element" explanations are describing measurable events.

David Ortiz is perhaps a better example. For the first two months last year, he looked awful and his stats were awful. For the rest of the year, he still looked awful but his stats were much better. Did he "make adjustments" -- or was he just get luckier? Or was there some injury we weren't told about. Or was some psychological factor at work? We'll never know. But the stats for the later part of last year don't tell us what our eyes could see: Ortiz's swing was still pretty profoundly different than it had been in previous years.

Mar 01, 2010 12:15 PM
rating: 0
 
Eric M. Van

There's definitely a fascinating psychological effect at work here. Ortiz hit .286 / .364 / .616 in 173 PA from June 6th to the day the PED story broke, and (after going nearly 0 for his next two weeks, when by his own testimony he wasn't sleeping at night) .290 / .397 / .619 in 184 PA from August 14 to the end of the season. I watched all but a handful of games and scored every pitch and he certainly didn't look awful to me; he looked like David Ortiz only a couple of years older.

So the psychological factor at work here appears to be observer bias (and I'm not asserting that my view was necessarily neutral, either, although I suspect pitch/fx data could help back it up). There isn't even a consensus "what our eyes could see."

Mar 03, 2010 11:45 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Why is "ability to take a walk" or "command of the strike zone" still ignored as a skill for non-pitchers? I guess that is because that is the one skill sabermaticians see better than scouts? Isn't time we bridge that devide and include walking as a skill?

Mar 01, 2010 09:36 AM
rating: -1
 
Travis Leleu

Because guys that walk too much just clog the bases! They aren't real men because they don't swing the lumber.

Mar 01, 2010 10:00 AM
rating: 1
 
nateetan

For a lot of baseball people, something along these lines is the thought process. A lot of stat people worship the "Three True Outcomes", perhaps in part because they are easier to measure and less entangled with other factors of the game.

However, those only exist originally to prevent degenerative behavior. Strikes are called to prevent batters from waiting for perfect pitches, balls are called to prevent pitchers from trying to throw pitches that can't be hit, home runs occur because fences are needed to keep the balls from rolling into the street. A lot of "baseball" people have a nice 19th century mentality to the purpose of the game. Only the drive to win has allowed these actions to become important to the game.
Compare to a lot of softball leagues where these rules are modified in the name of "fun".

Mar 01, 2010 12:31 PM
rating: 5
 
R.A.Wagman

Walking isn't a skill. Walking is an outcome. Command of the strike zone (aka: batting eye) is, on the other hand, definitely a skill - it leads to the walk outcome, in fact.

Mar 01, 2010 17:35 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Not necessarily. Walking is actually more related to being reluctant to swing. Strike zone command leads to avoiding strikeouts.

Mar 01, 2010 18:22 PM
 
Asinwreck

What I appreciate about this article is not so much its search for the answer, but rather its search for the proper question. I want to follow up on a point you made, Russell:

"There is a substantial body of literature on executive functioning, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t apply to baseball players."

Might a roundtable of leaders in the field and relevant scouting/player development personnel on this issue be possible? If proprietary information is an issue, this could be done like Gary Huckabay's occasional conversations with anonymous front-office types. I think teams, players, media, and fans would benefit from some sort of seminar discussion about what methods and measurements we can use to assess this area.

Mar 01, 2010 10:56 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I actually asked Kevin Goldstein how this sort of assessment plays out in scouting. He said that it varies, but that there's not a lot of it out there.

Mar 01, 2010 13:59 PM
 
Eric M. Van

You might try thinking of a team that is generally regarded as being on the cutting edge of everything and has had extraordinary recent draft success, especially with overperforming players whose success has been credited to their outstanding makeup. You would think that the clubs who aren't trying to measure makeup would wonder whether said club were doing so, and in fact with some success.

Mar 03, 2010 11:59 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Well, each organization has its own kind of culture that it indoctrinates its players in, from the minor leagues up. An organization that encourages fundamentals and defense (Twins), OBP (A's), etc. already tries to influence makeup.

Makeup and organizational culture is also a factor in "change of scenery" trades.

So I think each club measures makeup, though what they value as good makeup might not be the "best" in baseball performance terms.

Mar 03, 2010 22:05 PM
rating: 0
 
Eric M. Van

All this is true, but I'm specifically taking about the difference between teams that have every draft prospect sit down and take at least one psych test of some sort and those that don't. According to KG, the latter easily outnumber the former. If the former are in fact kicking the butts of the latter in drafting and developing players, eventually the whole industry will come around and the edge will go the organizations who do the best testing. But this may take ten or twenty years.

Mar 06, 2010 02:38 AM
rating: 0
 
Neifitastic

I naively assume that executive function is deeply related to a number of other observables. For example, I imagine that college GPA is a good (albeit imperfect)indicator. Surely that information is at least semi-public, as grade/graduation information is necessary for Division I schools to maintain eligibility for athletes specifically and athletic programs in general. Couldn't some enterprising researcher collect this data and look to see if it is directly related to learning effects in MLB player performance?

Mar 01, 2010 14:29 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

As someone who taught college classes, GPA tells you almost nothing about anything.

Mar 01, 2010 15:52 PM
 
Dr. Dave

Testify, brother.

Mar 01, 2010 19:19 PM
rating: 2
 
Dr. Dave

The phrase "replacement level adult" has justified my subscription renewal all by itself.

For Bob1475 who noted (correctly) the shift from emotions to reasoning, there are also emotional tests that can be given. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is the most (in)famous, but there are others.

Even something like a Myers-Briggs temperament categorization should be mandatory, if only so the coaches have an informed clue what kind of instruction/interaction is liable to be effective for a given player. I somehow doubt that a lot of teams give Myers-Briggs, or that most coaches would modify their approach based on its findings.

Mar 01, 2010 19:18 PM
rating: 6
 
Schere

Who're called politicians? That line makes no sense.

Otherwise - thanks for a thoughtful article. I wish I had had better executive function back when I played the game!

Mar 02, 2010 15:09 PM
rating: -2
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

People who talk a lot but don't know what they're saying. I can't think of a better definition of politician.

Mar 03, 2010 14:00 PM
 
dispepsi

Love this article.

If we had some indication of players' executive capacity (or other relevant individual difference variables such as achievement motivation, fear of failure, etc.), we might really gain some traction on the human element in baseball by exploring the interactions between game situations and executive capacity (or other individual difference variables).

For example, executive capacity might be especially relevant for performance late in games, after a few hours of concentration and effort. (Research suggests that executive functions falter under fatigue.)

Hypothesis: Players with better executive capacity are less likely to make base-running blunders after the 7th inning, compared to players with poorer executive capacity. (This assumes that base-running blunders are a function, in part, of poor decision making.)

Probably there are thousands of such questions. Anyway, fun article. Thanks, Russell!

Mar 02, 2010 22:02 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

The time element is fascinating. I may go deeper into that issue in the future.

Mar 03, 2010 13:47 PM
 
leites

Thanks, this is interesting. Someday, once all of this is figured out, we may also learn why some of the smartest baseball players make some of the dumbest baseball commentators. Perhaps Joe Morgan could donate his brain to science for this research . . .

Mar 03, 2010 09:19 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

... don't say it...

Mar 03, 2010 13:36 PM
 
Greg Ioannou

The worst baserunning I ever saw -- sometimes like something out of a slapstick movie -- was by Ken Williams. Not exactly a stupid guy.

Mar 04, 2010 06:50 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Then you didn't see Ruben Rivera against the D-Backs on May 27 2003.

I'd link to the YouTube clip, but work doesn't allow such vulgar displays.

Mar 04, 2010 14:53 PM
rating: 0
 
cestilp1

I know this article isn't about the brain per se, but I'm a psychologist and I can't help but set the record straight:
-prefrontal cortex: reasoning, problem solving, strategy, etc.; right around the forehead
-motor skills and planning: just in front of the top/center of the brain
-emotions: midbrain structures (like the center of the earth, but your brain instead)
-parietal cortex: attention: top/back of your brain (about 2/3 of the way back)
-breathing: back/bottom of the brain

Mar 05, 2010 12:03 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Did I mix up my occipital and temporal lobes again? My old neuropsych supervisor wouldn't be pleased. Thankfully, he doesn't like baseball.

Mar 05, 2010 21:12 PM
 
SaberTJ

Fantastic Article. Can't wait to see more like it.

Mar 11, 2010 07:26 AM
rating: 0
 
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