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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

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