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September 18, 2012

Baseball Therapy

Reading Lolita in Teheran, Part 2: Reading and Fear of Failure

by Russell A. Carleton

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Last week, I began a series on player development and what a stathead like me can say about how to assess a player's progress. One of the most maddening things about baseball fandom (and, um, on the inside of the game too) is when prospects who are supposed to take the team into a brave new era don't pan out. Every team has "the name that shall not be uttered" in polite company. He was a can't-miss blue-chipper whom everyone figured would be the next Willie Mays. Except that he turned into the next Willie Bloomquist.

Last winter, BP's own Jason Parks wrote a series on "What Could Go Wrong?" which is a master class in the stops and starts that can befall the developmental process. I'm combing through some of his work and approaching things from the point of view of someone trained in child development. And I'm not afraid to use a few numbers if necessary.

Today, we'll talk about Twins second base/outfield prospect Eddie Rosario and how pitch recognition and reading might have something in common. Then we'll talk about Rockies pitcher Tyler Matzek, who looks brilliant one inning and like a disaster the next.

First, we have this snippet from Jason's review of Eddie Rosario.

When I asked a scout to expand this basic conclusion, I received a dissertation on Rosario’s pitch-recognition skills, a characteristic I had listed as a positive for the young hitter. The source suggested that Rosario’s quick trigger and bat control often rescued him from poor guesses against average at best pitching. “Look, I really like the player: He can do everything a good five player is supposed to do, and some of the things a good six player is supposed to do. I think his pitch-recognition skills need a lot of refinement, and I think full-season ball will pull back the curtain on some of his other weaknesses.”

Rosario put up a nice .296/.345/.490 line in A-ball this year at age 20, although that was a drop from his .337/.397/.670 last season in Rookie ball. Sounds like something went slightly awry (though it's a nice problem to have when a .296/.345/.490 line is a cause for concern). Jason's scout friend pins the problem on poor pitch recognition skills. Could this weakness be derailing Rosario?

Let's talk about what goes into "pitch recognition." The phrase that is often used is "reading the pitcher," and “reading” is an apt metaphor here. Reading seems like an easy process (you're doing it now!) because it’s so automated, but it requires the visual system to work with the part of the brain that processes symbols, then the part that recognizes words, then the part that recognizes what they mean, then the part that turns all of that into some sort of meaning. There are a lot of steps in there. "Reading" a pitcher is analogous. You have to be able to see the spin of the ball, decode that it is a slider or curve or change (and where it is going), and then what the proper response is given the count and game state. Then you have to make the appropriate muscles move in the correct, coordinated pattern.

Many have heard the term "dyslexia," although most still unfortunately rely on the stereotype that it is a matter of switching around letters in a word or words in a sentence. That's relatively rare. Dyslexia literally translated is "bad reading," and there are many different types of dyslexia. In the same way that Rosario is able to call on other skills (good bat control) to compensate, poor readers can sometimes get by on other skills for a few grades in school But, as they hit more demanding work, the reading problem becomes more apparent.

Diagnosing dyslexia involves a lot tasks in which reading is broken down into its constituent parts. For example, I'll ask you to read nonsense words (flugen) to see if you can decode what a word should sound like. Next, I'll give you a series of words and ask you to match them to one of four pictures to see if it's a matter of having trouble matching words to meanings. Maybe a similar series of tests could be developed for hitters breaking the process down. This would probably require some sort of SWINGf/x, although if he's having trouble reading the spin of the ball, that might be as simple to spot as seeing whether his swing-and-miss rate rises. There might even be some sort of pitch recognition task that he might perform. (Have a guy go out there and pitch, while Rosario, instead of swinging, calls out what the pitch is.) It may simply be that his processing of the information is slower than average. SWINGf/x might show that he's a little bit later in starting his swing than the average player.

If these skills can be segmented and tested, the next question is whether they can be improved, or if the player will have to find a workaround.

***

Next, let's talk about Matzek. Jason had this to say:

When he’s off, Matzek struggles to correct the mechanical hitches in the delivery and falls out of rhythm and goes forward with a schizophrenic pace. When he’s on, he’s a monster, as his stuff can live in the zone without much exploitation, and he can pitch off his fastball and miss bats with a variety of offerings. I’ve seen Matzek several times, and I’ve yet to see him make it look easy, which makes repeatability difficult, which in turn affects command and secondary utility. Everything stems from the delivery, and if Matzek can’t throw strikes, he can’t give his stuff a chance to play. This is his reality. When I asked around, several scouts saw the issue as being more psychological than physical, working under the “if he did it before, he can do it some more” logic. This has floated around the industry for a while, mostly because Matzek can dominate in bursts, working with clean and efficient mechanics one inning, only to have the next inning be a nightmare, with a suddenly noisy and uncoordinated delivery, diminished stuff, and little-to-no strike-throwing ability. It’s a Jekyll and Hide profile, and the more it flashes and fades, the more it looks like an issue in Matzek’s head rather than a problem with his arm.

Can you tell that I'm drawn to the ones with a psychological bent?

There's a certain amount of talk of being "in the zone" that probably strikes some of the readership of BP as being a little hocus-pocus. But there's nothing supernatural about it, really. Consider the fact that you, like 90 percent of all Americans, are an above-average driver. You probably haven't thought about the physical motions that are involved in driving since you were 16 and just learning. You just kinda do them. And you are above average when you do. Of course.

Until I'm sitting there looking at you with a disapproving scowl on my face. Then you get self-conscious, and you start questioning everything that you do. Suddenly, your skills at driving are reduced to... just slightly above average.

There are a number of things that can cause someone to have a sudden bout of self-consciousness. Instead of relying on the muscle memory built up over years of repeating an action over and over, which apparently worked well enough before to get the player drafted and/or signed, he starts to overthink things. I have no idea what, if anything, might cause Matzek to have these sudden bouts of doubts, or even whether it's psychological, but it seems to come and go. It might be something situational in the game (feeling like he let his team down in some way?), or it might be something entirely unrelated to baseball. As always, Matzek himself is not the point.  He's just the example.

Treating this one probably is best left to a trained psychologist, and I'm guessing that the Rockies have already made a referral. (In general, for this kind of performance anxiety, I would suggest thought stopping—as soon as you feel yourself starting to get self-conscious, you say "No, I'm not going there," followed by some thought re-structuring.)

One thing that the reader might be wondering is how these sorts of players aren't identified earlier in the process. For one, a lot of these insecurities have to do with fear of failure. We're dealing with young men who, even if they don’t have a high need to compete, have devoted their lives to something that is hyper-competitive. Some of them haven't had to taste failure or disappointment just based on raw stuff.

But another variable in the equation is that you're talking about young men in their early 20s (hardly the most emotionally aware demographic), living in a hyper-masculine environment. In United States culture, men are generally loathe to talk about emotions in general. Even if they are fairly in-tune with their emotional needs, there's not a lot of incentive for them to talk about their concerns until their performance starts to suffer. So, the issue is more systemic in American culture. A team that wanted to address these issues before they reached the point where they were painfully obvious is going to have to strive to create its own culture around the subject. It's not easy to do, but the alternative is to put a guy who has a lot of potential in danger of not reaching it because of the silly stigma that goes along with needing a little help.

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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