With draft day in the rear view, perhaps this is as good a time as any to talk about player development and how those newly-drafted players might refine those myriad skills that make up professional baseball performance. After all, the biggest mystery in the sport is how some players find success while others don’t, despite having similar body types, backgrounds, and amateur performance numbers.
How does Matt Shoemaker find success after years of toiling away in the minors? How does Zack Cozart start hitting for power all of a sudden? How does a first-overall draft pick like Delmon Young never figure out how to have an approach that matches his physical tools? Why does Matt Carpenter succeed where Zack Cox fails? And most of all: Why is it these particular guys?
It’s a big question that requires more time and intelligence than I have. But it all boils down to baseball’s last great black box: player development. The goal of player development—ultra-simplified—is to turn raw human resources into valuable big-league production. PD departments do that by augmenting or creating knowledge, skills, and attitudes in their body of assigned players.
I do this in my day job, albeit in a much less exciting way. As a professional instructional designer, my focus is also on developing interventions that allow those sorts of abilities to be grown—just in the corporate world instead of the baseball world.
Here’s an example of how this can work in business, so you can envision what I'm talking about (and learn a maximum of new jargon): Say your company wants to implement a brand-new customer referral software system. If you were to hire an instructional designer (or team of designers), that person would come in and might do the following:
- Interview managers and research the computer system to find out what the end users need to do.
- Create task analysis documents that drill down from the high-level performance objectives to the most basic system tasks that allow them to perform all the critical tasks in the new system. What buttons do you press and in what order? What blanks need to be filled in?
- Perform learner analysis through interviews and surveys. Do the people receiving the training already have familiarity with a system like this? What kind of training are they already receiving? What language do they understand?
- Write specific, measurable, and observable learning objectives. Instead of saying “use this system,” make it so that each task can be measured in a systematic way.
- Design training events, which could be online courses, webinar sessions, in-person classes, or documents. A designer may see what needs to be taught and carefully outline a two-day live training session with system demonstrations and worksheets.
- Actually build / write / create those materials.
- Deliver the training.
- Evaluate the training and the end result.
That’s a lot of work, but good instructional designers have the goal to improve knowledge, skills, and attitudes in a way that’s observable, measurable, and—maybe best of all in terms of practical player development—replicable. There’s a whole book (or several) that could be written about applying an avalanche instructional design and performance improvement theory to baseball, but maybe the best way to start is to set the enormous scope of learning that ballplayers have to deal with.
Baseball is a challenging, highly specialized sport, but even that underscores the amount of learning and training that goes into each player’s mind and body. Once we take a holistic look at the broad range of physical, mental, and emotional skills required by a ballplayer, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. As instructional designers, people like me are trained to examine issues of performance systematically and objectively. One tool that helps us do this is called Bloom’s Taxonomy, a commonly used heuristic that helps organize the different types of learning and helps designers create sound learning objectives.
(Creation of “sound’ learning objectives is probably half the battle of instructional design—and perhaps the most fertile ground for baseball teams to get quick wins in player development—but that’s a topic for another time.)
In essence, the taxonomy breaks down the different types of learning that take place into three major domains: Cognitive, Psychomotor, and Affective. By breaking the types of learning into domains such as these—as well as their associated sub-domains—we can create objectives, learning events, and evaluations that actually target specific skills and ensure that the desired learning/training/improvement takes place.
Within each of these domains there are multiple sub-domains, which are essentially different types of knowledge, skills, or attitudes that work together or build on each other. Each is different, and almost all of these areas need to be trained in some form by today’s professional athlete. So I’m going to talk about most of these sub-domains and tie them to baseball-playing ability. By doing this, and attempting to fully understand the training load on the average ballplayer, maybe we can start to understand why player development is so challenging… or perhaps even some areas in which a systematic approach to instructional design might eventually help improve baseball performance. (Maybe. Someday.)
The Psychomotor Domain
The most obvious domain for athletes is probably the Psychomotor Domain, which ties directly to physicality. Psychomotor skills involve manipulating objects, moving your body in a certain way, or using your own physical skills to achieve some sort of end result. Although the Psychomotor Domain wasn’t part of the original Bloom’s Taxonomy, it’s been included later as focus on instructional design has broadened to the physical world as much as the mental realm.
There are seven commonly recognized sub-domains within psychomotor, and each of these focus on a particular class of skills and events. I’ll go through each of them, because almost all of them are critical for an athlete. (And I’ll provide a few baseball examples for each, because you’re here for the baseball, right?)
At the risk of oversimplifying, everything starts with perception. The batter standing in the box must recognize that a ball is leaving the pitcher’s hand. The pitcher must throw to the catcher’s mitt. The fielder must track the ball. Commonly considered the “lowest level” of the psychomotor domain, perception skills involve response to sensory cues like movement, sound, and touch. Without perception, we’d all be playing baseball blind like Mark Reynolds plays the field.
An important thing to remember here is that perception is a physical skill, not a mental one. There’s a difference between being able to see the ball and being able to react to it, or between identifying the spin on a pitch and realizing what movement that pitch will take. This sub-domain realm is more about identification, and less about judgment. And yes, you can train your perception in similar ways that you train the rest of your body.
How irritating is it when a hitter takes what feels like an eternity adjusting his batting gloves or prepping for a pitch? Sometimes it feels like they’re simply doing it to annoy us. I assure you this—they’re not. This can be a necessity for optimum physical performance, and a psychomotor skill of its own called “set.” Sets are a readiness to act that applies to mental, physical, and emotional events. Think “mindset,” but it can also apply to getting your physical status set as well.
In the case of a hitter getting ready for a pitch, this can include preparing the body for the desired action, preparing the correct mindset to have the desired reaction, etc. The pitcher toes the rubber before a pitch, a batter steps into the box, or a fielder preps for action. And where some of the other skills perhaps can stand on their own, set skills tend to scaffold onto other types of skills. It matters little if a hitter is in the right mindset if he physically can’t catch up to a heater. Nevertheless, sets can be practiced and trained the same way higher-level skills can.
We all start building our complex psychomotor skills somewhere. When I would play whiffleball as a kid, I’d model my pitching motion after Dave Stieb, and my batting stance after Julio Franco. (This is one of many key reasons I was terrible at athletics until my late 20s.) When we begin to develop complex motions, we first have to start with more basic, simple motions that are replicated and adjusted or practiced over time.
For new ballplayers, this may be replicating a particular motion, or practicing a particular small movement that makes up another more complex motion. For experienced hitters, guided response might be trained when practicing a change to an existing (or entirely new) swing at the plate. A hitter experimenting with a new toe-tap is working in the guided response sub-domain: perhaps they are imitating a motion they’ve seen or one described by their hitting coach. Maybe they are experimenting, tweaking, or modifying an existing motion. But these movements and skills will eventually become the foundation of the next level of psychomotor skills somewhere.
Now we’re really developing a complex physical skill. Once we identify the desired motion at the Guided Response level, the Mechanism sub-domain is all about practice, refinement, and turning a psychomotor motion into something both habitual and proficient. At this level, there are no major adjustments to the base motions, and there’s little if any thinking that pairs with the motion itself. The act has been internalized, but perhaps not perfected.
A Mechanism event could be a BP swing, a hack in the on-deck circle, or a warm-up toss. We’re talking about an intermediate level of performance, the type of thing that perhaps a talented amateur could perform comfortably, and this helps the performer get to the optimal level later on.
One thing here: The difference between Mechanism and Guided Response can be tricky to delineate. Simple pitching, hitting, and fielding drills may fall into either of the two categories. What really separates the two is a difference between complexity and adequacy. The entirety of a baseball swing is probably more of a mechanism learning event, with moving parts in the arms, torso, and legs requiring more than just a basic, entry-level movement. But if you’re wondering where the hardest part is when breaking down these types of learning events … this is it.
The bread and butter of baseball performance is this right here. This is “automatic performance” with confidence and skill. This is the major-league swing, the 90 mph fastball on the black, and the smooth transfer on a double play. The motion is that of a practiced professional, the result of hundreds of hours of practice and those small refinements that mark high-level performance and mastery.
This one’s not easy to teach quickly—it’s the type of learning that takes place slowly, over long periods of time. That doesn’t mean that you can’t set objectives or evaluate performance accurately, it just requires a great deal of care. Given that this is the apotheosis of a practiced act, you might think that this would be the final level of psychomotor performance. But you’d be wrong.
So, performing a standard baseball swing to perfection is one thing, but this also could be a bit limiting. After all, the great hitters can adjust their swings to adapt to a changing environment—say, reach out and pick a ball off the corner of the plate to foul it off or pop it into the opposite field. Pitchers can drop their arm slot on the fly or add a little extra oomph to their regular fastball in a tricky 2-2 count. Fielders make an unusual throw from their knees or a diving catch on a ball in the gap. This is the Adaptation sub-domain.
When you get to this level of performance it’s very hard to train this kind of ability. It requires taking complex responses and simulating other experiences, working on associated but different motions and skills, and learning more about the situations where Adaptation might be necessary. It’s tough, and the kind of thing that the greatest athletes in the world can do.
Time to get weird. Origination is invention—creating new actions to perform a given task. A new pitching delivery or batting stance, or even a new type of pitch might be considered an example of Origination. This is not at all something you’d expect many pro athletes to do at the big-league level. But it’s considered the ultimate level of psychomotor learning. When you’ve got such a clear understanding and mastery of a particular skill set, sometimes you can leverage your ability to create something new. Tim Lincecum’s unique delivery may fall into this category, but even that falls somewhere in between Adaptation and Origination.
The Cognitive Domain
The Cognitive Domain is the classic domain in Bloom’s Taxonomy—in part because cognitive skills are a more traditional focus of instructional design and are somewhat easier to assess. They’re not limited by the muscles failing, and all the non-systematic physical responses that tag along with psychomotor skills. There are six major sub-domains in the Cognitive Domain, but we’ll focus primarily on those that are most immediately applicable to baseball.
The fundamental level of cognitive learning is Remembering–it’s all about facts and simple knowledge. On a baseball field, this could be something like knowing that Clayton Kershaw throws a fastball, slider, and curve. It could be remembering that there are currently two outs. Oftentimes these memory-related knowledge items make up the backbone of higher-level cognitive skills, and are either mastered relatively early in a player’s development or offloaded into a performance-support role. (For example, instead of remembering the pitch mix for every hurler in the opposing bullpen, perhaps a hitter will just be instructed on the one he’s about to face just in time for his plate appearance. Or perhaps an outfielder will use a marker to identify where to stand in the outfield as opposed to remembering where based on each hitter.)
This is where things get a little more complex than just remembering facts. This is about being able to organize or compare pieces of knowledge. Being able to summarize a pitcher’s repertoire is Understanding. A second baseman explaining why the play is to throw to home on a fast grounder with the bases loaded and no outs is Understanding. Acquiring complex ideas that go beyond just rabbiting back facts is the traditional definition of this sub-domain.
This sub-domain is where the rubber meets the road for pro athletes. It is taking the accumulated knowledge of the previous two domains and making it work.
As a hitter, you remember that the count is three balls and no strikes, and after a fourth ball you draw a walk. You understand that the opposing pitcher has thrown many balls compared to strikes, and that a walk is a beneficial outcome to this plate appearance. But you apply your knowledge by choosing not to swing at the pitcher’s next pitch, making the decision to sit on his 3-0 offering before he even throws it.
The application of knowledge is where you see most basic-level baseball decision-making made by ballplayers in the midst of the action. The decision to swing at a pitch, or the choice to make a dive instead of pulling up and playing a ball on the bounce—these are the acts where you see players applying cognitive skills to the situations at hand.
Analyzing / Synthesizing / Evaluating
These three are higher-order cognitive skills, and there’s debate among some instructional designers about whether they’re hierarchical or parallel. (I lean parallel.) Each of these is different; analyzing often involves breaking information down into component pieces, where synthesizing often involves taking diverse elements and creating new information from those elements. Evaluating is usually creating a judgment or value statement based on information.
In baseball, analyzing might be a hitter choosing to shorten his swing and protect the plate during a two-strike count rather than continuing to sell out for power. Synthesizing might be Jason Hammel developing a plan to get Bryce Harper out based on data provided by his pitching coach and/or front office. Evaluating—sometimes considered the highest-level cognitive skill—is often reserved for the manager and front office, but sometimes you’ll see a catcher tell his manager that a pitcher should be pulled, or some other judgment call.
All three of these skills don’t happen quite as frequently on the field, where rapid-fire decision-making lends itself to application and memory (they usually get lumped together as “baseball instincts”) more than complex cognitive processes. Still, being able to leverage advanced cognitive skills quickly and efficiently can improve performance—just look at Greg Maddux’s career.
The Affective Domain
In many designed learning implementations, the Affective domain is an afterthought. After all, this area deals mostly with attitudes and emotions, and can be even tougher to evaluate objectively than psychomotor skills. Nevertheless, attitudes and emotional behaviors can be “trained” or adjusted, and this can dramatically affect on-field performance as well. Just ask Yordano Ventura. Since there’s no great way display these on the field—sorry, no GIFs—I’ll just go over them briefly.
Receiving / Responding
To start, a learner needs to be able to receive stimuli. Receiving is about passively paying attention to stimuli—emotionally recognizing and accepting what is happening—and is pretty much necessary in order for any learning to take place. It’s kind of like the emotional version of the Psychomotor Perception sub-domain. One level beyond that is Responding to those stimuli—participating in conversation, demonstrating willingness to engage in learning events. In essence, this is the ability to engage in the learning and development process… and this skill itself can be developed through targeted practice.
I guess one example here is one from the book Big Data Baseball by Travis Sawchik, which details the rise of analytics in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Clint Hurdle, an old-school baseball manager, improved his ability to receive and respond to stimuli over the course of his career; he became more receptive to alternative baseball ideas over time.
From here, the learner starts Valuing, or internalizing the importance of a particular attitude or behavior. This is tricky to both train and to evaluate, as the most important part of Valuing learning events is making sure that they’re observable. It’s not enough to just say that valuation is happening, it needs to be demonstrated in some fashion.
For example, you could say that a hitter’s conversations with a hitting coach are valued, but unless the hitter demonstrates that he values those conversations (by taking the advice given and practicing, etc.), then you’re not actually seeing a real change. Lip service is a whole other ballgame.
Organizing / Internalizing
The last two of these sub-domains include Organizing (which is taking those values and combining them into priorities, and creating some sort of value structure) and Internalizing (which allows the values and priorities acquired to build abstract knowledge and make continued value judgments that are pervasive and predictable).
While the Affective domain skills and learning events may not precisely reflect to on-field performance by themselves, improving these skills may make a learner better able to acquire more “practical” baseball skills, or find improved performance through a greater control of their emotions and their personal environment.
If you’ve made it all this way, you’ll realize that I’ve talked at some length about 18 different learning sub-domains, almost all of which have at least some relevance to a baseball player’s on-field performance. That’s staggering! Each of these different sub-domains is best trained using different learning objectives, learning events, and evaluation methods, and most baseball players require knowledge and skill development in a number of different areas in each domain. For example, a first baseman needs to learn the complex responses of a left-handed swing or a stretch to receive a throw, refine running mechanisms, practice pre-performance sets, must train his perception, and work on a fistful of other psychomotor skills and a host of cognitive and affective skills to support on-field performance.
In this regard, it’s not surprising to find that figuring out a systematic way to train some or all of these skills is an opaque process. Player development is underratedly hard, and should encompass a ridiculous range of jobs, skills, and ideas. And one can certainly understand why player development professionals might find reason to focus more on those higher-level Psychomotor Domain skills—the big-ticket items like a pitching motion or a swing—than the lower-level skills that support the movement or the Cognitive and Affective skills that may not immediately translate to numbers.
But once we can start to separate out the types of different skills required, then we can start to take a systematic approach to training—think sabermetrics for your swing, or Moneyball for your mind, or some other easy-to-translate buzzphrase. If we can start breaking down what the different skills for ballplayers are into types as well as their smallest sub-tasks, then perhaps we can find a way to start cracking the code of what works and what doesn’t in training and development. And by going this route, one gets a nice ancillary benefit if nothing else: a healthy respect for all the different knowledge, skills, and attitudes that make up a baseball player’s on-field performance.
Going back to our example before about how an instructional designer could attack a corporate training issue, we can start to see how this could be applied to a simple baseball “training” issue like running outfield routes. A good instructional designer could help the player development department and:
- Interview the experts—field staff, analysts, and elite defensive outfielders—to determine what is needed for peak route-running performance.
- Perform the necessary task analysis, drilling down from the high-level performance of running a route to all the little sub-tasks. That means identifying things like readiness for contact (Psychomotor/Set domain) and determining how to position yourself inititally (Cognitive/Application) to first-step quickness (Psychomotor/Mechanism) and tracking expected flight of a ball of the bat of a right-handed hitter (Cognitive/Analysis).
- Perform the learner analysis through interviews and surveys. What are the organization’s outfielders doing currently? How receptive might they be to new training? How can the PD staff explain core concepts in a familiar way in four different languages?
- Create those learning objectives with help from Bloom’s Taxonomy, but make sure they’re measurable. A high-level objective might be to have all outfielders “Run a route graded at 90 percent efficiency by Statcast during 80 percent of game circumstances within a week. A lower-level objective might be “React to the crack of the bat by moving in the optimal cardinal direction of the ball within one second at least 75 percent of the time during practice simulations.”
- Design training events. Maybe that’s a game-style first-step drill/contest among the outfielders at the team’s minor-league complex? Maybe that’s a 15-minute info session where the outfield instructor reviews tendencies for a hitter with particularly strong tendencies.
- Create the materials that the team can deliver by working with the best and smartest guys in the room: the coaches who’ve lived the experiences and the analysts who can provide the raw data.
Deliver the training.Nope, this is probably the domain of the team’s coaching / player development staff. There’s a lot left to be said about coaching and motivation, and the field staff is almost definitely the right group to implement any training changes.
- Evaluate if things are working. How did the players react to the new drills or sessions? Did they think it was stupid or get bored easily? Did it take up too much time better served with extra BP or time in the gym? And most importantly: did it work? The objectives were set, but were they achieved? Can the team track any performance improvement?
Theoretically, that’s some of the benefit that a good instructional designer could provide to a sports team: a systematic and rigorous view of all that goes into performing baseball tasks at the highest level. It may be a pipe dream or a time and effort cost that exceeds the scope of a what an organization wants to do with their on-field staff. But if nothing else, taking this instructional design/Bloom’s Taxonomy view of baseball gives us watchers and analysts a healthy respect for the incredible amount of different knowledge, skills, and attitudes that make up a baseball player’s on-field performance.