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Let’s think outside the box. You know. “The box.” The box that every single motivational speaker and business consultant and hack writer tells you that you need to think outside of, before reaching for one of the acceptable 10 examples of out-of-the-box thinking. (Did you know that Post-It notes were created by accident? All because someone had the idea to think outside of the box!) “The box” is now—ironically enough—a tired metaphor for thinking in ways that aren’t creative. I’m always amused by the fact that people call for “outside the box” thinking, and then never talk about how that’s to be accomplished. The problem is that we are all trapped inside a mime’s box. How do you step outside a box that neither you nor anyone else can actually see?

There are plenty of ways to get trapped in a box. In the field of psychology, there is an idea known as “functional fixedness.” It’s the idea that when people get used to one way in which an object is used, they tend to disregard that the object could be used in other ways, potentially other ways which might be useful. Give someone a box of nails and a hammer and tell them to create something that will hold up a candle. They will likely try to devise some sort of pattern of nails to drive into the wall that will give enough room for the candle to sit on. They could simply dump out the nails, and nail the box to the wall. There’s no reason that the person couldn’t have just thought of this to begin with, but it’s rare that anyone does. How often do you think of the box holding the nails as its own thing? It’s normally just there to define the space in which the nails are. If we can’t think outside the box about boxes themselves, what chance do we have with anything else?

Baseball ideas are much the same. Sure, everyone wants to come up with the #NewMoneyball, but revolutionary ideas are hard to come up with. Why?

Before you can think outside the box, you need to understand the box itself. To that end, I turned to Twitter for a little help.

One thing (not the only thing, but certainly a thing) that inhibits creativity is being bound to what you think is possible, or perhaps more accurately, what you already have the tools available to answer. It’s as if the idea must be immediately follow up with “… and I know just how I’d test that.”

Let’s turn that on its head for a moment. It’s a strange cultural assumption that we have about science (broadly, and in the baseball context, about Sabermetrics). The person who comes up with the idea has to be the one who tests whether or not it’s actually true. Or at least how it could be tested if s/he had the resources and engineering know-how to test it. What if we de-coupled the two and allowed ideas that ended with “…although I have no idea how I’d measure that?” What if we allowed ideas that were much more theoretical without dismissing the idea-haver as a dreamer?

The strict answer to this is “yes.” For further evidence, please consult the case of Chamberlain vs. Midges in the 2007 ALDS. Past that, we know that baseball is played in the summer, the season of flies, and baseball is a low-stimulation sport. There’s a lot of time during a baseball game in which there isn’t much to do. As a fielder, you largely stand out there by yourself, especially in the outfield, and you might be called on to actually do something only a couple times in a game, although you know not when that call will come. It’s hard to sustain attention on something that isn’t providing much stimulation. And so the mind wanders. The brain craves stimulation.

The fly might be the perfect distractor. In a world that demands stillness, quiet, and distance from each other, the fly is moving, buzzing, and right next to your face. It’s annoying. It’s out of place. And more importantly, two seconds from now, you might be called on to break quickly on a fly ball headed toward the gap that could be extra bases.

But the fly bug…

It’s an interesting topic, because it brings up a very related question to baseball performance, because the truth is that we’re not really worried about winged insects. How well does a player sustain attention on the low-stimulation (I want extra credit for not saying “very boring”) game in which he is currently engaged? We know, for example, that players who do not have a diagnosis of ADHD still take Adderall for its attention-promoting properties. (This is banned under the MLB Joint Drug Agreement.) So they must be worried about it too.

While we might not be able to study whether flies impact player response time directly, there might be some ability to answer this one indirectly. Statcast does provide “first step” measurements (essentially, reaction time) for fielders as they go to make plays, and one could create a leaderboard of those times. But the more interesting number would be how variable those times are within a person. A hallmark of problems with attention is variability in reaction time, rather than just slow reaction time. Both are problems, but they have different solutions. Some people are gifted with the ability to sustain attention on something. Some come up with strategies to fake it. (These are strategies that are well known outside of baseball and can be taught.)

I have to wonder, though, if teams teach their outfielders how to deal with flies. It seems like a silly topic, but some of those outfielders are going to be the types of guys who have trouble sustaining attention. That can cost a team a few tenths of a second of reaction time. And maybe a double. The good news (for teams interested in this question anyway, if not those in the public who are also interested) is that there are easy ways to identify who has trouble with sustained attention, and that’s the guy you work with.

I suppose you could simply play R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” as everyone’s walk-up music and see what happens.

What I find fascinating about this question is that I never really thought of it. Walk-up music has become acoustical wallpaper at a baseball game, the same way that lite jazz is the acoustical wallpaper of the wedding reception dinner hour. And yet, what is the last thing that a batter hears before he steps in for that all-important first pitch of his at-bat? We know that music has an effect on human behavior and that different types of music have different effects. Why wouldn’t that be the case in the batter's box?

Before we get about trying to analyze musical selections, let’s stop and think about how those songs get picked to be played over the loudspeaker before each at-bat (or before the reliever trots in from the bullpen). The players themselves generally pick the songs, and I suppose if you asked most of them why they picked the song, they’d respond with some variant of “It’s my favorite song right now.”

Some of them may have picked a song that they believe will hype them up prior to the at-bat. Some may want to be calmed down. Some may pick something that offers them a moment of comfort before stepping into the box. If we assume that the hitter knows what he needs auditorily before stepping into the box, then it means that he’s probably selecting something that is going to help him during the at bat. So, no matter what he picks, he’s theoretically picking something that will increase his abilities.

Baseball does offer a nice little A/B test that we might exploit if we were really interested in this question. Walk-up music is generally only done for players on the home team. On the road, the PA system just announces the player’s name and lets him walk to bat without hearing his favorite song. (Every once in a while, there will be a subtle joke played on the visitor. At a game I went to in Atlanta this year, when Giants pitcher and Notre Dame alumnus Jeff Samarzdjia came to bat, the Turner Field organist played the University of Michigan’s fight song. One wonders whether Atlanta General Manager and fellow Notre Dame alumnus John Coppolella was in on that particular joke.)

Of course, we already know that players perform worse on the road. There is evidence that one reason players do less well on the road is a lack of familiarity with the park. Players who change teams from one year to the next, but return to the old park actually seem to perform more like home-team players. Maybe we could leverage this to our advantage. Watch how team-switchers do from one year to the next.

Then we’d just need a list of walk-up songs. And perhaps another database that you might have already used, Pandora. Pandora the service is based on a project known as the Music Genome Project, in which songs are classified on a number of dimensions, including the beats per minute count, primary instrumentation, and a bunch of other musical terms that I just nodded my head to (like yeah) when I read them. Maybe up-tempo songs have the greatest effect. Maybe guitar songs have the greatest effect. Maybe they all have different effects. It might be tough to merge those databases, but it could be done.

This one gets trapped in some circular logic. If a team actually implemented better nutritional standards (some have already done this) and higher pay for their minor leaguers, it wouldn’t be that hard to figure out some basic measurements for evaluating the program. You can’t do a perfectly constructed randomized control trial, but a team could look at how development, on the whole had gone. Were players healthier? Were they meeting their goals more often? Maybe if it was a good year, that would have happened without the better food and money, but over a couple of years, a team could start to see a trend line.

It’s entirely possible that the return on investment would be positive for such a decision. Of course, to dive into that sort of program, a team would need to invest some money. Not crazy money, but numbers with seven digits in them. Here’s the circular logic. If an owner is going to green light that expense, he’ll want some good evidence that it will work. The only real way to provide that evidence is to go ahead and do it and evaluate the results. It’s a crazy idea, although perhaps no more crazy than “Smith is still a decent major-league pitcher” which probably costs about the same amount and might also be hilariously wrong.

Now, we can make pretty good guesses as to what sort of effects that improving nutrition might have on minor leaguers, reasoning from other fields, but there’s the lingering doubt of “Will it work in the context of baseball?” What would those unanticipated effects be? I think to this point, those doubts have paralyzed movement on these sorts of issues.

It’s Okay Not to Know
Finding creative ideas is hard because it’s hard to beat back functional fixedness. It’s easy to focus on finding ideas in spaces where you know the lay of the land. The problem is that a lot of other people are going to know the lay of that land too. Sometimes it’s good to venture out into areas that might not even exist. Speculation is not a replacement for science, but science is just repetition without a good bit of speculation once in a while.

So if you’re in search of a brand new idea to revolutionize baseball, try this exercise for yourself. Allow yourself to end a sentence with “… although I have no idea how I’d measure that.” It’s okay. You might think of a way to measure it next week. If you want to think outside the box, give yourself permission to escape the social expectation that the idea that you come up with must be “actionable” within a short period of time. It’s entirely possible that your question simply can’t be answered and your idea will be for naught. That’s also okay. A lot of ideas end up being useless, but sometimes, that moment of inspiration spawns a few other ideas. One of those might be the magic one. But allow yourself, if only once in a while, to not care about that. To be vulnerable.

What would you ask if there were no limits?

Thank you for reading

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Dodger300
7/06
Maybe teams should effect better nutrition and higher pay for minor league players simply because it it the right thing to do for its employees. I know that strikes at the very heart of conservative capitalist theory, but what can I say? I believe in capitalism, but exercised in a progressive and responsible way. Billionaire ownership groups make more than enough that they can afford to push a few crumbs from the table down to their organizational soldiers.
ceadie
7/06
This is why I love BP. Way back in 2012 when Adam Lind was a Toronto Blue Jay and was putting together his third straight underwhelming season I read an interview he had with a local reporter. In it he stated that a possible reason for his poor performance was the fact his Canadian wife was having visa problems and could make road trips to the USA. Can a visit from your partner enhance your series performance ?
bgrosnick
7/06
I try to hoard these, but I'll throw out a few. * How much of an effect light in the ballpark actually affects a hitter's ability to pick up the ball. * Whether or not players incur small injuries more frequently when playing on a wet field. * How much the uniform (size, material, color, name on the front) affects player performance. * Would hitters / pitchers be more effective in a PA, if they had literally no context for runners on base / score / inning (a perfect blank)?
jdeich
7/06
Do professional athletes have their performance compromised by fear or intimidation? Or were Bob Gibson's glare and brushbacks just interesting narratives for the fans to talk about? If fear "works", maybe it's strategically useful to cultivate that reputation with psychological ploys, aggressive play or "extracurriculars" like charging the mound. If not, it's probably wise to be nice and avoid the risk of suspensions or injuries.
greenday8885
7/07
Can a Manager's clubhouse "presence" impact the on-field performance of his players, and if so, how much? Similarly, could "team chemistry" be measured and quantified for impact on on-field performance? It feels like in most professions people assume that having a strong working relationship with your boss and co-workers has a material impact on performance, and I've always assumed the same would be true for athletes. I'd also love to see a future FA signing analysis where a player brings something like 4 WAR to the table with his performance, but is docked 2 WAR because he's such a jerk that his mere presence will cause a reduction in performance from the rest of the team.
EMielke
7/07
Whenever I hear about clubhouse "chemistry" I cant't but think of the early 70s A's 3 championships in a row with a tumultuous and hostile clubhouse atmosphere. The Bronx zoo Yankees as well. Talent wins ball games. The rest might have a very small effect but I'm not sure it does at all.
jfranco77
7/07
Chaos is *a* chemistry. Maybe calmness and everyone getting along isn't the ideal clubhouse arrangement. For me, I'd like to know if there's any benefit when a catcher and pitcher both speak the same language. Mostly because I'm curious. Also, do hitters really hit better if they come up as the first batter after they made a great catch in the field?