Baseball Prospectus is looking for a Public Data Services Director. Read the description here.
Image credit: USA Today Sports

The following is a preview of Alexis Collins’ presentation at the upcoming Saberseminar, August 10-11 in Boston.

Over the past few seasons, player development across the major leagues has changed significantly while player evaluation has stayed relatively the same. Teams are using more technology in training and using data to provide players with instant feedback. As the technology spreads across college baseball, the training methods are continuing to evolve and it’s likely the first time players are incorporating the data into their training programs.

The question becomes: how do these changes in coaching methods and training strategies affect players? Are players being evaluated on the skills needed to be successful at the new ways players are being developed or are there opportunities to identify new ways to evaluate players?

The late Yogi Berra once said, “The game of baseball is 90 percent percent mental, the other half is physical”. Until very recently, the mental side of baseball has been kept somewhat of a secret and not discussed much publicly for fear that players who need help with their mental approach will be looked down upon.

As more players have begun to understand how to train their minds and incorporate daily practice of mental skills, the discussion around the mental game has become more mainstream. Twenty-two of the 30 major-league teams now have at least one mental skills employee on staff and many have more than one.

There are three key pillars of performance: physical, fundamental, and mental. The current 20-80 scouting scale was initially developed by Branch Rickey and is still used today. There are five tools on which players are graded using the 20-80 scale: power, hit, run, arm, field.

There are various ways to grade the five tools, as well as prioritizing them based on position and separate criteria to evaluate pitchers by pitch type. Player evaluation is slightly different between organizations, however it is up to the scouts to develop the reports. A scout will usually develop his evaluation over the course of a series to get as many looks at the player as possible.

Current baseball scouting methodologies are only evaluating for two of these three pillars — physical and fundamental. The reason there is no formal evaluation criteria for mental skills is because they are very hard to observe and even harder to quantify. When you’re observing a player, you’re watching them react and therefore you’re looking to separate the reaction from the decision. Sometimes a player reacts in frustration — maybe they yell into their glove — and how do you know if that’s a positive behavior or a negative one? Is there a mental skill that can be associated with the behavior?

Angela Duckworth has done research which focuses on two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control. She states: “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals, while self-control is the voluntary regulation of impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations.”

These are two examples of mental skills that can be used to evaluate players. However, it’s difficult to measure “a tendency” or “voluntary regulation of impulse.” The key part of the definition of grit is the “interest in and effort toward” and for self-control it’s the “momentary gratifying temptations.” Grit and self-control can also be influenced by a player’s maturity throughout their career. When looking to quantify grit and self-control, you can ask yourself if the player exhibits these skills and use a numerical scale to determine the strength of the skill.

As part of my research into understanding mental skills and their impact in baseball, I spoke individually with sports psychologists, player evaluators, and coaches. I read MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, as well as Ninety Percent Mental by Bob Tewksbury — I highly recommend both. All of the people I’ve spoken to on the topic — including Lindbergh and Tewksbury — agree on the importance of the skills while also understanding the challenge of quantifying them.

I hope to have the opportunity to bring these professionals together to further this conversation with the end goal of developing a solution to quantify these skills. I will be presenting my research at Saberseminar next month, in what I hope is the next step in the development of player evaluation which will include mental skills. I believe the teams that figure out how to quantify the mental pillar will be able to gain an advantage.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
Fascinating. I have to suspect that Jake DeGrom would rate an 80 in these mental skills. Incredible calm in the face of adversity combined with real grit. Will be fun to follow your work, Alexis. Please share here on BP somehow.