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Psychology of Baseball

Where does the Science of Psychology interact with the Sport of Baseball?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Preface

The grandest mistake we can make in sports is deciding that the human element is insignificant. Make no mistake about it, analytics and objectivity are vastly important, and something I am greatly in-favor of.

But at the end of the day, these players are human. In this pseudo-war of analytical versus old-school baseball, we have seemed to lost sight of the reality. The sweet spot—similar to many domains in life—is somewhere in the middle. The way I see it, analytics should and need to win this war, yet they also need to lose the battle of Psychology in Baseball.

In my non-baseball life, I am a Clinically Competent Doctorate of Psychology Trainee. This unnecessarily long title basically means that I have completed the academic training, the multiple rotations, and the clinical competency exam needed to complete a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. The next step is an internship year, and then graduation which at last allows me to realize the title of “Dr. Martinez.” What you are about to read comes from research of empirical evidence, academic experience and training, and objectivity, rather than rhetoric or opinion.

So let’s begin, shall we?


MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is Objectively and Scientifically Difficult

This point should not have to be stated, particularly not on a baseball site, but for the rest of the article to truly set in, we must accept it as true. Baseball is objectively difficult, and many could argue that the skills required to be successful in baseball are amongst the most difficult in all of the professional sports. For instance, when looking at the physics and timing of hitting a baseball, the hitter has less than 400 milliseconds to hit a 95 MPH pitch. This is 400 milliseconds to not only identify the pitch, but also tell your brain and body to begin swinging, and then make contact with a round ball solely using a round bat.

Good luck.

Now imagine being the pitcher, or the fielder that has to field a ground ball coming at you with a 100+ MPH exit velocity, or an outfielder that needs to track a scorching line drive or a fly ball that is 10 stories in the air—where it gets to the point that all you see is a very small white dot coming down at you. Consider how difficult all of this is, and then sit back and realize that I have only discussed the physical aspects of this game; and am still missing vital physical elements such as running and hand-eye orientation. Nonetheless, there is an entire other aspect of the game that has nothing to do with your physical state.

For instance, imagine that you are Brian Anderson hitting at Marlins Park. It’s the bottom of the eighth and the Marlins trail 2-1. You’re facing Aroldis Chapman, who was just called in because Víctor Víctor Mesa, Lewis Brinson, and Monte Harrison all got on base in front of you. There are two outs. The pitch sequence you see is as follows: 102 MPH fastball for a strike (Count at 0-1), changeup low for a ball (1-1), 99 MPH fastball for a ball (2-1), 100 MPH fastball for a swinging strike (2-2), slider away for a ball, and you stand there with the count full (3-2). As a friendly reminder, Chapman threw five different pitches in his 2018 campaign, so to the best of your knowledge, his pitching repertoire includes a fastball, sinker, changeup, slider, and a splitter. Oh…and let’s not forget that his fastball is coming in a 100+ MPH.

What’s going on in your head? What is your approach? Are you recalling your training, your film-work, or are you just thinking that an errant fastball from Chapman can physiologically leave you with a traumatic brain injury? What do you do?

Well, that scenario is only one of over one thousand mental calculations and decisions that the average Major League Baseball player makes on any given game of nine-inning baseball. Please reflect on what you just read: one of over one thousand mental calculations and this is just one game. Now consider the fact that a baseball season has 162 games, plus playoffs, plus Spring Training. Then consider that on the baseball diamond, you are both collaborating with your team, but also uniquely fully independent.

Regardless of the situation, when the ball is coming your way, it is just you and the ball. It is your responsibility to pitch the ball, it is your responsibility to hit the ball, it is your responsibility to field the ball. Do you know what that equates to? Pressure. Immense pressure.

This section was presented to support a linear analysis of the Psychology of Baseball, and it is as follows:

Baseball is objectively difficult —> Baseball applies significant pressure on individual performance —> Individual performance leads to unique levels of stress —> Stress is psychological —> numbers and analytics will not be able to operationalize it.

Want proof? Let’s look at two case studies.

Case Study #1

Name: Brian Anderson

Position: Bank Teller

Team: JP Morgan Chase

In this study, Brian Anderson did not pursue baseball, instead he decided that banking was his end-game, and he has made the decision to start working for a local bank as a teller. Monday through Friday, Anderson wakes up, puts on his suit, and goes to work at the local bank. His manager is approving of his performance, and his customers always appreciate his kindness and effective way of running his teller position. All is well with Anderson, until he begins to experience work and family-related stress. This then leads to mood impairment (e.g. sadness, lack of motivation, anxiety) and behavioral conflict (e.g. not arriving on time, low physiological energy, poor performance). As observers, we do not know what happened to change his mental processing, but we suddenly see that his work is not as effective as before, and that he’s beginning to make mistakes when calculating and counting transactions.

Anderson gets called into his manager’s office, and they begin to discuss this change. Anderson discloses that not only is his home-life disruptive, but his friend at another bank was recently held at gun point and Anderson has now had difficulties separating his fears from his performance. Whatever the case may be, both the manager—and you reading this—are suddenly much more empathic about his performance, and understanding that clearly Anderson’s functioning has been impacted by his mood, mental processing and stressors of his life. It’s called compassion and understanding. It’s also empirically supported throughout all of research: our mental status is highly related to our overall performance.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Case Study #2

Name: Brian Anderson

Position: Third Base

Team: Miami Marlins

Now imagine that Anderson actually isn’t a teller in a bank. Instead—I don’t know—he’s a baseball player...standing in Marlins Park...hitting in the eighth inning...with the bases loaded...against Aroldis Chapman and a 3-2 count. Suddenly we quickly realize how his daily mental processing and mood state will likely impact his performance in this extremely stressful situation, which is understandably more stressful than being a bank teller.

Yet, many people within the baseball community attempt to debate that this isn’t a true outcome factor. Somehow, all of this empirical evidence that shows our mental state greatly impacts our performance—even in a remedial job—is discarded when we are discussing professional baseball players. For those of you that are in this faction of thinking, I apologize, but the research is adamantly against that line of theory.

Now, I understand that some may say the following: of course the mental state matters, everyone knows that baseball is a thinking game, but where would the Psychology of Baseball come into play that analytics or objective numbers can’t already be used?

The answer: in almost every aspect of the game that we still struggle in operationalizing. An example of this is discussed below.

Streaks and Tendency Breakers

Over the years, different baseball scholars have taken their attempt at trying to operationalize and objectively measure a hitting streak—both hot and cold—or tendency breaks in a pitcher’s pattern or a hitter’s performance. Many have attempted to write on this topic, arriving at varying theories that struggle to explain the baseball phenomena of a streak. Some of the theories include randomness or luck (not very objective if you ask me), favorable match-ups leading to streaks (makes a bit more sense, but not statistically significant). Unfortunately, few have arrived at the common sense answer—and research-based answer—which states that the Psychology of Baseball may be more impacting than we think.

The theory behind one’s current psychological state (e.g. family stressors, teammate conflict, pressure induced distress, etc.) yielding streaks and tendency patterns is the same research that states that Brian Anderson, the bank teller, will perform better when in a good mental state than when heavily stressed. When people feel better, they play better. Yes, I agree that this is obvious, but it’s only obvious when you’re a bank teller, not when your everyday career is one of the most stressful jobs in the world (i.e. being a Major League Baseball player).

So then how do baseball players succeed in such a stressful environment? Here’s the secret: most do not. Many fans will state that talent is the sole reason that one high school prep draft pick becomes a Cy Young pitcher or MVP hitter, while one becomes a career minor leaguer or loses out on a baseball career all together. They will share the opinion that character, mental stability and other non-analytic jargon is too old-school—we should only look at exit velocity and measurable tools.

I disagree. While I conceded that talent will always be the most important element (you cannot hit homers or throw 100 MPH solely on mental health), I will never agree that it should be the sole element. You know where I am going with this: talent cannot be the sole element, because the Psychology of that player will also dictate his future. This is not rhetoric—we have research that very clearly shows it.

So what about the Cy Young pitcher or MVP hitter? What was unique about their psychology and mental health that got them where they are now? Three words: Resilience to Failure.

Miami Marlins v San Francisco Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Resilience to Failure: Success is Measured in your Failures

Want proof that baseball is one of the the most difficult skilled sports to play at the professional level? Here it is: if you succeed 30% of the time in almost any non-baseball sport, you likely end up on waivers and never see the court, or mat, or field again. Why? Because the skill in those sports are typically easier to manage and master; as such, you should succeed more than just 30% of the time.

Now apply this theory to baseball: if you succeed 30% of the time at the plate, you are likely a Hall of Fame candidate. Consider how difficult the skill of hitting a baseball is, that when you fail 70% of the time, you still qualify as elite in your job. Now understand that a vast majority of Major League baseball players only tend to succeed between 25%-27% of the time they are at the plate. This means that the average Major League baseball player fails 73%-75% of the time.

Illustrating the razor-thin margin between success and mediocrity in baseball, former Marlins outfielder JB Shuck owns a .244 career batting average. The journeyman has played for five different organizations since 2011.
Fish Stripes original GIF

So I repeat, want to know what makes you successful in baseball? It is your resilience to failure. If you research—or even Google—resilience to failure, you will quickly find lengthy databases of of psychologists that have studied resilience in human behavior. The reason for this is that one of the biggest fields in psychology is that of resilience and response to failure.

With that understanding, let’s quickly recap the connection to baseball:

1) The science of psychology identified resiliency to failure as a significant element of human behavior

2) Baseball is built on how resilient you are and adaptive you are to failure.

Psychology of Baseball is vital in understanding how baseball players operate, how they succeed, and why some never do. It is impossible to deny because the game is built on your mental response to failure. It is built on your psychological and mental resolve, and the interaction between your mental process and physical talent. There’s a reason that every major league team employs a Sports Psychologist; and it is because the players are not robots or numbers, they are human.

Closing

I stated early in the article that I believe analytics should and need to win the war on baseball, but that they must also need to lose the battle of Psychology in Baseball. I believe this to be the case because it will allow for us to better understand the complexities of the things we still do not know how to analytically measure. Moreover, it allows us to realize how important the managerial position can still be in baseball (at least when the manager understands the things covered in this article).

It also permits us to sit back and realize the players we observe are not just numbers, but also humans—emotional, mood-changing individuals. They have one of the most stress-inducing jobs in the world, which requires split decision-making on a constant basis, with the understanding that all eyes are on them. This game is beautiful for a million reasons, and the Psychology of Baseball is one of them!

San Francisco Giants v Miami Marlins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images