October 19, 2019

The Sixth Tool: Measuring the Mind

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Of all the prospects Pittsburgh received in its 2009 fire sale, possibly the most alluring was 25-year-old right-hander Charlie Morton.    Morton came armed with a knee-buckling curve, a swooping slider, and a darting fastball that blazed past hitters at 95 miles-per-hour.   He dominated Triple-A in 2008 and 2009.   Word was he was the ideal pitcher except for one little thing – he lacked confidence.

Actually, though, confidence is no little thing at all.    University of Washington professor Ronald Smith, who has consulted for the Houston Astros, believes a ballplayer’s psychological profile is just as important as his physical tools in determining his ultimate success – and this is especially true for pitchers.   Smith’s research suggests mental outlook is more strongly correlated with pitching performance than IQ is with a student’s grades in college.

Since the trade, Morton is 6-14 with an ERA of 5.74.

Neuroscientists estimate between 95 and 99 percent of human thought is unconscious.  That’s what makes those doubting voices deep inside our heads so insidious; they can whisper very, very quietly.  In fact, it is not always easy to know whether you lack confidence.  Once you know it, it can be exceedingly difficult to discover the root of the problem.  After you discover the root of the problem, then comes the arduous task of re-shaping well-worn patterns of negative thinking.   People spend years in psychotherapy seeking shelter from their insecurities.  Some of them never really get anywhere.

By comparison, a lot of physical problems are no sweat.  Bad shoulder?  Dr. Andrews can clean that up.   Need a few more miles per hour on your fastball?  Let’s try a different arm slot.  Out of shape?  Put down the Sam Adams, push back from the table, and hit the weights.  These are concrete problems with proven solutions.  A man’s mind is much murkier, densely-forested territory, with switchbacks all around and creepy goblins lurking in the darkness.

In his 2007 book The Psychology of Baseball, Mike Stadler contrasts two New York Mets’ prospects from the 1980s, Billy Beane and Darryl Strawberry.  Despite remarkably similar skill sets and pedigrees, their professional careers unfolded very differently, largely because of the unconscious mental frameworks that structured each man’s thinking.

Strawberry saw himself almost like a predator.  With a bat in his hands, he believed he was in total control of his own fate and that of the opposing pitcher.   He simply knew he was a great hitter.  It was a plain, incontrovertible fact, no different than knowing birds fly or that two plus two equals four.  Strawberry had other demons that eventually flatlined his career, but confidence at the plate was not an issue.

Conversely, Beane perceived himself as prey.  The batter’s box was a trap, a place where he felt under siege, helpless, and at the mercy of forces beyond his control.   Beane was aware, at a rational level, that he was a gifted hitter fully capable of succeeding in the majors.  But deep down he never bought it, and his career came to almost nothing.

Most of us remain woefully uninformed about the mechanics of the mind.  We all like to believe we are rational actors, like Mister Spock, making coldly logical judgments and decisions based solely upon the facts in front of us.  We are only dimly aware of the kaleidoscope of emotions that is constantly coloring our thoughts and affecting our behavior.  When a talent like Billy Beane is on the skids, it is natural to assume his self-assurance will come roaring back if he can just string together a few hits.  Or surely if he studies enough video, or if he tweaks his batting stance, or if someone finds the right words of encouragement, the light will flicker on like magic.  Sometimes that is exactly what happens, but for other players it’s not that simple.

Pirates’ pitching coach Joe Kerrigan has encouraged Morton to concentrate on repeating his delivery and ordered him to stop throwing his sinker ball.   Kerrigan could be on to something.  He is a highly respected coach who knows his business.  But it also is possible that Charlie Morton’s confidence in his sinker is irrelevant.  The real problem might be Charlie Morton’s confidence in Charlie Morton.  If so, then Kerrigan is just rotating the tires on a car with a blown engine.

Although our deepest thoughts defy radar guns, stopwatches, and all the standard tools of player evaluation, they are not completely beyond our grasp.  More and more major league teams rely on quantitative testing to mine the minds of the young men on their draft boards.   However, these kinds of questionnaires, while better than nothing, contain inherent flaws in that they require our conscious brains to explain our unconscious thoughts.  Although we can provide answers, those answers are not necessarily truths.

An alternative or complement to quantitative surveys would be a qualitative approach with in-depth interviews that emphasize psychological projection techniques and a painstaking analysis of the metaphors players employ to describe their performance and themselves.  Linguists know the metaphors we use casually in our everyday speech can reveal the secrets of how we think – secrets we probably don’t even know ourselves.

The Pirates thought Morton was a good risk, and, of course, he might eventually prove them right.  Without knowing the man, it is a fool’s errand to try to get inside his head.  But if Morton really is battling profound self-doubt, as some baseball people have suggested, then his tantalizing potential may well remain unfulfilled.

Most general managers would reflexively recoil at the thought of acquiring a young pitcher with chronic elbow trouble or a centerfield prospect who is gimping around on a torn ACL.  They should be no less alarmed about the subtle mental miseries that can grind the most promising prospect into mush.

James Forr is the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award and co-author of Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography, released in January 2010.

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