This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.
When analytics became the hot new craze in baseball 15 years ago, the teams at the forefront of the movement gained a level of competitive advantage that propelled them back into competition with the massively bankrolled clubs. A decade and a half later, analytics are no longer the secret weapon they once were for those small-market teams.
In today’s game, analytics are everywhere. You can find statistics online that attempt to measure defensive value, analysts on MLB Network and ESPN discuss the merits of WAR, and every major league team (yes, even the Phillies) has implemented their own baseball analytics department.
The advantage that small-market teams such as the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays gained by being the first to acknowledge the relevance of certain unheralded statistics, is now gone. Sabermetrics have become a focal point of the baseball world, not only for the front offices of major league baseball teams, but also for a significant portion of the sport’s fan base. Anyone and everyone can now learn about these advanced statistics.
With the usage of analytics being so widespread, teams must now look elsewhere to gain an edge. So, where do these teams look next?
One widely untapped possibility for the next great area of competitive advantage may be found right inside our own skulls. As one of baseball’s greats once said: “Baseball is ninety percent mental, and the other half is physical.” It’s a quote that I’m sure many of you are aware comes from the late Yogi Berra, and while his math might be off (he played before sabermetrics were around), his emphasis on the mental aspect of baseball is important to note.
Baseball players are under constant pressure to make decisions. A pitcher must decide what pitch to throw, a hitter whether to swing, a fielder where to position themselves. All of these decisions require the use of one’s mental skills. As Matt Krug, the Brewers director of psychological services put it, “the more down time you have in your sport, the more quote-unquote mental it is. There’s a lot of down time in baseball, which allows your thoughts to wander.”i Baseball provides a disproportionate amount of time for thinking as opposed to actually doing, so teaching players the right way to think, in preparation for performing their actions, is an incredibly important skill.
Unfortunately, the training and development of these mental skills has been fairly nonexistent throughout much of baseball history. While professional players spend hours every day lifting weights, fielding ground balls, and taking batting practice, they spend little to no time working to enhance their mental capabilities, despite often acknowledging the value of maintaining a calm and collected head.
In the past, teams have recognized the usefulness of psychology, but it has yet to find its way into the sport as a developmental tool on a large scale. One of the first, and most well-known, mental consultants in the game of baseball was Harvey Dorfman. Dorfman worked for nearly three decades with professional teams, as well as the Boras Corporation, becoming one of the first full-time mental skills consultants. He believed that to enhance a player’s performance, the player needed to reduce their stress by removing on-field distractions. Dorfman spent years within the game pushing his mental enhancement platform, making a profound impact on the world of mental training, and while he passed away in 2011, his legacy continues on.
Dorfman was only employed by three major league organizations (the A’s, Marlins and Devil Rays), but his reach stretched far beyond just the athletes on those teams. Numerous players, from Kevin Brown, to Brad Lidge, to Greg Maddux credited Dorfman with helping them improve their game. Jamie Moyer dedicated his 2013 memoir to Dorfmanii, and Rick Ankiel has taken up a job with the Washington Nationals as their life skills coordinator, in the hopes that he can pass on the wisdom that Dorfman imparted to him. Dorfman may be gone, but his teachings will progress, as players continue to utilize his techniques.
Since Dorfman, there haven’t been many hugely recognizable names in the baseball mental skills community, but Alan Jaeger is an excellent example of someone who is furthering the practice of mental skills training. Jaeger runs his own company, Jaeger Sports, where he promotes a mental training regimen of his own design, as well as rounding out his company through research and development of a long-toss guide to throwing, and the creation of the Jaeger-bands. Jaeger’s approach to mental training is detailed in his book, “Getting Focused Staying Focused,” where he emphasizes a program based on the practice of meditation. Jaeger remains active in the mental training aspect of his company, continuing to give talks to high schools and colleges, as well as consulting with professional players on improving their mental approach to the game, earning the praise of players such as Trevor Hoffman, Randy Wolf and Trevor Bauer.
Beyond just the spiritual successors that Dorfman spawned in people like Jaeger, his work also created an entirely new field of jobs within major league baseball organizations. Psychologists had been dabbling in baseball research since Babe Ruth’s playing days, but Dorfman’s work paved the way for the implementation of more mental training consultants with MLB teams. These mental training consultants, are well on their way to becoming a fixture in MLB organizations. Whereas it was once a viewed as a bad thing if a player went to speak to someone about something going on in their head, the baseball environment has now opened up to become far more accepting of sports psychology and the idea of mental training.
The Mariners have even gone so far as to provide sports psychologist Andy McKay with one of the highest positions in the front office, making him their director of player development. McKay will seek to fuse the worlds of physical and mental training, as he attempts to develop and enhance baseball players in a way that hasn’t been done before. It is McKay’s belief, as well as Mariners General Manger Jerry Dipoto’s, that psychology and mental training are the next great frontier in baseball. As McKay says, “there’s nobody that is doing it well. There’s an enormous gap between where we are as an industry and where we can get to.”iii
With McKay becoming one of the first major front office players to be trained in the field of psychology, what decisions he makes, and the success of his plans could make tidal waves in the sport. If McKay is able to master the art of mental training, there is no doubt that other teams will jump on the bandwagon to copy his strategies, and if/when that happens, it won’t be long before everyone in the game puts themselves back on a level playing field.
Ken Ravizza, an early contemporary of Dorfman’s and a current employee of the Chicago Cubs, provides an emphatic support of McKay and Dipoto’s belief: “People realize now that we’ve tapped the physical conditioning aspect. We’ve tapped the mechanics aspect. We’re tapping the computer aspect and all the numbers. I think now they’re realizing the next edge is the six inches between the ears.”iv
Hawkins is primarily a Dodgers fan, but has taken a strong rooting interest in the Mariners in recent years, due to the Dodgers’ television situation. He is currently finishing up his undergraduate degree at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, while also coaching a local high school team. His writing about baseball (and movies) can be found at dancelikedevito.com.
i Joe Lemire, “With psychologists, MLB teams try to win “six inches between the ears””. USA Today, accessed on January 8, 2016 from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2015/06/02/major-league-baseball-sports-psychology/28366403/
ii Tyler Kepner, “The Giants’ Pieces Remain, and Fall Apart”. New York Times, accessed on January 8, 2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/sports/baseball/the-pieces-remain-and-fall-apart.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
iii Greg Johns, “McKay steering Mariners through new frontier”. MLB.com, accessed on January 9, 2016 from http://m.mariners.mlb.com/news/article/157245156/andy-mckay-brings-new-ideas-to-mariners
This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.