Book Review: The Psychology of Baseball

We need to remind ourselves that sabermetrics is the search for objective baseball truth, not simply the crunching of play-by-play data. Yes, baseball analysis is most closely associated with the numbers, old and new, that record the game’s history, but objective analysis doesn’t end there. Greg Rybarcyck’s Hit Tracker are examples of objective analysis that use physics as a framework instead of statistics. Folks like Rick Wilton and Will Carroll contribute by recasting baseball injuries in medical and scientific terms. Carlos Gomez and Jeff Albert are part of nascent effort in bringing science to the analysis of pitcher and hitter biomechanics.

In The Psychology of Baseball: Inside the Mental game of the Major League Player (Gotham Books, 2007), University of Missouri professor and baseball fan Mike Stadler explains the mental side of the game in objective terms. At a reasonable length and pace, Stadler’s book is a very nice introduction to understanding the game from the inside out. It is a survey of the current state of baseball-relevant psychological research, arranged broadly in two pieces. The first examines the interplay of mental and physical processes that allow humans to do basic baseball activities like tracking a thrown ball, and the second analyzes the role of personality and emotion in professional ballplayers and fans.

The first part was the most interesting; most people aren’t aware that cognitive psychology encompasses things like reaction time, coordination, and tracking the path of a ball in flight. Here, Stadler draws from a wealth of anecdotes and experimental studies; the former is more interesting but the latter is more compelling. He does a good job of mixing the two and making the conclusions accessible to the reader. Some of the information is amusing (“throwing like a girl” has a basis in fact when it comes to bouncing throws in the dirt) and some profound (throwing accuracy is determined almost entirely by the timing of the release), but nearly all are interesting.

Not only are the details of the experiments and analysis are fascinating, but they are made relevant when Stadler frames them by concluding that baseball activities suggest that perception and action are “inextricably linked” rather than “functionally independent.” The wealth of evidence sheds a new light on the amazing physical processes involved in playing baseball, summed by Stadler when he writes: “Happily for baseball fans, but sadly for the United States Defense Department, even a Little Leaguer can reliably do what some of the best engineers, armed with some of the most sophistcated technology available, cannot yet make an antimissile system do.”

The second half of the book is a mixed bag, since there isn’t as much experimental evidence (from the field of psychology, anyway) from which to draw when talking about self confidence, streaks, slumps, managerial decisions and fan behavior. Without this evidence, the discussion relies heavily on anecdotes; the section on self confidence is interesting but watered down by a long retelling of the story of Billy Beane and Darryl Strawberry. The discussion regarding fear of failure has a basis in experimental study, but the logical leap from an individual’s fear of failure and the propensity for an entire team to choke requires a leap of logic that seems unsupportable. Similarly, the discussion on home field advantage is interesting, but the section focusing on only home field advantage in the playoffs suffers from such small sample size that it hardly seems worth the effort. This isn’t a knock on Stadler; there just isn’t a lot of empirical evidence.

But there are some memorable parts in this section. That self confidence is probably like speed or strength—”no amount of training can change the upper limits”—may be bleakly deterministic, but at times so is statistical analysis. That many fans watch baseball to distract themselves from their own mortality is hardly surprising, but the terminology for the phenomenom—”terror management theory”—says something about the human condition.

As you read, it is clear that Stadler himself is a baseball fan, and not just a psychologist using baseball as a vehicle to write a book for popular consumption. When he writes, “If their team has a strong rival…they will likely exhibit the negativity bias, and blame external factors (Steinbrenner’s wealth) for their rivals’ success and internal factors (the Yankees suck) for their failures,” it is clear that he watches (and enjoys!) a good deal of baseball. Yes, there are a few minor inaccuracies—Chad Bradford has long since left the A’s and I don’t think I’ve ever heard Mike Mussina described as a “power pitcher”—but these are nits not meant to be picked. Overall, Stadler is well-versed with the current state of analytics, frequently citing Baseball Prospectus, referencing this THT article on sophomore slumps, and using Win Probability Analysis when discussing clutch hitting.

Unfortunately, Stadler does occasionally indulge himself in long, unecessary narratives of historical games or events. These narratives distract from the central theme, the role of psychology in the game, and serve more to distract than to frame. But this is a minor complaint; that his digressions are baseball and not academic make them palatable, if not interesting. This isn’t a psychology book that uses baseball as an example. This is a baseball book that uses psyschology to understand the game. It’s a credit to Stadler that he doesn’t get bogged down in the acadmic details of his science.

The Psychology of Baseball brings some rigor to a field that has been long ignored by baseball analysts (though not fans—as Stadler notes, all fans are amateur psychologists). Stadler’s contribution is mainly in bringing the current state of the research to light for non-psychologists, although his analysis is valuable as well. It is a thorougly researched voluume that hopefully starts a dialogue on the role of cognitive psychology in baseball.

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