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Q+A with mike stadler: "a little bit like predicting the weather"

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another monday through wednesday travel week for me; another canned monday post. but this one's pretty fresh --- a Q+A with Mike Stadler, a mizzou psych professor and the author of The Psychology of Baseball. the book came out last year and will be released next month in paperback. quoting booklist's review from last spring: "Stadler's basic premise is that baseball is at least as much a mental exercise as a physical one. He examines the visual acuity needed to see a ball hurtling toward home plate at 95 miles an hour, determines that batters lose sight of the ball at some point, and then presents the mental gyrations--calculated in hundredths of a second--that end with bat meeting ball. Or not. . . . Particularly interesting is a chapter on the nature of fandom. Why are we fans? What do we gain? Are there negative aspects? Despite its eggheady title, this could become one of the hot baseball books of the year."

i met Mike at the sabr conference in st louis last summer, and he was kind enough to make some time for me on saturday to discuss the book and the subject.

one quick note about the tournament: round 1 is complete. no games today; tomorrow we'll dive in to round 2.

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Tell me about the book's inception. Why did you decide to do a book on the psychology of baseball?
Well, it actually goes back to very early in graduate school [at Purdue], my first or second week. I came upon a couple of professors who were talking about an article about some statistical issue, and it used baseball as an example. I went and looked up the article they were talking about, and it just kind of dawned on me that even though I hadn't gone into psychology with the idea of studying baseball, psychology would have a lot to say about baseball. So over the years, every time I ran into something in psychology that had to do with baseball, I made a note of it and put it in a file. Over the years that file grew, until finally a few years ago I thought, "Well, there's enough here to sort it out and organize it and write a book."

And the time frame for grad school, I'm guessing here, would be the late '80s?
Exactly. I got to Purdue in 1985 and left in 1989. At about that time [1990] Robert Adair's book, The Physics of Baseball, came out, and that kind of clicked for me. I thought, "One day maybe I'll write a `Psychology of Baseball.'" Adair's book is kind of about the bat and the ball, so I thought if I wrote about the psychology of baseball, I'd actually be writing about the players.

At that time, did you happen to be a fantasy baseball player? Were you familiar with Bill James?
I had started to become aware of the Bill James stuff. I wasn't a fantasy player quite that early. I've played fantasy baseball off and on for about the last 10 years.

So you've gotten familiar with all the number-crunching that, perhaps like The Physics of Baseball, is often said to be too much about the math and not enough about the actual human performers. I guess you can tell where I'm headed with this. From a competitive standpoint, the advantage of using sabermetrics has almost been eliminated, because nearly every major-league team is doing sabermetrics now. They've all got a stat unit, and they're all using very similar methods for quantifying player performance. But psychology seems like an area where maybe you could find an advantage if you could come up with a system for analyzing players and projecting their development using psychological cues. Are you aware of any research of that type going on?
I think you're right --- let's just start with the premise there. I think there is a lot that could be done. A fair amount has been done that some teams, at least, are taking advantage of. When I was doing some of the research for the book, I talked to the director of the major-league scouting bureau, Frank Marcos. He told me that about two-thirds of the teams at that point were using a test that the scouting bureau gave a lot of prospects. It's called the Athletic Motivation Inventory, and it measures various aspects of a player's personality. His thinking was that some teams used it more than others, but at least two-thirds of them were subscribing to the data and factoring it in somehow.

Who developed that test?
It actually goes back to a couple of guys named [Thomas] Tutko and [Bruce] Oglivie. They developed it in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and another guy named [William] Winslow bought the test. It's now a commercial product that's copyrighted and everything. He's been using it for many years, not for just baseball but also football, basketball, and hockey [see website here]. Various university athletic departments have used it over the years. So it's a pretty well-used test, and it's fairly well studied. There's at least some data out there that you can look at to see what kind of personality profile matches up best with the demands of different kinds of sports. There's a lot nmore that could be done, but there's at least a foundation to start building from.

And there's a sprinkling of work from various people over the years as well, and it mostly converges on a common set of conclusions. There's a nice common thread that runs through it all.

I know there's a test that gets administered by the NFL to incoming players at the time of the draft. It sometimes generates a lot of publicity --- you'll hear about an individual player's score on the test and how it might affect his draft position. But you never hear about that in connection with a baseball prospect; you never hear any discussion of a guy's score on the psychological inventory.
I don't follow the NFL quite as much, but there's another test they use in the NFL, and it's an IQ test. I forget the name of it, but it seems to get a lot of play with quarterbacks. I haven't really looked into the validity of that test at all.

Put it this way: Based on that test, [Denver Broncos coach] Mike Shanahan declared that Brian Griese would be the next Joe Montana. Griese had such an exemplary score that Shanahan thought he was gonna be the next Joe Montana. So maybe it's not all it's cracked up to be.
One of the things about anything psychological is that it's a little bit like predicting the weather. The forecasters can get some of the big trends right, but there's also always a lot of error in the measurement. Just as there is in all the baseball statistics. You can make your forecasts, but you're still only operating with a given level of certainty. That's as true with any kind of psychological forecast as it is with baseball or weather or anything else.

If you want to use psychological information to evaluate a prospect, or you're looking at a group of prospects and you want to identify which ones are best suited for success from a psychological standpoint, what are the specific things you're looking for?
The two factors that come out most often in these studies are self-confidence and what is often labeled "mental toughness." If you think about the nature of baseball, you can see why those would be important to you. Most of the time in baseball --- especially if you're a hitter --- you fail. But even if you're a pitcher, if you think about it on a pitch-by-pitch basis, you don't hit your target every time. So you have to have a certain resilience that allows you to keep at it, even after you repeatedly fail to do what you're trying to do. Maybe you've struck out three times in the game already, but you still have to go up to bat the fourth time, and the best players are gonna be able to get past those three failures and still go up there and give themselves a chance to succeed.

Just yesterday there was a really interesting report in Slate, not about baseball but about golf. An economist actually did a study about what happens when Tiger Woods simply enters a tournament. And when he's in the field --- and this effect is especially pronounced among the top 30 or so players --- everybody else plays about a stroke worse.

Just his mere presence does that. It doesn't affect the guys who are ranked from, say, 30th down to 150th, because they're not trying to compete with Tiger in the first place. They're aiming for 20th place or 30th place. When there's that big a talent difference, it just kind of depresses people's performance. It's probably not a conscious thing. I'm sure every time those players go out there, they're trying to do everything they can to win and give themselves every opportunity to win. But somewhere in the back of their mind there's this thought that, "Well, Tiger's in the field so I don't have as good a chance to win." And that influences their performance. It's really amazing.

the interview continues after the jump . . .

You mentioned resilience, and that's a nice entrée into some questions I wanted to ask you about a few specific instances from the Cards' recent past. The first one is the Wainwright versus Beltran confrontation that ended Game 7 of the NLCS in 2006. On the one hand you've got Wainwright who gave up a couple of hits to start the inning, later got an out on a very hard hit ball [by Jose Reyes], and then he walks Paul Lo Duca with 2 outs, and really didn't come close to the strike zone with any of his pitches. So he's not doing much of anything right. And on the other side you've got Beltran, an MVP candidate that year with a history of killing the Cardinals in the postseason --- a guy who already had 3 home runs in that series and had been on base twice in Game 7 --- he seemingly can do no wrong. Yet if you watch that at-bat, Wainwright appears to be fearless and Beltran appears scared --- he takes a very passive approach and barely even gets the bat off his shoulder, while Wainwright's aggressive and goes right after him. As you think back over that at-bat, was there anything you could see that could give you any clue about what might have been going on psychologically?
One possibility is that Beltran may have been watching Wainwright's performance up to that point and it sort of planted the seed of an idea --- "It doesn't look like his control is all that great right now. It looks like people are hitting him pretty hard." So he may have gone into it with an expectation that set him up for that perfect curveball, where he doesn't think Wainwright's going to be able to catch the outside corner, especially with a breaking ball. So maybe he simply took the pitch assuming that it would miss, hoping he would get a chance at a fastball later. In other words, it might have been a strategic decision based on what he'd been watching in that inning. I think you can give Beltran credit for thinking a situation through like that.

It also simply could have been ---you know, judging a pitch is a really tough thing to do. You have to decide before the ball's halfway to home plate whether or not you're gonna swing at it, and it could be that he just made a mistake. He might have misperceived where that ball was going --- "It looks like a ball, so I'm not gonna swing . . . . . .oops."

And Wainwright's prior wildness in the inning may have fed into that perception? Coming out of his hand the ball looks like it's gonna be outside, and Wainwright has been missing the strikes zone, so ---
Right. Exactly. When we have an expectation for something, and we have to make a judgment on something ambiguous, we're more likely to see it as we expect to see it. Having watched a couple of at-bats where it didn't look like Wainwright had very good control, he might have been expecting Wainwright to miss. Not consciously, but in the back of his mind.

Another possibility is that Carlos just went up there and, for whatever reason, didn't have that mental toughness. Choking does happen in sports. The things that lead to it most often, or the things that are most understood psychologically, are the kinds of thoughts where the player starts to focus too much on himself and what he's doing. So if Beltran is thinking things like, "Everything rides on this at-bat. Everyone is depending on me. I have to do this right or our season is over. Don't make a mistake" --- if he starts thinking things like that, those kinds of thoughts will interfere with things that should be automatic. He should be stepping into the box and doing what he has done thousands upon thousands of times before without thinking about it. It goes back to that line from Bull Durham --- "Don't think, it hurts the ballclub." There are times in baseball where you just want to let your skills take over and rely on all the prepration that's gotten you there.

There are lots of studies that show that when you try to think about something that's automatic, you tend to interfere with that process. It can be something as simple as walking up and down the steps. If you start to think about what your feet are doing, it's more likely you're going to trip. So if Beltran is thinking about how he's gonna swing the bat and how he's going to look for the pitch, instead of just doing it the way he's done it a thousand tinmes before, then he's going to interfere with his ability instead of using it.

What you're describing sounds like exactly what happened to Rick Ankiel, the pitcher.
That's a strong likelihood.

It seems as if Wainwright did not fall into that trap. He didn't focus too hard or try to make the perfect pitch; his first two pitches were a changeup and a slider, which are his 3d- and 4th-best pitches. And it's not as if he was trying to put them right on the corner. They both got a fair amount of the plate.
One thing a pitcher can always count on is that even if a pitch isn't perfect, it's still up to the hitter to hit it well. Watch the Home Run Derby, or watch batting practice. Even when the pitcher is trying to put the ball where they hitter can hit it, they still don't hit it well a huge proportion of the time. So Wainwright could sort of count on the percentages --- even if he didn't make a perfect pitch, there'd be a good chance Beltran would foul it off, hit it at somebody, whatever --- that somehow he'd make an out. The pressure is on the hitter in that situation. The pitcher can make a mistake and still get away with it.

If the pitcher has got the presence of mind to remember that.
Well, that's just the thing. That's the tough thing. You can easily imagine someone, especially a guy as young as Wainwright, looking at this situation and starting to think, "This whole series is riding on this next pitch. Will I ever get this close to the World Series again?" You can start to put all kinds of pressure on yourself.

"How many times will this be shown on SportsCenter if I give up a home run?"
That wouldn't be pleasant, would it? Wainwright must have the ability to turn everything off and just let his preparation take over. When we start to think, "Don't do something," that makes it more likely that you're going to do whatever you're trying to avoid. You've sort of planted the seed of that idea. It's what psychologists call priming --- you sort of activate the idea. You can prime the idea of throwing the ball in the dirt, or prime the idea of just making a bad pitch, and it actually makes it more likely that you're going to do that.

I wonder if that effect played into another famous confrontation from recent Cardinal history: Albert Pujols against Brad Lidge. I'm not thinking about the pitch to Albert per se; I'm thinking about the at-bat before it, the walk to Edmonds. I wonder if the sight of Pujols in the on-deck circle "primed" Lidge, to use your term. He thinks to himself, "I can't let Edmonds off the hook because then I've got to face Pujols" - and then proceeds to walk Edmonds on 5 pitches, not really coming close to the strike zone.
That's a great observation. I think where Lidge made the mistake, mentally, was with Edmonds, not with Pujols. If he's got the mind-set Adam Wainwright has, he just throws his pitches and trusts his pitches. It could be that Lidge sort of lost his edge with Edmonds, and then he threw strikes to Pujols but Albert got the pitch he was looking for and crushed it.

Then you look at what happened to Lidge afterward --- if Lidge had been able to start the next season without having made that mistake, would it have made any difference? It's hard to give an iron-clad, clear-cut answer. He had had stretches of blown saves in his career before that home run; they would tend to cluster. So you don't know if that's just randomness, or if he tends to have a mental letdown periodically. It may be that sometimes he's not able to focus like he needs to. Maybe he was playing with an injury, maybe there were other things going on. But it certainly looked as if that pitch to Pujols was figuring into his performance the next season. He might have gone out to the mound thinking he had something to prove and put too much pressure on himself on every pitch. He may have been trying to make the perfect pitch every time, and you can't pitch perfectly --- nobody does. It sure looks like what happened in 2005 is still in the back of his mind. It'll be interesting to see how he does with Philadelphia. Maybe the change of scenery will let him put that stuff out of his mind.

Another thought about this idea of priming --- it seems to apply to all those errors by the Detroit pitchers in the 2006 World Series. Those didn't seem to be a coincidence. It's as if they were primed to throw the ball away on their throws to first and third base.
That could be. And the other side to that is that the underdog in a series has nothing to lose. That idea, "Don't fail," isn't running through their heads --- at least, not as much --- so they can play more relaxed.

We talked about that quite a bit on the blog during the 2006 playoffs. The two juggernaut teams of 2004 and 2005, the teams that were heavily favored --- you wouldn't necessarily say they choked, but they seemed to lack focus or confidence or whatever you want to call it. They seemed more focused on not doing something --- not losing, not making a mistake --- than on winning. But in 2006 they were already expected to lose, and it was almost liberating. Instead of playing not to lose, it looked like they were just playing the game --- playing to win.
Another example of this could be the Super Bowl coming up. You gotta think that the Giants can go into that game pretty relaxed, because nobody expects them to win. They weren't expected to be in the Super Bowl at all.

Much like the Pats in their first Super Bowl win. Nobody expected them to get there at all, and when they did nobody gave them any chance to beat the Rams.
Exactly. And now they've got to win. It's a little bit like Tiger Woods. Everybody expects him to win every week, and he doesn't win every week. The ability to deal with that pressure is very uncommon. These effects can be very subtle. They only have to effect a handful of plays. In a short baseball series, they only have to effect one or two at-bats to influence the outcome.

Did you read 3 Nights in August?
I have read it.

What did you think about the way La Russa came across in that book?
I've been in Missouri the whole time La Russa's been with the Cardinals, and he's been a really interesting guy to me. He does seem to have a sort of intellectual perspective on the game. Maybe other managers have it too, but they don't give that impression. When I was reading the book, part of me was wondering how much of the book was a tactic on La Russa's part. Isn't he worried about what other teams are going to do with the information that's in the book? And if he's worried about it, is he telling them something that isn't true? He does have that deliberate, conscious view of the way perceive what he does. I almost started to think of the whole book as a manipulation --- or at least, an opportunity for manipulation. I don't know that that's what he was doing. He just struck me as somebody who's got that kind of deliberate thought process. I suspect that when he makes comments to reporters about Scott Rolen or Adam Kennedy, it's not an accident. He has thought it all through in advance.

Without question he is uber-conscious of the way he is perceived --- even to the point of wearing sunglasses in the dugout during night games because he doesn't want the other team to be able to read his eye motions.
Right. That's the kind of deliberateness that I picked up on. He's aware of every little thing, and to the extent that he can he tries to control those things. The sunglasses are a really good example of that. If the other dugout can pick up on when you're about to put on a hit and run, it's good to take that edge away from them.

When you talk about the whole book possibly being a manipulation, I can also imagine the sunglasses just being a manipulation to some degree --- an extent to sustain this image he has as a thinking man's manager. That image is a real irritant to a lot of people in baseball. Maybe he's just playing it up to get under people's skin.
The Patriots have a little bit of that going on, with the videotaping and all this stuff. There's almost this Darth Vader effect --- I'm in control and I'm going to dictate how things go. If you've ever watched poker on TV, so many of the players wear sunglasses, and they all try to project an image at the table.

And that's pure psychology.
Perhaps La Russa's just saying to the other manager, "Hey, I've got a lot going on over here [mentally]. What are you doing?" Maybe that puts a little pressure on the other manager.

Or just aggravates the guy. And maybe that causes a little distraction and makes the other manager do something he otherwise might not do.
Pushes him to an unforced error.

At the same time, those skills can serve the team well. I think he handled Darryl Kile's death with a lot more sensitivity than most managers would have, and the entire 2007 season was one psychological blow after another for the Cardinals. Yet Tony still had them playing for something in September, until the Ankiel HGH story came out. That seemed like the last straw.
You can reach a breaking point or a critical mass. Whatever psychological resources they'd been able to use finally gave out, and they were unable to rebound. There's a lot of recent research which suggests that the ability to exert the will is an exhaustible resource. You don't have an unending supply of what you'd call, for lack of a better term, "the will." The will to go out there and focus just on baseball. After a while, the supply of willpower runs out.

Will the day ever come where we can systematically evaluate players on that skill --- ie, their ability to exert will? I would want to know, first, what's an individual player's capacity for exerting will? It'd be another scouting point, like power or speed or arm strength. And the second piece of that would be, how much of his capacity is available at any given point in time? How full is the tank? Will there ever be a way to gather and analyze this sort of information systematically?
That's a really good question, and I don't know the answer. There's certainly nothing in currently available baseball statistics that would let you study that. I could imagine that psychologists could develop a test for that, where they could put people in a situation where they have to constantly keep applying their willpower, to find out where the breaking point is. I'm sure there are differences from one person to the next in that ability. You could imagine somebody developing a test to measure that. But keep in mind, the guys who make it to major-league baseball are such a small slice of the people who try to get there. They've climbed to the top of this huge pyramid --- 1 in 20,000 or something like that. So just to get there, you've got to have a lot of ability to exert will. But what they find when they get there are a bunch of people who also have that ability. It's one titan of will against another titan of will. So we might see big differences between an Albert Pujols and somebody else, but the difference between Pujols and that other guy is nothing compared to the difference between the two of them and the rest of us. The differences among those guys aren't really that big.

Pujols was a 13th round draft pick --- and that was based on what scouts were able to evaluate in terms of his bat speed, his fielding ability, throwing arm, etc etc. If they'd understood his iron will, maybe he goes higher than that in the draft. I know that scouting reports include some information about a player's makeup and character, but it's usually based on gut feel --- a lot less detailed than the information about his swing or his throwing mechanics. And in any case, swinging a bat and throwing a ball are pretty simple actions, and it's very easy to catalog a guy's strengths and weaknesses. Psychology is a lot harder to pin down. Will there ever be a time where we scout guys on their psychological profile as closely as we scout their physical ability?
I kind of doubt it. I think what teams will look for is a marginal difference. If you take two guys of equal physical ability, they might pick the one who seems to have the psychological edge. I think we may get to the point where we can make distinctions at that level. But I doubt we'd ever be able to do it precisely enough to take a guy with inferior physical ability and be able to say, "He's gonna be a star in the big leagues." Baseball scouting is such a crapshoot compared to the other sports. You've got so many high draft picks who don't make it, and then you've got a guy like Pujols or Mike Piazza, who was taken in the last round as a favor to Tommy LaSorda. And then he goes on to have a Hall of Fame career.

Another thing to consider is that the maturation process seems to be slower in baseball than in the other sports. I don't know if that's because the skills are more difficult or you just need to be more mature to play the game. But it is striking that the process takes so much longer in baseball than in the other sports.

Mike, thanks a lot for the conversation. I really appreciate it.
Sure thing. Thank you.