From the Pages of Vine Line: Scouting the mental game
The following story can be found in the May issue of Vine Line.
Before every start, former Cubs pitcher Jamie Moyer prepped for the task at hand. He had already watched video of his opponents, mentally digested a quarter century of notes and done a final crosscheck with his battery mate. Now it was time for the journeyman to get in the zone.
Many players can’t reach the proper psychological place without some screaming, chest bumps or high-octane heavy metal. But as Moyer’s on-field demeanor might indicate, that wasn’t really his style. The ageless southpaw with a fastball that might have last reached 90 miles per hour sometime during the Clinton administration had a milder approach—one you might expect from somebody who threw his last major league pitch only six months shy of his 50th birthday.
Just before every game, Moyer would sit at his locker, concentrating on a small series of laminated 5×7 notecards. The text contained nothing directly related to the game or that day’s opponent. For Moyer, however, those cards had everything to do with the fast-approaching tilt.
One 5×7’s big, bold header read: “After making a mistake, make an adjustment.” Below that, there were three questions: “1. What was I trying to do? 2. What went wrong? 3. What do I have to do next time?”
The second card carried a similar bold headline that read: “Problem Solving.” Below that, in bullet points: “1. Awareness (define the problem). 2. Forming a strategy (what has to be done?). 3. Act it out (do it).”
For a large portion of Moyer’s career, these were the final items to be checked on a lengthy to-do list before he took the mound. This is what pumped him up and got him focused.
“To me, it almost became part of putting my uniform on,” Moyer said. “If I didn’t do it, it felt like I was missing a shoe.”
It’s probably safe to say the days of having an advantage through Moneyball philosophies are over. Advanced statistics have evolved into standard practice for the majority of baseball organizations. Now teams that don’t use The Bill James Handbook or some variation of it to gain an advantage over the other 29 clubs are viewed as outsiders. Even the common fan has access to much of this information through avenues like Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs.
So the multimillion-dollar question might be, what’s next?
The bottom line is all professional baseball players have physical talent. Most minor leaguers were perennial All-Stars in Little League and prep or college standouts. The goal for major league front offices is to find the thing that separates the cream of the crop—the characteristics that allow a player to succeed in high-leverage situations where others fail. That’s why clubs are going to great lengths to find guys who are ready to perform at an elite level psychologically as well as physically.
“I think now we’re at a point in time where 30 clubs have analyzed and done pretty in-depth research, so I’m not sure how much of an advantage [advanced statistics are] in that area,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “So now I think a lot of clubs are looking at physical health and mental health, trying to get an edge in those areas.”
Looking into an athlete’s mental state is nothing entirely new. The most recognizable example takes place around the NFL’s spring draft, as football hopefuls are asked to take an examination known as the Wonderlic Test to gauge their problem-solving abilities.
Dr. H. David Smith, a professor at Northwestern University and an expert on sports psychology, said major league clubs have been using tests like the Athletic Coping Skills Inventory and the Athletic Motivation Inventory for years. These exams attempt to ascertain a player’s motivation and preparation, and determine how they’re likely to perform under pressure.
“You have to think and plan and predict to be successful in sports—and baseball in particular,” said Smith, who has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. “I think there’s a huge mental aspect, in part because there’s so much inaction. Because of the amount of time between plays, there’s a lot of thinking that happens.”
Sports psychologists try to educate athletes on the mental preparation necessary to do their jobs, including how to perform well under pressure. It’s easy to overlook the fact that professional baseball players routinely work in front of 40,000 screaming fans and a media contingent eager to point fingers after every miscue.
Mental relaxation training might consist of putting the person in a high-pressure situation for an extended period of time and instructing him on how to prioritize the task at hand, rather than be crippled by emotion. It should come as no surprise everyone operates differently.
“Sports psychologists … are figuring out under what circumstances [athletes] have succeeded and under what circumstances they failed, and trying to figure out with them how best to prepare them to succeed in the mental aspect,” Smith said.
One of the main places big league teams are working hard to win the psychological battle is in the MLB amateur draft. Prospects are located across the country, and they play against varying levels of talent. That makes evaluating a player’s skill level even more difficult. By getting to know their personalities, clubs can get a better grasp of who the prospects really are. And any additional information is a bonus when deciding whether to hand an 18-year-old a multimillion-dollar contract.
“At the major league level, everybody’s on the same field—everybody’s at the major league level,” said Jason Parks, the director of scouting and player development for Baseball Prospectus. “Looking at advanced statistics at the minor league level, or even the amateur ranks, I think that because of the different context involved, advanced statistics start to get a little thin. And that’s when you have to try to rely on more scouting. I think the psychological element is becoming even bigger. The makeup component is becoming more vital and important.”
When scouting a young player, the Cubs try to dig up as much information as possible. They’re not just looking to see what a player does on the field, but also how he interacts with others. Scouts visit with the potential farmhands’ families and ask questions that aren’t always directly related to the player’s physical abilities.
“We challenge our scouts in the draft to get to know these guys as well as we can and find out as much information as we can [about] what makes them tick,” McLeod said. “Anything that might prohibit them from being the player they can be.
“What kind of upbringing does this guy have? How involved are his parents? Does he lean on his family? If not, who does he go to?”
Because most other organizations ask similar questions, McLeod said the Cubs try to come up with different angles to keep repetition to a minimum while still getting accurate answers.
For Parks, who spends much of his time at high school fields and minor league complexes, there are some on-field mannerisms he likes to look for that help him determine a prospect’s mental stake in the game. One is how a batter fares the second time up against a pitcher who struck him out on a questionable called third strike. Parks likes to see how that hitter adjusts, to both the pitcher and the expanded strike zone.
“Remember how you got beat, but don’t carry it over emotionally,” Parks said. “Understand that you’re not going to get that call and adjust accordingly.”
With the new collective bargaining agreement capping the dollars an organization can spend on amateur and international prospects, identifying the right players is becoming even more important. In previous years, big-money teams could stock up on talent by overpaying prospects. If they missed on a few, it was simply money lost.
That all changed in 2012. The CBA leveled the playing field and made it essential for teams that want to build through youth to succeed in the scouting department.
Cubs 2012 first-round draft pick Albert Almora is the perfect example of a player who excels both mentally and physically. He is known as a talented athlete with a plus hit tool and a plus glove. But the biggest asset the 20-year-old brings to the table might be his baseball savvy.
“You can tell Almora has been playing baseball since he was born,” Parks said. “What Almora does, it seems like he’s been going through these motions his whole life. Now everything is just muscle memory, and it’s just easy for him.”
Almora’s case is well documented. The Cubs’ No. 3-ranked prospect (according to MLB.com) grew up with a makeshift training facility—complete with a batting cage—in his backyard and played on a record six U.S. National teams. He’s a natural leader, his instincts are off the charts, and he spends hours after games signing autographs and meeting fans. It’s hard for scouting experts to stop raving about him—even a seasoned baseball vet like McLeod.
“Intangibles—[he’s] wired so well that he has confidence,” McLeod said. “Players that are with him, he’s going to get them better just because of the way he approaches the game.”
And finding more players with that approach might be a key component of future scouting.
“I think that is going to be a wave with scouting,” Parks said. “The Almoras are the ones who wind up making it to the major league level, instead of just being the dreams, and you look at their physical gifts and say, ‘I wonder what.’”
The Mental Game
This brings us back to Moyer. A sixth-round pick in the 1984 draft, the 51-year-old Phillies TV broadcaster threw his last big league pitch in May 2012. He said he prepped with those notecards starting in 1991, after he spent two and a half days with mental skills coach Harvey Dorfman. Dorfman served as the Oakland Athletics’ mental performance coach and later spent time with the Marlins and released a series of books, including The Mental Game of Baseball.
In their time together, Moyer gained a better grasp of positive thinking.
“When you think negatively, you talk negatively. When you talk negatively, you’ll respond negatively,” Moyer said. “And when you tell your body negative things, usually negative things are going to happen. ‘I don’t want to hang this curveball.’ Well, you do, because it’s your last thought, so you hang the curveball.”
Ridding himself of negativity was a large factor in Moyer’s remarkable 25-year baseball career. Never one to overpower his opponents, he instead found success with his ability to locate pitches while keeping a constant focus on the game—even though he knew failure was inevitable.
“If you succeed three out of 10 times, you’re considered quite successful,” Moyer said. “For a starting pitcher, if you get your 33 or 34 starts a season and you win 15 games, you’re considered very successful. But that’s still [losing] some 50 percent of the time.”
Most players who sign a professional contract aren’t all that used to failure. At a very competitive high school, Cubs top prospect Javier Baez hit .771 his senior season. Front office members are very aware of how a player’s growth can be stunted at the first signs of failure. On the other hand, they see how much a player can learn from overcoming early issues.
“I think we’ve all seen those players who we say, ‘Wow, this guy should have been better than he was’ or ‘Wow, this guy really gets the most of his ability,’” McLeod said. “Most of the time, that has to do with how that certain person is wired, how they prepare themselves, how they deal with success and failure.”
Moyer was a clear-cut example of the latter. Over his lengthy career, he managed just one All-Star Game (in 2002, at age 40) and was likely never the anchor of any rotation despite two 20-win seasons.
But it’s probably a safe bet that if he was on the bump five days after a defeat, he had those 5×7 cards in hand and was ready to make the necessary adjustments.