Brainyball: The Sequel to Statistics

Our old friend Moneyball will be making a comeback this year, when the film starring Brad Pitt gets released this September. Let me declare seven months ahead of time that I am sick of hearing about how the movie hype is distracting the 2011 A’s during their pennant run. I am also preemptively tired of the rehashing of old arguments, such as how the A’s philosophy failed because the Moneyball generation never won a ring. Finally, I am, in advance, savoring the irony of the A’s winning the 2011 World Series, in the very year that this antique anti-Moneyball argument reaches its crescendo.

I love me a good irony. I took my daughters Monday to see Sally Ride give a speech for the UC Berkeley Physics Department. I looked around the auditorium and noticed that darn near everyone in the room was skinny. Maybe these people burn all their fat off just by thinking so hard about the universe. Whatever the cause, I found myself tickled by this ironic idea: Physicists have very little gravitational pull.

The irony that lies at the core of the Moneyball book is that A’s GM Billy Beane was trying to find a way to weed out players who were essentially just like himself. Beane is a very intelligent guy with an chiseled athletic body whose intelligence got in the way of his performance. You look at him, and you think he was born to be a star athlete. But he never became one. He’d get so worked up about every little failure that his swing and approach got all screwed up. He couldn’t handle the mental part of the game.

So Beane became a scout, then a GM, and tried to come up with a reliable way to weed out players like himself who can’t handle the mental part of the game, and discover the players who can. They tried to accomplish this by using a deeper understanding of statistics.

Which is odd, if you think about it. It isn’t the players’ statistics that are causing players like Beane to fail. It’s their brains. If you really want to be able to recognize players like Beane in advance, shouldn’t you try to do this with a deeper understanding of brains?

* * *

We are living at the very dawn of neuroscience. In the last ten years or so, our understanding of our own brains has exploded, and we’ve still only scratched the surface. Consider this TED talk by Charles Limb:

Limb explains what happens in the brain when jazz musicians improvise. When improvising, jazz musicians shut off a part of the brain called the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-monitoring. They literally turn off the inhibitions in their brains, so they aren’t afraid to make mistakes, and are free to be creative.

Now it would be a big leap to say that Billy Beane’s mental failures were caused by an inability to turn off his lateral prefrontal cortex while batting. But it’s not a big leap to think that this sort of understanding of the brain isn’t just possible for musicians, but for athletes, as well.

Someday, perhaps, draft preparations will include brain scans, so teams can see that a Billy Beane’s brain isn’t focusing properly when batting. They’ll know how often you can take a player with Beane’s brain profile, and train him to overcome those brain issues. They’ll discount or increase his value because of this information.

* * *

In Sports Illustrated this past weekend, Joe Posnanski looked into the question of how drafting teams can predict which quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL, and which will fail. In particular, he wonders what set Aaron Rodgers apart from other first round QBs who flopped. He makes a guess:

What you get from these quotes and just about everything Rodgers says — in addition to steady and pleasant boredom — is a sense of someone who thinks about things constantly, even little things that few others think about. He seems to be someone who simply cannot imagine staying the same, simply cannot imagine that he’s already good enough. There are so many potential distractions at the NFL level, some of them off the field (money, fame, fan fickleness …), some on the field (dealing with pain — Rodgers has a history of concussions — standing up to a heavy rush, the inner workings of a team …). And the most successful quarterbacks, bar none, are the ones who deal with those distractions and never believe the hype and continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement.

To which I ask: how does this separate him from Billy Beane the baseball player? Beane thought about things constantly. He obsessed over every failure, trying to fix every mistake. And this sent him into a downward spiral that made him worse and worse, not better.

* * *

Another player who Posnanski’s paragraph applies to is Barry Zito. I’ve written a lot of words defending Barry Zito from his detractors over the years.

I like Zito. If not for the early Cy Young Award and that ridiculous contract, he’d be the kind of underdog people like to root for. Posnanski’s phrase “continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement”: that’s Zito. He’s a smart guy. Curious. He likes to tinker. To experiment. To find a new way to get better. He tries new pitches. He tries new pitch sequences. He tries new release points. And maybe that constant search for improvement has kept him healthy and pitching in the major leagues for a decade with the mediocre-est of fastballs.

But I’d argue that perhaps as often as it’s helped him, that personality trait has gotten him into trouble. Zito has had three pitching coaches in the majors: Rick Peterson, Curt Young, and Dave Righetti. Pitching coaches tend to live by a sort of Hippocratic Oath: if it ain’t broke, dont’ fix it. Zito doesn’t seem to believe in that. Each time there was a transition between coaches, Zito decided to take advantage of his temporary lack of parental supervision to completely change his pitching motion.

In 2004, Zito decided to try a new motion out of the stretch. He’d always wanted to do this, but Rick Peterson wouldn’t let him. When Curt Young came in as the new pitching coach, he didn’t have the relationship with Zito to say no. Zito had a 4.48 ERA for the year, his worst in an Oakland uniform. The next year, he was back to his old delivery, and his usual sub-4.00 ERAs.

In 2007, he signed a huge contract with the Giants, and showed up at spring training with a radically new delivery. Pitching coach Dave Righetti was horrified, and they settled on a compromise semi-radical new delivery. The results were just as bad as the other time he tried to overhaul his delivery: Zito’s worst year in the majors, a 4.53 ERA. (Followed the next year by an even worse 5.15 ERA.) Two years into his Giants tenure, Zito finally tinkered himself back into some decent success, with two consecutive years now of ERAs around 4.10.

* * *

Recently on Fangraphs, Jonah Keri suggested that the Yankees try to trade for Zito.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong the arguments he gives, but it is, like the Moneyball story, missing the psychological element.

Psychology clearly matters in the outcome of sports careers. The question is, understand enough about sports psychology that such data points are useful in evaluating players, or is the information we have so primitive that we should discount such information altogether?

The Yankees are unique in that they also deal with the theory that there are some types of personalities who “can’t handle New York“. This theory may or may not be valid, but I’m willing to consider that it is possible.

I’m not going to come out and say that Barry Zito is another Ed Whitson. But New York media pressure or not, we do have these data points: each time Barry Zito has had a change of scenery, he used the opportunity to make a royal mess of his delivery.

I think if you’re Brian Cashman, and you’re thinking of trading for Barry Zito, you should know these data points. There is a non-zero risk that Barry Zito’s brain is going to get in the way of his performance, because it seems to have happened to him before. And there’s a non-zero risk that the New York media pressure will trigger this effect, because it seems to have happened to other players before. And to the extent you’re willing to believe those risks exist, you have to discount Barry Zito’s value.

* * *

In Billy Beane’s case, the constant striving for improvement was nothing but counterproductive. In Zito’s case, we see some mixed results. So even though it’s a different sport and a different position, I have a hard time believing that the key to Aaron Rodgers’ success is simply a matter of willpower, that same constant striving for improvement.

If I had to guess, a quarterback’s success involves spacial pattern recognition, the ability to quickly recognize types of player movement, to filter out inessential patterns and recognize significant ones, and act on them. Maybe some players filter out too much information, and others not enough. Maybe there are places in the brain that Aaron Rodgers turns on or off in better ways than the quarterbacks who failed. Those places are mostly a mystery to us now.

But they won’t be a mystery forever. A new era is dawning.

Birth of a new age.

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  • Brian Greene

    >>>> So Beane became a scout, then a GM, and tried to come up with a reliable way to weed out players like himself who can’t handle the mental part of the game

    Disagree… Beane sought to weed out players who were overvalued based on their physical tools i.e. whatever an old school scout might fixate on. He also understood that high school players were more difficult to project. So a 2011 version of Beane the player would still be drafted early, but maybe slightly downgraded on plate discipline etc.

    In terms of the mental aspects, I’m sure Beane would love to speculate on the next Greinke even with known psych issues. A good buy is a good buy.

  • danielazdkc

    As someone who plays baseball, basketball, and football throughout the year, I’ve thought the unique thing about baseball is the muscle memory it requires. Pitching motions and batting swings are started and completed in about a second, and have to be perfect every time. Every movement has to be perfect. I’ve heard people thought it was implausible that Randy Johnson could be such a good pitcher because with his height there was more body movement required, and that body movement had to be perfect. A batter dropping his shoulder a fraction of an inch can cause a ball to be an easy popout to the outfield, a groundball, or a home run. A pitcher releasing the ball a fraction of an inch too late causes the pitch to be too low and be a ball instead of a strike. But there isn’t enough time to think about every detail in a pitching motion/swing, so it is important for baseball players to develop muscle memory, so that they can trust when they start their motion/swing, it will be the way the it needs to be. When Zito tinkers with his rotation, he loses that muscle memory. Then he doesn’t know what rotation is right or wrong, and his body (muscles) don’t naturally go through the motion the way he needs to.

    Split second decisions have to be made in all sports, especially at the professional level, such as Aaron Rodgers reading a defense, but baseball is so extreme, and the motions are so sudden and quick, that muscle memory is required. When Zito tinkers with his motion, he loses that muscle memory.

  • Ken Arneson

    [1] When you subtract the physical from the package, what are you left with? The mental. If they’re overvalued based on the physical, that must mean they are undervalued on the mental. We can directly measure the physical pretty well, but we can’t directly measure the mental–yet. So as a proxy for the mental measurement, we use statistics. My point is that in the future, we will be able to measure the mental more directly.

    [2] Yes, the muscle memory can indeed get screwed up when you mess around with your delivery. That’s the main one, but there are other potential bad side effects, too. Perhaps part of the reason Zito can get away with his 86-88mph fastball is that his delivery has a certain amount of deception to it. Maybe in tinkering with the delivery, you reduce the deception in it, and the 86-88mph fastball doesn’t work as well anymore.

  • Ken Arneson

    > If they’re overvalued based on the physical, that must mean they are undervalued on the mental.

    Wait, that sentence is not stated correctly. What am I trying to say? Ack, I’m losing it…

  • I am a huge fan of Posnanski’s work, yet I find it interesting that his answer is reasoning regarding Rodgers is so simplistic. I have to think the vast majority of professional athletes look for the slightest improvement. I mean we have an entire generation of stars who were willing to put foreign substances into their bodies with somewhat unknown side effects so that they could (well maybe not slightly) improve. I can’t imagine there’s a professional athlete out there who is simply saying to themselves, “I’m good, no more practice, weights, etc”. I think what mentally makes a good baseball player and what Beane in particular had trouble with – as is described by Lewis in Moneyball – is the inability to forget failure. Baseball is a game built on failure. The best hitters fail 70% of the time. Pitchers have “made a mistake” in every single one of the hundreds of thousands of baseball games in history save for 18. If you go out there and think about that strikeout the first time, you’re bound to jump on pitches you may not want to swing at because you don’t want to strikeout. Likewise if you’re a pitcher and the hitter grooves an inside pitch for a home run and you stay away from the inside you may leave it over the plate. The best forget about that. Mariano Rivera has a reputation for being shutdown in the playoffs but he blew a game big time in 1997 when he allowed a tying home run to Sandy Alomar. Then in 2001 he was responsible for the Yankees losing the World Series. Other pitchers would have let just one of those instances ruin their careers (or their lives in the case of Donnie Moore) but he realized, one pitch, one game, move on.