A Baseball Learning Matrix

Russell Carleton has an interesting article today on Baseball Prospectus today about the “Search for an 80 Brain“. He explores whether the difference between prospects who make it and those who fail lies in their ability to learn, and wonders if there’s a way to test those learning skills.

For one thing, it’s hard to observe a player’s learning skills, even with a really fancy stopwatch. But if the ability to learn is key to turning raw talent into actual performance, why not spend some time figuring out if the player has a 20 learning tool or an 80? Many players are drafted based on their physical tools, but what about the guy who doesn’t have blow-you-away stuff now, but can develop quickly because he can learn? In general, the closest thing that I hear to this is when scouts talk about “makeup.”

Can this learning ability be measured? My answer is “Yes… I think…”

I think so, too. But off the top of my head, I’d think there wouldn’t be one measure of learning ability, but four.

Here’s why: in order to explore how to measure learning, we need to be clear exactly what kind of learning we are talking about. Learning is about creating memories in the brain, and making those memories accessible when needed. It would be useful here to point out the two main types of memory: declarative and nondeclarative. I’ll quote from a book by Larry Squire and Eric Kandel called “Memory: From Mind to Molecules”:

Declarative memory is memory for facts, ideas, and events — for information that can be brought to conscious recollection as a verbal proposition or visual image. This is the kind of memory one ordinarily means when using the term “memory”: it is conscious memory for the name of a friend, last summer’s vacation, this morning’s conversation. Declarative memory can be studied in humans as well as other animals.

Nondeclarative memory also results from experience, but is expressed as a change in behavior, not as a recollection. Unlike declarative memory, nondeclarative memory is unconscious. Often, some recollective ability can accompany nondeclarative learning. We might learn a motor skill and then be able to remember some things about it. We might be able to picture ourselves performing it, for example. However, the ability to perform the skill itself seems to be independent of any conscious recollection. That ability is nondeclarative.

In other words, declarative memory holds conscious thought, while nondeclarative memory holds motor skills.

So let’s say we have a hitter, like Carleton’s example of Wil Myers, who is a bit too passive, and doesn’t quite swing at enough pitches. We want to make him a somewhat more aggressive hitter. How do we do that?

So it’s not a matter of merely telling Myers to “be more aggressive”. The idea of being more aggressive is a declarative memory, a conscious thought. And that declarative memory, that idea, is independent of the skill itself, of the nondeclarative memory, the motor skill required to output the desired behavior. That conscious thought needs to be translated into a motor skill. A declarative memory needs to be translated into a nondeclarative memory.

As Carleton points out in his article, this much easier said than done. The reason is that while declarative memories are under our conscious control, nondeclarative memories are not. They are created subconsciously, involuntarily and automatically. These memories are often context and emotion dependent. If you want to manipulate the nondeclarative memory system into creating the muscle memory you want, you basically have to trick it. You can trick it by repetition and practice, and/or by manipulating whatever emotions are needed, whether anger or calmness or excitement or determination.

* * *

So a scouting report for learning might look something like this:

Joe Prospect, Learning Scout Report

declarative input nondeclarative input
declarative output 30 40
nondeclarative output 50 80

Upper Left: declarative input, declarative output.
This would represent the player’s ability to repeat an instruction in his own words.

Coach: “When I say, ‘cut down on your swing’, what does that mean?”
Player at level 20: “I dunno.”
Player at level 80: “It means I shorten my stride, and bring my bat to this position here…”

This square really measures a player’s ability to coach more than it measures his ability to play. Perhaps it might also measure a player’s ability to be a catcher who can take a game plan and execute it, and to handle and communicate with a pitching staff. It can also help pitchers, not so much in the physical act of throwing a ball, but with setting up hitters and sequencing.

In general, though, this is the least important square in the matrix. Because what we’re aiming at in regards to players is the nondeclarative output, the muscle memory needed to perform at a high level. And nondeclarative input — the sensory and pattern-recognition feedback the brain gets from actually playing — is more important than the theoretical, declarative input in this square.

 

Upper Right: nondeclarative input, declarative output.
This would represent the player’s ability to articulate his own experiences.

Coach: “Why didn’t you swing at that pitch?”
Player at level 20: “I just froze.”
Player at level 80; “I was expecting a breaking ball away, and instead he threw me a fastball on the inside corner, and because my body was leaning out, I couldn’t adjust my balance quick enough to pull my hands in and start the swing.”

An 80-level player in this square of the matrix would be a reporter’s best friend. High skill in this area can also help a player to understand what he needs to work on, and create systematic workout procedures for improving those self-understood weaknesses. But being able to articulate what you physically experienced won’t really help you unless you also possess a high score in the lower left square.

 

Lower Left: declarative input, nondeclarative output.
This represents coachability: a player’s ability to take verbal or conscious ideas, and translate them into muscle memory.

A player at level 20 probably can’t even do this at all. If he learns anything, it’s only “the hard way”– by failing or succeeding himself in real situations.
A player at level 50 is someone who may need to be told something over and over until it finally sinks in. Or needs to be told something in 1,000 different ways until he finds that one mental cue which triggers the correct behavior.
A player at level 80 probably only needs to be told something once, and can immediately make the physical adjustment.

 

Lower Right: nondeclarative input, nondeclarative output.
This represents a player’s ability to learn from his own senses and body, from the immediate success or failure of his efforts.

A player at level 20 probably isn’t affected much by his own failures and successes. He probably repeats the same mistakes over and over again, and can’t adjust.
A player at level 50 can learn from his own failures and successes, but it takes a long time and many repetitions for those adjustments manifest themselves.
A player at level 80 probably never seems to make the same mistake or get fooled by the same pitch twice.

* * *

A single, Wonderlic-like test wouldn’t work to fill out such a matrix. You’d probably need to develop separate tests for each of the squares in the matrix. And then you’d need to collect that data for a number of years to figure out whether there is actually any sort of correlation between any of that data and the eventual success and/or failure of prospects. Sounds like a lot of work for an uncertain payoff, but it would certainly be interesting to see if there’s something there of value. The sad part is, since baseball teams keep information like this proprietary, we baseball fans will probably never know.

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