A Low-Tech Tool In A High-Tech Baseball World
Image courtesy of David Berding-USA TODAY SportsIn his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, W. Timothy Gallwey describes the phenomenon of an athlete having two selves -- the self that talks and the self that does.
The first self is the voice in your head. It’s the part of you that tells you what to do or what to focus on. The second self is the performer, the part of you that reacts or does the task.
“Imagine that instead of being parts of the same person, Self 1 (teller) and Self 2 (doer) are two separate persons,” Gallwey writes. “The player on the court is trying to make a stroke improvement. ‘Okay, dammit, keep your stupid wrist firm,’ he orders. Then as ball after ball comes over the net, Self 1 reminds Self 2, ‘Keep it firm. Keep it firm. Keep it firm!’”
In baseball terms, it’s like a pitcher reminding himself to keep a firm wrist when delivering a breaking ball (Self 1) while the body performs the action (Self 2).
Gallwey goes on to say that Self 2, which includes the unconscious mind and nervous system, remembers forever how the muscles felt once it performed the task correctly. Once a hitter routinely connects with batting practice fastballs and repeatedly laces them into the gap, that action is committed somewhere in the person’s software. However, the dominance of Self 1 and mistrust in one’s own ability to perform the task often takes over and can sabotage that player’s actions. Self 1 will send messages to Self 2 with the intent of accomplishing the same task but can mislead the system.
In short, once an athlete is able to accomplish a task on a regular basis, be it throwing 95 mile per hour fastballs or hitting them solidly, the body should have the knowledge of what it should do in order to repeat it. But a person can send conflicting messages or incorrect internal cues that disrupt his or her ability to perform the task they had previously spent hours perfecting.
Through technology almost every movement can be measured and a plan can be created to improve them through various external drills and exercises. By reducing overall processes like pitching or hitting mechanics to simple movement patterns -- such as instilling a pitcher’s ability to hinge properly or a hitter to internally rotate their hip -- that movement becomes second nature and eventually doesn’t require Self 1 badgering Self 2 into conducting the action. The autopilot kicks on.
Yet, in spite of all of the time spent committing the right movements to muscle memory, there still exists the human override that can throw that complex system out of whack.
In 2019, Twins closer Taylor Rogers had a blend of two breaking balls -- a curveball and a slider. They were two pitches moving differently but thrown with the same grip. By manipulating his hand at release, he would either be on top of the ball or on the side of it, generating slightly different movement profiles. They were similar enough that even Statcast struggled to categorize them properly.
In a conversation with Lance Brozdowski in June 2019 on whether he increased the usage of one breaking ball, Rogers confessed that he hadn’t made any significant pitch usage changes (at least not in the regard that Statcast was suggesting he did). He also revealed a little into his preparation practice.
“When you go into the offseason and you don’t throw at all, and you come back, things could probably change that you don’t realize,” Rogers told Brozdowski. “Maybe that has something to do with what [Statcast’s data changes] is showing? In my brain, [I’m] the same, but maybe I just don’t notice it.”
There again is an example of dualities that exist inside of a player. Rogers feels like he is executing the same pitch but the data says otherwise. He is doing something he’s done thousands of times before but, for whatever reason, it is now producing slightly different results.
Rogers performed very well in 2019 and, despite his overall numbers, did so in 2020 too. He missed a lot of bats with his slider (a combination of his slider and curveball that Statcast simply combined into one) and his metrics would suggest he was “unlucky” when it came to batted balls turning into hits. That said, it would seem that he left his Self 1 without a roadmap to guide Self 2 back on track if things had spiraled out of control for him -- which may or may not have happened as he struggled to bury his breaking ball in 2-strike situations.
Another player influenced by this effect may have been Mitch Garver.
In 2020, Garver’s season was marred a bit by injuries and a 480-point dip in his OPS. He was coming off a breakout season in 2019, one that was launched after he had spent the offseason working with a private instructor on his swing.
One drill Garver and his instructor did was to hit off a pitching machine that was placed at 35 feet away and mimicked a 100+ mile per hour fastball reaction time. This practice removed a lot of slack and unnecessary movements in his swing, resulting in an ability to ambush fastballs in game situations, which he did with aplomb in 2019. Unfortunately, this past season that same stroke failed him. Fastballs elevated ate him up. In September, he told reporters that he had noticed elements of his swing in video that were out of whack. By this point the season was essentially over.
Presuming they were not already doing so, Taylor Rogers and Mitch Garver could have stood to gain from maintaining a journal.
During his playing career Justin Morneau said he was encouraged to use a journal to track his performance.
“One of the things someone told me as my career was going on, write down what you are thinking right now,” Morneau told FSN viewers on a broadcast this summer. “Write down what is going through your mind in your at bats, what you feel like you are doing well. So when you are struggling, you have something to look back on.”
Like Morneau said, the pen is a fantastic tool that can be used to reaffirm actions that Self 1 (the teller) can tell Self 2 (the doer).
Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino writes in his journal everyday. On two separate pages, he spends time reciting all of his activities physically performed (i.e. threw 25 bullpen pitches, long toss, weighted balls, etc) on the right side and puts thoughts and mental cues on the left side (things like ‘have a short circle’ to keep his arm path short and ‘quiet body, fast hands’ to aid in his delivery process). If he had a particularly good day when his devastating slider was especially lethal, he would write down what he felt while releasing it. That way, if he ever started to struggle with the pitch, he could go back and remember what to tell himself in order to return to that feeling.
We have witnessed players -- hitters and pitchers alike -- struggle for multiple games, weeks and months trying to find “it”. A hitter goes through a hot stretch only to look completely lost for an equal number of at bats. Some of the doldrums can be injury-related though this can also be a byproduct of an unintentional small change in their swing process.
A standard response to working out of slumps is to use external cues provided by a hitting coach or a teammate, by reviewing video or a combination of all three. While targeted drills can help jar the body back into the right patterns, this process could take an indefinite amount of time, especially if Self 1 keeps interfering. Meanwhile, the ability to review a detailed journal which guides the player back to the proper mental cues to regain their swings or throwing mechanics could hasten that same process. By combining video review, external coaching and the internal cue reminders derived from a journal, players can expedite the correction process. This is like a mental roadmap back to the right place.
As Morneau noted in his commentary, with the advances of modern technology, players no longer have to carry with them a pen and paper to jot down their thoughts (although there is some research that suggests writing things down can help solidify things internally), they can just as easily whip out their phones and type down some notes or verbally record their thoughts. This can be done after games or practice sessions.
The journaling practice does have its in-season benefits, there are also plenty of reasons to be used during the player development process as well.
In the case of Ottavino, an early adopter to the Rapsodo technology, one of the simplest things to do during a pitch design session is when you start to form your pitches to the targeted data, you can write down exactly what you were feeling or cueing Self 2 in order to achieve that goal. To be fair, no one has outright asked Rogers if he is maintaining a journal but it would appear that he too could benefit from achieving his internal cues. The Twins have a bevy of tools that could notify Rogers when he is throwing his best version of the breaking ball -- at which point Rogers could commit those cues to a journal.
The same can be said for hitters who are working on hitting a pitch in a particular area of the zone. For instance, if a hitter is working on hitting a high-spin, elevated fastball consistently, once the Trackman or HitTrax data reflects the exit numbers they want to see, they should be marking down their thought process. In Garver’s case, once he started jacking those close-up fastballs (assuming he was not not doing so already), he could start writing down what he was thinking and feeling as he punished pitch after pitch. That way, if he goes astray in season, he would have the breadcrumbs to find his way out.
A pen and paper doesn’t need to be charged, calibrated or bluetooth'ed. It is about as low-tech as it gets. It can, however, very much be a performance-enhancer. What’s more, players at all levels stand to benefit from this practice -- from the developing prospect to the seasoned veteran.
It doesn’t take much outside of the discipline to make it a regular habit.
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