The wave of the future

I'm reading Dan Epstein's book on the entertaining 1976 season, "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76." One of the biggest changes in the game since then is what I would term professionalism. Back in 1976, players fought with managers, players fought with each other, Bill Veeck had his White Sox wear shorts, ballparks were full of drunks throwing stuff at players, Mark Fidrych would down four beers in the clubhouse after a game while talking with reporters and then head home to his apartment that had sheets for curtains.

With more money, behavior changes. Players may still drink four beers after a game but they don't do it in the clubhouse. Front offices are no longer mom-and-pop organizations but full of business people and marketing people and statistical analysts and reams of data. Ballparks are clean and family friendly with better food and fewer batteries.

Via Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk, I came across this article by Alex Speier of the Boston Globe. The Red Sox have hired sports psychologist Dr. Richard Ginsburg to head a new department of behavioral health. Can you imagine Billy Martin working with the team's department of behavioral health?

From Alex's article:

From 2005-13, the Red Sox staff featured Bob Tewksbury as a mental skills coach. According to team sources, Tewksbury’s absence in 2014 -- he left the Sox to work for the Players Association before the team rehired him following the season -- was felt acutely in a year when young players such as Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts struggled in their transition to the big leagues.

Tewksbury will now work under Ginsburg, focusing on players in the big leagues and Triple A. Laz Gutierrez, the Sox’ player development programs coordinator, will offer similar counseling for players at Double A Portland, High A Salem, and Single A Greenville. Justin Su’a has joined the organization from IMG Academy in Florida to work with the short-season minor leagues.

The staff plans to place an emphasis on the emerging field of "mindfulness," in which individuals consciously identify and take stock of the circumstances surrounding them to avoid getting overwhelmed or distracted. So, rather than getting distracted by a hostile crowd while batting in the ninth inning of a tie game, a player is trained through mindfulness to recognize that crowd prior to the at-bat and implement behaviors such as controlled breathing to manage his response to it.

Alex adds that, "The department will also oversee the team’s growing interest in neuro-scouting, which includes measuring a player’s reaction time and hand-eye coordination in baseball simulation exercises to get a sense of his potential pitch recognition."

If want to give a broad definition to the term "sabermetrics," this is the future of baseball. The advantages to be gained from statistical analysis at this point are relatively small, with all front offices now armed with similar reams of data. But there are still advantages to be gained.

As another example, the Nationals recently hired Rick Ankiel as a life skills coordinator to help mentor minor leaguers. "Baseball is a game of failure," Nationals assistant general manager Doug Harris told the Washington Post. "Anything you can do to help players deal with failure helps the organization. Learning how to deal with those emotions, the highs and lows of the season, helps."

Psychologists and mentors are only the beginning. Imagine what an organization could spend its money on if it trimmed its major league payroll by just $1 million: More mentors; nutritionists and food programs for poorly paid minor leaguers; more personal coaches, either in the majors or minors; help and guidance for young Latin American players in the minors; and definitely more neuro-scouting.

We've come a long way from Martin simply telling his players to do whatever they wanted off the field as long as the gave 100 percent on it.