First Pitch: Bypass the Brain

When I look outside my house, I see a row of trees in the back yard.

I’ve stared at this row of trees so many times that I probably have every branch memorized without looking. However, I can look outside and instantly know with my eyes that I am looking at the trees in my back yard.

There was a point in time, when I first moved in, where the scenery was new. I had obviously seen trees before, so I could look outside and instantly recognize the shape of trees. But, this formation, this layout, these trees — that took some time to just see as “my backyard” and not just a random collection of trees that couldn’t be as quickly recognized.

James J. Gibson has produced many works on his theories of direct perception, and from my cramming research, his his theories suggest that perception is a natural occurrence in our environment. When I stare at my back yard, my brain doesn’t have to interpret what I’m seeing. Instantly, I see the row of trees.

Allen Newell has expanded on Gibson’s theories, focusing on cognition and how the body naturally functions.

So, why am I telling you this on a website that tracks baseball prospects in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system?

Because, it is now relevant, thanks to new farm director John Baker.

“We’re looking deep into the history of motor learning, like Gibson and Newell and direct perception,” Baker said. “I think that’s the frontier that baseball really needs to move towards. There’s how the guy moves, but our movement is linked to things we perceive. Those things are coupled. If you’re just focusing on a swing, I’ve always thought you’re just learning a trick. But, if you’re focused on hitting something challenging, you’re now focused on the complete skill of hitting. That’s the path forward for us.”

I talked with Baker this week, and we got on this subject when talking about Will Craig’s development. Specifically, Baker was discussing how things don’t just “click” for a player, where he suddenly knows how to do something in the game. Instead, it’s a process that takes time, and the difference between implicit and explicit learning.

“We have to look at learning in two distinct buckets,” Baker said. “You have implicit learning, and you have explicit learning. Explicit learning is this top-down information processing approach, that I tell you something, you internalize it, and you figure out how to make that happen on the field.”

That sounds like the typical coaching approach, as well as most education, from school to training on the job. Baker, brought up how baseball presents a unique challenge.

“When we’re dealing with a sport that’s played in less than 150 milliseconds, these reactions of hitting, we don’t have enough time to process,” Baker said. “We don’t have enough time to understand what’s going on, and then make our body move in a certain way. So, we have to train implicitly, meaning that we have to bypass the brain.”

We’re getting into reactionary territory here. But, how can a baseball player improve at reacting to a game that is going so quickly? Baker continued with the Pirates’ focus on “perfect practice.”

“That is where I think there is actually some thinking that goes into this for the player, because they have to be willing to be committed to not practicing in a perfect way,” Baker said. “In our organization, perfect practice is a 60% success rate. That’s what we’re constantly looking for, because we believe that’s where learning is happening.”

Baker said that the 60% mark is a challenge point they have seen from motor-learning research, and that a 60-70 percent success rate in practice leads to more learning.

“If you’re doing something 100 percent of the time successful in practice, you’re not learning anything anymore,” Baker said. “You’re not giving the body enough information to adapt and develop a more robust skill. At the same time, if you’re failing 90 percent of the time in practice, the only thing you’re doing there is building up frustration.”

We’ve all been there, when things get routine, and we’re just going through the motions, never really learning anything new, because who wants to fail 30-40% of the time? That said, if you’re never faced with failure, you never have a chance to overcome and grow from failure. Thus, the theories here about “perfect practice” make some sense.

“The idea that somebody figures something out conceptually — the game is going too fast for them to conceptualize what’s going on,” Baker said. “They may have a pre-pitch anticipation, or they may have a better understanding of how they need to train. But, when the guy is throwing the ball, that lizard brain takes over, and it just becomes a reaction.”

So, how does this all come back to the players, development, and the theories of Gibson and Newell?

“The way that we’re focusing on developing the players is, yes, we’re doing the explicit learning when it comes to teaching the game,” Baker said. “When the ball gets hit here, this is where we should throw it, etc. But, when we’re training our players to hit or pitch, we’re doing our best to bypass that thinking part of it, and just put them in situations where, to complete the task, they have to move the way that’s going to make them the most successful in the game.”

Daily Links

**Game Recap: Pirates Overcome Umpires, Replays and TOOTBLANs as Stallings Walks Off the Giants

**Pirates Recall Kyle Keller; Miguel Yajure Optioned to Indianapolis

**Live Game Discussion: Pirates vs Giants, 6:35 PM

**SPORCLE QUIZ

**Prospect Watch: Four Bradenton Pitchers Combine for No-Hitter

**Pardon Our Progress: High Ceilings in Low A?

**This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: May 15th, Al McBean and a Career Day from the Great One

**Card of the Day: 1963 Topps Al McBean

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