Pittsburgh Pirates farm director John Baker represents the new wave of leaders in baseball player development.
He’s a former MLB player who has a Ph.D in performance psychology.
I started noticing a trend several years ago in the information scouts were seeking about players. They were no longer looking for information on velocities or speed readings, which were becoming widely available. Instead, they were starting to ask about the personality of the players themselves. Ben Cherington’s former organization, the Toronto Blue Jays, was one of the earlier teams on this trend.
It makes sense, then, that Cherington would hire a farm director with a degree in psychology.
It also makes sense that John Baker would craft a farm system around concepts that are trending in modern psychology to help us understand better how the human mind receives information and converts it to knowledge that can be used implicitly, on command.
Or, in terms of a baseball player: What is it that allows a player to improve after seeing X amount of pitches or facing X amount of hitters?
Earlier this month on Pirates Prospects, I wrote about how the Pirates are focusing on having growth mindsets in the farm system, and focusing on constant improvement, even when they’re having success.
Baker discussed how the best players are the ones who never get complacent, but realize they can always improve. He also talked about how players shouldn’t fear mistakes, and should be open to receiving feedback without emotions and changing their minds with better information. This growth mindset approach is what Baker is banking on to get the Pirates to winning a World Series.
“For us to get there, we have to make as many mistakes as possible now,” Baker said. “If they’re comfortable learning from those mistakes, that’s the continuous learning environment that we’re trying to build. Then, discovering for themselves what they need to do to be successful. I think that’s a bit how you can control for some of the complacency that comes with success.”
I was reading an article this week that had me thinking about the growth mindset approach in baseball. Sophie Scott of ABC in Australia wrote an article in 2018 (Published on the day Chris Archer was acquired by the Pirates!) about a growth mindset, and how grit and resilience are central to getting what you want.
In the article, Scott quotes American psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, who says that there is a crucial difference between seeing yourself as failing versus still waiting to succeed.
Duckworth noticed in her time as a teacher that some of the best students in her high school math classes didn’t have the highest IQ score, while some of the smartest kids were struggling.
I think we’ve all seen the same in baseball, if we replace “IQ score” with “Future Value.” How many times do we see a 20-30 grade player break out in the minors, while a 50-60 FV guy disappoints?
Duckworth noted that the predictor of success was a student’s resilience, or “grit.”
“Grit” sounds like a baseball word. It sounds like it was copyrighted by Major League Baseball as an official trademark for Jack Wilson in the early-aughts.
Duckworth however, says we don’t know how to cultivate grit, which she describes via Scott as “having passion and perseverance, sticking to long-term goals, and having the emotional stamina to keep going when others have given up.”
In my opinion, passion comes first. If you have passion, you’ll be more likely to persevere. If you persevere, you’ll have the stamina to push through and reach your goals. I know that I personally would have never been able to reach my initial goals with Pirates Prospects without a strong passion for the game of baseball, and a growing passion for baseball player development.
Ultimately, Duckworth defers to Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s concept of a “growth mindset”, which offers a key ingredient, explained in the TED Talk below. That ingredient? “Yet.”
Dweck gave a group of ten year olds problems that were advanced for their age. Some of the group happily accepted the challenge, knowing they could grow. These had the “growth mindset.” The other kids had a “fixed mindset” and responded negatively to the harder questions, which challenged their abilities.
The fixed mindset was locked in the now, and the growth mindset was focused on the ability to improve.
Dweck found that including the words “yet” or “not yet” after a student experienced a setback would lead to greater confidence and persistence. Rather than a grading system that gives failing grades, the students who would otherwise be failing were told “not yet” or they hadn’t solved the problem “yet”.
In another study, students were told that every time they pushed out of their comfort zone to learn something and stick to it, the result would be the neurons in their brains growing stronger connections. The students who learned the lesson showed an increase in their grades, and the students who didn’t learn the lesson saw a decrease. The simple message that a person can improve their brainpower led to those same people getting better results.
Think about your favorite top prospect.
Everything is going well when he’s batting .300/.400/.500 in A-ball, or putting up a sub-3.00 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning. In those situations, that prospect hasn’t reached the majors, yet. And we just wait for time to magically pass for him to reach the big leagues after X amount of plate appearances or innings pitched.
That’s a rare occurrence for a prospect. Most prospects will struggle in the minors, whether for a week, month, or an entire season.
If the Pirates were to implement a development system similar to Dweck’s growth mindset, those players who failed would be told that they just haven’t achieved their goal “yet.” They would be told that they can improve their skills by pushing out of their comfort zone. They’d be given an environment where the focus is on constant growth, rather than worrying about — as Dweck calls it — The Tyranny of Now.
From everything John Baker has discussed with me about the approach in the player development system, it sounds like that type of growth mindset will be pushed, and the environment will be focused on facilitating growth. This psychological approach is what largely has me optimistic about the Pirates’ ability to produce better MLB players on a more consistent basis than we’ve seen in the past.