When MU associate psychology professor Mike Stadler was growing up, he dreamed of playing major league baseball.
He started playing baseball because all of the other kids in his neighborhood were playing; he played a variation of baseball called Five Dollars, in which one player would hit the ball to a group of other players and different amounts of “money” were awarded for snagging the ball out of the air or scooping it off the ground. Then he moved to organized baseball, where he played mostly first base because of his height and ability to catch off-target throws. Shortly after a move to Springfield, Ohio, at 16, he tried out for a summer league. A team picked him relatively fast — among the first 15 players or so.
Then, his childhood dreams were shattered: Pitchers began learning how to get movement on their pitches.
“By that time, pitchers were throwing curve balls,” he said with a laugh. “And that was the end of me.”
But the end of the Stadler’s days on the diamond did not mark the end of his love for baseball. As he started studying psychology, Stadler also became interested in the psychological aspects of baseball. He began keeping a file with baseball-related research. While trying to decide on a project for a sabbatical, the idea to write a non-fiction book on baseball popped into his mind. After his wife offered encouragement, he decided to pursue the project.
“The Psychology of Baseball” contains a range of baseball lore, including hitting and fielding as well as scouting and fan behavior. Stadler’s language does not venture into academic prose, indecipherable and dry for the average reader. The explanations in the book lucidly describe psychological phenomena in easy-to-grasp terms. Stadler uses examples of actual games and players to illustrate his points, and he provides many studies for readers to ponder.
The book is divided into six chapters: hitting, catching, mentality of pitchers, scouting, streaks and slumps, and psychology of fans.
In the chapter on hitting, Stadler discusses the difficulty of seeing a ball all the way to the bat, which — according to research — is impossible even for professional players. Hitters can only see the ball cross the plate if they look away from its trajectory as it approaches the plate, Stadler says. Players can track the ball as close as five feet out, but to see it all the way in — like the rumors about Ted Williams reading the label off a spinning record — is impossible.
In order to overcome this problem of not seeing the ball all the way in, batters frequently look for clues about what a pitcher will throw next. Stadler uses anecdotal evidence about the improbable late-season comeback of Leo Durocher’s 1951 New York Giants, who made up a 13½ game deficit in two months. Durocher’s team, with the aid of a spy with a telescope in its clubhouse, began stealing the signs of the other team and relaying them to the batter if he wanted them, a fact not revealed until 50 years later. Stadler explains the usefulness of this form of cheating. Stealing signs “takes a hitter all the way from uncertainty to certainty,” he said in his book.
In addition to the chapter on hitting, another interesting aspect of Stadler’s book is his discussion of major-league scouting techniques and the role psychological testing has come to play. Stadler compares Billy Beane to outfielder Darryl Strawberry, two players who were drafted near each other. Beane, who later orchestrated the rise to prominence of the Oakland A’s as their general manager, had a completely different level of success on the field than did Strawberry. Although roughly similar to Strawberry in physical talent, Beane lacked something Strawberry had — a mental edge many major league clubs look for. Teams look to minimize the number of Beanes they draft, so Stadler uses this comparison to prime discussion of psychological testing.
One type of test used by some professional clubs is the Athletic Success Inventory. The 190-question inventory measures attitudinal traits like drive, leadership and trust that may change over time, and emotional traits like aggression, mental toughness and self-confidence, which are rooted in personality and tend not to change. Some of these traits are more important than others, depending on the position and sport an athlete plays and the specific team that scouts the player. Stadler closely examines testing in what proves to be one of the most interesting chapters because of its level of detail.
Stadler’s book does have one drawback. While it is a demonstration of the depth of his baseball knowledge, play-by-play narration of games at several points slows down his narration. The worst of these places is the beginning of the last chapter, on fan behavior. Although the majority of the book is engaging, these spots are difficult to enjoy. Fortunately for baseball fans, most of the book avoids this style.
Overall, reading the book should be an informative and enjoyable experience for most baseball fans. Although Stadler comes from an academic background, fans from general-knowledge backgrounds can understand his psychological concepts.
The strategy works — the book proves both entertaining and enlightening.