Is Cognition Important in Baseball?
by Brandon Ally, S2 Cognition (with contributions from *Chris Johnson)
The 2015 documentary Fastball describes the essence of baseball as a primordial battle between a man with a rock and a man with a club. Despite countless modifications to the game that have resulted in modern-day baseball we now watch on our phones, the foundations of battle have not changed. Baseball remains a confrontation between pitcher and hitter, compressed in space and to 396 milliseconds.
Winning this battle is predicated on complex sensory, motor, predictive, and planning functions that are not so much overlooked as they are difficult to measure, and even more difficult to see. Where do all these functions get planned, filtered, initiated, and evaluated? The brain. The human brain is the central organ of highly skilled performance, and cognition is a broad term for the brain's numerous specialized functions. Cognition comprises attention, focus, reaction time, pattern recognition, memory, and fluid coordination of highly skilled movement.
Given the brain's central role in performance, we would expect that there would be countless examples of how cognition has been measured and utilized throughout modern sports. However, that's not been the case for several reasons. The primary reason is that we gravitate to what we can measure, and we only measure what we can see. Until recently, brain function in sport has been difficult to measure or been too "high tech" for baseball. However, we now have measures that can quantify how things like how quickly and accurately a hitter can perceive a pitch moving 95+ mph, or how well a hitter can predict where a pitch will cross the zone, or how well he/she can adjust to different pitch speeds in the same at bat, or how well a hitter can lay off of a pitch that looks good out of the hand but breaks sharply into the dirt. After seven years of assessing high-level professional, college, and youth players, we now understand the importance of cognition in baseball.
Through extensive work with front offices, coaches, scouts, and players, we've organized sports performance around five common traits or buckets. Before diving into cognition in high-level baseball, we'll quickly walk through S2's Five Buckets of Performance.
Performance Bucket #1 – Physical
The first, and likely the most measured bucket of performance, is the physical. Physical performance is often, but not necessarily, synonymous with athleticism. For example, athleticism can be evaluated according to quickness, power, body control, and economy of movement. In baseball, there is an insane amount of data on the physical characteristics of players: height, weight, handedness, visual acuity, eye dominance, frame size, arm slot, bat speed, exit velocity, grip strength, and pop time to name just a few. Physical skills are certainly necessary for success, but it’s not enough. For example, there are loads of folks walking around with 20/10 vision, but they cannot hit 95 miles per hour.
Performance Bucket #2 – Mechanics
The second bucket of performance is mechanics and technique. Arm slots, stance, swing paths, stride lines, kinetic chains, and kinematic sequences are all measured in baseball and believed to be predictive of a range of outcomes to include injury vulnerability and career success. These mechanical and technical traits are valuable to well-trained scouts and coaches.
Performance Bucket #3 – Tactical
The third bucket of performance is strategy and approach to the game. Some call this Game IQ or use phrases like, "he's a baseball guy." Tacit game knowledge, approach, and understanding the nuances of the game comes from hours of practice and watching others.
Performance Bucket #4 – Psychological
The fourth bucket of performance is the psychological. Differences between psychological and physical continue to be blurred, and new discoveries in psychophysiology continue to advance the notion that distinctions between mind and body are misunderstood. Athletes are just as much psychological as they are physical. Psychological traits are most commonly manifest as personality. Personality has historically been considered a collection of stable and enduring thoughts and behaviors that become associated with a person's identity - such as character, work ethic, competitiveness, resilience, introversion, etc. As scouts and coaches, we have become fairly adept at understanding and measuring these traits. A good scout or front office personnel can ascertain this information from speaking to the player, his coaches, and those familiar with his history.
Performance Bucket #5 – Cognition
The fifth bucket of performance is cognition, which has long been misunderstood because it's never really been systematically measured across multiple populations in sport. Cognition can oftentimes serve as the denominator for each of the other four buckets of performance. Recently, we've measured and examined cognitive skills like perception speed, trajectory estimation, coincident timing, distraction control, stopping control, and impulse control in thousands of professional baseball players. Without getting into the weeds of exactly what makes a big-time hitter (we'll post more about this in the future), we want to answer the question, "Is cognition important in baseball?" When we take all eight cognitive skills and average them together, we get an S2 Overall Score. It's always a good idea to examine the individual subtest scores, but the S2 Overall score can give you a great snapshot into their cognitive toolkit.
The figure above shows the S2 Overall Score of baseball players who have made it to a certain level of pro ball. The total number of MLB players in the figure is 150 (each player who has attained a certain level of play has been removed from lower levels).
In looking at the figure, you can see the clear stepwise fashion in increase in score as you climb the ladder of play. The average score of the 150 guys in the major league is near 80... meaning they scored better than 80% of all professional baseball hitters who have taken the test. In contrast, those hitters who cap out at rookie ball average near 50, which is pretty much at the mean for pro baseball players.
When we dig into the individual scores of the 150 major-league players, the data tell another interesting story. The vast majority of those players score above 60 (83%) and over a quarter of those players score above 90 (26%). When we examine the 21 players that scored below 50 and made it to the big leagues, 13 of those players are utility infielders or backup catchers. If we take out those players from the database, the average S2 Overall Score jumps to 84. The figure below gives a distribution of the S2 Overall Scores from all 150 MLB hitters.
In sum, the data above show that cognitive skills are just as critical to success as the other four buckets of performance. We are a little biased, but we assume that players who can hit a 100-mph fastball, as well as have the patience to sit on an 87-mph changeup and rake with men in scoring position, have a pretty special brain. It may be the most important bucket because without great cognition, players clearly don't climb the ladder of pro ball. But like most other buckets of performance, high cognition is necessary for success, but it’s not enough. There are indeed players who score in the elite range (80 and above) who never make the major leagues… but those guys are far fewer than the guys walking around with 20/10 vision and unreal bat speeds.
About Brandon Ally
Brandon has a PhD in neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience and has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on brain mechanisms underlying visual attention, perception, and memory. He is the co-founder and Vice President of S2 Cognition, a sports-science company that delivers a leading cognitive evaluation and technology platform to teams and athletes across all major sports at every level of play.
Chris Johnson, PhD, is a neuropsychologist and has held faculty appointments at Yale University School of Medicine and UC San Diego. He has an extensive background evaluating individuals with unique information processing capacity and has assessed cognitive functioning in high-stress training environments that include the military and professional sports. Most recently he was Director of Personnel for MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates, working with informatics and scouting to inform athlete performance projections, amateur draft evaluations, and player acquisition.