Baseball Brains: Pitching into the World Series

Dan PetersonCorrespondent IOctober 9, 2008

From: Sports Are 80 Percent Mental

With the MLB League Championship Series' beginning this week, 26 teams are wondering what it takes to reach the "final four" of baseball, which leads to the World Series. 

The Red Sox, Rays, Phillies, and Dodgers understand it's not just money and luck. Over 162 games, it usually comes down to the fundamentals of baseball: pitching, hitting, and catching. That sounds simple enough. 

So, why can't everyone execute those skills consistently? Why do pitchers struggle with their control? Why do batters strike out? Why do fielders commit errors? 

It turns out Yogi Berra was right when he said, "Baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical." In this three-part series, each skill will be broken down into its cognitive subtasks, and you may be surprised at the complexity that such a simple game requires of our brains.

First up, pitching, or even throwing a baseball, seems effortless until the pressure is on and the aim goes awry. Pitching a 3" diameter baseball 60 feet, six inches over a target that is eight inches wide requires an accuracy of one-half to one degree.

Throwing it quickly, with the pressure of a game situation makes this task one of the hardest in sports. In addition, a fielder throwing to another fielder from 40, 60, or 150 feet away, sometimes off balance or on the run, tests the brain-body connection for accuracy.

So, how do we do it? And how can we learn to do it more consistently? In his book, The Psychology of Baseball , Mike Stadler, professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, addresses each of these questions.

There are two dimensions to think about when throwing an object at a target: vertical and horizontal. The vertical dimension is a function of the distance of the throw and the effect of gravity on the object. As a result, the thrower's estimate of distance between himself and the target will determine the accuracy of the throw vertically.

Basically, if the distance is underestimated, the required strength of the throw will be underestimated and will lose the battle with gravity, resulting in a throw that will be either too low or will bounce before reaching the target.

An example of this is a fastball which is thrown with more velocity, so it will reach its target before gravity has a path-changing effect on it. On the other hand, a curveball or change-up may seem to curve downward, partly because of the spin put on the ball, affecting its aerodynamics, but also because these pitches are thrown with less force, allowing gravity to pull the ball down.

In the horizontal dimension, the "right-left" accuracy is related to more to the "aim" of the throw and the ability of the thrower to adjust hand-eye coordination along with finger, arm, shoulder angles, and the release of the ball to send the ball in the intended direction.

So, how do we improve accuracy in both dimensions? Prof. Stadler points out that research shows that skill in the vertical/distance estimating dimension is more genetically determined, while skill horizontally can be better improved with practice.

Remember those spatial organization tests that we took that show a set of connected blocks in a certain shape and then show you four more sets of connected blocks? The question is which of the four sets could result from rotating the first set of blocks.

Research has shown that athletes that are good at these spatial relations tests are also accurate throwers in the vertical dimension.


The thought is that those athletes are better able to judge the movement of objects through space and can better estimate distance in 3D space. Pitchers are able to improve this to an extent as the distance to the target is fixed.

A fielder, however, starts his throw from many different positions on the field and has more targets (bases and cut-off men) to choose from, making his learning curve a bit longer.

If a throw or pitch is off-target, then what went wrong? Research has shown that despite all of the combinations of fingers, hand, arm, shoulder, and body movements, it seems to all boil down to the timing of the finger release of the ball, when the pitcher's hand comes forward and the fingers start opening to allow the ball to leave. The timing of this release can vary by hundredths of a second but has significant impact on the accuracy of the throw.

But, its also been shown that the throwing action happens so quickly, that the brain could not consciously adjust or control that release in real-time. This points to the throwing action being controlled by what psychologists call an automated "motor program" that is created through many repeated practice throws.

However, if a "release point" is incorrect, how does a pitcher correct that if they can't do so in real-time? It seems they need to change the embedded program by more practice.

Another component of "off-target" pitching or throwing is the psychological side of a player's mental state/attitude. Stadler identifies research that these motor programs can be called up by the brain by current thoughts.

There seems to be "good" programs and "bad" programs, meaning the brain has learned how to throw a strike and learned many programs that will not throw a strike. By "seeding" the recall with positive or negative thoughts, the "strike" program may be run, but so to can the "ball" program.

So, if a pitcher thinks to himself, "don't walk this guy," he may be subconsciously calling up the "ball" program and it will result in a pitch called as a ball. This is why sports psychologists stress the need to "think positively," not just for warm and fuzzy feelings, but the brain may be listening and will instruct your body what to do.

Assuming Josh Beckett of the Red Sox is getting the ball across the plate, will the Rays hit it? That is the topic for next time when we look at hitting an object that is moving at 97 MPH and reaches you in less than half a second.