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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Baseball
Science Talk

Baseball Science

Dan Gordon, editor of the new book "Your Brain On Cubs" from the Dana Foundation, talks about the neuroscience of baseball players and their fans. And statistician Shane Jensen of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School discusses attempts to get a statistical handle on defense in baseball. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include www.dana.org, www.snakejazz.com

Dan Gordon, editor of the new book "Your Brain On Cubs" from the Dana Foundation, talks about the neuroscience of baseball players and their fans. And statistician Shane Jensen of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School discusses attempts to get a statistical handle on defense in baseball. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news.

Podcast Transcript:

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting March 26th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. The baseball season is already underway, so this week on the podcast we'll talk about some baseball related science with editor Dan Gordon, and statistician Shane Jensen, who are not Joe Gordon and Jackie Jensen. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Dan Gordon is the managing editor at Dana Press, which publishes books and articles about the brain; it's part of the Dana Foundation, which supports brain research. Gordon edited a new volume that looks at baseball and the brain. I called him at his office in Washington D.C.

Steve: Mr. Gordon, good to talk to you today.

Gordon: Hi, Steve! Good to talk to you.

Steve: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans is the subtitle, the title is Your Brain on Cubs. Tell me about the origins of this book, how this book happened.

Gordon: Well, it arose from actually a pretty sad memory, especially for Cubs' fan[s], I meant the baseball fans who feel for us and that was the postseason in 2003 when the Cubs appeared to be just moments away from making it to the World Series for the first time in decades and then it all fell apart. It was the following season when I was back at the Wrigley Field for the first time since that happened that I thought, 'What is that that keeps me coming back for more, even though my team has disappointed me, what is it that keeps me loyal to this ball club?" and the more I thought about it, you know, I work for a foundation that does… aids neuroscience research, and so I work on publications related to the brain and the more I thought about it, the more I thought really there is something to look at here, was: what it is in our brains that keeps us coming back? And the idea kind of developed from there because, of course, there are things in the players' brains that make them able to pitch a ball, to hit a ball, and to play the game and so as the idea kind of expanded. I kept the Cubs in the title because they are my team. I'm sure it really applies to the fans of many team players for any team and not even necessarily just in baseball.

Steve: Even we Yankee fans suffer occasionally.

Gordon: On occasion. Well, there is a chapter also about the joy of victory, so may be the Yankee fans can especially relate to that.

Steve: Well, not lately but… (laughs)

Gordon: (laughs) Sure enough.

Steve: So, what was the reaction at the Dana Foundation—a serious funder of neuroscience research—to the idea of this book?

Gordon: They supported the idea. I think that there was recognition here that this is something that could kind of get the word out about the brain to a wider audience than we sometimes get with some of our books. We publish for [the] lay audience, but some of our books do tend to be on the more serious side. But what could be more fun than sports and trying to figure out what explains either ourselves – the poor big fans or the people that we interact with, who are big fans, who we might want to try to understand better?

Steve: There is a thing that comes up a couple of times at least in the book regarding mirror neurons in the brain. Can you tell us about the mirror neurons and what they do in terms of being a fan, watching sports?

Gordon: Well, the idea is that mirror neurons have been… the existence of mirror neurons has been proved in monkeys and non-human primates—and there is a pretty strong theory that they also exist in humans—and the idea is that when we are watching somebody, for example, pick up a coffee mug we are probably replicating that action in our brains. And so, there are a couple of mentions in the book – one is that in the area of practice, there is research that indicates that watching others perform an action can actually help us learn that action. That has been shown. There is evidence of that for dancers learning to dance, that they can learn not just by doing the movements, but also by watching others do those movements and so, that idea has been applied to baseball in a couple of ways. One is, first of all, the players can help develop variabilities that way, but then also even we the fans just watching can sometimes mirror even the movements, but also some of the emotions that we experience when we are at a ball game.

Steve: Is there any chance that the mirror neuron phenomenon explains what I consider to be the completely misguided notion by a lot of fans that they could actually do what the players do?

Gordon: (laughs) Perhaps. Well, the interesting thing is that mirror neuron theory suggests that in our brains, at least, we can. Then there is the problem of actually translating that into the physical ability, which as we all know doesn't quite happen the way we might wish it did.

Steve: I was watching a spring training game and Alex Rodriguez backhanded a short hop about 30 feet behind third base on the foul line, turned and threw to first and got the guy and I remember thinking the average fan probably thinks he could probably do that too, whereas if he was standing, if he just gave him the ball, where Rodriguez was standing, he couldn't throw at the first base, let alone make the rest of the play happen.

Gordon: Right. Maybe that's one of the things that they keep us interested in baseball is that the idea that we are living vicariously through the experts that we're watching on the screen or at the game.

Steve: And we're also living an emotional life vicariously in being involved. I mean, I think it is… baseball is so popular for guys, and for a lot of women too, but you know, it's this daily melodrama that plays out in various ways and I think that's part of what makes it fun. But you get into the minds of the players and the minds of the fans a lot in the book. For example, there is the chapter on why Casey actually struck outand I liked some of the conclusions at the end of that chapter that go into making this kind of evaluation of why he struck out in the poem.

Gordon: Right. There are a couple of very interesting and well done chapters on the brains of ball players and that's one of them, why Casey struck out.And the neuroscientists who contributed those chapters have some really interesting insights into how the brains of ball players, how they become experts at what they do and they talk about how in the brain of an expert, those experts are actually probably using less of their brains when they perform an action. It becomes kind of ingrained and so they are able to fine-tune their brains in a way and really focus and then in the chapter about why Casey struck out,some of the theories are that he was distracted by the crowd and by other things, where a true expert might keep his focus, so there's a lot of really interesting material on how the players become experts at what they do and then apply that. There's a chapter on hitting the ball, which is pretty amazing. What they have come up with in that chapter is basically that players have to decide whether to swing before the ball has even pitched because there isn't enough time from when the ball leaves the pitcher's hand to actually react after that and decide whether to swing. So, what I take from that is basically they start out with, "yes, I'm going to swing," and the only thing they have time to decide is a very quick change of heart, and you know, the hold up before they follow through. That's a really interesting look at how the brain is involved in that process.

Steve: And they get so much information that the average fan probably is not aware of before the pitcher even releases the ball, just based on the pitcher's windup, the position of the arm, etcetera.

Gordon: Exactly! And also their own past experiences, perhaps in a particular count or with that particular pitcher or both.

Steve: And that's really the key to why the player may actually use less of his brain than the novice player or the fan might in a similar situation: you can use less of your brain because you have this incredibly developed database of experience that you draw upon.

Gordon: Right, right. And I think the average fan, I know, I certainly had never thought about that in this way before, that really it is the brain that's making those calls perhaps even before the pitcher goes into his windup.

Steve: Right, right. It's also dependent on the game situation.

Gordon: Right.

Steve: There is a really fascinating chapter in the book that describes a subject that does not get discussed at all because of course, we are so drug-conscious in sports and especially baseball right now, the steroid controversy in baseball is just paramount in the minds of fans and the press, but there is no discussion about something that this chapter is about, and that's the neurological enhancement possibilities of drugs in sports, down to caffeine as an enhancement.

Gordon: Right. The question is: Where do you draw the line with things like that? The chapter is interesting. It is contributed by a bioethicist who takes kind of an unorthodox look at brain enhancers and seems to suggest at least in one spot that they could be good for baseball. But the real question is: Is there a level playing field?That's the real issue and so there is a kind of very ethical aspect to that. Do all the players have the same access to things? And there is also this idea of, where do you draw the line? Caffeine is a stimulant. Do you ban caffeine? Do you ban cannabis? Do you ban other drugs that might, at least theoretically, have an effect on reaction time? So it's a very interesting concept that does come into play and that really has stayed below the radar. There's been a little bit of talk about it, but it [there] has not been very, very loud discussion about enhancers that would affect the brain and that may be the next wave, so to speak.

Steve: And there is the amazing revelation, to me at least, that Hank Aaron performed on amphetamines part of the time early in his career.

Gordon: Right. There are a lot of historical examples of ball players who did take brain altering drugs or brain-enhancing drugs, at least so they thought, and you don't hear about those very much. So it's kind of an interesting thing to look at.

Steve: The last chapter in the book is called, 'It isn't whether you win or lose—it's whether you win'.

Gordon: Yep.

Steve: Agony and ecstasy in the brain,and one of the things in that chapter that was pretty amusing to me was the comparison of fans' emotional state with a losing team, the comparison to the Kubler-Ross' five stages of dying and the idea that that's really not the appropriate one. The more appropriate comparison is breaking up with somebody that you've had a romance with.

Gordon: Right, right. That's an excellent chapter. I really like that chapter. One of the things that they talk about is how they make a tie-in with the study in mice about social disease and found that if a mouse was defeated, he came back much better if he was with others who were in the same situation, and that might explain something of how we rebound as fans because we are among other fans who are kind of sharing our misery, whereas if we're all alone in our misery, we actually might not come back or we might be less likely to come back and (unclear) for the team again, but there is kind of the social context [that] we're suffering together and that helps us out a great deal.

Steve: So misery does love company?

Gordon: That's the implication.

Steve: The book is, Your Brain on Cubs, edited by Dan Gordon. It's been fun talking to you. Thanks very much.

Gordon: Thank you, Steve.

(music)

Steve: For more on the Dana Foundation, just go to www.dana.org. They just released some interesting info about the effect of the arts on cognitive development. Next up, we pay a lot more attention to batting averages than to fielding numbers. Shane Jensen is a statistician at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who is trying to come up with ways to better quantify what defensive players are accomplishing in baseball. We talked in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February.

Steve: Talking to Shane Jensen. Good to talk to you today.

Jensen: Ah! Great to be here, great to be here.

Steve: So, you are trying to develop ways to really get a handle on defensive performance in baseball. It's a lot easier to do statistics on offense and be confident of them. What's the challenge in doing the defensive statistics?

Jensen: Well, offensive statistics are easier to sort of quantify and tabulate just because, you know, there is [are] a discrete number of outcomes to every bats. So, I mean, you are talking about, sort of, categorical data that you can, sort of, tabulate and analyze, you know, with high accuracy. Fielding is much more difficult because you are talking about players moving around on a continuous surface of play and so you have to be a lot more clever about how you actually model that and a large part of that is, you know, trying to get, kind of high-resolution data that maps balls and play to two specific points in the field.

Steve: What specific kind of things have you done to try to address that challenge?

Jensen: So, we again, we take advantage of currently available high-resolution data and essentially we use smooth probability curves to essentially estimate the probability of a fielder making a play, you know, as a function of the short distance he has to travel and other variables, velocity of the ball hit, to try and kind of actually model the surface of the field with a smooth probability function for making an out.

Steve: You are a respectable statistician, why do you spend so much time on something that some people might consider to be trivial?

Jensen: Well the first thing is, I mean, I'm a baseball fan and so, for me this is hardly even seems like work, but also actually as a statistician, you know, it's a complicated enough problem that there is a lot of, kind of, interesting novel statistical methodology that's actually grown out of this project and so, well, we've been able to sort of harness a lot of kind of advanced statistical techniques to do our estimation and I think there will be actually some, you know, would be hoping to publish a couple of statistical manuscripts on this research as well. So it's of academic interest as well as sort of sports interest.

Steve: These kinds of methodologies could really come in handy for people who are confronted with dealing with large data sets. So, who else might wind up taking advantage of the development of these kinds of systems?

Jensen: Well, I mean, any time you are talking about sort of, you know, modeling something spatially – so, we use two-dimensional spatial models for these players and I mean, you know, things are kind of, I mean, in environmental sciences and there is a lot of two-dimensional spatial modeling, you know, modeling disease outbreaks and stuff like that, there is a lot of two-dimensional modeling as well. So there is [are] many different sort[s] of scientific fields, where I think methods like these are being used already. And, you know, I'm hoping that we can contribute a little bit to the methodology for those fields as well.

Steve: Some people think that defense is economically undervalued, that you can get just as much bang for the buck with a low-price defensive specialist as you do with a higher priced offensive leader. So, what do you think about that?

Jensen: Well, certainly I mean, you know, I mean, again hitting is a bigger component of the game than fielding in general, but I do think that, you know, when you are looking to fill up your roster and you are looking to increase your, sort of, run production for your team, you might be able to get a fielder that saves you five runs per season cheaper than you would with a hitter that contributes an extra five runs per season, and I think what's right now stopping general managers from doing this is a general strategy, if they are not doing it already is that, you know, it's again they'd be reliant on, sort of, accurate estimation of that fielding performance, which hopefully is one of the things we kind of bring to the table.

Steve: Who is the most important player on the field, defensively?

Jensen: Center fielder comes up as sort of the highest importance. You know, really the top center fielders can save their teams up to like 20 runs over [on] average over an entire season and I think that's a function not just of, you know, a large number of balls being hit to center field, but also, you know, we weigh it by run consequence, so when you miss a ball or when you make a mistake in center field that's a double or a triple, it's a very consequential event. Shortstops, for example, is also important defensively but not as, because, you know, there is [are] a high number of balls that are hit to shortstop but almost every single one of the shortstop grounders that are missed just ends up as a single. So, more balls are hit there, but of lower consequence.

Steve: Who is the least important defensive player?

Jensen: First baseman. First baseman came up as the least important defensive player and again that's in large part due to just a very low frequency of balls hit to first base.

Steve: When you watch a game and the first baseman is a decent player, you don't notice him. But when he is bad you really do notice him a lot, but statistically it's just not that big a deal; you should concentrate on the other members of the defensive alignment.

Jensen: Well, I think, I mean, for one thing the first basemen are involved in a lot of plays, even if they are not fielding. And I think, to a certain extent, when a first baseman makes a mistake, it can look spectacular, and so there's a perception there that it was a very important mistake, but overall, certainly, there is [are] less balls hit to [the] first baseman, so they are, you know, quantitatively not as important.

Steve: Your methodology does not examine whether the first baseman fields the difficult throw by the shortstop.

Jensen: No. That's right. The first baseman, as far as, you know, whether or not they field throws, that's not measured. We're measuring first basemen just on their ability to actually field ground balls hit to them.

Steve: And what was the most surprising thing that your data analysis led you to?

Jensen: Well, I mean, one of the big surprises that we saw, I mean, and this is actually, isn't a surprise if you have worked with other fielding evaluations, but Derek Jeter pops up as the worst shortstop in the major leagues by our method, and again that's something that is consistent between different fielding evaluations.

Steve: We should say you are a Red Sox fan.

Jensen: I am a Red Sox fan. I'll put in right now that Manny Ramirez also comes up as poor, just for the sake of a fair and balanced assessment. But Derek Jeter does come up as one of the worst shortstops in the majors and one of the best shortstops in the majors by our estimation is actually Alex Rodriguez because we have data from, you know, '02 and '03 when he was still with Texas and so the Yankees seem to actually have the worst shortstop in the major leagues playing at shortstop and one of the best playing at third base, in deference to them.

Steve: Well, it's been fun talking to you and I appreciate your time, even though any Yankee fan is going think this is all bunk and hokey-pokey, but I'm sure you are right in a lot of ways.

Jensen: Thank you very much.

Steve: For more on this research, Google Shane Jensen, which will take you to his home page, at which you can find media coverage of his work including a New York Post story that quotes Derek Jeter and former Yankee shortstop Gene Michael, who calls the research "a bunch of baloney."

(music plays)

Now it is time to play TOTALL......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Baseball features a lot of guys spitting. Researchers have now identified all the proteins found in human spit.

Story number 2 involves beer. It is estimated that some 24,500 gallons of beer are lost annually in Great Britain in drinker's beards and mustaches.

Story number 3: How much you exercise often depends in large part on what kind of neighborhood you live in.

And story number 4: Throwing from the slightly raised pitcher's mound puts less strain on the pitcher's arm than throwing on a flat surface does.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. The protein components of human spit have been completely characterized and we have 1,116 distinct proteins in our saliva. The info could make it possible to produce numerous new saliva-based diagnostic tests, which would be easier to deal with than blood tests. For more, check out the March 25th story at the SciAm Web site titled, really, "U.S. Researchers Create Protein Map of Human Spit."

Story number 2 is true. Guinness estimates that some 24,500 gallons of beer get absorbed in drinker's facial hair each year, that's based on beer sales in Great Britain and the assumption that each pint is lifted 10 times with 0.56 milliliters lost with each sip.

And story number 3 is true. Your neighborhood often winds up dictating your exercise level. That's according to research done at Ohio State University. The study was actually performed in Chicago and found that, not surprisingly, if a neighborhood was considered unsafe, fewer people took part in outdoor activities and women were much more discouraged from getting any outdoor exercise in such neighborhoods than men were. The research was published in the journal Urban Studies.

All of which means that story number 4 about the mound easing the strain on the pitcher's arm is TOTALL......Y BOGUS because a study found that the mound puts more stress on the arm. The study was led by orthopedic surgeon William Raasch, team physician for the Milwaukee Brewers, and was presented at a joint session of the Major League Baseball Team Physician's Association and Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers' Society during the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings. Raasch analyzed the motions of college and major league pitchers on the official mound to shorter mounds and flat ground. Because of the relative positions of the landing foot and the shoulder, more torque is put on the shoulder when pitching from the mound. Pitchers recovering from an injury may thus be better off throwing on flat ground.

(music plays)

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com and check out the Web site for the latest science news, blogs and opinion and the hot topic section. Also check out the new book Snake Jazz by geneticist and former major league pitcher Dave Baldwin, who was our guest on the April 4th, 2007 podcast. For one thing, you'll learn about the very disturbing Simpson's Paradox in statistics whereby you can have a higher batting average than I do every year, but my lifetime batting average can still be higher than yours. Check out Dave Baldwin at www.snakejazz.com. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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