Way back at the winter meetings, Brad Ausmus said a thing that I found interesting. It’s stuck with me ever since, gathering moss as I’ve pondered it occasionally. But by itself, it raised my eyebrow and set me on a path.
“Especially hitting,” began Ausmus. And continued:
[W]henever you recover from a struggle or go through a slump, you fall back on that experience anytime it happens again. That’s absolutely true. I can tell you that from experience. That’s why veteran players are much better equipped to handle slumps than young players just because of the experiences.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but before we ask the players and the numbers, I thought it would be interesting to call back to a psychology experiment with which I once assisted in college. In a study colloquially called The Beeper Study run by Laura Carstensen at Stanford University, we found that getting older led to more emotional stability and happiness.
I’m not suggesting that veterans are better baseball players because they are happier, though that’s not a crazy assumption given the relationship of productivity to positive thinking. Rather, it’s the actual method to the study that seems most relevant here.
In the Beeper Study, I helped give beepers to people of all ages, along with one-page emotional situation questionnaire. I helped prepare them for the fact that they would be paged a few times a day and asked to spend two minutes telling us how angry, frustrated, sad, happy, and content they were. We also asked them what they had been doing and what they would be doing later.
What the study found, according to me at least, was that the older subjects were better at regulating their emotions. If they were sad, they were planning to watch a movie, eat ice cream, take the dog for a walk — whatever usually made them feel better. Sometimes these things are derided as “coping mechanisms” but they basically help an older person stay on a more even keel. Remember what it was like to be a teenager. For me, at least, I don’t remember many even keels.
So that’s how these things are related. It’s certainly possible that veteran players have a toolbox full of emotional, mechanical, and physical fixes for their slumps. I asked a few players, and the emphasis seemed to actually be on the emotional side, but the answers weren’t all exactly the same.
Gregor Blanco, when I talked to him, was hitting .221/.302/.325 — which would represent the worst line of his career. While watching some baseball in the clubhouse, he exclaimed “That’s what I need!” when he saw a bloop single. When I followed up with him, though, it wasn’t that he wanted more luck. He wanted more confidence. “I know I’m a better hitter,” he told me as he swung the bat in his recliner. “These things are going to happen. You go up and you go down. When you go down, you need to realize that it happens. Don’t let frustration get you. Try to simplify the game. Take some pitches, start seeing the ball again. Build that confidence again. You need to start seeing it inside yourself — I got a walk! That’s good. I hit the ball hard. Sometimes in a streak, you hit the ball hard right at someone, and you think ‘What do I have to do?!?’ Instead, say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want. I hit the ball hard.'”
Josh Reddick had a two-pronged approach. “My dogs are my getaway every night, good or bad,” he said. “There are animals waiting for you when you get home, and I’m with them every night, they always put me in a positive mood.” That was the emotional angle. He had a mechanical one, too, but was careful not to overdo it. “One thing I really do when my mind is racing is go through a lot of video from last year. If I really need something more, I have a lot of video of Chipper Jones. I idolized him and I learned my toe tap from him, so watching him helps me out. You’re going to make it that much harder for yourself if you try to do too much. If I’m struggling, I’m not going to overanalyze and change my swing a ton.”
Matt Duffy isn’t quite a veteran, but he has an interesting way to try and put together his toolbox. He actually records all the “fixes” and changes he’s made to his approach and his mechanics over the year so he can track their effectiveness. “One thing I started doing in the minors was to keep a book on myself,” the Giants’ third baseman said. “Not just what other teams are doing to you, but also things like ‘Today I felt really slow’ and how I fixed it. ‘Today I’m pulling off’ and what did I do to fix it, whether it was a mental approach in the box, or something I did mechanically or off the tee. So I ended up getting my own database of things like ‘This is my problem and here are the possible solutions.'”
The nice thing about this approach is that it offers different solutions for different mental states. “Sometimes I’m pulling off because I feel so good I’m trying to hit a homer,” Duffy pointed out. “Sometimes it’s because I feel bad so I’m pulling off to catch up. So something might work on a day that I was feeling good and not work on a day where I was feeling bad. Creates a checklist for me.”
Mark McGwire, bench coach for the Padres, told Padres broadcaster Jesse Agler his thoughts about over-fixing during slumps. “It’s amazing how they made this game six months,” he laughed. “Everyone goes through it, it’s just a matter of when. You have to simplify, because it’s so easy to make something out of nothing. The way I do it is, you have to go look at what your swinging at. Usually you’re swinging at a lot of balls, and when you’re swinging at a lot of balls, your swing feels… not very good. So you make something out of nothing, you might think there’s something mechanical, when there’s nothing mechanical and it really is all about the strike zone. I truly believe the more patient you are, the more the game comes back to you. The more impatient you are, the game’s going to go away from you.”
Hunter Pence echoes others — with some beautiful language, which is what he does. “I don’t think there’s a perfect formula,” the Giants outfielder said. “With everything, you have to understand the ebb and flow of the game, you also understand the balance. In my younger years I would go into the cage and grind it out and dig myself a deeper hole. Sometimes taking a step away, having a little fun, and letting your mind clear, and then doing something that feels good. It’s still on your mind, it’s written in your heart what you are trying to do. Intuition will hit you, that feeling of getting a good swing. My best piece of advice is that when I grind, it doesn’t help. Slow down, watch a little film, and wait for an idea to hit you. Trust the process and preparation. There’s physical work to be done, but there’s also balance.”
The thread that runs through these different answers is probably confidence. Maybe that’s surprising to those who figured the fixes would be mechanical in nature, but even the mechanical answers were tinged with the importance of emotional stability. Chipper Jones is Josh Reddick’s touchstone. Matt Duffy’s book has mental state notes in it. Hunter Pence is waiting for intuition, but not focusing on the grind. Gregor Blanco wants to simplify the game so he can find pride in taking a walk. They all want to find that good feeling again.
And if confidence makes this whole thing sound mushy and liberal artsish to you, then let’s return to the math. Bill Petti is still in the process of ironing this out for a future post, but he was kind enough to run an early aging curve on his Volatility stat, which measures how evenly a hitter distributes their runs on a game to game basis throughout a season. Turns out, it looks like batters become less volatile as they age — more negative in this case means more consistent.
For our players, this general trend has held steady. Josh Reddick has improved his volatility every year save one and is currently producing the lowest volatility rating of his career right now. Hunter Pence’s calmest two years have been the last two. These guys have learned how to slow down the wild oscillations that can characterize a young man’s play.
The grouchy old man is a bad stereotype. A better one is the calm and steady hand that wisdom offers the aged. Because when it comes to emotional regulation or play on the field, the evidence says that older people are better at evening it all out. Of course, the peaks are lower… but the valleys are more shallow. That might be some comfort the next time you’re in a slump.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.