Friday, September 14, 2012

Knowing your Limitations - Lessons from Alfred Adler

It is common in human nature to be prideful and to want to demonstrate one's abilities.  When a person learns a skill, they want to demonstrate that they have that skill.  Just look inside any college dorm, and see which dudes learned how to play guitar.  It is also very normal for humans to overestimate their abilities to perform certain skills.  Often, we can only compare our level of ability to those around us.  If those around us cannot play guitar, our skills look better by comparison. 
On the flip side, when a person is part of a group, they often will try to either prove they have the same skills as the rest of the group, or they will learn a new skill that the group does not possess, in order to stand out.  This concept fits very well in the group of baseball players.  If you narrow down even further, it is very interesting to look at a very select group of players:  Major League Baseball players. 

It is common to hear of MLB players belonging to a "fraternity" of sorts.  Anyone good enough to get to the big leagues is part of a very select group.  These people are the best baseball players in all of the World.  In fact, anyone good enough to get to the MLB is an elite baseball player.  This includes Nick Blackburn and Nick Punto.  Making it to that level means that the player is elite.  However, that does not mean that these elite baseball players do not have deficiencies. 

Alfred Adler, a well-known Psychologist from the late 1800s, early 1900s, came up with the concept of psychological compensation.  He believed that human existence was all driven toward perfection.  He felt that people respond to inferiority by compensating.  He took this a step further with the concept of organ inferiority, where all people are born with weaker and stronger parts of their anatomy and physiology.  These things could be heart murmurs, stutters, ability to add muscle mass or the inability to add muscle mass.  He felt that humans compensate for weaker organs by focusing much more on those stronger organs.  Rather than trying to improve what a person cannot do, they focus on what they can do, and make it even better.

Ok, Psychology lesson over.  However, I do feel that this theory applies in baseball and that it applies differently to different players on this Twins team.  In my opinion, some players take the route that Adler suggests.  However, I feel that some players go the complete opposite route and that hurts them as players.  Let's investigate a couple of examples that support Adler's theory and a couple that do not. 

Does not support Adler's Theory

Ben Revere's Arm

I was watching a recent game, I think it might have been Friday, and Revere made what many would consider to be a bad play.  He fielded a fly ball deep in left-center field with runners on 1st and 2nd.  He caught the ball and then immediately tried to throw the runner attempting to advance to 3rd.  As Dick Bremer said, the throw got there on four bounces.  Bremer and Bert Blyleven spent the next few sentences talking about what a bad play it was, based on the fact that the bad throw allowed the runner on 1st to also move up a base.  Getting the ball to the cut-off man would have stopped that runner from advancing.  There is a logical psychological explanation for this throw.

Ben Revere, for all his strengths, has two major weaknesses - his arm and his power.  It is odd to look at him, as he is a well-built individual.  However, some people just have weaker organs.  Revere's arm isn't going to get a whole lot stronger.  If it didn't in his first 24 years on the planet, it is unlikely to get much stronger as he gets older.  However, Revere can take this weakness in two ways.  He can work hard to perfect the mental aspect of hitting cut-off men instead of trying to throw everyone out, or he can assume that his hard physical work is going to actually make his arm stronger.  Odds are, he is better off throwing to the right player and taking what he can from his arm.  In the heat of the moment, will pride or compensation take over?

The interesting thing about Revere is that he does seem to know his limitations as a hitter.  He doesn't have much power at all, so he drives the ball downward, into the ground, in an effort to use his speed effectively.  In addition, he uses his great contact skills to foul off pitches, until he gets one that he can do something with.  This creates a player that will never have traditional power numbers, but one that can get to second base with relative consistency either by grounding/lining doubles down the lines or by hitting singles and using his speed to get to second base via a stolen base.  Regardless, if Revere can take his smart hitting approach with him into the field, he can better compensate for his lack of throwing strength.

Pitchers' Control

This might be more of a coaching/player development/player personnel issue than an actual issue with the players, but it does seem that this current Twins rotation has a lot of nibblers.  I would identify Liam Hendriks, Cole De Vries, Esmerling Vasquez and P.J. Walters in this way.  NIbblers try to be too refined in the strike zone, hitting corners and edges, presumably to try to get hitters called out on strikes without swinging.  This style does not really fit the "pitch to contact" Twins' philosophy.  As a result, there seems to be a disconnect between the type of pitchers the Twins have and the type of pitchers the Twins want to have. 

Do these pitchers overcompensate for their lack of natural ability by nibbling?  Probably.  They have good control, but mediocre raw stuff.  Therefore, they try to be too fine around the strike zone.  This can run up large pitch counts.  Plus, good hitters just take those marginal pitches or simply foul them off.  Eventually, you either have to throw and obvious ball or an obvious strike.  The results haven't been great when it comes to that.  When you think about it, marginal stuff is marginal stuff whether it is on the corners or not.  For these pitchers, the "pitch to contact" strategy that we all make fun of, might be a better option.  If they trust their defense over their stuff, they may at least luck into some success.

Support Adler's Theory

Joe Mauer's Power

For my money, Joe Mauer supports this theory better than any player I have ever watched.  Joe Mauer knows exactly what he is good at, and what he is not good at.  Mauer knows that he does not have the range to play the outfield, which is why he resisted that move a couple years ago.  He does know that he has the ability to play first base, so he supported that change.  In fact, he has worked to get better as a first baseman, which supports this theory.  As a hitter, Joe Mauer knows his limitations better than anyone.  In fact, he knows his limitations so well, that he will actually take strikes, rather than swing.  He knows which pitches he can drive and he doesn't deviate from his game plan.  He also knows where his power lies.  He knows that he has gap power and opposite-field power.  He rarely tries to pull a ball over the fence, because he simply isn't that type of player.  Joe Mauer knows who he is and he doesn't really seem to care what everyone else wants him to be.

Josh Willingham's Strikeouts and Defense

On the opposite side of the batter's box, Josh Willingham epitomizes the three true outcomes hitter.  He walks a lot, he strikes out a lot and he hits a lot of home runs.  He could try to change his approach and add 30 points to his batting average, but he likely does not know how that would affect his ability as a hitter.  Instead, he emphasizes his natural power and uses his good batting eye to get on base via the walk.  He doesn't seem to worry too much about the strikeouts, and they don't really affect his overall value all that much.  In the field, Willingham doesn't have the arm or range for right field.  Therefore, he stays in left field.  This hurts his versatility, but allows him to play a position that he is comfortable with.  Rather than try to learn a new position, Willingham sticks with his "strengths" and stays in left field.

So while it is human nature to try to show off one's abilities, it should also be human nature to try to mask deficiencies.  Players that successfully mask their deficiencies can hide what they can't do and then we only remember what they can do.  They emphasize their strengths and become better players, if not always complete players.  Players that don't learn to play to their strengths often show major holes in their games that may never be fixable and may never have been fixable in the first place.  Ben Revere will never have a cannon, but that doesn't mean he can't hit a cutoff man. 

These are just a few examples, can you think of any others?

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