Reviewing “The Psychology of Baseball”
January 20, 2008 2 Comments
Mike Stadler, The Psychology of Baseball.
Perhaps I am exactly the wrong person to review this book. Mike Stadler has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is a professor at the University of Missouri. He grew up near Cleveland. He recently wrote a book on what psychology can tell us about baseball. I’m soon to get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and grew up near Cleveland and I write a blog about baseball heavily influenced by psychology. In fact, I toyed around with the idea of writing a book somewhat like this. An author should never review his own book, and while I’m not Dr. Stadler, my backstory is sounding a little too close for comfort.
Then again, maybe I am a good candidate. I have a decent enough knowledge of cognitive (and other types of) psychology, of which Dr. Stadler makes plenty of use and I know enough about the literature from which he is drawing to know whether he’s got a good grip on the research literature (short answer: yes.) In fact, from a professional standpoint, this is a beautifully researched piece of work.
I got this book as a Christmas present (thanks to my brother!) and read it in a little under two hours on a flight to Albuqueque. (Don’t ask.) It’s a quick read, although probably made quicker by the fact that I speak psychology-ese. In fact, if there’s one critique that I have of the book, it’s that (for the first few chapters, anyway) Stadler sounds more like he’s writing for Psychology Bulletin than a general readership. Then again, the things he talks about are hard to write about in simplified English.
Before you read this book (and you should read it), you should know that it’s not a Sabermetric book. Or is it? Stadler doesn’t present any original research of his own, nor does he come up with any new measures or rating systems. He does, however, like a good Sabermetrician, take a look at what actual scientific research from the realm of psychology, says about baseball. He rather expertly draws on his knowledge of the research in cognitive psychology, which deals in things like how people perceive and process information (it’s much more complex than you might think!). In doing so, he does take down a few silly notions that people hold about baseball, including the myth of the “rising fastball” and how it really is impossible to keep your eye on the ball. (The ball moves much too fast for that.) Like a good Sabermetrician or any good scientist, Stadler’s not content to hear something that people have said and taking it as granted until he looks at all of the evidence available.
Actually, Stadler’s strongest chapters, both in writing style and content are his last three. In them, he explores more cultural questions, including why (and when) it is that fans cheer for their favorite team and how they got that favorite team to begin with (including a discussion of terror management theory!) He also explains the psychology of why fans believe in the power of streaks and clutch and how most “streakiness” is just a statistical illusion. These are things that most Sabermetrically inclined folks have known for a while, but the strength of this book is that it goes deeper than to say “streaks don’t exist”, but instead focuses on why people can’t seem to get it out of their minds that we in the Sabermetric community really wouldn’t lie about something like that. Seriously. Stadler does suggest that there is something of an ability to perform in the clutch, and that it’s psychologically valid (and as a psychologist, I buy his explanation). It’s just that baseball players have all been selected out specifically for the ability to perform in these situations, meaning that most players have some sort of clutch ability and that the differences between players aren’t likely to be very large.
The chapters on the topics more tied into processing and perception can be difficult to the untrained eye. As a trained psychologist myself, I find it fascinating, but I could see someone wandering through the chapter on how a fielder catches a fly ball and having some trouble following along. Still, it’s not a question you’ve probably ever considered in how complicated it really is, and even if you don’t understand all of it, the Sabermetrician in you can appreciate how a seemingly simple question is a lot more complex when you look at it. It’ll also get your hopes up for starting a career in which you get paid to study how people catch fly balls.
Overall, it’s worth a read. (Here’s where to buy it…) It’s a book that I would have been proud to have written.