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Inside the Orioles' heads, part 3

Part 1

Part 2

Profiles in reflection

With the amateur draft scheduled to take place Monday and Tuesday, the Orioles no doubt have compiled their list of the top eligible players. As discussed earlier, the psychological ratings of their director of baseball information systems, Dave Ritterpusch, will have a significant influence on the selection process—greater, perhaps, than for any other team. The psychological profiles help winnow the field by eliminating those who are least mentally prepared to play baseball at an elite level. They also provide a tipping factor when deciding among prospects of similar ability.

There is a danger that the Orioles could go overboard with their perceived competitive advantage in psychological profiling. The mental side of the game is important, but prospects who are mentally strong and motivated still need the physical aptitude to succeed against first-rate competition, as Ritterpusch himself acknowledges. From what I've seen, I'm not terribly confident in the Orioles' ability to go beyond typical scouting metrics like the five tools and assess the more subtle assets that show up only on the field in live competition (and in certain statistics). Does the player have the ability to pick up the nuances of the game and to make the proper adjustments when necessary? How good is a hitter's command of the strike zone? How well does a pitcher create movement on his pitches and deception in his delivery? How quickly does an outfielder pick up the ball off the bat? Ritterpusch's confidence in his findings may cause the Orioles to overrate players who have strong psychological and physical profiles but lack the "baseball intelligence" that is necessary for success in the game.

There is also the possibility that the Orioles could miss out on some very good players by discounting psychologically suboptimal prospects from their consideration. Ritterpusch indicated that an "overwhelming majority" of star players score highly in certain key traits. But just how small is that underwhelming minority of stars who are deficient in one or more of the key traits? Ten percent? Twenty? Albert Belle was a seeming exception to the rule, a highly motivated player with All-Star talent who also exhibited antisocial behavior. His frequent outbursts directed at fans and the media (and, sometimes, inanimate objects) suggest that he may have rated low on emotional control. I guess the bottom-line question is: at what point is it appropriate to allow for exceptions to the key traits?

Ritterpusch did not mention by name any players who did poorly on their psychological tests, probably because of legal repercussions—aside from the possibility of a libel suit, there are probably privacy and confidentiality protections involved. But I'd still like to know how certain players profiled. Could the troubles of Steve Blass disease sufferers—among them Steve Sax, Mackey Sasser, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel—have been predicted? What were the profiles of oddballs like Mark Fidrych, Jim Walewander, and Randy Myers? And a psychological contrast between Moneyballers Billy Beane and Lenny Dykstra would be interesting for its own sake. Although many players' personality traits become obvious in press reportage, it's still interesting to know what goes on inside the heads of the most unusual athletes.

What about profiles for managers and coaches? For them, leadership and responsibility would intuitively be important. The ASP, however, is not the ideal test to determine a managerial candidate's fitness for the job, since it is customized for athletes. A test designed to measure aptitude for business managers would probably be more appropriate.

And further tests for players may come if the trend continues and clubs are willing to contribute to some up-front costs. In addition to psychological questionnaires, high-profile players may need to take physicals before the draft and make them available to interested teams. Pitchers may be asked to have an MRI scan done on their pitching arm and submit pitch-count and injury histories. Technology advances are making the accumulation and dissemination of such data extremely convenient.

If all this testing sounds like overkill, it's not. It's becoming an increasingly common practice in industry. A recent AP story indicates that businesses such as the Pathmark supermarket chain are incorporating computerized screening tests (which include some personality-related questions) into their hiring processes. As long as the test methods and accuracy are sound, it makes a lot of sense. A résumé and interview can only tell so much about a person. The more relevant information that hiring managers have in hand, the better equipped they are to make decisions on the hiring and placement of personnel.

There will always be uncertainty in any process involving human beings. But as long as it exists, people will always be looking for economical ways to reduce it. And that is true in life as well as in baseball.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Inside the Orioles' heads, part 3:

» A head for baseball? from Soccer Dad
Last year, Baseball Musings linked to a Baltimore Sun article (no longer available online) on the Orioles' use of psychological testing to determine which players to draft. (More on this here, here and here.) What brings me back to this,... [Read More]


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