Is a smarter player a better player?

J. Meric

The Steroid Era has, I suppose, been supplanted by the Strikeout Era (or the Strikeout Scourge, as I prefer). Another hallmark of these times, though? Erstwhile baseball players who can actually write. Once an exceptionally rare breed, their ranks now include C.J. Nitkowski, Dirk Hayhurst, and Doug Glanville. I'm sure I'm forgetting a few. And there's also Gabe Kapler, who's written a piece for WEEI.com about the benefits of educating players in modern performance metrics. Just a couple of snippets here:

I went through a hitless stretch as a Detroit Tiger that had my teammates asking to confiscate all of my sharp objects. We were playing in Toronto at the Sky Dome and I finally lined a ball to right field for a base hit. Between innings, Shawn Green approached me and said, "It felt like you were ill, right? Like you just threw up and now you feel better." He was spot on. I was floored to realize that a player I respected on the other side of the field could sense my anxiety. Moreover, I was mortified that I was so obvious.

Why didn’t anybody approach me and tell me that I wasn’t being evaluated on my batting average (I’m talking to you, Brad Ausmus!)? As it plummeted, I pondered my career ending at any moment. That’s not the best energy to bring to the clubhouse or to the batting cage or to the batter’s box.

--snip--

Teaching baseball players about new performance metrics is not the lesson here. Instead, the lesson is embracing education. Thinking that, because we play or played the game, we know the game best is a dangerous proposition. I’m certainly not trying to discredit anyone. The players will always be the only ones on the planet to know what it feels like to square up a CC Sabathia fastball or to trot in from the bullpen, walkout music blaring from the speakers on sacred ground.

Players simply need to stay in "baseball school," pay attention, keep an open mind and evolve with the decision makers.

I'm all for baseball school and evolving. Still, I wonder ... Would Joe Carter have been a better player if he'd known that a couple of his 100-RBI seasons, you know, were actually pretty stinky? Sure, maybe education would have made Carter a better player ... but maybe he was playing as well as he could play, and would have played worse if he'd known how good he really was.

Which is to say, it might help some players to know more about their fundamental performance ... but it might hurt some of them, too. Kapler's making a performance argument, but I think he would be on firmer ground with a moral argument. There's a moral argument to be made for education; for the idea that humans, blessed with the ability to think and learn and grow and evolve, must do those things in search of some ideal humanity.

However, the link between intelligence and happiness is fairly weak. And the link between intelligence and baseball performance is, I will assume, nonexistent. I think Kapler's probably right. But I suspect that he and I share some of the same biases. So you probably shouldn't trust us. Yuniesky Betancourt and Joe Carter definitely shouldn't.

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