How reading a pitcher's expression may give a batter an edge in baseball
The look a pitcher gives before he delivers may be connected to whether a batter gets a hit.
As any kid who grew up collecting cards of Dale Murphy or Nolan Ryan can tell you, baseball is a sport of statistics. What's that player's batting average? His RBI? How many home runs does he have? For more than a decade, baseball managers have relied on an advanced data analysis method called sabermetrics, made famous by Michael Lewis' bestselling "Moneyball" book and, later, the 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt.
This spring, with the new season now underway, baseball players around the world have an additional tool they can use: facial expressions.
A new joint study from universities in Israel and the Netherlands shows how examining a pitcher's face can help determine what type of pitch he's about to throw.
"It's a classic duel between two people staring at each other," Dr. Arik Cheshin, from Israel's University of Haifa, told From The Grapevine. "The two look each other in the eye; one makes a move, and the other responds to it. We wanted to see whether the expression of emotion offers a clue about this move – and we found that it does."
In the study, conducted with the help of a team at the University of Amsterdam, 92 short videos from Major League Baseball games were shown to about 200 participants. Viewers were asked to look at the pitcher's face and then predict what the outcome would be.
"The participants predicted various properties of the pitches according to the pitcher's emotion," Cheshin explained. "When the pitcher showed anger, this led to the prediction of faster and more difficult pitches. The expression of happiness led to predictions of more precise pitches and a higher probability that the batter would attempt to hit the ball. The expression of worry led to predictions of imprecise pitches and fewer attempts to hit the ball."
The general distance between the pitcher's mound and home plate is a little more than 60 feet, so it can be hard to determine someone's facial expressions from that far way. "And we are dealing with an emotion that is expressed for just a few seconds, during a period of movement, with a cap covering part of the face and a large glove on one hand. So the conditions for identifying emotions are far from ideal," Cheshin said.
So why would this professor, who studies interpersonal communication for a living, choose baseball as a line of research? "My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was the biggest Detroit Tigers baseball fan I ever met," Cheshin told us. When he attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, her devotion to the game left an impression on him. "I remember her taking her radio with her to go to dinner with my grandfather so she wouldn't miss anything about the game."
The 38-year-old Jerusalem-born Cheshin said the results of his study can be applied to non-sports arenas as well – such as when two business people are involved in a negotiation.
"One of the interesting aspects of our findings that we did not expect is that the display of happiness by the pitcher led the batter to attempt to hit the ball more often," he explained. "This is a competitive setting. If your opponent is happy, you'd think he has an advantage, maybe he knows something you don't know. Still, when he's happy, you're more likely to hit the ball – which is counter-intuitive."
Cheshin thinks that when you're in a pressure situation, and you get a positive cue, it can give you a confidence boost. "It is possible that the batter's reaction is not conscious but evolutionary," he said. "There is a lot of pressure and tumult around the batter, and accordingly the batter sees the pitcher's expression of happiness as a positive sign that encourages him to try to hit the ball. Outside of baseball, we're getting all these cues around us that help us in pressure situations to perform that might be something that comes instinctively. When we see someone smiling, we know that we should try to get what we want."
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