For baseball it's all about the numbers
Thursday, May 28, 2015
By Mark McGee
For baseball it's all about the numbers

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – They have never seen any of the Lipscomb baseball players perform in a game. Yet, based on a 43-minute computer-based evaluation they can profile each player’s cognitive skills, both strengths and weaknesses, at the plate, in the field and on the base paths.

Not only can they identify the weak points of a player’s cognitive skill set, but they can tell Lipscomb assistant coach Paul Phillips how to approach each player’s training to enhance those skills.

SportsSense, a Nashville-based company started by two cognitive neuroscientists who also work at Vanderbilt, evaluates the cognitive skills required for specific sports, including football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey.

Most sports-based training tools focus on a developing a few specific visual processes, but the SportsSense evaluation is comprehensive. It measures twelve specific cognitive skills ranging from how well a player sees and tracks dynamic visual information, to how well a player translates what he sees into rapid action decisions, to how well a player can start, stop, and redirect his motor system when situations suddenly change on the field or a player starts to react impulsively in error. Working with SportsSense has changed the way coach Phillips sees and approaches the game.

In fact, Phillips gives SportsSense much of the credit for the Bisons’ Atlantic Sun Championship and berth in the NCAA Regional at Vanderbilt this weekend. The Bisons will face Vanderbilt at Hawkins Field Friday night at 7:05. The other teams in the regional are Indiana and Radford.

“SportsSense was able to tell me an unbelievable amount of information on my team,” Phillips said. “For example, who might struggle on the bases, who was going to have a higher chance of being picked off, who might check swing more than others, who was going to have really good strike zone discipline, or even who was going to run bad routes versus great routes in the outfield.”

“The first time they started describing these patterns on my players, I shook my head and wondered how do you know this?  But the accuracy of this information has been unbelievable.”

Student of the game

Phillips, a former Major League catcher, is a true student of the game. His desk is covered with books on hitting and notebooks filled with statistics. When Assistant Coach Brad Coon told him about SportsSense, he was interested immediately and wanted to connect with them.

“I talk to these guys on a weekly basis,” Phillips said. “They are like buddies of mine because I have been talking with them so much about our kids. I challenge them all the time to help me make a player better. They’ve given me a new framework for thinking about how baseball players think, or sometimes don’t think.

“I spend a lot of time on this. I have 18 hitters and I don’t want just five of them to be really good. I want all of them to be really good. This information has helped me coach each player better and in turn has helped us play better. I believe 100 percent that this information has been one of the game changers for Lipscomb baseball.”

More than just numbers

The information gleaned is more than just numbers. Not only can Phillips instruct players on what to do based on the numbers, he can help them understand why they struggle with certain decisions or situations and devise ways to help them improve those areas or work around them.

For example, one player may be struggling at the plate because he isn’t seeing something critical about the ball in flight, but another player may see the ball exceptionally well but struggle because he has poor control over his initial motor impulses. The SportsSense evaluation helps you diagnose how and why a player is successful and struggling, setting the stage for greater precision and focus in coaching and training.

“When you look at one of the tasks in the battery of tests, trajectory estimation, it evaluates how a player sees and processes the flight of the ball.” Phillips said. “Not only does that relate to pop flies and line drives, but as a hitter it relates to your strike zone and how you see the flight of the ball. As a base runner how are you seeing a line drive…is the ball going to get down or stay up long enough to be caught? Do you have time to tag up?”

Phillips doesn’t want to just tell them what to do. He wants them to understand what happened and be able to fix it.

“When they understand their own cognitive tendencies, strengths, and limitations and how those contribute to what just happened, they can make adjustments during an at bat instead of after they make an out,” Phillips said. “The key is helping these kids understand the why and how of their decision-making.”

Phillips regrets this type of insight was not available when he played. He says it would have completely changed the way he trained.

“This information is cutting edge,” Phillips said. “I wish I had it when I played. It is unbelievable how accurate it is. They told me that one of the freshman players that we had just recruited was going to be elite in his decision and cognitive skills on the field, and he has turned out to be just that.”

That player is Michael Gigliotti. If there was a valedictorian for the way he uses SportsSense, then Gigliotti would be the winner.

“Coming in, he is one of the most unbelievable players as a freshman I have been able to work with,” Phillips said. “He has a thirst for information. He will process what happened and then come up with a question to ask me. A lot of times people don’t dig deep enough into the process to fix the problem, they just fix a symptom.”

Individual approach

All of the information compiled on each player allows Phillips to develop a coaching plan to fit individual needs instead of taking a one size fits all approach. It changes drill work and what drills players focus on in practice. It is a constant learning process.

“Each player brings a unique physical skill set to the field, and it is clear that each player brings a unique cognitive skill set to the field, and we can measure that now,” Phillips said. “These numbers are about individualized coaching. It allows me to take my hitters and separate them into groups based on what they need to work on. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how much information I know. If I can’t get them to do it then it is no good.

“This allows me to be more individualized with each player and that helps them to grow faster. Sometimes it takes a whole year to understand how a kid learns and what he is good at and what he is not good at doing. Because I understand these numbers I can apply them instantly and start teaching them.”

Each of the last three years the Bisons have increased their batting averages and their offensive success in every category. Players have seen the results of the SportsSense plan and they have been quick converts.

 “Our hitters have a great relationship with me where we can sit down and be vulnerable with each other,” Phillips said. “We question each other. Do you do this at the plate? Are you trying to do this? What were you thinking?

“These guys just want to be better. They are very receptive to this information. They see how it works and they see how much better they are getting.”

Hit to win

Hitting is often described as the most difficult thing to do in sports. Even the best fail seven out of 10 times. Phillips uses the numbers to go beyond simply compiling hit totals.

“We don’t preach going up there and getting hits,” Phillips said. “This is a phrase he heard from Brad Coon who uses it daily. What we talk about is going up there and having good quality at bats and good situational hitting. As an example, any time we get a runner on third base with less than two outs we have to do whatever it takes to get that guy in.

“We play to win. We hit to win. We don’t hit to have 10 hits and two runs. We want to score runs no matter how it happens. We work really hard to get the first guy on base. And once we do that we work really hard to move him around.”

Phillips stresses a team is a group of individuals with everyone knowing and doing their jobs. The numbers help him determine how capable a player will be in completing an assigned job.

“It is all about what your job is when there is a runner on base,” Phillips said. “And if there isn’t a runner on base then what is your job at the plate.

“If everyone knows their job when they are at bat and on the bases then that is what it is all about. Everyone is doing their part to make sure that run crosses the plate.”

With that approach a bunt is as good as a home run in certain situations.

“We celebrate when a guy bunts a guy over,” Phillips said. “We act like he just hit a home run. When a guy gets somebody in from third base we celebrate. It is not about having the best batting average.  It is about having the best winning percentage.”

Phillips is quick to point out that players who are mentally prepared are going to prevail over those who rely solely on their physical ability. The numbers compiled on each player bear this out.

“A smart player is going to beat a more talented player every time,” Phillips said. “We will put together a better plan of attack. Intellect and hustle will take you further than just being talented. “If you don’t understand why you are failing you get frustrated. Then you get in your own way.

 “Hitting is hard. At the end of the day you fail a lot. How do you deal with that? Did you learn something that you can apply to your next at-bat? According to these numbers, some do and some don’t.  If they didn’t learn anything from the at-bat based on the numbers then I have to go and explain it to him because the numbers say he will do a really good job if I do that.”

Mind of the batter

Phillips is able to use the numbers to tell head coach Jeff Forehand what players are best in certain situations in terms of expected success.

 “I can communicate with coach Forehand that this guy is a better pinch hitter than an everyday player,” Phillips said. “I can base it on their cognitive skills set instead of just statistics.

“A lot of guys can’t process a lot of information. If I give someone too much to think about at the plate then his brain will freeze.”

During a game Phillips is performing a balancing act mentally preparing his hitters for the present situation while also looking to the future.

“I try to figure out three hitters down the way,” Phillips said. “Is the other team going to the left-hander in the bullpen? If they are, I have to start preparing for that guy, but I can’t forget about the present and the guys at the plate.

“Playing the game for me was all about the cat and mouse approach. Putting together the intellectual side of the game was always the best for me.”

It is not only a matter of understanding how these numbers work but understanding how to use the information to make each player better.

“We can take these numbers and apply them on the field and make your numbers way better,” Phillips said. “That is the cool part. Until the age of 25 your brain is continuing to grow and develop. These kids are at the perfect age for this.”

Phillips is already looking ahead at the way the numbers might change next year for each player.

“I am excited to have these kids tested next year,” Phillips said. “I want to see their growth and what they have accomplished after knowing these numbers.”

SportsSense has become a fixture in the Lipscomb athletic department, working with the baseball, basketball, and soccer programs.