Sarris: Neuroscience can project on-base percentages now

From SABR member Eno Sarris at FanGraphs on January 11, 2018:

I have an early, hazy memory of Benito Santiago explaining to a reporter the approach that had led to his game-winning hit moments earlier. “I see the ball, I hit it hard,” said Santiago in his deep accent. From which game, in what year, I can’t remember. Also, it isn’t really important: it’s a line we’ve heard before. Nevertheless, it contains multitudes.

We know, for example, that major-league hitters have to see well to hit well. Recent research at Duke University has once again made explicit the link between eye sight, motor control, and baseball outcomes. This time, though, they’ve split out some of the skills involved, and it turns out that Santiago’s deceptively simple description involves nuanced levels of neuromotor activity, each predictive of different aspects of a hitter’s abilities. Will our developing knowledge about those different skills help us better sort young athletes, or better develop them? That part’s to be determined.

 A team of researchers spread across Duke ran baseball players from two full professional organizations through a battery of nine tests on Nike Sensory Stations to measure different aspects of a player’s sensory motor abilities. After creating something similar to Major League Equivalency lines for each player, the researchers were able to test the effect of each of the scores against real-life baseball outcomes.

“If you have a 23-year-old, completely average outfielder, the model predicts that his on-base percentage in the major leagues would be .292,” explains Kyle Burris, one of the researchers on the project. “The model would expect a similar player who scores one standard deviation higher on the perception span task to have an OBP of .300.”

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Originally published: January 11, 2018. Last Updated: January 11, 2018.