One after another, the Red Sox scouts who descended upon Overton High School in Tennessee swooned as they watched Mookie Betts.
Area scout Danny Watkins was the first man in. In the summer before Betts’s senior year, Watkins saw him ranging to his left to glove a ball before flipping it behind his back for a force play at second. In the winter of his senior year, Watkins saw the 5-foot-9-inch point guard explode from the baseline for a dunk that attested to uncommon athleticism. Throughout Betts’s final high school baseball season, the scout saw him move comfortably among three up-the-middle positions (shortstop, center field, second base) while showing a strikingly consistent ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball and hit line drives, even if power was rarely demonstrated.
A steady line of cross-checkers saw the same things. Everyone came away with the same report: Get this guy.
Yet there was something else, even if the Red Sox didn’t know exactly what to make of it at the time.
“He wasn’t a typical high school stud,” said Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox general manager and current Cubs president of baseball operations. “He’s an undersized kid. It’s really the athleticism and actions that drew us to him. Danny really believed in him.
“Through further evaluations and some of the proprietary testing we developed over the years, it was really clear that this kid not only had the speed, not only had the athleticism, not only had the arm, not only had the feel for the game, but also was pretty elite in his hand-eye coordination, his reaction time, and the way his mind worked as well.”
What, exactly, does Epstein mean about the workings of Betts’s mind?
“I can’t talk about that stuff,” he laughed, “because then I’d have to kill you.”
That “stuff,” according to several sources familiar with the Sox’ scouting efforts with Betts, was a new effort in 2011 to have prospects take part in neuroscouting tests.
For years, pitch recognition has been a great separator when scouting amateur players. Given that a high schooler might never see a fastball that cracks 90 miles per hour or be challenged by a legitimate major league breaking ball, there is significant guesswork in determining whether apparent bat speed will translate to production against top pitching in the pros.
In an attempt to crack that mystery, the Sox started instructing their area scouts to put potential draftees through a series of computer exercises meant to measure reaction time to pitches. Betts became a heralded part of that pilot program.
“I missed my lunch period because I was doing neuroscouting,” recalled Betts. “[Watkins] just said, ‘Do this, don’t think about the results.’ I did what I could. It was just like, a ball popped up, tap space bar as fast as you could. If the seams were one way, you tapped it. If it was the other way, you weren’t supposed to tap it. I was getting some of them wrong.
“I wasn’t getting frustrated, but I was like, ‘Dang, this is hard.’ ”
Despite that, Betts tested near the top of the charts for the 2011 draft class. The Sox didn’t necessarily know what that meant — there were no data to suggest a correlation between top performance on the simulation and actual in-game abilities — but Betts’s scores raised eyebrows to the point of creating some fascination when the Sox selected him in the fifth round in 2011.
“If this guy turns out to be a prospect,” one front office member reputedly said, “we’ll know this [expletive] works.”
Brainstorming in 2010
Betts’s ability to race through the minor leagues and hold his own in the big leagues as a 21-year-old in 2014 — in no small part because of his excellent pitch recognition — makes the subject of neuroscouting all the more fascinating.
In simplest terms, neuroscouting reflects an effort to quantify the motor system’s response (swinging) to a cognitive function (seeing a pitch and deciding to swing). The importance of how the brain responds to the stimulus of a pitched baseball is obviously at the heart of offensive success, particularly when facing the higher velocities and sharper breaks of pitches at the big league level.
“We’ve seen that there’s this strong connection between the visual processing side of hitting a baseball and the motor side of deciding whether to swing or not to swing,” said Jason Sherwin, founder and CEO of deCervo, a New York-based neuroscouting startup. “The whole idea is that you can measure these expertise-level effects on a neural level.
“Let’s say you’ve got Player A and Player B. They both hit .800 in high school, astronomical batting averages. Player A is picking up his pitches about 5 feet out of the release of the pitcher. Player B, on the other hand, is picking up the pitches at 20 feet or 30 feet.
“In high school, that difference isn’t going to be that big of a deal. Once you start ramping up the speed, ramping up the sharpness of the breaks, when you get to the major league level, that difference of 25 feet in terms of when Player A is making his decision and when Player B is making his decision, that’s a big difference.
“Then what you’ve got is basically Darryl Strawberry vs. Billy Beane.”
By various accounts, the Red Sox started introducing their minor leaguers to exercises designed by a Cambridge-based company called NeuroScouting in 2010. Players spend roughly 10-20 minutes on an iPad or laptop taking part in what feels like a video game, a chunk of time that can be invested at a hotel, on the team bus, or in the clubhouse.
Participation by minor leaguers was and is mandatory, at least from Double A down. But the Sox created a competitive undercurrent to the exercises, with different levels competing against each other for top dog status, with something on the line (such as an upgraded postgame spread).
“It was part of our routine because it was sort of forced on us,” said outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. “It was a competitive thing because there were rankings. That’s what kept it fun. If it wasn’t like that, it would have been like homework.”
Based on the descriptions of a handful of Red Sox players, the exercises feature activities that simulate pitch recognition with different wrinkles to replicate different hitting requirements.
In one, players tap the space bar as soon as they identify whether they think a pitch will be in their hitting zone. In another, curveballs blink red on the way to the plate if they’re going to be outside of the strike zone, with players asked to identify as early as possible whether to lay off them.
Another module asks players to tap the space bar only if the seams are spinning in a certain direction (either vertically or horizontally). Finally, there is a exercise that simulates the entire range of fastballs, curveballs, changeups, and sinkers, with players asked to time their swings not only to make contact but to hit the ball to different fields.
“The idea behind it is to get extra reps, where your brain is making a very quick decision and sending the neuropulse,” explained former Red Sox catcher/first baseman Ryan Lavarnway last year. “Even though it’s a computer game and you’re using your fingertips, it’s using the same systems in a similar way. It’s a way to get your brain repetitions without exhausting your body.”
While NeuroScouting uses player responses to pitches to measure reaction time, strengths, and weaknesses, deCervo employs electrode caps to offer even more precise profiles of the brain’s reaction time.
“They’re doing black-and-white television with rabbit-ear antennas — we’re doing HD with satellite,” boasted Sherwin. “That’s the simplest way I can describe it.”
Sherwin’s company has been in contact with nine major league teams, and is meeting with three this year in spring training. The level of interest suggests a growing field in baseball at a time when the quest for innovative competitive advantages is intense.
“We haven’t really been able to dig into that [quantitative scouting of the mental] side of the game for however long Major League Baseball has been around,” said Sherwin. “Traditional scouts are more attuned to these things than Moneyball-generation analytics guys. But they haven’t had a very precise way to measure it. The analytics guys want to be able to measure this stuff.
“We’re the bridge between those two sides of the river. We’re connecting the mental side, which everyone knows is important but nobody knows how to quantify, with the analytics side.”
Still, neuroscouting for now remains limited to the testing of amateurs and those in the lower minors. Once players get to the big leagues, they often stop utilizing the exercises. Absent the normalized (and competitive) culture, there have been lapses of interest and attention in its application.
“I haven’t done it in so long,” Betts acknowledged late in 2014. “Here, David Ortiz isn’t doing neuroscouting.”
How valuable is it?
Of course, success in video simulations doesn’t necessarily mean successful in-game pitch recognition. There have been instances of players who tested well yet struggled to hit as pros. Hitting a space bar isn’t the same as having the strength and motor coordination to control a bat head to react with equal aplomb to a 95-m.p.h. fastball and a 75-m.p.h. curveball.
Nonetheless, the idea of figuring out how quickly a brain processes what it sees has obvious appeal.
“I don’t think we have statistically significant proof [of the value of neuroscouting],” said Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. “But I think we’re still testing, and we’re still working with the system. That’s the answer. [Otherwise] we wouldn’t be spending time on it, and obviously it isn’t free.”
Though the Sox use neuroscouting both as a scouting and a teaching tool (one that supplements, for instance, live batting practice looks at sliders or fastballs down and in if those represent areas of consistent struggles in the simulations), Cherington suggested that the value of the undertaking is clearer when trying to identify talent rather than improve it.
“This is just intuitive, but if you have two players and you time them in the 60-yard dash and one is faster than the other one, maybe they both improve a little bit with good training, good nutrition, and strength training in the minor leagues,” said Cherington. “Maybe they both get a little better. But the guy who starts faster in all likelihood is going to end up faster.
“It’s the same thing. Some people’s brains and the connections between the eye and brain develops in a way — or maybe it was just there in the beginning — in a way that it makes it easier for them to identify objects coming at them that are fast-moving than it is for some others.
“If you have that strength, then you might improve that. Hopefully we think we can improve it. But the player who starts with the advantage still probably has the advantage.”
Likewise, the team that figures out which players possess that advantage may realize a different sort of edge in the search for the next Mookie Betts.
“Now you’re signing not the million-dollar arm,” said Sherwin, “but the million-dollar brain.”