Is a player’s mind one of the next areas where teams can seek an edge?
It’s fun to be able to spend the summer watching prospects play and to try to see for yourself what others see and occasionally maybe see something just slightly different. It’s especially enjoyable when you get to see a series where multiple top prospects play. That is often a good way to try to see the subtle differences in how different players approach the game and how they process the different shades of success and frustration.
It is at these times where those subtle differences often can be attributed to the attitude that an individual player might bring to the field on that particular day. It might also be a day-in/day-out approach that one player brings that might seem superior to that of another.
These differences were in stark contrast in a recent Florida State League series between the Charlotte Stone Crabs and the Palm Beach Cardinals where Wander Franco and Nolan Gorman played against each other. Both players had been recently promoted to High-A and both are among the youngest players in the league.
The thing that stood out immediately was the sheer joy that Franco brings to the game. Watching him, it’s easy to see that baseball is ultimately a kid’s game and Franco brings a child’s joyous intensity to the field. He either hasn’t heard yet or doesn’t care that this is a business or that he has to cultivate his ‘brand’.
He doesn’t engage in ‘look at me’ moments, yet everything he does and the skill with which he does it naturally draws your eyes to him. He is completely engaged in the game and always talking. As an 18-year-old, he is a leader on his team without seeming to seek out a leadership role. He is a fixture on the top step when his teammates are hitting and constantly chattering on defense. His instincts are advanced far beyond his years and he is able to adjust as a hitter to what pitchers are trying to do to him, taking exactly what he is given. One at bat will see him taking a pitch away into the 5.5 hole for a base hit and the next may find him turning on a pitch in and hitting it out to deep right center. Defensively, he has a knack for doing what he needs to do to always give himself an easy hop. When that means backing up on the ball a bit, he has plenty of arm to still make plays easily.
In the other dugout, Nolan Gorman did not seem to be able to generate that same joy. While he flashed the skills that make him a top 25 prospect, he showed a lot more frustration in my short view of him. He struggled to find a rhythm on offense or defense throughout the series. He reached base just once, on a walk, and when he hit the ball hard it died on the warning track a couple of times. On defense, he was charged with one official error and he could have been charged with at least one more. There were a couple of other plays that likely should have been made that were not.
In spite of his struggles, he did show that he has some good skills. He made a nice play defensively charging a ball and he has a strong arm. Those balls that died on the warning track were actually examples of his plus power as the park in Jupiter is the FSL’s most difficult home run park. The air is extremely heavy, and the breezes tend to blow in from right field.
Watching the body language shown by those two players brought up questions about the interrelationship of confidence and success. Franco looked like he thought he was going to be successful at every turn and when he did face a little adversity, you could almost see him taking from it whatever he could learn and turning the page, expecting that his next attempt would once again be successful. Gorman had the slumped shoulders of a player who seemed to be wondering if he would ever again have any success at all.
These looks never occur in a vacuum and both players have some history. Franco has yet to really taste any true adversity. He has been successful everywhere he has played since turning pro.
Gorman was drafted out of high school last year and crushed rookie league pitching but had a little speed bump in A-ball. That was to be expected of a kid two months out of high school in a try at full season pro baseball.
This season, Gorman started back in A-ball with mixed offensive results. He did well enough, though, that the Cardinals decided to try him in the FSL, and he was still finding his way in the look I had.
As I was considering these questions, it reminded me of having watched Taylor Trammell during the 2018 season in the FSL. At one point or another, he showed both the joy and confidence of Franco and the frustration of Gorman. He began the season exuding confidence and looking as if he had an unquestioning belief in his ability. As the season wore on and Trammell faced a bit more adversity than anticipated, he went through the last month or so of the season in a bit of a funk, no longer quite as engaged in the game or as visibly confident.
We know that confidence is not something that can be held consistently. It seems, though, that it is essential to a player in order to be able to raise his level of play to its highest point. That is so obvious in watching Franco, who still plays with the unfettered confidence of a player yet to find the limits of his ability. The ebb and flow of confidence is likely one of the biggest reasons for the differences evaluators see when looking at players at different times. Sometimes there is an erosion of a skill or skills or there is a nagging injury, but often it’s just the difference in how a player feels about himself that day.
Teams are always looking for an edge these days, trying to find ways to maximize the performance of their players in whatever way possible. Finding ways to manage the mental approach of players is something that some teams are already invested in but discovering how confidence might be manipulated and/or determining how an individual player can maintain a more even-keeled approach may be one of the next areas where teams can find some extra wins over the course of a season.