This seemingly simple question has quite a sophisticated answer. In fact, in some aspects, what makes a good baseball player might be much more difficult than becoming a good American football or soccer player.
If you are considering investing time and effort in baseball, then my guide will hopefully help you set expectations and prepare for your journey.
What Is The Most Important Skill In Baseball?
Baseball is a fairly physical sport, but it’s a much more mental game than you might be thinking. In fact, Yogi Berra once said that baseball is as high as 90% mental!
This might be a huge surprise for some of you. How is baseball a more mental sport than physical?
Psychologist Mike Stadler of the University of Missouri explores the mental aspect of baseball in his “The Psychology of Baseball”. Live Science provides a wonderful overview of this work, so I suggest that you go check it out.
Below, I’ll cover the most important points from the Live Science post. More precisely, I’ll be talking about the key mental features necessary for this sport.
Stadler writes that baseball is different from other sports because it gives players more time to think. Because of this, great baseball players need not only physical skills but also cognitive abilities and mental conditioning.
Aside from that, there’s also actually an ideal psychological profile for a baseball player. The key traits sought in players include:
- Self-confidence. A baseball player cannot afford to overthink his actions.
- Mental toughness. A baseball player needs not to get stressed over missed shots and lost games.
- Emotional control and stress management.
- Slight tendency toward aggression – in other words, willingness to take the initiative and act.
Usually, these qualities are assessed in athletes via the Athletic Motivation Inventory (AMI) personality test developed in the late 60s. This test is very commonly used to assess athletes and includes just shy of 200 questions.
Among other traits, AMI measures an athlete’s aggression, determination, leadership, self-confidence, mental toughness, and coachability.
Stadler brings the examples of Darryl Strawberry and Billy Beane to demonstrate psychology-based selection in baseball. Both were drafted into the New York Mets in 1983-84, but ultimately, Strawberry saw bigger success in Major League Baseball than Beane.
Although the two players were very close physically, Strawberry exhibited more self-confidence and mental toughness. In the end, Strawberry would play in Major League Baseball up until the late 90s, earning himself the fame of one of the most feared sluggers on the field.
Beane played in MLB until the late 80s and didn’t see as much success there. However, he did eventually serve as the general manager of Oakland Athletics from 1998 to 2016.
Cognitive and predictive abilities
Stadler also writes that baseball players – especially hitters – have to employ prediction on the field. Although successfully hitting the ball hugely depends on reaction time and hand-eye coordination, cognitive abilities play an important role as well.
Experienced players are capable of predicting where the ball will go based on past experiences with the pitcher, as well as based on the positioning of the opponent. This makes them hit the ball more efficiently and more consistently.
Any information players gather on the field can be crucial because they have very little time to react to the pitch in the first place.
The ability to focus on the field is also critical for a baseball player. Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens once remarked that when he was focused, he only saw the catcher. But upon losing focus, he would be get overwhelmed by the crowd.
What Physical Skills Do You Need To Be A Great Baseball Player?
Needless to say, baseball is also a physically demanding sport. You can endlessly argue how much or how little physical capabilities matter in baseball, but it’s undeniable that you can’t be successful in this sport without conditioning.
Hand-eye coordination is crucial because you need to be able to precisely calculate at what angle and how hard to hit the ball. Likewise, you need to possess excellent coordination to successfully catch a ball flying toward you.
Reaction time is key in baseball as well, especially for batters. A 1997 study published in the Journal of the American Optometric Association found an association between vision reaction time (VRT) and batting average in baseball players.
In contrast, no association was found between the VRT and earned run average for pitchers, as well as between the VRT and fielding average for fielders.
With that in mind, for batters, the chance to hit the ball increases with faster reaction times.
Hitting a baseball at 100 mph is considered an especially difficult task. Balls traveling at 100 miles per hour only take 400 ms to fly from the pitcher to the hitter. The typical reaction time of a baseball player is 200 ms, and it takes another 100 ms to swing the bat. So baseball players are left with only 100 ms to spare, give or take.
Fortunately, reaction times in baseball seem not to be innate and may be improved with practice.
One study set out to determine how simple reaction times and Go/Nogo reaction times differed between players of different skill levels, as well as between different sports disciplines.
For reference, the simple reaction time measures how much time it takes for an individual to react to a single stimulus. Go/Nogo refers to the decision of whether a baseball hitter should swing or not.
The study found that experienced baseball players took much less time to make a Go/Nogo decision than less experienced players, as well as athletes from other sports disciplines. As for simple reaction times, they were the same for all study participants regardless of their skill level and sport.
It was also determined that Go/Nogo reaction times can be improved with intensive practice, while simple reaction time appears not to be affected by training.
Essentially, this means that you can indeed improve reaction time with practice.
Aside from reaction time and coordination, baseball players should also work hard to improve their position-specific skills. Among important skills in baseball are:
- Base running.
It makes sense that a pitcher needs to work on how to throw the ball. Each of these requires general conditioning along with specific drills and training routines. Although mental toughness, reaction time, and coordination are exceptionally important in baseball, they are only part of the picture.
As a recap, here’s what you need to become a good baseball player:
- Mental toughness.
- Stress resistance.
- Quick reaction.
- Conditioning for your position.
Of these, the first four are perhaps the most difficult to improve. In fact, if your mental profile doesn’t correspond to what’s considered “perfect” for baseball, you might not even be selected by a baseball team.
If you do make your way into a Major League team, then maintain your mental characteristics while also focusing on improving your physical skills.