Now that A-Rod has delivered the annual Yankees Substance Abuse Lecture to kick off spring training, I think we’re all ready for some actual baseball.
Micah Kelber is a writer and freelance rabbi who lives in Brooklyn, currently writing a screenplay about divorce in New York in the 1940’s. He has written a terrifically entertaining guest post on the oft-neglected subject of batters hit by pitches.
Don’t Call It Failure, Call It Empathy: The Case of Ryan Howard
By Micah Kelber
A Guest Post
In sports, it’s taken for granted that feeling compassion for the other team gets in the way of winning, but what about feeling for your own teammates?
On July 26, 2007, Washington Nationals pitcher John Lannan hit Phillies batter Chase Utley with the ball. The next batter, Ryan Howard, was hit with the very next pitch — a first, and so far only, occurrence for Utley and Howard. Utley’s hand was broken and he went on to miss the next 28 games; Howard went 0 for 2 the rest of the day.
Over the last two years, in 2007 and 2008, Utley has led the majors in being hit by a pitch (HBP) 52 times. Ryan Howard was the next batter up after Utley in 44 of those games, in which he came to bat 95 times in those games after Utley was hit.
Before July 26, it appears that seeing Utley get hit had little effect on Howard’s psyche: in his 42 at-bats after Utley was hit before July 26, Howard’s stats were excellent. He had a batting average of .471 and an on-base percentage (OBP) of .571, substantially better than he usually does with men on base.
But after July 26, his after-seeing-Utley-hit stats plummeted: in 53 at-bats, he hit .184 and had an OBP of .327.
It is possible that after July 26, Howard updated his assumptions about pitchers who had just hit Utley and this changed his success at the plate. And it is possible (but I wouldn’t want to tell him) that he became afraid of the ball and that accounts for his worse at-bats.
But it is also possible that his feelings of empathy got in the way.
Since the discovery of mirror neurons, a neural system in macaque monkeys that fire both when monkeys perform certain actions and when they observe those actions, scientists have used MRI’s to suggest that humans also have mirror neurons. When we watch other people act and feel pleasure, disgust, and pain, our brains react in similar places to when we experience these things ourselves (in the anterior cingulate cortex, for example).
In Howard’s case, perhaps the empathetic neurons that fire when he sees Utley hit intensified after July 26, impeding his performance due to preoccupation, over-identification, or perhaps an even more direct (and as yet undiscovered) connection between “empathetic” mirror neurons and the parts of the brain that control motor skills.
Empathy might be motivational in some sports like basketball, where success is dependent on teamwork. But in baseball, it can be counterproductive. It is true that “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,'” but there is also no “we” in “on-base-percentage.”
In the end, it was the Phillies’ skill that made them World Series Champions. The empathy of teammates ends up being inconsequential once the champagne is poured — but it may matter again next spring.