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Baseball Ethology: The Behavior of Relief Pitchers

Relief pitchers and "closers" have high stress jobs as seen on Fox Sports 1

A day with the Colorado Rockies: Closer Kingdom

In early July, Major League Baseball asked me to do an ethological study of the relief pitchers for the Colorado Rockies. When I received their invitation I said something like, "You want me to do what?" However, after talking with them I was convinced that there really was something of interest brewing. So, on July 3 (2014), I went to Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, to study the behavior of the Colorado Rockies' relief pitchers, especially LaTroy Hawkins, their renowned “closer.” However, I also learned that other relief pitchers were also highly specialized, being trained to come into a game during one of the final three innings and also specializing in pitching to left-handed or right-handed batters. 

My experience studying the relief pitchers, called "Closer Kingdom", will air on Fox Sports 1 (FOXS1) on August 9 at 11:30AM and 7PM and on Tuesday, August 12 at 10AM (please check your TV provider for the channel). And, sample video clips can be seen here and here

In addition to spending time with LaTroy, I was able to spend some time on the field watching the Rockies and the Los Angeles Dodgers (their opponent) warming up. I was overwhelmed by how large and how well manicured the playing field was. And, the living rooms of the players -- my new field site -- were very well furnished too. In the dugout and bullpen there were hundreds of pieces of bubble gum and packages of sunflower seeds in small buckets. I also was amazed by how much preparation there is hours before the game. 

After hanging out for about an hour, I met LaTroy and we talked about what he does and what I do and then we spent another hour chatting not only about baseball and the evolution of the “closer” position, but also about animal behavior. He clearly loves the dogs with whom he shares his Texas home and knows their behavior well. He told me he had been a vegan in 2012 to lower his cholesterol (it worked) and shared with me some of his favorite recipes. LaTroy also told me he still likes to hunt and I said, "No way, you gotta stop!" We both laughed and continued talking about animal behavior and baseball. LaTroy is incredibly easy to talk with and clearly wanted to know more about what I do when I study nonhuman animal behavior.

We also talked about animal behavior in general, why dogs hump (after I gave him my latest book called Why dogs hump and bees get depressed), and later he showed me his home in the bullpen and the phone system for calling up relief pitchers. I explained to him what I wanted to do in my new field site. What really amazed me was how fast the game is on the field and how at times it can be really slow to watch. I watched some of the pitchers warming up throwing about 50% speed (around 45-50 mph) and I could hardly see the ball, no less think about hitting it with a very thin bat. I couldn’t imagine how they could hit a tiny ball coming toward them twice as fast and going all over the place. The arc of a curve ball blew my mind. 

After talking with LaTroy, I had a brief chat with Brian Wilson, the famous relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. To say the least, he's an incredibly interesting guy. He knew that I studied coyotes and told me the only coyote he’d ever met was a tiny statue.

Baseball ethology: The behavior of relief pitchers and the "closer"

I approached this study of human animals as I would any other study of nonhuman animals, for example a pack of coyotes or wolves. I thought of the major questions that needed to be addressed and I developed an ethogram (a behavioral repertoire) of the actions I expected to see. A list is provided below and as with all studies of behavior, this is a work in progress. I’ve always chosen to split actions and then lump them if necessary. I invite readers to add to this list. 

The main question at hand dealt with changes in the behavior of the relief pitchers, including LaTroy, as the game progressed, and how they were associated with the score of the game. This included the details of the rituals of how they warmed up very slowly and methodically, how attentive they were to the game, and how they dealt with different levels of anxiety. The Rockies' relief pitchers were in the bullpen when the game started and chatted with one another and occasionally stretched or walked around. When LaTroy entered the bullpen in the fourth inning the atmosphere changed. Clearly, the other pitchers respected him, and his presence alone was enough to change their behavior and focus on the game.

When LaTroy talks, others listen

Being a relief pitcher is a high-pressure job and the atmosphere of the bullpen reflects what’s happening on the field. There’s no room for error when an individual is called to perform. On the bench there was a lot of fidgeting and stretching. LaTroy was “miked” so I could hear him talk about the game and talk with the other pitchers. As the game went on and the score was close (2-2) the chatter went from talking about general topics to a concentrated focus on the game. LaTroy is an incredible analyst and clearly knew which pitch the Dodgers' pitchers were going to throw to each of the Rockies' batters (for example, a fastball, slider, or curve ball). From time to time he’d talk with the other pitchers about this and asked if they also knew the series of pitches that was likely to be thrown or was just thrown. He did this in a very soft and educational way. When LaTroy talks, others listen. He leads by example. I thought of how high-ranking animals in packs of coyotes, wolves, and nonhuman primates, for example, may achieve their status without threatening or fighting, but rather, they are the main focus of attention of other pack members and lead in this way.

It was extremely interesting to see how methodical warming up was and how the pitcher’s behavior changed as they got loose and as the game progressed. Human shoulders, elbows, wrists, arms, legs, backs, and torsos didn’t evolve to throw a tiny baseball at the speeds these guys were pitching nor did they evolve to throw fastballs, curves, sliders, and other specialty pitches. The warm-up ritual consisted of various patterns of slowly stretching shoulders, arms, legs, wrists, forearms, and torso and back, each pitcher doing it differently. When they began throwing pitches the first few were thrown very slowly often with exaggerated movements of the arm, but the speed increased as the warm-up progressed. There also was a lot of fidgeting and pacing to get rid of anxiety and also some more random stretching. Ethologists call these displacement behaviors that are often used to relieve anxiety in nonhuman animals. By the time a pitcher went into the game he was sweating and clearly was ready to pitch for real. And, of course, there are also those frustrating times when a pitcher warms up and gets ready to pitch for real, but isn't called into the game. 

LaTroy went into the game in the eighth inning, not to close, but simply to pitch, as he hadn’t been in a game for a few days. This new role didn’t seem to faze him, but he did walk his first opponent and then let in a run, and we wondered if he would have been more comfortable being called in to close out the game even if it meant more pressure. He didn't think so. We also talked about the different roles that individuals in a pack of animals would assume during a hunt, for example. In this sense, the pitchers were viewed as hunters and batters as the hunted, and each pitcher had a specific role to play, depending on when they were called in to pitch. 

I learned a lot from this preliminary study and I have a new appreciation for the game and for the players as incredibly talented individuals. There surely are individual patterns of warming up and dealing with the stress and anxiety of the job, and some of the changes in behavior were predictable and expected given the score of the game and given what we know about the behavior of nonhuman animals in stressful situations. 

The buck stops here

I thought a good bumper sticker for the bullpen would be, “The buck stops here.” No matter what happened before, these pitchers assume responsibility for the outcome of a close game, bear this burden, and the fans make it very clear that they expect them to perform and win. There also are some very interesting analogies between the behavior of these talented athletes and the behavior of nonhuman animals living in different sorts of social groups, and I hope a lot more research will be done on this topic in the future. Perhaps some of what we learn will be useful to the players and the coaches. And, perhaps, what we learn in this venue will be of interest to athletes playing other sports and their coaches.

There's no shortage of idiosyncrasies among athletes in a wide variety of sports. While watching an international track and field meet, I was intrigued by the rituals in which long jumpers and high jumpers routinely engaged, and also those preceding free throws in basketball. As a tennis addict, I love watching players such as Rafael Nadal go through a very stereotyped and predictable series of tics and movements when he enters the court and between points (see for example, "The definitive guide to Rafael Nadal's 19 bizarre tennis rituals").

But, that's another story, and there are many more that are worthy of deeper study in the world of sports. After all, we're all animals of one sort or another and show similar patterns of behavior in similar social and other contexts. We also share the same brain structures that underlie our emotional lives so the similarities are not all that surprising. And,of course, being compared to nonhuman animals isn't in any way an insult. Our behavior patterns have evolved from our nonhuman ancestors and we should be proud of our membership in the animal kingdom

Watching the Rockies really got me thinking about many future research projects, and I hope this essay gets you thinking along similar lines. 

An ethogram of behavior patterns 

ast = arm stretching

asw = arm swinging

bf = ball flipping/juggling

bs = body scratching

bscr = butt scratching

bsl = butt slapping

cr = crossing self

cs = crotch scratching

dom = dominance/power behavior (displacement, avoidance, stare down)

ea - avert eye contact

ec = eye contact

es = ear scratching

et - ear tugging

fi = fidgeting

fr = frolicking

ga – gazing

hop = horse play

jo = joking

ju = jumping up and down

ne = neck cocking/cranking

np = nose picking

nb = nose blowing

pa = pacing

pants = adjusting pants

pl = playing/playfulness/lightness

scr = general scratching

sna = snacking - food sharing

sno = snorting

sp = spitting

st = stretching

sw = sweating 

ta = talking

tc = touching cap

tie = tying shows

tw = twitching

ty = tying shoes

General categories

bathroom break

grooming

displacement behaviors - avoidance

dominance - gaze, attention

nervousness - fidgeting breathing rate - chewing rate - ? changes as game goes on and score

quirks - individual idiosyncracies - personality differences

contemplative behaviors 

praying

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. (marcbekoff.com@MarcBekoff

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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