“Grit” in baseball has long been a gag for the saber crowd. Fire Joe Morgan was basically one long joke about how gritty David Eckstein was. And there’s good reason to distrust “grit.” Grit, hustle, guts — they’re unquantifiable (sabermetrician attempts to the contrary), often racially coded, and poorly defined skills. (Grit does predict great legal representation, though!)
Yet “grit” has evolved into a buzzword and teachable skill — one that social scientists suggest correlates with success in school, work, and life. Grit is defined by Prof. Angela Duckworth, who pioneered the field of “grit” research, as follows:
We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.
So why not in baseball? In a sport where we are constantly prophesizing how players develop, isn’t the predictive power of “grit” something we should be looking at? And can “grit” help us ID players who are more than meets the eye?
Let’s consider Paul Goldschmidt, one of the famous late-bloomers and draft whiffs by every team in baseball. Quoth one scout:
“We can say we missed this, missed that, and maybe we did,” says one. “But I think that’s a disservice to the player. Clearly he’s improved, gotten better, changed his game, done what is necessary to become what he is now, which is this crazy force. We play this game, ‘What did guys get wrong?’ Well, what did the player get right?“
Answers as to what made Goldschmidt different tend towards the nebulous (E.g., “He was just different. He did everything right. He always had the interests of others. It was never about him. He never sought out the spotlight.”).
I propose that “grit” may be part of the answer and may be a quantifiable skill that predicts longer-term baseball success. In a draft where physical skills are difficult to project, finding traits that are non-trivial in predicting success is essential.
We’ll look at how features of grittiness apply to Goldy. Then, I’ll discuss ways of assessing baseball prospects on grit. Finally, I’ll discuss some downsides to grittiness and the need for caution when attempting to measure it.
Let’s start with Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt, like many ballplayers, gives platitudes for most answers (“I’m just working hard doing the best I can every day,” etc.), but let’s try to think about what he might do differently (and have done differently in high school).
Here’s his college coach at Texas Tech, Ty Harrington:
“At 18 to 21, which is how old he was when I had him, he was the most organized, persistent, inspired worker I’ve coached in my career,” Harrington said.
[. . .]
“But the thing that separates him, that made him different than everybody else, is what an inspired worker he is. That guy wakes up in the morning and he can tell you what he is going to do that day to get better. The rest of us talk about it, or think about it. He would do it.”
Which, sure, is what you’d expect the guy to say. But the key to the practice issue isn’t just showing up to keep working; it’s deliberate practice — focused on a particular task and usually a task that you’re not already good at:
Deliberate practice entails engaging in a focused, typically planned training activity designed to improve some aspect of performance. During deliberate practice, individuals receive immediate informative feedback on their performance and can then repeat the same or similar tasks with full attention toward changing inferior or incorrect responses, thus improving the identified area of weakness.
In baseball terms, this is not your typical lackadaisical pre-game batting practice. Rather, this kind of deliberate practice focuses on improving specific weaknesses or tweaking small parts of the game to improve — the type of solitary practice that is effortful (or in normal human language, really hard) and often unpleasant. This is watching film of opposing pitchers, fielding hundreds of grounders to the same spot, etc.
Consider Goldy’s baserunning. Big first basemen are not great baserunners, but Goldschmidt finished first among 1Bs in FanGraphs’ BsR. And he didn’t always run well, but instead carefully studied opposing pitchers’ tells and worked day after day on his first step. You know what sounds super super boring? Practicing your first step off first base for hours. And yet this is what Goldschmidt did in order to tweak his game and improve.
You could look at this and say, you’re just calling “makeup” or “perseverance” something different with this “grit” nonsense. And you might be right! But this skill appears to be one that is undervalued, as the top of the draft still belongs to projectable physical talents, not mental ones. Like those spelling bee champs diligently cramming words with German roots or alternative spellings, Goldschmidt took a part of the game he didn’t know (bsaerunning) and doubled down.
And this skill is one that baseball teams are looking for. Call it makeup or call it work ethic, but this ability to take difficult or monotonous tasks targeting a notable weakness and complete them with regularity is on teams’ radar when scouting potential prospects.
The Cubs, for example, have been noted for their pursuit of “good makeup” guys and “good character,” but I think there’s some “grit” hiding in there. Joe Maddon’s take on the Cubs’ young players and their mental makeup suggests a renewed focus on this trait in player evaluation and development: “The common trait of all four (rookies) [Bryant, Russell, Schwarber, Soler] is a really solid makeup, self-confidence and the ability to deal with failure well.”
And as much as these skills seem ineffable, there are ways of measuring “grit.” Professor Duckworth’s “Short Grit Scale” allows you to assess your own grit. Of course, the test-taker does have to be honest when asking him or herself “Do I give up on tasks easily?”, so you could substitute this for a kind of mindless task, like unscrambling anagrams or clicking a mouse cursor on items to win points. (Duckworth also provides the sure-to-be-fun “Academic Diligence Task.”)
As young players become a big part of the baseball landscape and teams invest huge sums in international free agents and long-term extensions for young players, this issue of how much “grit” might play a role will only grow more important. Projecting next year is hard enough; projecting five years is really a challenge.
But this is where we get to the third act of this piece, which is the caveats. And there are many, many caveats about using “grit” and other “soft” measures of player character and skills as evaluation tools.
For one, evaluating players on “grit” may just be another way of reinforcing biases scouts and evaluators already have about a player. It would not surprise me to learn that many of the players deemed “low grit” by talent evaluators were non-white or non-American-born players. “Grit” and other “character-based” traits have been criticized as being predominantly applied by white observers to white players. That is, rather than diversifying your player pool to counter your biases about what makes a “good” prospect, you might actually be reinforcing those biases!
For another, actually having “grit” has serious downsides! Brandon Wood’s struggles in the majors despite his top prospect status seemed to draw from the very “grit” that made him a top prospect in the first place:
“I kept on thinking it was mechanical — ‘I’ve got to fix these mechanics.’ Mechanics, mechanics, mechanics. ‘I’ve just got to work harder, take more ground balls, take more swings in the cage.’ And it wasn’t the case. I needed to take a step back and really evaluate where my mind was going. I should have focused a lot more time on that.”
Some research suggests that grit makes it harder to give up when facing impossible tasks (PDF). Tweaking and constantly practicing can end up exacerbating rather than relieving a problem. And as a result, some players who might not score particularly well in grit but overperform their apparent talent (say, Mark Buehrle, who was notable for not having a rigorous practice routine) would be missed by the grit evaluation as well.
Finally, it’s not clear whether “grit” does a better job than other measures at predicting long-term success. In the largest sample study testing the effectiveness of “grit,” grit was no better at predicting long-term success than “conscientiousness,” a long-used personality trait that is commonly used in personality tests.
But whether we call it makeup, or conscientiousness, or grit, or the Lathingham-Norbley Having-Overcome-Obstacles Index, this trait is something that baseball organizations will be considering (if they are not already) in their player evaluation and development.