Beyond Moneyball: Player development Part 2

(Part 1 of this series)

Most major league baseball organizations will never find the Holy Grail. Why? Because the very thing that powers their baseball engine, the ability of the organization’s players to excel, to beat the competition, is considered by most organizations and players an “act of God”—unmeasurable, unquantifiable and spiritual in nature. The same attributes as found in the works of Picasso, Shakespeare and the Beatles.

“At first, nobody thought I would become anything like the baseball success I became,” Zambrano said. “I was too clumsy and skinny. So I started out as a benchwarmer who played only during garbage time. But thanks to my faith in God, my hard work and God-given talent, I became what some people call a big star.”

“What Scouts Look For In Pitchers. When scouting a pitcher the first quality a scout will look for is a strong arm. This is a God-given talent that can only be improved to a certain degree.”

John Kruk, the fine National League hitter during the 1990s, once said, “I’m not an athlete, I’m a ballplayer.” Kruk wasn’t putting himself down or being modest, and he had it right. An athlete is something you are, based on God-given talent enhanced by hard work and training. A ballplayer is something you can become whether you’re a gifted athlete or not, and you can really only become one if you love the game.

“My fielding ability was adequate at best in the big leagues,” admits Bailey, who was a 6-foot-1, 188-pound slugger during his prime. “I think that I had God-given talent and a desire to play baseball. That’s what enabled me to play in the majors.”

“We want to save the kid for the New York Mets and for his own future,” Green said. “I told him he’s got God-given talent, and there are thousands that haven’t been successful with God-given talent. He has to work between the lines. It’s obvious one of the reasons we’re sending him down is to get it through to him it’s not all about bad luck.”

“As far as baseball is concerned, it is a God-given talent because why can’t everybody do it?”

“However, we’ve all been around players who’ve been gifted and not used that talent, and that’s where Josh is. He’s got to get back on the field and he’s got to use that talent. Do we hold hope out? Absolutely. You would, too, with someone with that talent.

Simply put, extraordinary performance by baseball players at the major league level, is viewed by both player and organization as God-given talent, artistic in nature, supplemented by working your ass off. Therefore, most organizations operate on the principle that player selection is simply a matter of identifying talent (more recently, with some statistical analysis thrown in). Player development is best left to the “artists” (coaches).

Millions of words are spoken and written every year in an attempt either to explain or take credit for player selection and development success or failure. Yet year in and year out only one factor appears to have any significant long-term effect on this success: money. The more money the organization has, the less efficient it has to be to field a competitive baseball team.

Moneyball did breathe some new life into the MLB player selection process, “sabermetrics.” Sabermetrics created a flurry of activity, primarily in the hires of new young GMs with Ivy League degrees who then hired statisticians in a frenzied attempt to beat the system. Many of these hires became fires two or three years later. Sabermetrics has its limitations in terms of both actual and perceived results.

Any club that actually wants to use baseball analysis now to develop and maintain an advantage relative to their competitors has a tough task in front of them. They need to expand the scope of the data used for the analysis. They need to identify real changes that can be made in their operations if real phenomena are unearthed. They need to have people of sufficient skill to find these new discoveries. They need to develop a culture receptive to adopting the changes implied by this newfound wisdom. And finally, they need to find a way to keep other organizations from discovering the formula to their secret sauce. That’s a reasonable description of what clubs need from their search on the datafields of the game, and it’s precisely what baseball analysis cannot provide. Because baseball analysis is dead.
—Sept. 4, 2007 “6-4-3, For What You Are About to Receive,” by Gary Huckabay, Baseball Prospectus http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=6666

The good news is that every problem represents an opportunity. In the case of finding and developing MLB players, assuming an average current yield of two players out of 50 drafted, increasing this by one player each year increases one’s player development efficiency by 50 percent; two players a year equals 100 percent and so on.

With success rates of two in 50, is it possible that major league baseball organizations simply do not know how to effectively select and develop players? Or, an even more scandalous thought: Is it possible that major league baseball organizations really don’t know how to evaluate what they call “talent”? And that generating significant increases in yield on player scouting and development is simply a matter of understanding what “talent” really is and then how to develop that talent into a hitter or a pitcher?

In a perfect scouting-player development world, all prospects would possess five extraordinary tools. They consistently hit and get on base. They consistently hit for power. They throw 100 mph with phenomenal accuracy. They are vacuum cleaners in the field and gazelles on the base paths. But in the imperfect and real world of professional baseball, three tools dominate: hitting, hitting for power and throwing (pitching).

Eddie Bane: Every one of us knows that the bat is the most important tool in the world. We’re to the point now where we don’t add up the tool scores and divide by five. We add the bat about four times and then divide the other tools in. You have to hit as a shortstop now. You can’t get by just being a slick-glove guy.

“Beyond Moneyball’s” message is a simple one: major league organizations (all baseball organizations?) do not understand well enough the most fundamental player attributes that determine hitting and pitching success or failure: how the very best players swing the bat and throw the baseball. That is the root of organizational failure—the inability to consistently field a competitive and successful team in spite of large payrolls. Understanding how players most effectively swing and throw not only requires intimate, specific knowledge of the processes but also the ability to apply this knowledge in a way that creates the most effective environment for player development.

How does one justify that contention?

Two years ago, Jim Callis of Baseball America wrote, about a study of the first 10 rounds of the draft from 1991 to 1997:

“we find that 90 college players (8.8 percent) and 77 high school players (8.4 percent) became at least major league regulars for a few seasons… Though colleges produced slightly more regulars, high schools won the race for above-average players. They came out ahead in terms of good regulars (3.2 percent vs. 1.5 percent) and stars (1.1 percent vs. 0.9 percent).”

Why do fewer than 5 percent of all players drafted in the first 10 rounds achieve above-average MLB performance? Why are some organizations more successful than others in developing major league players? Why do some players drafted in the later rounds become successful major league players? Do player selection and development decision-makers understand the similarities and differences between such functions as scouting, coaching and instructing? And, the $64 question: Does your organization really have the expertise to engage in player development?

And…

Do player development decision-makers have the necessary background and knowledge to recognize that words such as talent, style, good mechanics, hand speed, arm strength, etc. are subjective descriptors with very little qualitative or quantifiable meaning? Do player development decision-makers understand the difference between physical training activities that increase player performance amd those that are intended to maintain existing performance levels and prevent injuries? Do player development decision-makers understand that today’s informational technology is capable of virtually real time player evaluation?

And the most fundamental question of all: Do player development decision-makers understand why far too many players who are capable of making it to the majors do not?

A few words regarding value.

In neoclassical economics, the value of an object or service is often seen as nothing but the price it would bring in an open and competitive market. This is determined primarily by the demand for the object relative to supply. Other economists simply equate the value of a commodity with its price, whether the market is competitive or not.

Intrinsic value refers to the contained value within—the worth of an entity independent from external circumstances or its value to humans.

Extrinsic value is value which arises because of an agreement: Although the intrinsic value of a $100 bill is not much more than the value of any similar piece of paper with a pretty picture on it, it has a practical value (an extrinsic value) of $100. If its issuing authority were to fail to honor the bill’s value, it would soon become nearly worthless.

Perceived value (PV) is the difference between the evaluation of all the benefits and all the costs of an offering relative to perceived alternatives.

Replacement cost or replacement value refers to the amount that an entity would have to pay, at the present time, to replace any one of its assets.

In the most general sense, value is determined by supply and demand. If every player who ever played were judged to be of equal capability, we would have a limitless supply of players but a small demand (roster spots) as compared to supply. Players would then be literally a dime a dozen (this assumes that every player wants to play). The problem facing all organizations is assigning value to potential as well as existing players.

Attempting to use formal definitions of value and applying them to player valuation is simplistic at best. but it does help create a frame of reference.

Past and present performance is a significant component of the intrinsic value of a player. Other important factors would be age, physical attributes and emotional makeup. Using these parameters, overachieving veteran players in the prime of their career have greater intrinsic value than young players starting out. Sabermetrics is one way of attempting to establish a player’s intrinsic value.

Replacement value or replacement cost would take into account the intrinsic value of a player relative to the needs of the organization. Replacement value is where sabermetric-type activities have their greatest potential value.

Extrinsic player value is determined by the MLB player agreement and Major League Baseball governing body. Examples are minimum wage, collective bargaining, slotting, the player draft, etc.

Perceived value results from belief on the part of major league organizations in the ability of a player to contribute to the organization’s success. Player abilities to contribute are based on physical attributes, age of the player, mental makeup, past, present and most important of all, future projections of performance. The more history an organization has on a player, the greater the confidence factor in decision making.

Perceived value is what drives the draft selection process, and, to a large degree, player development. The draft is a decision-making process (as opposed to a problem-solving process) and all decisions are bets on the future.

The easiest decisions are ones that have zero risk associated with them. A scouting goal is finding players with “talent” that other teams are either unaware of or place lesser value on, while posing minimal perceived risk to the organization.

The actual bottom line for drafting and developing players is “perception of talent,” which is highly subjective. Therefore, any activity that qualifies and/or quantifies “talent” can increase the probability of making a good decision. This is where sabermetrics has made its greatest inroads, helping reduce subjectivity and, in the mind of those who use sabermetrics, adding information to the decision-making process.

Perceived value is also at work in a more insidious way: the perceived value of the “perceiver” (the scouting and instructional efforts). How does an organization place a value on those who are making the decisions on selecting and developing players?

Here’s a hypothetical example of value judgment:

An MLB organization’s policy dictates that it will not sign any free agent at all, or any free agent costing more than minimum player wage. Thus, the only way this organization can succeed is to either trade for players of equal “cost” or develop players from within. The organizational requirement is to develop a minimum of six front line MLB players every year. This requires a level of performance of its scouting and player development functions far above the competition. The organization assigns a value (cost) to the scouting and player development functions as follows:

1. This organization determines what successful MLB teams are spending on scouting and minor league player development.

2. All other costs (overhead) are determined (minor-league operations, front office, stadium, etc.).

3. All of these costs are then subtracted from total anticipated revenue. For this organization, we’ll say it equals $60 million (about what the Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks spent in 2007 for player salaries).

4. By definition, the fixed cost of player salaries is equal to the number of players on the major league roster times minimum wage (assume for this example 25 x $500,000 = $12.5 million), which is subtracted from the $60 million of available player salary dollars. That equals $47.5 million.

That $47.5 million additional dollars (above and beyond what the best teams spend on scouting and minor-league operations) is the amount of money this organization can spend on scouting and player development. Stated differently, this organization can invest approximately $2 million per player on its major league roster every year on scouting and player development.

Another way to look at this is to take the $47.5 million and divide by the number of minor league teams in the organization (typically six), which would mean about $8 million additional per team spent on player developments.

Compare this to the actual development dollars being spent per minor league team—development as defined by coaching, instruction, special equipment and services that are specifically used for this purpose.

This exercise assumes a relatively linear relationship between player development and scouting dollars, one that says the more you spend on player development and scouting, the greater your chances of developing a major league player. And therein lies the problem for major league organizations. Exactly what is the relationship between developmental dollars spent and return on those dollars? What would be the return if an organization spent an additional $8 million per minor league team on scouting and player development?

Or stated differently, what is the value and cost for a major league baseball organization of increasing its player development success by 300 percent?

Major league organizations often put the least amount of player develpment dollars where they should be putting the most: the lowest levels of the organization.

Development efforts at these levels consist of the teams’ hitting and pitching coaches, with occasional visits by the minor league pitching and hitting coordinators. The coaches at the lowest levels are the lowest paid and least experienced in instruction. The newest organizational hires are assigned to these levels. Why? Major league baseball, like many organizations, equates experience to value and position.

A significant drag on player development is the belief that years of playing and the level of play equate to coaching credentials. In reality. the best major league players usually do not make good or even mediocre coaches and instructors. Nor do years of experience necessarily equate to coaching and instruction expertise.

Ahead of his time is absolute understatement. He is the only hitting instructor that I honestly felt was too smart and too knowledgable for the professional scene. I know that sounds stupid, but the politics in our game, more often times than not, overshadow what an individual can offer to players.

Brad was not, and did not, put up with the BS of the professional game. He knew he could make hundreds of thousands of dollars giving lessons in his own backyard and the moment politics interfered with his career as a coach in pro ball, he was gone.
—Major-league baseball player commenting on a hitting instructor

The amount of dollars MLB teams make available for outside consulting services is another indication of how little they value and know about developing high-level hitters and pitchers. Recently, a major league team asked if I would consider evaluating one of its pitchers. I was told that the team could not pay more than $150 or so for this service, since it had a very limited budget for this type of expenditure. This team stands to lose thousands if not millions of dollars on unproductive players yet can not spend more than $150 to add 10 mph to its pitcher’s fastball.

After I submitted my observations, this player was sent down to Triple-A to work on his mechanics. The report on MLB.com was that he was being sent down to work on location and control; in reality he was to work on his velocity. I also know this player’s college pitching coach, who in the last three years has had six pitchers drafted in the first round. I called him to ask what he thought about this player’s loss of velocity. We discussed his mechanics, and my initial observations were consistent with the coach’s experience with this player. The coach also said this player, since being sent down, calls him every other day seeking advice because his major league pitching coach is unable to identify what this player should work on.

Another problem also exists on the supply side, as many “consultants” view it as a privilege to be associated with a major league baseball team. That depresses the perceived value of these services. Because MLB organizations do not understand how to develop swing and throw capabilities, they do not know how to place appropriate value on those activities most responsible for a player achieving those skills.

Their actions also speak to their belief that no one outside their organization knows more about player development.

“There is, for all practical purposes, no effective coaching in the minor leagues. None, nada. Yes, there is an exception here and there but generally it is hit-and mostly miss, well intentioned but off the mark, spotty, weak, and half-assed attempts at giving a player something correct that will make him better.”
—From Rob Elliis’ 13 Reasons Why Professional Baseball Cannot Offer Competent Hitting Instruction)

Expertise, be it organizational or individual, is necessary to excel in a competitive marketplace. For MLB organizations, player expertise determines their competitive and financial success. Organizational expertise is what determines which players take the field and how they perform.

An expert is a person who has learned to solve problems or answer questions relating to a particular “problem solving domain” or area of expertise. Much problem solving involves domain-specific knowledge. Domain-specific knowledge is what makes an expert an expert. http://www.psywww.com/intropsych/ch07_cognition/expertise_and_domain_specific_knowledge.html

“Domain expertise” is vital to any organization that is dependent on people for its existence. Stated differently, the more expert one is at performing a job or task, the greater the potential for success of the organization. This applies to all aspects of the organization, be it the player on the field or the person selling tickets. Expertise refers to the characteristics, skills, and knowledge that distinguish experts from novices and less experienced people.

“Someone widely recognized as a reliable source of knowledge, technique, or skill whose judgment is accorded authority and status by the public or his or her peers.”
—The definition of expert, Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1968, page 168

“Experts have prolonged or intense experience through practice and education in a particular field”
—Wikipedia, 2005..

By those definitions, major league baseball players are the experts within their domain. They are consistently able to exhibit superior performance for tasks within their domain; hitting a baseball, throwing a baseball, fielding a baseball, running the bases, and more generally outperforming all others within their domain.

Janelle (1999) summarized the characteristics that distinguish the expert as follows:

1. Experts have greater task-specific knowledge.

2. Experts interpret greater meaning from available information.

3. Experts store and access information more effectively.

4. Experts can better detect and recognize structured patterns of play.

5. Experts use situational probability data better.

6. Experts make decisions that are more rapid and more appropriate.

In domains where experts and nonexperts are compared, domain-specific differences are accounted for by intense training rather than innate abilities. The logic behind this position is that while certain gross, general traits have been linked to genetic endowment (e.g., intelligence; Bouchard, 1997), the refinement of these traits into domain-specific abilities occurs only after years of intense training. Furthermore, there is no empirical support for the idea that there is a gene that predisposes an athlete to superior information-processing that is manifested only in a single domain; e.g., a gene for swinging a bat or throwing a baseball.

There are many ways in which the domain of playing baseball can be defined. MLB as a whole can be considered a domain. Within that domain there are sub-domains of expertise (owner, general manager, player development, etc.) The team as a whole can be considered a sub-domain.

image

From the perspective of player selection and development, the player domain must contain the attributes necessary to succeed at the major-league level: physical size and athleticism, technical expertise in swinging and throwing, and mental/emotional makeup—how he conducts himself. The confluence of these three properties creates the baseball player domain. This confluence can be represented by the diagram showing the intersection of physical abilities, mental makeup and movement patterns (swing and throw technique).

Within the player’s domain of excellence, two measurements of player value dominate: perception and statistics.

Perception is largely the domain of the front office, scout and coach and is based upon the accumulated life experience of the perceiver and therefore has an element of subjectivity.

Statistics are a more absolute measure of the player’s intrinsic value. But statistics also have an element of subjectivity. What statistics does one use to determine value—batting average? won-loss record? ERA? WHIP? OBP?

As the distance from the playing field to the front office increases, the determination of organization and individual expertise becomes less measurable. The measures used to determine expertise become less well-defined. How does one measure scouting expertise? Is it by the number of players scouted? Is it by the number of players signed? Is it by the number of players who make it to the majors?

The same questions can be asked about the expertise of each member of the organization. In baseball, expertise is most often measured by the overall success of the organization. This is particularly true for those who are most visible such as team managers and general managers.

Judging expertise is often dependent upon the eye of the beholder. The average fan most often does not have the same perception of a GM’s expertise as would a fellow general manager. This is referred to as “domain specific” judgment of expertise.

Another example of this domain specific judgment is the difference between the All-Star team fans would put on the field versus the All-Star team players would pick. In other words, it can be difficult for nonexperts to identify experts. However, and it is a big however, people recognized by their peers as the experts do not always display superior performance on domain-related tasks. Sometimes they are no better than novices, even on tasks that are central to their alleged expertise.

There are several domains where experts disagree and make inconsistent recommendations for action, such as recommending selling versus buying the same stock. For example, expert auditors’ assessments have been found to differ far more from each other than the assessments of less experienced auditors (Beddard, 1991). Shanteau (1988) has suggested that “experts may not need a proven record of performance and can adopt a particular image and project “outward signs of extreme self-confidence” (page 211) to get clients to listen to them and continue to offer advice after negative outcomes. After all, the experts are nearly always the best qualified to evaluate their own performance and explain the reason for any deviant outcomes.

Expertise and how one perceives and values it is fundamental to the player selection and development process. “Beyond Moneyball” explores the concept of player expertise and how it is perceived by professional baseball organizations in their attempts to select and develop players. Organizational expertise in decision-making and problem-solving are the primary metrics used to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of the player selection and development process.

Next time: Selecting good players is making good player selection decisions.

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