Beyond Moneyball: Player Development Part 4

(Previously Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Drafting and selecting players; an exercise in making good decisions.

Good decision-making can be viewed as a series of issue resolutions.

Issue 1-Need: “Why are we (not) deciding anything at all?”
Issue 2-Mode: “Who (or what) will make this decision, and how will they approach that task?”
Issue 3-Investment: “What kinds and amounts of resources will be invested in making this decision?”
Issue 4-Options: “What actions could we potentially take to deal with this problem?”
Issue 5-Possibilities: “What could happen if we took that action—things we care about?”
Issue 6-Judgment: “Which things we care about actually would happen if we took that action?”
Issue 7-Value: “How much would we really care—positively or negatively—if that in fact happened?”
Issue 8-Trade-offs: “All our prospective actions have both strengths and weaknesses. So how should we make the trade-offs that are required to settle on the action we will actually pursue?”
Issue 9-Acceptability: “How can we get agreement to this decision?”
Issue 10-Implementation: “That’s what we decided to do. Now, how can we get it done, or can we get it done, after all?”

While that list helps qualify what constitutes a good decision-making process, it does not tell us specifically the characteristics of a good or expert decision-maker.

A good decision-maker has the ability to resolve issues through a combination of symbolic (knowledge) and heuristic (experience) manipulations. Experts know more about the domain and therefore can access and use their knowledge more efficiently than the novices. Though the semantic knowledge of the domain, that is, pieces of factual knowledge of the domain, may not vary between experts and novices, the episodic knowledge (past experiences) of/within the domain permits the experts to link and evoke the relevant and appropriate inter-connected pieces of knowledge in the problem-solving processes.

Experts differ from non-experts in their handling and solving problems in relation to the problem representation, constraints and reasoning arguments. Novice problem-solvers attempt to apply general, non-domain-specific methodologies. Typically they attempt to draw upon general experience and apply processes of logic and deduction and are constrained by the “facts and evidence.” Domain experts develop their representations in problem solving by adding a lot of domain-specific constraints to their representation of the problem. In addition, experts present extensive arguments in the form of domain-specific reasoning and structures in the problem-solving process.

There continues to be evidence that the strategy in problem-solving varies from experts to novices. Novices typically deal effectively with what are termed “well structured” problems or decisions.

An example of a well-structured problem/decision would be “our second baseman was injured last night.” This decision is a relatively simple and well-structured one, the need to obtain another second baseman. And if there is a competent potential replacement within the organization, the problem becomes relatively straightforward to solve. If no replacement is available, the problem becomes more complex.

Ill-structured problems, such as your first-round draft choice performing below expectations, do lend themselves to strategies employed in other domains such as mathematics. But expert problem-solvers can draw on an extensive reservoir of past experiences solving analogous problems in the same domain, and can switch between various methods and strategies. Such strategies may not be as clear-cut as those in mathematics, but domain experts may retrieve in a clear stepwise manner the domain-related procedures from their knowledge and experience in problem solving.

On the other hand, novices follow either a trivial and or rather confusing path in executing the solution. In the case of the first-round draft choice not performing, well the rookie ball coach, based on what he sees, perceives the problem as one of mechanics, and attempts to solve what he sees as the problem by changing the player’s mechanics.

The minor league coordinator may talk to the player and learn that there is an injury that the player, for reasons having to do with team policy violations, did not made known. Or after watching the player perform and talking to him, the minor league coordinator may diagnose the problem as simply a matter of a lack of experience with high-level competition. He then advises the manager and pitching coach to use this player in situations that are less demanding yet allow that player to gain experience.

The thought process of an expert is one of seeing the bigger picture based on his knowledge and experience (domain expertise), allowing him/her to make decisions more rapidly (autonomous symbolic manipulation based on past experiences) and with greater probability of success.

What is the domain of player selection and development expertise?

Selecting and developing MLB players requires understanding what constitutes high-level baseball performance. It also requires an understanding of how the human body creates high-level baseball performance. This understanding and its application are what “Beyond Moneyball; Player Development, the Science of Creating the Unfair Advantage” uses as the definition for the domain of player selection and development expertise. To the baseball veteran, these may sound somewhat trivial. But as with most things, beauty is on the eye of the beholder and no two people are capable of seeing the same thing the same way.

Player development: an exercise in problem solving.

Modern life in nearly every context presents a deluge of problems that demand solutions. Although many trainers avoid using the word problem because it implies acquiescence and insolubility (a problem with problem-solving is that problem has many meanings), intellectually that is what they get paid to do. Designing training is an archetype of design problem-solving. And most of these problems that people face in their everyday lives are ill-structured. They are not the well-structured problems that students at every level of schooling, from kindergarten through graduate school, attempt to solve at the back of every textbook chapter.

Before we can solve a problem, we have to identify what it is. From the perspective of the MLB organization, the player development problem is one of getting a player from the minor leagues to the major leagues as quickly and efficiently as possible. In the domain of player development, the problems associated with this activity are several-fold.

First, identifying factors preventing the player from achieving major league playing performance. This then creates the problem of identifying actions that will lead to major league performance. This then creates a third set of problems having to do with actually implementing those actions. This then creates the problem of effectively monitoring, and of changing those actions that are not producing the desired results.

This nesting or cascading of problems is typical of with what is termed an “ill-structured problem”—in this case, elevating the performance of a minor league player to that of a major league player?

What is MLB player development?

Every major league organization engages in what it calls player development—for all intents and purposes, the organization’s minor league operations. They mirror the major league operation in terms of structure and how they function. Each team has a field manager, hitting coach, pitching coach and, depending on the organization, a trainer. A minor league pitching coordinator and a minor league hitting coordinator oversee the minor league coaching staff and attempt to maintain consistency of instruction within the organization.

How does player development happen?

In my search for background material for this study, I had several interviews with people who are responsible for their organizations’ player development. The following exerpts are from one of those interviews (DPD stands for director of player development):

Q: Which is more valuable for a minor league system to have: a few premium players but little depth, or considerable depth but no premium players?
DPD: Both. We want premium players and a lot of them. We want to develop as many prospects as we can. We need to continue to add players through the draft, international scouting and trades. The more talent you have, the better off your organization will be. You can never have enough prospects.
Q: Are there any names of lesser known prospects that your fans should be aware of?
DPD: I am still learning a lot of the players. Some players who I managed the last couple of years are talented and have a chance. As I learn all the players, I may have more names for you.
Q: Your farm system is improving. However, Baseball America has ranked it as the No. — organization in their annual talent rankings. What are your thoughts on that opinion?
DPD: We have outstanding ownership in place that is committed to building through the minor leagues. We have a big job ahead of us. It is not going to happen overnight. The talent level in the organization is improving but we still have a ways to go. It starts with the draft. We have added some talented players over the last two drafts (’05 & ’06) and that must continue in the ’07 draft. We must continue good scouting and drafting. Our draft budget will be such that we will be able to sign the best possible talent. Yes, we have a long way to go but the future is very bright.

Words are symbols used to convey information; how we interpret those symbols depends on our life experiences. And no two people have the same life experience. The word symbol “talent” does not have the same meaning to me as it does to anyone else.

The fundamental question for this or any director of player development is “exactly what is talent?” How are you going to find this “talent”? And how does this “talent” achieve “improvement”? What are you doing differently this year than you did last year? What are you doing differently than other organizations? And most important of all: Is this official’s interpretation of the word “improvement” the same as everyone else’s in the organization?

Nature versus nurture; scouting versus statistics

“Today, the debate rages, albeit not nearly as publicly as it did upon the release of Moneyball. It is not so much scouts vs. stats anymore as it is finding the right balance between information gleaned by scouts and statistical analyses. That the Moneyball draft has produced three successful big league players, a pair of busts and two on the fence only adds to its polarizing nature.”
“Rethinking Moneyball,” by Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports Aug. 17, 2006 http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/news?slug=jp-moneyball081706&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

Sabermetrics created such a stir in major league baseball because professional baseball organizations have never figured out how to effectively judge what they call “talent.” Sabermetrics attempts to provide financial decision makers (GMs, owners) with information that takes much of the human element (personal bias and subjectivity) out of the player evaluation process.

Major league baseball operations have a poor track record with respect to draft prospects that become productive major-league players.

Three questions:

1. Is unproductive player development due to poor draft/player selections?
2. Is unproductive player development due to poor player development methods and practices?
3. Is unproductive player development simply a “fact” of player development life, that no matter what you do, there are only so many players who will make it?

What sabermetrics does (what organizations hope it does) is addressed by the first question and levels the playing field in terms of objective information versus subjective information.

Sabermetrics addresses the inability of organizations to understand on a quantitative basis what talent is. But sabermetrics doesn’t really tell us anything about how to develop it. But if you make the “right” selection, does everything else take care of itself?

The word talent, talent and more talent

In the interview above, the word “talent” appears six times. How does a player become talented enough to be drafted? Where does his talent come from? Was he born that way? And more fundamentally, especially to those involved in selecting future major league players, how does one identify talent?

Answers to these questions directly impact how effectively an organization can select and develop players. Most scouts, coaches, instructors equate talent to three player attributes—hitting, throwing, speed/quickness/agility. Most organizations consider these “talents” as not teachable; i.e., they are God-given.

What baseball calls talent is in reality skill

image

Ask just about any scout, general manager, director of player development or coach what the most important player attribute is and most likely you’ll hear one word: “talent.” The dictionary definition of talent is:

endowment: natural abilities or qualities
a person who possesses unusual innate ability in some field or activity

Every level of baseball, be it Little League or major league, uses the word talent to collectively include those player attributes that are deemed God-given. In this category are such things as throwing, hitting, running, and just about everything else that is perceived to be “unteachable.” But if one consults fields of study and research such as kinesiology and motor control and learning, excellence in throwing, swinging and running are determined by three player attributes.

The materials from which talent is “constructed”


1. Genetics. I list genetics as the first attribute because when scouts talk about talent, often they’re talking about physical abilities. Abilities are essentially genetic traits. Reaction times, movement quickness, certain types of flexibility are examples of genetic traits.

Abilities are considered to be enduring and relatively constant and not easily changed. For example, typical reaction time for an individual is .15-.2 seconds. The absolute best reaction time in the world is approximately .1 seconds. The Olympic Games have special monitoring devices in the starting blocks of sprinters that determine whether the sprinter initiates his starting movement in less than .1 seconds after the gun is fired. This is based on measurements which show that no human being has a reaction time quicker than .1 seconds.

There are many examples of players who are less than physical specimens yet have the ability to throw very hard, players like Billy Wagner, Tim Lincecum, Pedro Martinez. The current strikeout leader in the National League, Jake Peavy, is listed at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. What Peavy does possess is very efficient throwing mechanics and the intent to throw the baseball hard.

Mechanics and intent are two properties which are not really understood by player development people in professional baseball. This is typically evidenced by drafting pitchers who are “safe” physical prospects; i.e., pitchers who are 6-foot5 and 220 pounds. These are safe prospects for two reasons. First the belief that bigger is better. And second because as a scout/organization drafts a physical specimen, it is easier to defend one’s judgment if the draftee does not work out as opposed to drafting someone who is under 6 feet tall and not working out. Scouting directors have even issued mandates that they did not want to see any prospects who were not a specific height and weight.

Also the word ability is often mistakenly used to describe what really should be called skill. Skill is the summation of ability, technique and experience (cognitive learning).

2. Technique/mechanics. Technique/mechanics refers to how the body actually creates the body movements that result in throwing the baseball (and swinging the bat). Pitching and hitting mechanics are the most misunderstood and therefore most misapplied “activity” in all of baseball. In several articles, I have tried to make the point that for all of the chatter regarding “good” pitching and hitting mechanics, there is no such thing. After 150-plus years of baseball, all that exist are opinions regarding what constitutes good hitting and pitching mechanics. There is nothing approaching peer-reviewed information.

Peer review (known as refereeing in some academic fields) is a process of subjecting an author’s scholarly work, research or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field. It is used primarily by editors to select and to screen submitted manuscripts, and by funding agencies, to decide the awarding of grants. The peer review process aims to make authors meet the standards of their discipline, and of science in general. Publications and awards that have not undergone peer review are likely to be regarded with suspicion by scholars and professionals in many fields. Even refereed journals, however, can contain errors. (Wikipedia 2007)

Until there is a “de facto” peer review process, and when it comes to hitting and pitching mechanics, the best that can be hoped for is a consensus—and, based upon all of the pitching videotapes, commentary from coaches, TV commentators and former players, currently there is nothing remotely resembling a consensus. Untill there is, there can be no such thing as a good anything.

When it comes to hitting and pitching mechanics and hitting and pitching instruction, what exists today is no different than religion and politics. It’s simply a matter of what belief system you subscribe to. That belief system then becomes your “good” mechanics.

Case in point, Tim Lincecum. Almost every analysis touches on his unorthodox mechanics, and marvels at his ability, at 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, to throw close to 100 mph and possess one of baseball’s best curveballs. You have those who warn that he is a “max effort” pitcher and question his durability. To which I say: how many 6-foot-6, 220 pound non-max effort pitchers have gone under the knife? Fortunately for the Giants, GM Brian Sabean ordered the coaching staff to leave Lincecum alone; don’t try to change his bad mechanics into their interpretation of good mechanics.

Injury speculation and the paralysis of inaction that fear of injury creates is akin to arguing how many angels can one fit on the head of a pin. From a biomechanical perspective, Tim Lincecum is simply an example of a player learning how to most efficiently and effectively use his (small) body to achieve extraordinary results, consistently defeating the batter. The key words here are “to achieve extraordinary (the desired) results”.

3. Mental/emotional makeup.< How many physical specimens who appear to have good technique/mechanics fail to perform anywhere near expected levels? On the other hand, how many less-than-stellar physical specimens with average technique/mechanics perform above and beyond expected levels?

It would not surprise me if there are equal numbers in each category. Possibly the most difficult player attribute to measure is mental and emotional makeup. My experience is that poor mental/emotional makeup, also known as desire to work hard and succeed, is the No. 1 reason players do not reach their potential.

Q. Along those lines, how important is character, a young prospect’s value decisions off the field?
A. It means so much. The personal gets awfully, awfully heavy. I tell you, we lose so many talented players from bad girlfriends, bad wives, bad habits, drugs, alcohol; all the ills of modern life. We definitely lose more players from those things than from a lack of physical ability.
Q. Put it this way: Have you ever had a player who’s had bad off-field habits, but still managed to become a major leaguer through his sheer athleticism on the field?
A. (laughs). Oh, no. If a young man has bad off-field habits, he’ll be a minor leaguer, and he won’t be a minor leaguer for long. You have to ask, “Would you want your daughter to date him?” That answer tells you a lot.
Q. On the other side, are there any players who stand out in your mind for the fact that their good character and habits allowed them to overachieve on the major league level?
A. I have to go back to Mark Lemke, who was drafted in the 27th round (in 1983). We thought he was going to be a backup middle infielder. Boy, did he surprise us. He just didn’t know how to give in.
In the minor leagues, Bobby Dews, who’s now our bullpen coach, would do drills and drills for guys like Glenn Hubbard because he knew the young man could take the extra work. Later, in Macon, as a manager, Glenn put in the extra work to develop Marcus Giles.
http://stlcardinals.scout.com/2/451433.html

The landscape of professional baseball is littered with phenoms who went off the tracks due to poor decision-making, low self-esteem, peer pressure, fear of success, etc. The primary mechanism that major league organizations employ to judge mental and emotional makeup is history. Ideally, organizations want a knowledge of the prospect from the cradle. Finding and keeping track of young prospects is an important part of the scouting and selection process.

What is baseball talent?

Talent can be viewed as illustrated as three intersecting circles representing physical abilities, movement patterns (mechanics) and mental attitude and approach.

image

It is possible that three players, all exhibiting the same performance as quantified by their statistics, do not possess the same “talent makeup.”

image

As an example, one player may have greater physical abilities and okay mechanics and okay mental approach/makeup.

Another player may have superior technique/mechanics yet less than optimal physical capabilities and mental approach.

The third player may have a superior mental approach with okay physical attributes and mechanics.

The three “talent makeups” are illustrated in these three diagrams.

image

The area formed by the intersection of the three circles represents the amount of “baseball talent” each player possesses. Because each produces the same statistics (performance), the areas of these three baseball talents are equal (amount of baseball talent).

Using the same illustrative principles, the difference between an average player and a super player is represented by the diagram to the right.

Player improvement occurs when the circles move closer to overlapping with each other.

Consistently hitting major league pitching for both power and average may be most difficult thing to achieve in sports.

The key word here is consistently. And what illustrates the difficulty of hitting major league pitching is the small difference. As described by Bill James (Moneyball, page 68), “…. the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter “is one hit every two weeks.”

Next time: How do you find “talent”?

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