“Tacit communication” and prospect evaluation

In light of all the first round picks signing, I wanted to address another principle that the fantasy GM should consider when evaluating prospects. I touched on the topic of distinguishing factors in evaluating prospects in a prior column. That distinguishing factors are a prime consideration in drafting players is beyond doubt. How do these factors develop, and why should they often be disregarded?

Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling, in his classic book The Strategy of Conflict, spends a great deal of time addressing “tacit” communication. It does not refer to my unspoken admiration for Yunjin Kim, or my fan letters that I am not allowed by court order to discuss. Schelling’s thesis is that certain problems can be solved without any communication at all between the players because certain innate factors naturally provide a suggested solution upon which the players will converge. The solution is not normally the optimal or best one, and that is the problem.

These tacit factors are not only important but can often be discovered in all areas of life. Baseball is no exception, as tacit communication plays a role in the development of certain precepts in the area of scouting and evaluation of minor leaguers. As fantasy players with our hard earned bucks on the line, we should be seeking the best solution.

A simple example of tacit communication is the following. Two players have no means of communication. There is $100. If they can somehow agree on a way to split the money without communicating, each will win the amount they allocated to themselves. It is no surprise that the majority of people will come to a 50-50 split naturally, and experiments verify this outcome.

A key point of Schelling’s book is that in any problem there are distinguishing “tacit” factors that allow the players to converge upon them as a solution, even if there is no communication. The 50-50 split above is a good example. Without communicating at all, we naturally think of splitting it in half. Two people, two equal shares. His book addresses this principle in the context of the proliferation of nuclear missiles and the principles of deterrence. That is too high-faluting for me, though. It is vastly more important to address it in the context of fantasy baseball.

An example of the role of tacit communication is Tim Lincecum, whom I talked about in my prior column. If you are a psychologist and know why he is a lightning rod for me in my columns, let me know. Tacit communication is in large part how precepts such as a bias against short pitchers gain acceptance in the scouting community. Scouts don’t sit down in a room and agree that it would be a prevailing belief (though one could argue that the collegial atmosphere of scouting makes their opinions less tacit and more explicit, but this is just an example, not gospel).

The problem with tacit communication is that it does not typically lead to optimal solutions, so recognizing their role can be valuable to the fantasy GM, and the real GM for that matter. A team that didn’t draft Tim Lincecum or Roy Oswalt certainly paid the price for relying on scouting dicta derived from tacit communication.

Another example is the 90 mph yardstick. Can we really separate players based on the fact that player X throws 91 mph, but player Y throws only 89 mph? Maybe not in reality, but that 90 mph standard is one that is naturally converged upon and provides a neat stopping point for tacit communication principles. How often when you hear that a player throws “only” 89 do you think he doesn’t throw hard enough for the majors? Yet, when a guy throws 90, it is as if his fastball magically is fast enough in that one mile per hour to overcome major league hitters. Damn base-10 number system.

This year much of the discussion about David Price revolved around his 6-foot-6 frame, and the fact that he is “big and athletic,” with athleticism and makeup as strengths. All this may be true, but it may not be terribly relevant. There is arguably only a weak correlation between these traits and major league success. These factors provide easy convergence points, and though the correlation is weak, it does exist. His projectability based on size is a principle that developed due to tacit communication.

How is Price’s stuff? Well, according to MLB.com, here is a basic scouting report: Fastball at 90-94, touching 95, slider at 84-86, “changeup is a work in progress.” By comparison, here is a scouting report on Michael Main from the same source: Fastball in the mid to upper 90s, slider at 84 mph, very good arm speed on all three of his pitches (including his curve).

Both are noted to have good makeup. Main has a better fastball, and a roughly equal slider. Other than that,the only real difference? Size. The report states that Main is “not that big, which might scare some teams off, but those not afraid to take an “undersized” righthander will not shy away.”

So what should the fantasy GM do? One of the most important things to see is that even in scouting reports such as the above you will see many statements that are the result of tacit communication. When evaluating a minor leaguer or a prospect, the numbers can sometimes be a strong countervailing force working against the traditional scouting principles. Experience must be a guide, but if you hear something that can’t be quantified, then distrust is probably the correct course.

For example, a player is noted to have a 97 mph fastball. That can be quantified in results to some degree; just look at his K rate and BB rate and they will tell you if he is using that skill to his full advantage. Jeff Samardzija, I am looking in your direction. On the other hand, you may see that a player is noted, somewhat nebulously, to have good intangibles. Or worse yet, he has “good mound presence.” Here is where the antennae must turn on.

In a league far too many years ago, I first realized the role of tacit communication when I auctioned Jeff Cirillo, and was ridiculed because of the presence of the more highly regarded Antone Williamson.

Williamson was the fourth overall pick in the first round by the Brewers. He came with glowing scouting reports and the appropriate hype that comes with these types of players: intanibles, projectable size, didn’t hit for power but it will develop, the usual cliches. The only problem was that he never showed any power, never hitting more than seven home runs in any stop in the minors. Since then there have been scores of similar failures. When a player’s best attribute is something that separates him from the crowd, is only tangentially related to his actual baseball skill or performance and/or can’t reasonably be quantified, then I will look elsewhere for value even if he is a No. 1 one pick.

It is likely in keeper leagues that Price will be auctioned. I am virtually sure of this in my deep high-stakes league. Michael Main will most likely not be drafted even in the reserve round, nor will the 20 other guys who have similar repertoires to Price. There is no chance Price will be worth the auction money next year. When evaluating minor leaguers, understanding that many of the reasons player X is touted over player Y are merely because of distinguishing factors means value can be had in player y.

This is the essence of fantasy baseball in a nutshell. Player X may end up being a very good player (and Price probably will), but the real value lies in player Y, and fantasy baseball is primarily a game of exploiting this difference between obvious value and hidden value. When Price’s name comes up at the auction I will be sitting it out.

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