The good face, the halo, and projectability

Not long ago, Ken Funck got it on, and then went on to earn a spot contributing at Baseball Prospectus due in part to his entry in the “BP Idol Contest” about one of the subjective measures that baseball scouts use. While I’m not going down the same avenue Ken chose, I do find myself interested in the same topic.

Like many a young (or not so young, as in my case) baseball blogger, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball nudged me toward a more cold and calculating approach to baseball analysis and strategy. With conventional strategy questioned, I started to look at the game of baseball a little differently and felt I could learn a lot more about it than I already knew. Due to that belief, and with sabremetric writings as my bible, my contempt for most sacrifice bunts and intentional walks sprang forth like the Temperance Movement’s hatred of alcohol. It’s likely that it grew in some part from the statistical approach to baseball glorified in Moneyball. But, one thing that I also took from the book was something the author portrayed in a negative light and that served as the antithesis to statistical analysis. And, even if there wasn’t a backdrop of statistical analysis, the absurdity this topic would have still stuck with me.

That was ‘The Good Face’.

The primary theme in Moneyball is the identification of market inefficiencies in Major League Baseball and it makes sense that the author would analyze economic differences and strategies between baseball organizations. Lewis is a former big market trader that turned writing talent into his first book, Liar’s Poker, which highlighted his experiences on Wall Street during the 1980s. With his economic eye on the market of baseball, Lewis focused in on Oakland G.M. Billy Beane‘s willingness to value some statistical analysis over traditional scouting. As almost everyone knows by now, Beane’s inner circle felt most organizations undervalued On Base Percentage and chose to target less expensive players that did well in that category as one way to build up his team in a cost effective manner.

In the narrative, Lewis wanted his readers to understand why his main character chose to turn away from conventional scouting methods. He used Beane’s personal backstory to demonstrate. Beane, a highly regarded player as a youth, had held all the traits that old-school baseball scouts loved. His speed and build jumped out at them and promised unlimited potential. However, despite his abundant tools, he failed as a professional. This, as the story goes, prompted him to lose faith in the idea that traditional tools are the true indicators of future baseball success. So, when Beane found himself evaluating other young players as General Manager of the A’s, he downplayed scouting and opened his mind to something more tangible.

One of the old-school physical traits that Lewis wrote about Beane possessing as a youth, and presumably despising due to a bit of self-loathing, was ‘the Good Face’. From the book-

“Beneath an unruly mop of dark brown hair the boy had the sharp features the scouts loved. Some of the scouts still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball. They had a phrase they used: “the Good Face.” Billy had the Good Face.”

‘Not only his character, but future as a ballplayer’? Because he had a certain look? A certain ‘structure’ to his face? I knew scouts looked beyond traits such as arm strength and bat speed. I knew they looked at a player’s build and that tall lanky pitchers were the ideal. A kid that looked like he could put on 20 pounds of muscle pretty quick held more future promise than a kid that had already filled out. I knew that. But I had no idea they thought they could predict baseball abilities and character just by looking at a kid’s face.

Is it absolutely ridiculous to propose a certain look could portend future baseball success? Given the incredible amount of statistical studies in baseball, it certainly seems that something like the ‘Good Face’ would be as antiquated as a geocentric view of the universe. But then I thought about it a little more. Just like “Moneyball” prompted me to think about stats a little more, lately it’s had me thinking about something Lewis dismissed. And, I’m wondering if that was a mistake.

Scouts have to identify players before they accumulate enough at-bats to use statistics to properly project a player’s career. That’s the nature of their job. They are in a constant race to discover a kid before someone else does. They go from school to school and watch kid after kid and cast judgments that could be worth millions of dollars on observational evidence gathered an hour at a time.

That’s not to mention that having mounds of statistical data does not guarantee accurate projections for a coming year, even in established players. Statistical anomalies abound in proven players just this year. From an over performing Jose Bautista, to an under performing Carlos Lee. For scouts looking for someone that could become a proven player, projections are obviously harder. Sufficient data, which is not in itself infallible, is simply not available; therefore they must rely at least in part on subjective measurements.

So, I do wonder if guys with a ‘look’ of confidence somehow correlate to future baseball abilities and if that somehow drove scouts to look for such a ‘look’. Even if there is correlation, does that mean masculine features somehow cause success on the field? As in, is there something about a confident self-image, brought about by societal cues, that makes a player more in line for success in a game that requires a certain level of confidence that may border on arrogance? In other words, do you get a look in your eye because you’re good at sports? Or, are people with that look in their eye often better at sports? Even if we could ever prove that it is an identifiable trait, it seems like a chicken or egg scenario at best.

At what point do we wonder if these facial features scouts look for are simply the features of good-looking kids?

You could argue that scouts may fall victim to something supervisors supposedly suffer from called the halo effect? The halo effect occurs, theoretically, when those in charge rate overall performance of subordinates highly, but are subconsciously basing their assessment on the total package by focusing on just one outstanding quality. (Schultz and Schultz “Psychology and Work Today”) The one outstanding quality doesn’t necessarily have to be good looks (although that one is a fairly famous example). For instance, many people often assume that someone attractive, without knowing any other thing about them, will be outgoing and have a lot of friends. It’s human nature to assume attractive people are self-confident even though many of us probably have experienced at least some anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

I doubt many scouts- at least none with long careers- would let ‘the Good Face’ carry a kid with no bat, no glove, and no arm to a high overall grade. But, when combined with a decent arm, decent glove, and a decent bat, I wonder if the halo effect may help push a kid a little further along. Or at least prompt another visit from a scout. That second visit, given the small sample sizes that scouts fight as part of their everyday job, may be enough to showcase a previously unknown level of play that a second short look may reveal.

Malcom Gladwell claims, in his book Blink, that certain people, so learned are they in their particular profession, may actually have the ability to make more accurate assessments of people in a fraction of the time and with far less data than it takes others to make a reliable assessment. Gladwell’s proof is often anecdotal or based on cherry-picked studies, but it is also just as often interesting, in my opinion. From art experts that spot forgeries to top automotive salesmen that spot serious buyers, Gladwell wrote about people that seem to have a gift when it comes to making snap judgments. Since scouts don’t often have the luxury of watching a player throughout an entire season of high school or college ball (there are too many kids to invest so much time into one), I wonder if maybe the best scouts develop some innate ability to see beyond obvious abilities that others can pick up on, like speed or arm strength.

Perhaps scouts are subconsciously drawn to attractive players due to the halo effect. Or, perhaps they are conditioned to be drawn to them because they’ve seen self-confident attractive ballplayers succeed over the years. I don’t know and I don’t believe there’s a way to tell. There’s probably no real way to test the ‘Good Face’, despite Ken Funck’s entertaining results in the article linked in the first paragraph. So, we’re left knowing that even if we could prove a certain look does lend itself to baseball success, we’d still have issues such as confirmation bias or illusory correlation. Put simply, we’d never know if good looking guys are better at baseball, or if good looking guys simply get more chances to move up in baseball.

Either way, I hope it’s a trait scouts continue to give credence to, as ‘the Good Face’ is the only projectable baseball trait I have to offer to my two sons.

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