January 4, 2010
The Culture Club
'Tis the (off)season when baseball teams make strange moves. A couple of weeks ago, Matt Swartz took aim at one particular type of move: the proverbial "team going nowhere" who signs an expensive free agent. He will not lead them out of the forest, but will take a lot of green with him. Matt made the argument that, from a financial standpoint, this type of move makes sense for a team on the cusp of contention, but not for a team who doesn't have much chance to contend. The Baltimore Orioles' signing of Mike Gonzalez seemed to be more of the "team going nowhere" type than on the cusp of contention. The Orioles are a re-building team playing in the AL East, wherein live the 2009 MLB Champion Yankees, the 2008 AL Champion Rays, and the 2007 MLB Champion Red Sox. True, the Orioles have a number of talented young players, but coming off a 68-94 season (their 12th straight losing campaign), it's unlikely that they will be challenging for a playoff spot next year.
Why sign the costly Gonzalez for two years, $12 million when that job in the bullpen could be given to a 23-year-old making $500,000? True, having Gonzalez to turn to in save situations will probably net the Orioles a couple more wins than they otherwise would have gotten, but even with Gonzalez, some of their young players maturing and maybe a little luck, that brings them to… 75 wins? Or maybe 80 wins? I have to think that the Orioles understand this on some level. It doesn't take an MBA to figure out a marginal revenue curve, at least on an intuitive level, and I'm guessing that someone in the Orioles' front office went to business school. Why the irrational behavior?
In the comments following Matt's piece, I noticed two themes offered as possible explanations for the signing. One is that the Orioles' top brass are making a move strictly to placate the fans to get them to come out to Camden Yards. ("Hey, look! We're doing something!") Indeed, importing a closer is kinda like eating a whole carton of ice cream. It tastes great, relieves your anxieties, and, in the end, makes you fat. You know you shouldn't do it, but… it's mint chocolate chip.
The Orioles do have a small stable of young talent, which may end up maturing into the core of a really good team in two or three years. At that point, it may be logical to add a piece like Mike Gonzalez. The problem is that by that point, the money's already been spent and Gonzalez is now a free agent again. Putting that money away for two years down the road might be a better idea in the long run, but it means that the fans will have to wait a bit longer for their day in the sun. If the Orioles don't magically turn into a 100-win team this year, management can say "… but we went out and got Gonzalez!" and then, the four most powerful words in the English language: "It's not my fault."
But then there was another reason floated for the singing: Mike Gonzalez will make the Orioles a better team than they were, and that it's important for the development of those aforementioned young players that they not grow up in a "culture of losing." In essence, the Orioles are counting not so much on the direct effects of Gonzalez's performance, but on the indirect effects. The Orioles will win a few more games, and finishing 75-87 versus 72-90 will be the difference between Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters giving up on baseball and fulfilling their full potential. The money spent on Gonzalez should be seen as an investment in the future performance of the kids.
Now, we've moved into decision-making on the basis of amateur developmental psychology. Well, I'm not an amateur. Let's take a look at whether this "culture of losing" idea withstands exposure to the data.
Are players who "grow up" on losing teams adversely affected later in their career? On the surface, this reasoning has a certain logic to it. It's common sense (and good science) that childhood trauma, such as suffering abuse or living in a war zone, can affect someone adversely later in life. There's also a theory of why clinical depression happens called "learned helplessness." It was first discussed by psychologist Martin Seligman after a series of experiments involving dogs. In the experiment, Seligman delivered mild electric shocks to dogs, with no chance of escape. Later, when Seligman opened up an escape route for the dogs, they just stood there and took the shocks anyway. He hypothesized that the dogs had learned to feel helpless and like there was no escape. I'm a little wary of ascribing human motives to animals, but studies on humans (no, they didn't shock the humans) have shown this effect as well. People who are put into chronically stressful situations sometimes begin to believe that nothing will ever change. Will baseball players show the same effect?
I found all players who, over the last 20 years, had three (or more) seasons before the age of 26 in which they logged at least 250 PA with one team. Players who get significant playing time at such a young age are generally the good prospects about whom GMs and fans alike sit up nights worrying about. I tabulated their aggregate stats over the course of those years (i.e., I lumped their age 23-25 seasons into one big pile.) I also looked at the teams on which they played and tabulated the winning percentage for those three team-seasons. Now, we have a baseline for what our player was doing as a youngster and a measure of how good the teams were on which he played early in his career.
Then, I looked at his stats (where available) during his peak years, age 27-29, again in the aggregate. I looked at two basic measures, OBP and SLG, as my main indicators. (There are several holes that one can poke in this methodology. If I may answer all those critiques now: "Direction before precision." For the curious, there were 85 players in my sample.) I ran a regression with OBP at ages 23-25 and team winning percentage experienced at 23-25 predicting OBP at 27-29. I repeated the process for SLG. In this way, I could control for where these players started and observe the effect of early winning percentage.
Except there wasn't one. Not even close. As you might expect, early SLG predicted later SLG and the same with OBP, but the "culture," be it of winning or losing, in which the player matured professionally was irrelevant to his future individual performance. It seems sensible that there would be an effect, but none appeared. Why not?
The problem with using the cognitive/learned helplessness theory is that most people haven't read the rest of the book and gotten the details. The details make all the difference in this case. The idea behind the "culture of losing" argument is that a player will get so used to losing, perhaps despite his best efforts, that he will learn to not give his all. What's the point if the team is going to lose anyway? Except that his team will not lose all the time. Even the most horridly bad teams win 50-60 games a year, roughly one in three. One therapy technique with folks who fall into learned helplessness is to look for counter-examples to such thoughts as "I'm always going to lose, it doesn't matter what I do." At that point, a person can appreciate that there will be victories along the way, and that there are other factors, often beyond their control (being stuck on a lousy team?), that play into their current state in life. If the team is winning at least once in a while, it shouldn't be too hard to find a counter-example or five where the player worked hard and the team won. Aside from that, it's fairly easy for a player to look at his individual stats and figure out that if he could only find his way to a good team, he might do a little more winning.
And therein lies what management means about wanting to avoid building a "culture of losing." Losing doesn't feel good; winning feels better. A player may not blame himself for all the losing, but he might begin to associate all that losing with the franchise. He'll do just fine in his own development, but when he gains free agency, will he want to get out of town if he thinks his current team is a loser? The Magic 8-ball says, "Yeah, probably."
The Orioles might (or might not) believe that Gonzalez will put them into the playoffs next year. He probably won't. They might (or might not) believe that winning a little more will make their young players better in the long run. It won't. But perhaps they realize that signing Gonzalez now does something else for them in three or four years. At that point, the kids will have a decision to make: Should they stay or go? From the Orioles' perspective, if they leave, that's a lot of resources that they've put into these kids walking out the door. If the Orioles can convince them that they really are building a "culture of winning," ("Remember when we got Gonzalez?") maybe they'll be more likely to stick around. So, maybe the $12 million spent on Gonzalez has more to do with discussions that will happen well after he has moved on to another team. It's a rather big insurance policy to take out, but after twelve straight losing seasons in Baltimore, maybe there's a certain necessity and logic to it.
Or maybe they just made a silly move.
Russell A. Carleton, the writer formerly known as 'Pizza Cutter,' is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.