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January 4, 2010

Baseball Therapy

The Culture Club

by Russell A. Carleton

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'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.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  Orioles,  The Who,  Culture

55 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Richard Bergstrom

Who would think a Pirates reliever would know anything about a culture of winning?

Jan 04, 2010 05:02 AM
rating: 10
 
Russell A. Carleton

Touche!

Jan 04, 2010 08:49 AM
rating: 0
 
Hokieball

There's also the notion of making the Orioles a more attractive destination for prospective future Free Agents. We know that money rules all, but when the money is at least close players will (in theory) go to teams that have a chance of contending. Each piece begets the next piece, in a sense.

Jan 04, 2010 07:40 AM
rating: 2
 
Russell A. Carleton

A good addendum to my thought process. What's curious about humans is that they want to see a nice neat trend line. Suppose that the Orioles put Gonzalez's money in the bank, give the job to a rookie this year and next year, lose those couple of extra games, and then in two years when the time is right, signed a couple of free agents. Over the next few years, they might stagnate around the same win total. And you're right that free agents might interpret that as "well, they'll win that many next year, so why bother going there?" It's an irrational thought process, but it's a real one.

Jan 04, 2010 09:11 AM
rating: 1
 
Agent007

The Orioles are compensating for losing George Sherrill. He netted them a prospective third baseman but his lost resulted in a lot of frustration in August and September. The Orioles have to look like they are trying to win more often (if only to keep their fans and the money they pay to see the team) and having a stronger bullpen should help them climb towards a .500 season, which would delight Oriole fans. Or, come late July, if need be, they could flip Gonzalez for more prospects.

Jan 04, 2010 08:35 AM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

Or the Orioles know they can flip Gonazlez this midseason or next and net more prospects.

Jan 04, 2010 08:40 AM
rating: -2
 
N8

Agent007's last sentence is the exact thought I came in here to post. As long as the Gonzalez contract doesn't tie up money that would be otherwise used for a necessary piece, then it may just be an investment in a very useful trading chip. Especially if Gonzalez makes it through the year or two healthy, because he's always performed when not on the DL.

Jan 04, 2010 09:01 AM
rating: 1
 
Russell A. Carleton

It's worth thinking about. Here's where I disagree with this type of plan. Suppose they flip him for a prospect. A prospect is a "maybe" and in 3-4 years, he'd still be a kid.

Gonzalez is signed for two years, so either this July or next July, he might end up in a trade package, but why not save the money now, bank it, and in 3-4 years when you need that fully developed piece, you have the cash. In the free agent market, you are buying relative certainty of what you're going to get. When you're on the steep part of the marginal revenue curve, would you rather then plug in that "maybe" or would you rather a guy with a track record. A lot depends on your time horizon.

Jan 04, 2010 09:15 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Tim Kniker
BP staff

The one thing that I've always wondered (more from the point of view of the GM of a team like the Orioles, Pirates, or Royals to name a few) is what should be the goal of the GM, at least in terms of winning (I'm going to avoid the "putting butts in the seats for now, except for how it helps him them win"), i.e., teams that haven't made the playoffs in 10+ years.

Shoud it be:

a) Get to the playoffs as soon as possible, even if it's a one-time deal
b) Get to the playoffs (or at leat be in serious contention) for an X-year stretch within Y years.

An annoyance (or maybe the missing piece) is what should be the goal of say Dayton Moore be?

Jan 04, 2010 11:24 AM
 
Russell A. Carleton

Or perhaps in some cases, replace "playoffs" with 81 wins?

Jan 04, 2010 11:43 AM
rating: 0
 
ofMontreal

I have to say that aside from the injury history, I have no problems with the O's signing Gonzalez. Talking about flipping him at midseason reminds me of us saying the same thing about Dunn & the Nationals a year ago. I don't think that's the point in any way shape or form. Gonzalez makes the Orioles much better if he can actually be an effective closer. They are getting better faster than one might think and marginal wins are similar to them as to the Yanks. I know your laughing now, but I would say that they value them similarly because they compete for the same ones. Having a good bullpen is the best thing for developing a young rotation. Taking risks with unknown commodities isn't going to help the O's get the staff they want together.

Jan 04, 2010 12:54 PM
rating: 1
 
Russell A. Carleton

The problem with making signings to minimize frustration is that if you manage with your emotions, you get burned. I'm convinced that a good deal of what passes as baseball "strategy" is an attempt to make fans/players/coaches feel better rather than to win the game.

Does George Sherrill really need to be replaced? Maybe. But what about thinking about it from another direction? Maybe it's best to take the short term hit of a lousy bullpen if it means a better chance at winning down the road. The answer may come out to be that to sign Gonzalez is the better plan. But a simple reflexive "Sherrill left, need a closer" over-simplifies all of the options available to a team and cuts off what might be a better option to pursue.

Jan 04, 2010 09:27 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

"Or, come late July, if need be, they could flip Gonzalez for more prospects."

Can they?

After all, every other team had a chance to sign him as well and passed on it. It's possible that events could conspire to raise Gonzalez's value to the teams that passed on him - he could pitch exceptionally well and raise his perceived value, or there could be a shortage of relievers available and a team could be desperate for a "proven closer" to fill a hole caused by injury.

But I don't know that either of those scenarios are particularly likely, and I don't think it's a good investment for them to sign free agents with the expectation that they can "flip" them later. (We have some pretty strong evidence, in fact, that the Orioles put a higher value on his services than any other team, and thus may have a hard time persuading other teams to take on the contract AND give up something of value for him. If Gonzales isn't worth 2/$12 to you now, why is he worth that AND a prospect with upside six months from now?)

Jan 04, 2010 11:36 AM
 
One Flap Down

Perhaps the O's were influenced by the fact that the Dodgers overpaid them in the trade market for Sherrill by giving them Josh Bell, a top-notch 3B prospect. They could be thinking "We got Bell for Sherrill, imagine what we could get for Gonzalez, who is better!"

But unless the Dodgers (who seem to overpay in prospect deals - aside from Bell for Sherrill, they got crap from the Rays for Navarro and E.Jackson, gave up Carlos Santana for Casey Blake) suddenly need *another* reliever next year, they're going to be disappointed in what they're offered.

Jan 04, 2010 15:50 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

It's a lot harder to find a left-handed reliever who theoretically can close or set-up midseason than it is during the offseason. All you need is a team with an injured or ineffective bullpen and you have an additional suitor. Considering that about 12-14 teams will think they are in contention around midseason this year (or next year) and there's a good chance someone will want him.

Regarding the prospects, an interesting theoretical question could be "Is it more efficient/effective to have a second round pick with no pro experience (and pay his signing bonus) or spend a bit more ($6 million) to potentially acquire an extra prospect or two who have already been stress-tested through one or more minor league seasons?"

Jan 04, 2010 16:22 PM
rating: 0
 
Aaron Rosenbaum

I would think that teams adjust their valuation of player like Gonzalez or Sherril in late July - whether they intend to or not...

Jan 04, 2010 19:31 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Swartz
BP staff

Definitely true. I wrote about this back in July:

http://baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9263

They do and should value the player more in July. The reason is that the odds of a player worth X wins making the difference between making the playoffs and not are low in April because one team can sink or run away with it, but the later in the season, the more likely one win makes a difference for some teams. Imagine if teams could have traded pitchers to Minnesota or Detroit last October for game 163. You wouldn't exactly prorate the player's value to value them for one game.

Whether it's a good idea to sign players to flip them later was something I looked at here:

http://baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9869

Basic result was that you need to have at least an outside shot and it needs to be a flippable player like a pitcher rather than a 3B for which you don't know if there will be a team in a pennant race with a need for him.

Jan 04, 2010 19:42 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Who would think that the Orioles are becoming a poster-boy for better team management? Could the O's be the new A's in terms of roster makeover principles?

Jan 05, 2010 06:47 AM
rating: 0
 
oira61
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

This is a lot of wrong-headed blather, several weeks too late, about a fairly insignificant and obvious signing.

The Orioles traded their closer last July. Subsequently their bullpen blew some late leads. In all of this verbiage, you'd think those two relevant facts could have found a place.

I don't know what city this writer lives in, but it clearly isn't Baltimore, and he clearly isn't reading the Baltimore Sun. It's much easier to mock the anger of fans at a franchise when you're not reading those fans on a daily basis.

Please understand that I'm not necessarily defending the signing. But this weak column doesn't point out its only real flaw -- that the Orioles will surrender the No. 3 pick in the second round. The $12 million is small change to a team that is below its payroll from several years ago.

Please read Christina Kahrl. She tends to see transactions from the teams' points of view. You might learn something.





Jan 04, 2010 08:42 AM
rating: -6
 
Russell A. Carleton

You're correct, I don't live in Baltimore. I live in Cleveland. (It's not like living through the Indians bullpen woes has been easy either.) I believe many of the issues you bring up here are addressed in comments I made above.

Let me add this: My goal in writing this piece isn't so much to tweak the Orioles' management for the signing (OK, maybe a little). What's done is done. But there's another team out there thinking of doing this same type of thing right now. I want people not to evaluate moves based on the assumption of a steady-state past. I'd rather that they took a broader view of the options available to them and projected those into the possible future.

Jan 04, 2010 09:37 AM
rating: 3
 
jdtk99

I enjoyed the article. What do you think about chronic losing depressing a team's win/revenue curve? After a decade of losing I'd wager their are significantly fewer Orioles fans. Does a step into respectability "prime the pump" for increased revenues if they can turn their core into a playoff team? The Devil Rays are a recent example of a team that skipped respectability and I'd be curious to see how their revenues increased compared to the increased revenue the Brew crew got after making the playoffs.

Jan 04, 2010 09:30 AM
rating: 1
 
Russell A. Carleton

The economic impact is a little beyond my reach right now, but I will say this both from a research perspective and from experience. I'm amazed at the power of the bandwagon effect that happens when a team starts winning.

Jan 04, 2010 11:23 AM
rating: 0
 
oira61

Thank you for replying to my earlier complaint. This is a new one (because the last was more overarching):

What makes you think that money saved from payroll in 2010 can be used in 2012? That may be how home finance works, but it's not generally how business works, and it's especially not how baseball works.

Once again I think your lack of the big picture hurts your overall argument. If you were analyzing the Giants, a team that claims it's too poor to pursue Matt Holliday, then it's fair to say they shouldn't spend money on Mark DeRosa.

But the Orioles just offered $140 million to Mark Teixeira last year and were rebuffed. If you don't believe Scott Boras (and I don't), they haven't made any large offers at all this offseason. So they still have that Teixeira money sitting around -- the warchest is already full.

I repeat one thing I said earlier: $12 million over 2 years isn't much to this Baltimore team.

I also want to point out that picking on the Orioles, in your first column no less, is so 2003. This isn't the management team that signed Marty Cordova.

They wanted a closer. They had the money. They could've signed Fernando Rodney or Brandon Lyon; instead they got somebody who looks like a pretty good pitcher at least. The only real issue is that 2nd round draft pick.

Jan 04, 2010 09:52 AM
rating: -1
 
Russell A. Carleton

Why can't it be used in 2012? Baseball teams have bank accounts too. Those millions can sit there and collect interest. Money in the pocket doesn't have to be spent. Consider what the Marlins have done over the past 12 years.

Let's assume that the Teix money (17.5M per year) is still in the warchest. Why spend it on someone who won't get you into the playoffs this year, and instead bank it until 2012, when you can have all that saved money to spend to add pieces to a team which has naturally grown to the point where those moves make sense? I can understand that this is not a pleasant thought of having to endure another couple of losing seasons, but as a therapist, sometimes you have to tell people things that they don't want to hear.

I actually rather like Gonzalez himself as a pitcher. If the goal was "get a closer", then the Orioles did well in that regard. I'm questioning the underlying assumption that "we need a closer."

The draft pick is an issue, but it's a cost of doing business. I think that the "draft picks are gold/draft picks are toothpicks" pendulum has swung a little too far in the gold direction. Yes, there's nothing better than a draft pick who works out. There's nothing more frustrating that a draft pick who doesn't. A draft pick is a high-stakes coin flip, not a guaranteed future star who will only make $500K per year and take us to the World Series in the process. He might become that. He might flame out in AA.

Jan 04, 2010 11:22 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Tim Kniker
BP staff

The example on this that I use is why the Royals went and got Jose Guillen for 3/$36M (and most of us said it at the time). When they lost out on Torii Hunter, they should have sat on the money and played more in the FA market the following year.

It really seemed to be money looking for a FA to spend it on, like the concept of saving it was not a possibility to them

Jan 04, 2010 11:54 AM
 
baserip4

I've criticized the Orioles for losing a draft pick, too, but one thing that your pendulum argument made me think of was the last time the Orioles had no second round pick, in 2007. The picked some guy name Matt Wieters, and were able to give him a huge signing bonus, perhaps in part because they did not have to spend money to also sign their second round pick. With the 3rd pick in next summer's draft, a similar pick would not be out of the question.

Jan 05, 2010 08:57 AM
rating: 0
 
greendrummer

lets face it, its easy to 'pick on the Orioles' when (as the author pointed out) they've finished with a losing record for the past 12 years and the last three AL winners are different teams from their own division....

Jan 04, 2010 10:25 AM
rating: 0
 
oira61

A lot of my frustration with the article, and some of these comments, is the absence of acknowledgment that the Orioles might have a point of view that differs from the theoretical, yet is still worthwhile.

Moreover, you picked on the wrong signing. Garrett Atkins -- that makes no sense. Gonzalez is a pretty good pitcher who might provide good value for the money he's signed for. It's a short term deal that won't hamstring them. And how quickly people forget that the Orioles turned a lesser lefty bullpen arm into a Proven Closer and flipped him for a legitimate prospect. When the Bedard deal was made, most analysts I read here said, "Great deal, but why bother with Sherrill?"

But back to the lack of perspective. It's easy, sitting in Cleveland or New York or San Francisco, to say, "The Orioles should just find the next Ryan Kohlmeier and make him closer at the major-league minimum. Why spend money, even if you can afford it, on trying to make a few more games pleasant for your fans?"

This is the kind of philosophy that gets a GM fired, unless he's Billy Beane.

I also think somebody smarter than me could show this to be a fiscally smart move. If the Orioles turn out to be competitive in 2010 or 2011, they will draw more fans and have more money to spend. Gonzalez, if he helps in that resurgence, will add revenue. If they are not competitive, it's only $12 million, which is not a big gamble for them.

You can't compare this to Jose Guillen. It's a short contract and not much money.

Jan 04, 2010 14:55 PM
rating: 0
 
Jay Taylor

The thing is, the Orioles aren't going to be competitive this year or next. however, there is a good chance they will be in 2012. So if they had room in the salary this year and next for $6 million, and I would assume 2012 and beyond also, why not speand $9 million in 2012 and 2013 when they are more likely to be in the race?

Jan 04, 2010 15:32 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

A team that makes no effort to make itself good, or at least interesting, in the offseason, will lose more in fan interest and fan dollars than their simple W/L record would indicate.

The Orioles had a woeful bullpen last year. Failure to make a "meaningful" attempt to address that weakness would have cost them more long-term and non-marginal dollars than the relatively marginal cost of $11 over minimum for two years' service by an untested rookie.

We have to bear in mind that all teams must always, always, always be competitive. True - not every team can compete for the playoffs every year, but every team must compete throughout the baseball season, at least through 162 games in the regular season. Fans must always feel like their team has a chance of winning any given game at a rate approaching 50%.

Jan 04, 2010 16:15 PM
rating: 1
 
cavebird

Russell,

I get the point of your article, and I agree that the idea of a "culture of winning" seems like a silly argument without support. However, I think Hookieball's comment is on the mark. The idea of signing Gonzalez was not because the Orioles intend to complete in 2010 or to create a culture of winning. I think reason that the signing is good is that it helps improve the Orioles's record over the next two years. If the record improves, when the Orioles young core is good enough to contend with some free agent signees, those free agent signees will be more likely to sign with the Orioles than they would be if the Orioles lose 90+ games the next two seasons. IIRC, the Orioles made a competitive offer for Teixeira last off-season, and Teixeira didn't seriously consider it because the Orioles were such a bad team. They don't want that scenario to repeat itself.

Jan 04, 2010 10:33 AM
rating: 1
 
Russell A. Carleton

I agree whole-heartedly with that line of reasoning. It's irrational behavior on the part of all involved, but human beings are rarely rational.

Jan 04, 2010 11:25 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Money is fungible. Perfectly so, almost. The money given to Gonzalez could've been banked and used 2 years hence. Now it can't be. This should be startlingly obvious.

Personally, I think the Marlins experience provides the possible counterargument. No, spending money on Gonzalezes won't bring many extra fans to the ballpark. But does doing nothing of the sort destroy the fan base? Ballclubs themselves seem to act that way.

How extensively this could be researched, I don't know. But I think the possibility has to be acknowledged, so long as actual ballclub managements believe it.

Jan 04, 2010 10:42 AM
rating: -1
 
Robmoore
(622)

I think there's something else there, too. There's a value to signing a guy and saying "Hey, we're in the game again," sort of like the Tigers did a few years back when they signed Ivan Rodriguez to an above market contract. It told people around the league that Detroit was not interested in being a laughing stock any more, and led to more free agents being willing to sign on. Fast forward a few years, and they're in the World Series.

Of course, I thought that was what they Royals were trying to do when they signed Gil Meche, so it all depends on execution of all aspects of a plan. And the Orioles were never as bad as those Tigers teams.

Jan 04, 2010 10:57 AM
rating: 1
 
hennethannun

I think there's another obvious psychological flaw in the 'culture of losing' learned helplessness theory: In traditional learned helplessness, the victim learns to not give out a complete effort because the a loss will result no matter how much effort the victim gives, and all other things being equal, there is no reason to give extra effort when the outcome is certain. But all other things aren't equal. Baseball TEAMS care only about wins and losses, but the actual statistics matter a whole lot more to the players because their salaries are directly related to performance. How could a player ever learn to not give his full effort in a loss when he can also see that giving his full effort will result in a 100-500% pay raise?

As far as signing gonzalez in the hopes of trading him for prospects either this season or next season, I'm not sure that's a terrible idea. You get some performance now, which may not improve your team's chance to win a world series, but might provide a few more wins now (and thus provide a bit more short term revenue since I think we can assume that more fans come to see teams that win more games, even if they are winning 78 instead of 72) while also being able to turn some of that money into, effectively, an amateur signing. The Orioles turned Sherrill's salary into Josh Bell. How much would it have cost to sign an international free agent who was the same age as bell and had the same upside? The fact that sherrill was still arbitration eligible changes the math a bit, but I think that the general idea of signing a free agent, extracting some short term value from him in propping up fan interest in a losing team, and then turning him into good prospects is fairly sound assuming you are confident that the player can be turned into a decent prospect (package). Of course, that's a fairly big assumption.

Jan 04, 2010 11:12 AM
rating: 3
 
ccseverson

It's also possible that winning a few extra ballgames and "making a go of it" the next few years gives you a better chance to sign your young talent to long-term deals.

Jan 04, 2010 19:30 PM
rating: 0
 
BrewersTT

I was surprised there was no significant correlation between team performance early in one's career and individual performance later, not because of any culture-related or psychological hypothesis, but because I would have thought the lousy teams would be more prone to botching player development. The findings would appear to rule out that relationship as well, at least at the ML level.

I may be off the geeky deep end, but I'd be interested in seeing the actual numbers you came up with, in support of your conclusion. A regression diagnostic or two.

Regarding the "fungibility" of payroll money: I have never worked for a sports franchise, but the companies I have worked for have certainly not set operating budgets based on carrying over all unspent funds from the year before. If a given year's budget was not fully spent, management did not automatically add the surplus to what they made available for operation in the coming year, at least in the industries I've been exposed to. It went to profit, debt paydown, other business activities, lots of other things.

Jan 04, 2010 20:04 PM
rating: 0
 
Russell A. Carleton

Contact me via backchannel if you want the specifics. I enjoy me some good geekiness. My e-mail's at the end of the article text.

Whether the saved payroll money would have been spent elsewhere is something only the O's know for sure, but theoretically, it could have simply been banked. Or spent on minor league development. Someone might make the case that this sort of spending would actually be more beneficial in the long run.

Jan 04, 2010 21:45 PM
rating: 0
 
baserip4

I'm not sure that your argument wouldn't still be worth exploring; I might be missing Russell's point, but he's saying that winning percentage early in a career has no effect on future OBP or SLG. He's not saying that winning percentage early has no correlation with current OBP and SLG. Russell, do young players on bad teams perform worse than young players on good teams?

Jan 05, 2010 09:05 AM
rating: 0
 
baserip4

To clarify, I mean this in terms of bad organizations botching development before the player even gets to the Major League level.

Jan 05, 2010 09:07 AM
rating: 0
 
Russell A. Carleton

Your reading is correct. Early winning percentage does not affect future SLG or OBP.

Early winning percentage correlates with early OBP at .234 and SLG at .191. Those are significant numbers, although not compellingly large. Players on better teams are better, but better players make for better teams. It becomes a correlation-causation trap.

Jan 05, 2010 09:49 AM
rating: 0
 
baserip4

That's certainly what I suspected. I wonder if there would be a way to use minor league translations to see if players that join bad teams tend to underperform expected performance and players that join good teams outperform. In that case, "winning culture" might well be important, but the effect would only be evident upon reaching the Major Leagues. In which case, it's too late for the Orioles, but perhaps not for Pirates prospects.

Another interesting study might be "Do good players on bad teams tend to remain on bad teams, or do their teams improve?"

Jan 05, 2010 10:55 AM
rating: 0
 
Worthing

Russell,

Nice article.

I read the comments above and am a bit confused why we're discussing was it a good signing or a bad? I thought the point of the article was to examine a commonly held point of view (losing hampers player development) and go at it with some sort of expertise instead of armchair psychologist. I'm trusting Russell that he has some sort of experience to bring to the discussion when he says "Well, I’m not an amateur." If he doesn't, well, then shame on him and boot him out of here for implying such. I'll allow that the main thrust isn't quite clear though.

In the State of Prospectus thread, pizzacutter (aka, Russell) asked what we're asking for iin the comments. Well, for me, this is actually kind of it. Ahh, irony. Statistically informed? Yep. Attacks an issue from a new angle? Yep. Some humor? Yep (if a bit light on it).

I'm working my ass off to give the new folk a chance. Frankly, a (not so) little piece of BP has died as each of the old vanguard have left. This article at least gives me some hope. It isn't the best piece of BP writing I've ever read (that's not an indictment of Russell, it's mad props to some of the brilliant writing we've been lucky to experience here), but it's the kind of writing/analysis I come here for.

Jan 04, 2010 20:06 PM
rating: 1
 
Russell A. Carleton

I actually intended for the piece to be about the effects of winning/losing on player development. I was rather surprised that the comments went that way, but that's what people wanted to do. Anyone still up for the discussion on player development and culture of winning?

I promise I'm not an amateur. I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology (hence, Baseball Therapy) with an emphasis on children and adolescents. A lot of the stuff that I have written in the past and will continue to write will be looking at a number of commonly held beliefs about baseball which are really just bad amateur psychology. But I trust that means I won't get booted out? ;)

FWIW, I hope you keep reading. As someone who read BP for a long time before I got hired here, I miss a lot of those first generation folks too. They wrote some really cool stuff and I enjoyed reading it too. In fact, one of the coolest moments in my life was actually getting to meet Dan Fox at the BP event in Pittsburgh this past summer and having him say "Oh yeah, I've read your stuff, it's really good." I'll do my best to carry on the proud tradition.

Jan 04, 2010 21:42 PM
rating: 0
 
Schere

I like the article, I was one of those who commented on this possibility. You're probably right, even 40 wins is probably enough to avoid any true conditioning. If there is a conditioning effect, I might hypothesize that there is probably a higher threshhold in markets where players are getting negatively-skewed feedback, where they're punished for losses far more than they are praised for victories. And one could argue that closer-blown games deliver the most skewed feedback.

And, as you say, direction first, but weren't there some players who fit the first part of the sample and didn't make it to "peak" seasons? I guess I'm asking - does your mini-study have survivorship bias?

Thanks & I look forward to reading more of your work.

Jan 05, 2010 14:29 PM
rating: 0
 
Russell A. Carleton

I did do some preliminary checks for survivorship bias, but did not report them. There was no association between early winning percentage and washing out of baseball. If there was a "survivorship bias" it would be that some of the players in the first part of the sample had not yet made it to age 29, and as such I couldn't include them.

The point about negatively skewed feedback is well-taken. I hope to do some more writing on the subject soon. Blown leads in the ninth subjectively hurt more than a vlown lead in the sixth inning, but the result is the same objectively. I think this disparity drives a lot of silly decisions in baseball. Could it have an effect here, especially around Gonzalez? Maybe. That would take a little more data digging.

Jan 05, 2010 19:16 PM
rating: 0
 
Schere

Thanks for the reply. Interesting stuff.

Jan 06, 2010 12:36 PM
rating: 0
 
worldtour

Your analysis leaves one question open that you could probably figure out how to answer with your data set: Does "winning" help teams retain the better young players (and thereby reap the rewards of their investment during peak production years)?

MIGHT the Orioles be making a legitimate bid to hold on to Wieters et alia circa 2012 by adding a few wins via Gonzalez?

Jan 05, 2010 20:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Nathan J. Miller

Yeah I think this is the more interesting question... even though the vet won't push you over the top--or the few extra wins have any psychological effect on player development--how much does it affect team attractiveness? Not only for retaining homegrown talent but in attracting other talent down the line or in draft pick signability or international signings?

I can't imagine too many players would want to go to a losing team that doesn't appear to be in a position to win in a few years... I mean look what's happening with Washington. They sign Dunn and Pudge and now you have guys like Capps who *want* to play for them.

Jan 06, 2010 14:35 PM
rating: 0
 
Russell A. Carleton

That's the underlying theory for why I think that the signing was made. Perhaps another day, I'll take a look at the hard data.

Jan 07, 2010 09:23 AM
rating: 0
 
sgshaw

My guess is that the O's were buying a "proven closer" in order to not put a young prospect into a role in which he might experience failure. The idea being that a young player who is not ready might have his development impaired by being pushed into a role for which he might not be ready.

Having said that, I don't like the Gonzalez signing because it costs them a draft pick. Find some other former Pittsburg reliever who won't cost as much and let him fail at less cost. I'm betting that Stan Belinda is probably still available.

Jan 05, 2010 20:38 PM
rating: 0
 
Russell A. Carleton

My original plan for this article actually included a test for the idea that putting young relievers into high leverage situations was hazardous to their health, but eventually, I had to drop it for time.

Jan 07, 2010 09:25 AM
rating: 0
 
nsacpi

I think the last paragraph addresses an important issue--finding ways to get a hometown discount when the kids reach their free agency years. One way to do this is to have a manager players' enjoy playing for. He might or might not be the greatest tactician. But if he gets a couple big-time players to sign for a 10% discount that is worth something.

Another way to try to get the hometown discount is to literally draft and sign hometown kids. Kids who grew up as fans. I think they are more likely to sign at a discount than kids who grew up thousands of miles away and as fans of another team.

Yet another way is the "culture of winning" issue addressed in the article. When deciding where to play next, I'm sure probability of making the playoffs is a fairly important consideration for most players.

Jan 05, 2010 22:00 PM
rating: 0
 
Peter_K

Another argument against applying the learned helplessness model to young MLB ballplayers is this: far from experiencing anything close to being shocked while being held in captivity, young ballplayers are being paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to play a game. Indeed, their "chance of escape" is always within sight in the form of impending free agency. Helpless indeed!

Jan 07, 2010 07:11 AM
rating: 0
 
bronnerea

Is the concern here really building a culture of winning for guys like Wieters or Markakis? It would seem to me the more relevant concern is building a strong bullpen behind a very young pitching staff. If guys like Tillman and Matusz start to think that they need to go the distance just to get a win it could be problematic for their development. I really like this signing as a building block for the development of the pitching staff, not the offensive prospects.

Jan 08, 2010 19:37 PM
rating: 0
 
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