Have you ever noticed how debates have a tendency to polarize a conversation? I sometimes feel like engaging in a debate with someone makes it less likely that we’ll find a common ground on some issue, as both sides dig in, believing they are 100% accurate while the other side is spewing garbage. Points get exaggerated in an effort to prove the other person wrong, and the debate becomes a black-or-white affair with none of the all important shades of gray. I’ve noticed this before with players: if the mainstream media likes a player more than I feel they’re worth, I have a tendency to push back against that and over-exaggerate the player’s flaws in an attempt to balance out the other side. Jason Bartlett didn’t deserve to be named the Rays’ MVP in 2008, but he was certainly more valuable than the amount of flak he received from saber-Rays fans as a result.
When the Luis Castillo news came out last Friday, I was immediately reminded of the old sabermetric discussions over “grit” and team chemistry. Up until a few seasons ago, many mainstream writers (and fans) loved to tout the importance of chemistry in leading a team to success, and they had a tendency to treat gritty players that work hard and play the game “the right way” as demigods. That’s not say that these type of arguments have vanished; there are still plenty of writers and fans that value chemistry and grit, but it’s become tougher and tougher to find articles espousing that point of view. For the most part, this is a debate that the saberists have won: it’s not that character attributes don’t exist, but that they have a very small influence on performance and are impossible to separate from all the surrounding statistical noise.
But just because something has a small and indeterminate effect doesn’t mean we can ignore it completely. In fact, I’d argue that a General Manager should take a player’s makeup into account…just not as much as the grit lovers would have you believe.
In recent years, there have been psychology studies that show that a person’s work environment can have an impact on their level of productivity in the workplace. Consider this from a personal level: if you feel supported by the people around you and you enjoy working as a part of your company’s team, wouldn’t you be more likely to work better than if you hated your co-workers and company? It’s common knowledge to H.R. workers (or at least, it should be) that in order to create a productive workplace, you need to make sure that everyone feels supported and encouraged. It’s all about creating a positive psychosocial work environment.
While a major league clubhouse is far from a typical work environment – and playing baseball isn’t exactly like pushing papers – the same principles should apply. We’re all human and subject to the same social influences, so it makes sense to me that players would be more likely to exert more effort if they are in a supportive, tight-knit clubhouse. Whether that extra effort translates into a better result on the field is another question entirely, but if a GM wants to give their team every possible advantage, they’d be well served to encourage a supportive clubhouse atmosphere. Maybe the only noticeable change is that more players show up early for B.P. and drills, but hey, that’s still something, right? Especially on teams with lots of young talent, the more work your players get the better.
Along those same lines, prospects are the lifeblood of major league teams. Even if you’re a team blessed with revenue streams out the wazoo, your team’s long-term success depends heavily on your ability to acquire and develop top level prospects. And while talent is obviously the most important thing to be assessed with prospects, scouts also put value on “makeup”, as they try to determine how well a player will respond to failure, how hard they will work to keep getting better, and if they’ll respond well to the pressure of playing in the high minors and majors. I think Jim Callis from Baseball America sums it up best:
Character and makeup do play a part in our rankings, though talent still has to be the overriding factor. Work ethic, intelligence and off-field issues can help or hinder a prospect as he tries to reach his ceiling. At the same time, the hardest-working, smartest, cleanest-living player isn’t going to make it if he doesn’t have the physical ability.
Character and makeup won’t turn a scrub into a star, nor will it make a mediocre team into a championship caliber squad. It should never be cited as the sole reason a team is playing well, and we should also think twice about citing it in an argument about a player’s value. How do we, casual observers of baseball, truly know who’s a good clubhouse presence and who isn’t? All of our information on players is colored by the people reporting it to us, and their statements and opinions are going to be influenced by how a player interacts with them. A player could be horrible with the media yet great with his teammates, so I’d think twice before casting any judgments.*
*Of course, then there’s Castillo who was criticized directly by his manager. That’s certainly not good.
We’ll likely never be able to attach a value to being a good “clubhouse presence”, but that doesn’t mean teams won’t stop valuing players that have that skill. There’s a reason players like Jeff Francoeur and Gregg Zaun can hang around for so long despite being glorified bench players…and as long as teams aren’t paying more for that “presence”, there’s nothing wrong with that. Teams should seek every advantage they can, even the psychological ones.