Thursday, March 02, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell is the current guest of Bill Simmons's Curious Guy feature.

It's a great exchange, and you should read the whole thing (I'm imagining I actually have readers here), but I found Gladwell's analysis of the "contract year" phenomenon in the case of Eric Dampier very interesting on a number of levels:

What can we conclude from this? The obvious answer is that effort plays a much larger role in athletic performance than we care to admit. When he tries, Dampier is one of the top centers in the league. When he doesn't try, he's mediocre. So a big part of talent is effort. The second obvious answer is that performance (at least in centers) is incredibly variable. The same person can be a mediocre center one year and a top 10 center the next just based on how motivated he is. So is Dampier a top 10 player or a mediocre player? There is no way to answer that. It depends. He's not inherently good or bad. He's both. The third obvious answer is that coaching matters. If you are a coach who can get Dampier to try, you can turn a mediocre center into a top 10 center. And you, the coach, will be enormously valuable.

And this is where I think sabermetric analysis of baseball falls short, in my opinion, as I alluded to inmy analysis of last year's White Sox. Sabermetric analysis rests on the assumption that a player's productivity is relatively constant, or, more accurately, follows a predictable career pattern. So a GM's job is to assemble a team of players whose expected productivity is sufficient to win a division title. Thus the development of tools like PECOTA, which forecast the probabilities of different levels of production based on that of similar players.

But the contract year phenomenon challenges all that. A team's management needs to assemble a collection of talent that can produce, but equally important is its ability to create an environment where the players they have exert the maximum amount of effort.

So, to choose an example, maybe "small ball" tactics like bunting and the hit and run and stealing bases aren't good risks by statistical analysis. But maybe they keep players on their toes and engaged in the game more than station to station wait for the three run home run offense. Obviously this isn't the only way to keep players motivated (Earl Weaver's teams never lacked for effort, and he was famous for eschewing small ball), but it is one way. And as I noted about the White Sox, when you see a team consistently over-achieve on defense, allowing their pitchers to dramatically overachieve, you've got to think that they're creating a winning environment.

Gladwell turns this analysis on to an underachieving student; I was thinking about corporate America. My experience is that much of a company's energy is spent in creating policies to limit the damage the worst employee can do rather than unleashing the potential of the best employees. What if we instead focused on how we can get the best effort out of our best employees? Wouldn't that pay more dividends?

As I said, a very fascinating conversation...
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