Economic sociology of baseball OR Why DID the Dodgers pay that much for Juan Pierre?

I had a fascinating discussion the other day at work with a friend who’s a fellow baseball fan and psychologist (he gets my extremely nerdy baseball psychologist joke of “What do you call a three game series between Oakland and Baltimore?”  Answer: A’s and O’s times three!)  He had been to a lecture given by an economic sociologist (a career path I didn’t know existed until our conversation) on how value is assigned in society.  He knew that I am a practicing Sabermetrician and told me that he was interested in extending the concept to baseball players.  He asked me if I could point him to any resources and I gave him a few tips (Sabernomics for baseball and econ, Bob Ngo for the sociology of Sabermetrics, a few folks who do empirically based research on the actual value that a player brings to a team.)  His interest here isn’t so much how much is a player really worth to a team, but instead, what factors go into what value a player is actually assigned.  His question encompasses both salary concerns and social constructions of value (why are some players seen as heroes and others are not?), but for the moment I’m most interested in salary.
Juan Pierre got a ridiculous contract because he is fast and he’s a .300 hitter.  Plenty of pixels have been lit up discussing why this was a bad idea both before and after the signing, but Mr. Pierre is currently cashing his (rather large) checks.  Sabermetrics has done a good job pointing out where some of the inefficiencies are in talent evaluation, the marketplace, and game strategy.  In doing so, we’ve explained what people are doing that they shouldn’t be doing.  But, there’s not much written on why it is that people persist in these errors.
The reasons have to go beyond a simple lack of knowledge.  Maybe there is a lack of knowledge, but at this point, one would have to be actively ignoring Sabermetrics to not at least have heard its arguments.  Good Sabermetric research and writing is out there and this stuff isn’t a secret.  There has to be something more.  I offer this as a conversation starter.  Why?
A few theories of mine:

  1. A structural theory: What is the real goal of a team?  To win a World Series, right?  I suppose it depends on whom you ask.  The owner is in it to make money.  The marketing department is more concerned with how the players on the roster “connect” with the fans (would you sign a player who still hits like crazy, but was an arrogant jerk who might be a cheat?  Not B referring O to N anyone D specific S here… just a hypothetical.)  Some of the players might be more interested in their own stats/perception than the team’s success.  The third base coach is clearly in it so as to minimize the blame on himself.  The GM might need to look like he’s “doing something,” despite the fact that it’s actually a bad move.  Are teams really set up to look for top talent?  Given that there is a “traditionalist” taboo against embracing Sabermetrics, is there a risk that a GM runs in alienating the fan base if he goes too far with it?
  2. A psychological theory: People look up to baseball players in some way as a reflection of themselves.  People assign value to traits that they admire and that they wished that they had in their own lives.  The ability to come through in the clutch or the ability to “play through pain” is something that I suppose we would all love to think that we have.  So, we over-value those players that appear to have those traits (no matter how illusory those are).  GMs are humans as well and simply have the same prejudices.

Now, first we need a few good working theories.  Theory can then inform actual research, perhaps research that no one has really gotten into: systematic research on how players are actually perceived by the general public (the closest thing I’ve seen would be something like Tango Tiger’s fan surveys or the Great Clutch project).  So, I come to you, oh Sabermetrically-inclined readers.  Let’s chat about the subject at hand.


7 Responses to Economic sociology of baseball OR Why DID the Dodgers pay that much for Juan Pierre?

  1. I feel it goes into both of your theories. From a structural standpoint, if teams are not using advanced or even not so advanced statistical analysis, what are they looking at? Well, they’re looking at stats like batting average, stolen bases, hits, and runs when evaluating a leadoff guy.
    Juan Pierre happens to do quite well in those categories. Add in the fact that he does not strike out a whole lot and he appears to be a great leadoff hitter.
    The problem then comes when we realize he is doing well in these categories because he doesn’t walk much and therefore has more opportunities to accrue these stats.
    So, on one hand, Pierre seems like a good leadoff batter due to his BA, SB, hits, and low K rate; on the other hand, he defies general leadoff logic in the sense that he never walks.
    From a psychological standpoint, he is a scrappy hitter that plays old-school baseball. A few years ago my dad was producing a Marlins-Phillies game and was on the field at 4:30 to setup an interview for a 7 pm game. Pierre had been out there for about 20 minutes already, practicing his bunting and testing out the 1st/3rd baselines to see how the wind or surface would effect his bunts.
    When we hear about players who possess old-school skills, hustle, and work hard to improve themselves, it’s hard not to root for them as fans.

  2. Pizza Cutter says:

    Ah, labor omnia vincit (work conquers all). Americans are rather taken with this idea, that if you just try really hard, you can do anything you want. Sounds great when you’re 12… Sure, it’s nice to see a guy who has a good attitude who really is out there working his tail off, but there are limits to what hard work and practice can get you, but as a culture we value the myth that there are no limits. I wonder if Juan Pierre is something of an exemplar for that sort of thought process.

  3. dan says:

    Teams also look for players who are consistent, despite (probably) not realizing that it appears to be a negative trait, all else being equal.

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a baseball game involving a team that Juan Pierre played for during which the broadcasters didn’t mention how early he goes out to test the bunting conditions of the playing field. What I find interesting is that the less natural talent a player has, the more his hard work is emphasized, even though most of the ultra-talented players work quite hard as well. Just look at how Manny Ramirez is perceived, for example – when any mention is made of how hard he works at perfecting his swing, it’s pretty much an afterthought.

  5. Jessica, I thought the same thing with regards to Pizza’s hard-nosed article. We call Aaron Rowand hard-nosed because he isn’t a superstar, posting modest numbers with an all-out hustle approach.
    Chase Utley hustles just as much, if not more, but because is a superstar we just classify him as amazing.
    Hard-nosed and hard work only seem to come into play as a means of justification for players who lack the ability to have their talent stand on its own.

  6. Pizza Cutter says:

    A psychological theory on the subject: coaches do the evaluation of players. Coaches are essentially teachers. I’ve taught before, and the students who were always my favorites were the ones who worked hard at the assignments. It reinforces the ego. But, are they better than the student who gets things without much work?

  7. I often fell into the latter category of getting good grades without necessarily trying too hard simply because I was able to grasp concepts quicker and understand things better than others in my classes.
    Then again, I’m not a huge socialite or partier and generally stay in and work on the weekends; so while it might have appeared things came easily for me I really did work to advance myself, and this is a common fallacy.
    Just because we don’t physically see something happen does not mean it is not happening. We may think of Manny as lazy but I would be willing to bet he works just as hard to perfect his hitting than anyone else.

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