Economic sociology of baseball OR Why DID the Dodgers pay that much for Juan Pierre?
May 7, 2008 7 Comments
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:
- 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?
- 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.