We’ve heard it countless times: baseball is a game of adjustments. Regardless of how talented a player is, he’s going to have to adjust at the big-league level if he wants to remain successful. Take Anthony Rizzo, for example. In 2012 he tasted his first bit of success in the major leagues. The following year was rough, and his terrible average against lefties was a part of that. So what did he do? He worked on it and prioritized fixing it. And fix it he did: over the past two years he’s hitting over .300 against lefties—he’s turned a weakness into a strength and gone from being a good player to a great player.
Contrast that with a guy like Corey Patterson. Like Rizzo, Patterson was a heavily touted prospect coming up through the minors. He was a five-tool player capable of doing whatever he wanted on the baseball field. In 2003, it looked like he had it figured out (.298/.329/.511) until he hurt his knee and missed the second half of the season. He was only 23 years old, but that half season in 2003 would mark the high point of what would become a rather mediocre major-league career. Major-league pitchers feasted on his inability to control the strike zone and his propensity to think of himself as a power hitter instead of a guy who should leverage his tremendous speed. Patterson is currently 35 years old, out of baseball, and he’ll likely only be remembered for the huge disappointment he was for Cub fans tracking the hype surrounding him in the minor leagues.
What makes a player like Rizzo able to make these adjustments, while a guy like Patterson struggles to simply stay in pro ball despite his amazing natural talents? Is there something in their personality or “makeup” that separates the two? If so, how can we quantify that difference when it comes to evaluating players to help us pick “the right” player in the future?
As with most things, Google has an answer. Not in a Google search, but in the way their HR department hires and evaluates their talent.
I recently read Work Rules! by Lazslo Bock, the SVP of people operations at Google, and he gives some insight into how Google evaluates potential hires and employees at the company. It’s a fascinating look at how a company whose entire business model is based on its ability to sort and organize massive quantities of information and separate the noise from what’s important.
Google attempts to objectively quantify each candidate by scoring them on certain traits during the interview process. In much the same way baseball teams rate a player’s tools, Google asks all employees involved in interviews (they spend a LOT of time on this) to measure each candidate along four attributes that predict how successful someone would be at Google:
- Cognitive ability (smarts)
- Role-related knowledge
Let’s call Googleyness the “special sauce” of succeeding at Google, and that’s what they’re looking for in the interview process. By looking at the data of performance reviews (another very interesting process) in the company, they learned that a successful employee at Google looked something like this: someone who likes to have fun, is humble, is comfortable with ambiguity, and has interesting/unique paths that they’ve taken in life. I want to stress again that this is Google we’re talking about, so they’re quantifying all of this and making it a data-processing decision, not a subjective, “I think he should be hired because I got a good vibe” decision.
In baseball—if all else is equal—is there anything we can point to that will help predict which talented players will become productive major leaguers and which ones won’t? What about that ability to adjust that we talked about at the beginning? How do we separate the Pattersons from the Rizzos?
What if the Cubs could somehow incorporate that measurement into the way they rank every amateur player available in the draft? Every major leaguer they’re considering trading for? Every free agent who could potentially help the team win?
There would be a tremendous amount of value in that. And while we’re in there ranking players on something as ambiguous as “adjustability,” let’s go ahead and try to rank them on other traits like mental toughness, ability to overcome obstacles (Rizzo and Jon Lester fighting and beating cancer come to mind), and likability.
I’m not a sociologist, nor do I work in HR, but you would need to hire some super smart people to ensure you’re measuring the right things and adjust accordingly.
Are there holes in this approach? Sure, tons:
- Prospects aren’t ready-made products (they’re immature). They will grow and mature and learn a lot of this after you’ve drafted them, so it’ll be hard to identify adjustability when you’re evaluating an 18-year-old high-school player.
- International players are different. They come from different cultures that will create “noise” around whatever system you have in place to measure any of these traits.
- Variability: some scouts will suck at gauging one skill over another. Some scouts will fall in love with a tool and unconsciously favor that player in all the rankings they give him.
I’m sure you can think of many more, but the elegance of a system like this isn’t in what we get out of it right away, it’s what we get by adjusting over the long term. Like Google, you might discover that players who rank highly for adjustability tend to be great closers, so you work that into your model. Or you find out that adjustability has no predictive power as to how successful a player is going to be in the major leagues (I would highly doubt that) and adjust accordingly. The model should evolve over time based on what you discover—that’s where this approach starts to pay off.
Google tracks new employees for as long as they stay with the company, so they can look at their top performers and see what kinds of scores they were given during their interviews and then try to find similarly ranked employees for similar positions.
If all of this sounds new to you, it might not be. Major-league teams still have a lot of proprietary stuff going on behind the scenes that they try to keep from other teams, and it’s likely that a system like this already exists. Jeff Luhnow and the Astros have received a lot of praise for their reliance on analytics (so good, in fact, that the Cardinals wanted to take a peek at their methods), and they seem to have something similar in place (emphasis is mine):
He offers the hypothetical example of a college draft prospect. “Let’s say he’s played two summers in a wood-bat league,” he says. “He’s got hundreds of Division I at-bats with a composite bat but against a wide variety of competition. You’ve got scouts’ input on his potential. Your video analyst says his swing is in the top quartile of swings he’s seen that lead to success in the major leagues. Your area scout says his character is in the top 10 percent of players. But he’s a C-minus student. Not academic, doesn’t learn well. Your doctor says he’s got a slightly above-average risk of sustaining an injury. I’ve just given you nine pieces of information. How do you weight them? I can’t do that in my mind. It’s overload for any human being. But we have a thousand players on the draft board we’re trying to rank in order.”
Did that area scout just throw the “top 10 percent” out there off the top of his head, or does he have a systematic, consistent way of collecting and analyzing that data?
That same article talks about Collin McHugh’s turnaround with the Astros:
In his first start of the season, McHugh struck out 12 batters and walked none, beating the Seattle Mariners. “He was open to [instruction],” says Stearns, “and it’s led to a significant amount of success.”
Before they acquired McHugh, did the Astros know that his personality was such that he would be open to instruction? Or is it hard enough to find a major-league arm that they figured they’d just try to work with him regardless?
Let’s bring this back to the Cubs—there are plenty of examples in their system that show they’re paying attention to some of these subjective qualities.
Look at the Cubs last four first-round draft picks—they all have high “makeup” scores if you read the hundreds of articles written about them. I could show you a bunch of quotes from the Cubs front office on Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, and Ian Happ raving about the personalities of these players. Instead I’ll point you to one article (by WBP’s own Sahadev Sharma) on Albert Almora because the general idea of makeup and its importance is discussed (my emphasis):
Acquiring high-end talent is the best way to go about such a task, but senior vice president of scouting and player development, Jason McLeod, says the Cubs are always looking for that little something extra that can help put a prospect over the top.
“Obviously talent plays, that’s the first thing,” McLeod said. “As a scout, you go in and you look for what a player physically can and can’t do on the field and project that out. I think that all of us as evaluators feel that the makeup is a separator in terms of, ‘Is it going to allow this player to maximize his abilities on the field and allow him to make good decisions off the field?’ “
Looking backwards, it’s easy to find examples of players who were able to make adjustments and become successful. It’s also easy to find examples of talented players who just couldn’t hack it. Take this Nelson Cruz/Wily Mo Pena comparison:
Naturally, much of the credit goes to Cruz, who’s coachable, persistent, smart, and athletic, a mixture of makeup and physical skill that allowed him to adjust in a way that a set-in-his-ways slugger like Wily Mo Pena wouldn’t.
I don’t know what kind of secret sabermetric stats the Cubs keep on the inside of the organization, but if it’s anything like Google then what they have is another layer of information that should help them stockpile players who are more likely to contribute in the big leagues than not.
That’s a huge advantage—for now. Once all teams catch up and start evaluating and ranking on this type of thing, the Cubs will have to search for some other edge to help gain an advantage.
After all, baseball is a game of adjustments. Whoever fails to adjust will have a tough time putting together a competitive team.
Lead photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports