Friday, November 4, 2011

Where Do Intangibles Fit In?

By Mark Smith

I can’t remember how many years ago this was, but I’ll tell the story anyway. My oldest brother was moving out of his apartment and into his first house. He was, of course, very excited, but the movers wouldn’t be there until the day after he could move into his house. So I helped him move some stuff out of his apartment, and because the TV is the most important thing in the house, we had to plug that in. With the entertainment center in, we decided we’d put the cable cord in the back of TV and put it in, avoiding the awkward attempt of putting the cord in with the TV in the entertainment center. On the way from picking it up to getting it in the entertainment center, one of us (I blame him) started losing his grip, and we dropped the TV, ripping the cable cord out of the back of the TV.

We, of course, not only ripped that out, we ripped out part of the thing the cable jack in the TV goes into, which essentially ruins the TV. My brother, the tech geek, decides he can fix it. We head to the nearest wherever-you-get-the-crap-for-that-store, and he buys a soldering iron to put things back together. When we get back, he takes off the back of the TV, which was really cool, but as he did it, he hands me the phone and warns, “If you hear a pop, call 911 and tell them my address.” I respond, “What’s your address?” He answers, “I don’t remember. Let’s just hope you don’t hear a pop.”

What was really cool about all that (yes, he did fix the TV; it was quite impressive actually) was seeing the TV taken apart. I’ve seen a TV thousands of times, but that’s the only time I’ve seen it taken apart. All of those parts come together to help me watch baseball games, Home Improvement, and The View whenever my dad decides he needs to watch that (it’s one of the weirdest sights; here’s my dad watching The View without my mother anywhere near the room, and people wonder why my gender roles are mixed up). It’s pretty amazing.

Sometimes, I think we forget to deconstruct things, and I think it would benefit everyone to do so more often (not literally; watch a Youtube video). On one hand, we can think that TV episodes come through by magic, or we can take it apart and ask how it actually happens. We can do the same thing with baseball players, so let’s do it in a very clear-cut fashion.

At the very basic level, players have tools. Leo Durocher once remarked (free writing tip: never use the word “says”; there are tons better words that are way more descriptive), “There are only five things you can do in baseball - run, throw, catch, hit, and hit with power.” Today, we call those the five basic tools, and they are pretty good for most position players (pitchers are obviously a little different, but for our purposes, let’s just leave it alone, K?). It’s an example of how we deconstruct players, though we may not realize it. We look at each player, grade their tools, and project how they will play given how those tools fit together. We hope they become “skills”, like we hope the basic parts of a TV connect together to become a TV.

Then the “magic” happens. Electricity runs through the various parts, being transformed into the television picture we see. While we can actually explain that, baseball players are very similar, and my theory is that here is where intangibles come in. Intangibles are the electricity. They are what runs through and connects the tools to become skills.

We always wonder how some players “get it” and how others don’t. Their intangibles is a pretty excellent reason. Those intangibles are work ethic, leadership, intelligence, focus, confidence, ability to handle pressure, etc. These, along with the players’ talents, mold them into what they become. How that works, however, is still a mystery, unlike electricity. That’s why teams miss so often, and it’s probably why teams should do more psychological profiles on players (market inefficiency!), if only to try to figure out the answer.

Where this will run into problems with some people is how “mean” (I can’t really come up with a better word right now) players succeed. How Milton Bradley get so far? Carlos Zambrano? Why is Bryce Harper so awesome? They’re all less than desirable personalities, but they’ve succeeded more than 99.9% of the other players who have tried. Why do they get to succeed? The first answer is that life isn’t fair, and people often get more or less than they deserve, karma be damned. The second and more baseball-related answer is that being nice doesn’t really help in baseball. Sure, people will like you less, and in moments where you or the team is failing, you’ll be a real handful. But what people really care about are those statistics, or production, you have. And you get those numbers through talent and intangibles, and I’m sorry to tell you that confidence, focus, and ability to handle pressure are probably among the most important intangibles. And they have nothing to do with being nice.

But those intangibles occur before the numbers, not after the numbers. Because the intangibles show up in the numbers. If you are “clutch”, you would hit better in clutch situations. If it mattered that you were a good teammate, players on your team would get better when you showed up, but that would show up in their stats. Baseball is a very analyzed sport. Everything that happens gets counted by someone, weighted by someone else, and interpreted by all sorts of other people. What happens on the field does show up in the numbers, and if intangibles have an effect above the player that already exists, it will show up, I promise.

And if it does, that’s fine. It’s still an intangible because it’s a fairly unexplainable characteristic that causes someone to do something extraordinary, either way. But analysts have yet to find those instances. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’d argue they do exist, but they exist in a different place than you’d expect. Intangibles aren’t the stylish look on the TV that give it the extra pizzazz. They’re the electricity that makes it work. They’re the qualities that bring a player’s tools together to make skills and to make a productive or unproductive player. Lots of other things go into making that player, just as more than just electricity goes into making a TV, but intangibles do matter. They just matter in a different way than you expected or maybe even wanted. But if it makes you feel better, it’s why there’s been that nagging feeling that intangibles exist despite the evidence contrary to where you were looking before.

Well, that’s my theory anyway.


Phil said...

Nice piece, but I gotta call BS on lumping Harper in with Bradley and Zambrano. That's a completely unfair comparison. It should be noted as an example of how very much more attention and scrutiny he draws than any other prospect - it's not close. And yes, by way of disclosure, I am a Nats fan.

Paul said...

Harper's a well-documented asshole (and it has nothing to do with media scrutiny -- he really is an asshole).

That said, his personality has never proven to be a detriment to his team (at least no manager, coach, or teammate has ever come forward to say so).

Bradley/Zambrano's anger issues have actually affected their teams' ability to win/lose ballgames. There's your difference.

Really good piece.

Phil said...

Can you point me to the documentation, or any scout on the record with concerns about his makeup? It's not there. He's cocky and kinda douchey, but that compares to A-Rod, not Milton effing Bradley. So thanks for proving my point.

Phil said...

Read this:

The Common Man said...

Yeah, unless he does something that really highlights a lack of character on his part, The Common Man is going to have to adjust his perception of Harper. He hasn't done anything wrong in his career, really. And anything he has done so far that we've heard about is easily attributable to being 17-19 years old. Let's not bury the kid (and TCM says this as someone who has publically been skeptical of Harper's character in the past).

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Enjoyed this piece a lot. I have one question though. After reading this piece, is know...okay, then to like Derek Jeter now?

badhairday said...

"...being nice doesn’t really help in baseball... what people really care about are those statistics, or production..."

Even so, on my team, I would rather have one Michael Cuddyer than three Manny-Being-Mannys'.

And no, William, it is never okay to like Derek Jeter.

The Common Man said...

TCM would take those three in-his-prime Mannys (putting them in LF, RF, and DH), and pound you back into the stoneage, BHD. It would be hilarious. Your team would get destroyed, but at least they'd be genial about the ass-whupping.

Mark Smith said...

Just to be clear, I was mainly talking about the perception of Harper. I've never met him, so I won't say what he actually is or isn't. But if someone to "measure" his intangibles, he wouldn't get positive marks.
But as for him hurting his team, he's never played in the majors, and I don't recall the others having such issues. But again, my point wasn't to call out Harper.

And yeah BHD, I'll take the three Mannys over three Cuddyers.