FIRE JOE MORGAN: Peer Effects and Baseball


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Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Peer Effects and Baseball

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred you will find us decrying baseball men's obeisance to good clubhouse chemistry, that most intangible of virtues. This post is that odd hundredth time where we stop to consider, if only for a fleeting moment, the possibility that there's something to it after all.

What could compel us toward this unsavory line of thought? A scientific study, of course. Or at least, an economic one. Slate posted an article with the intriguing subtitle "Do hardworking employees make their lazy colleagues more productive?"

To me, this read as "Does hardworking David Eckstein/Derek Jeter/Trot Nixon make his lazy-ass teammates more productive?" But I guess these guys were looking at supermarket checkout people or something:

The researchers in question, Alexandre Mas and Enrico Moretti, decided that checkout staff would be ideal guinea pigs in an experiment to answer a vexed question: What happens when an unusually hardworking (or lazy) worker joins a team?

The question is part of the broader study of "peer effects."

Sports commentators and sportswriters, I realized, love peer effects. They love talking about them, they love speculating about them, they love blowing them out of proportion. The negative manifestation of peer effects is obvious: oh my God, what will happen to our clubhouse if we trade for Milton Bradley? Will Terrell Owens poison our locker room? Artest is a cancer! We're fucked! (And in that last case, they actually sort of are now.)

But the positive peer effect is a favorite also -- maybe it's just me, but I feel like everyone has suddenly decided to agree that having Jason Varitek on your team somehow makes everyone else 10% better.

Back to the study:

Mas and Moretti rely instead on scarily detailed data: having somehow sweet-talked a supermarket into cooperating, they compiled a data-set that tracks every single "beep," every transaction, for 370 workers in six stores, timed by the second, for two years. They can measure each worker's productivity by the second and note how it changes depending on who else is working at the same time.

Okay. I didn't do a rigorous examination of their methodology, but my curiosity is piqued. What happened?

The positive effect dominates, according to Mas and Moretti: They find that a shop assistant sitting near someone who is 10 percent quicker than average will raise her own game by 1.7 percent.

That's a pretty cool result. Score one for the chemistry guys, right? Maybe? At least in a supermarket checkout environment, it seems like having the David Eckstein of checkout workers next to you actually makes you work harder, too. (In a subtle twist, Mas and Moretti found that the effect only took place when the fast checker worked behind you, not in front of you -- perhaps implying that you just felt guilty about these scrappy Ecksteins catching you slacking off.)

But even assuming that this positive peer effect is real, does it apply to major league baseball?

Here's a reason why it could: seeing a teammate practice "harder" (more swings in BP, more strenuous conditioning drills, more time watching tape, whatever) could possibly compel (or guilt) you into doing the same. If these methods of practice actually improve one's play on the field, the peer effect could have a positive impact.

Here are some reasons why it might not: major leaguers presumably already do almost everything they can to be the best players they can be; that's why they're among the several hundred men who are the best at what they do. The AL is like a supermarket filled with already superhumanly fast checkout guys, so perhaps any potential positive effect would be vanishingly small. Also, it's unclear if baseball is as transparently dependent on pure effort as checking groceries. Hitting a curveball better may not be learnable no matter how hard you're working.

My totally unfounded guess is that peer effects in baseball are generally very small (and extremely unpredictable) to the point where they're barely detectable in terms of raw wins produced on the field. The vast majority of the baseball media disagrees, from what I've heard and read. What do you think?

(P.S. Next post will have way more jokes and swearing, I promise.)


Reader Derek writes:

I agree with you guys on peer effect, clubhouse guys, intangibles, generally. Here is one question that you can feel free to address or not: Could the position of catcher be the one place where it might have a marginal impact inasmuch as the "peer effect" is actually the (equally difficult to measure) capability of managing a staff? I am a diehard Red Sox fan, and grew up *knowing* that one of Carlton Fisk's many virtues was his ability to manage a pitching staff. Sub Jason Varitek and you get the contemporary example. It's an argument that seems to me to be the upwardly mobile cousin of "peer effect" or "clubhouse" effect that might be a facile way of saying "I like my catcher better than yours."

Great point. I had meant to insert a small disclaimer about this, but I forgot. Yes, I think that some catchers probably manage their pitching staffs better than others. While it's difficult to measure, I think calling a good game qualifies as something tangible rather than something intangible or psychological.

Therefore I think it's reasonable to say that Varitek might help his pitchers perform a little better, but it's hard to back that claim up and I bet the effect is pretty damn small. Again, though, I'm basing this on something he's doing on the field, not some psychological effect whereby Daisuke Matsuzaka stands on the mound, looks into Varitek's steely eyes, gains a correspondingly steely amount of confidence, and whips a gyroball past a stunned Paul Konerko.

A good example of going overboard on catchers' effects on their pitching staffs can be found here, in a post I made last year.

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posted by Junior  # 2:39 AM
Hey there. Still scrolling all the way down here and looking for new comments? Nice. You're all right with me, kid.

Here, I'll treat you to this sweet email from Brandon H., who has a good insight about performance versus effort in peer effects and actual experience working as a checker. Enjoy:

Quick comment on the hard workers/intangibles/motivation piece. It seems to me, if I read the study correctly, that the peer effect actually depends on performance rather than effort. The study examines the
performance of workers when around those who scan well, not those who try
really hard to scan well. If the study's conclusions are generalizable,
people are inspired by performance and not the effort to produce it.

Two caveats. First, it may be the case that supermarket checking speed is primarily determined by effort and not talent. In my very limited experience as a Wal-Mart checker a few summers ago, that isn't the case: I was well above the store average and didn't really seem to be working harder than anyone else. Second, there is obviously the issue of perception. Whether a person is actually performing well, any peer effect would depend on others thinking that this person is doing so. For example, people who only saw Carlos Beltran's home games last year (and aren't statistically inclined) would see a pretty good offensive player, while one who saw only Beltran's road games would see an offensive superstar. If the Ecksteins and Lo Ducas of the world are perceived as stars by other players, their presence may have a peer effect. Presumably, any perception of these guys as peak performers in the sport would depend on these intangibles, as objective analysis doesn't really justify that view.

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