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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Intangibles: A Not-So-Intangible Impact

This is really an age-old debate that needs a bit of clarification.  Recent Hall of Fame arguments (particularly the argument for Jack Morris) have gotten people arguing that intangibles have an impact on an individual and a team that make him better and more valuable to a team than his stats show.  Firstly, let me start by saying that "intangibles" such as leadership that impact the other players on a team are not what I'm here to discuss.  I believe that those things have an impact, albeit completely immeasurable, on one's teammates.  Any one that doubts this should look into any social group or society and see the profound impact that a quality leader can have on people. However, individual intangibles should not be viewed in the same way, and there is a laundry list of reasons why.

Let's first start with the premise of the argument on the side of people who believe in intangibles.  They believe that traits (we'll use athleticism, competitive nature, and hustle in our examples) of an individual make the player better than what the player appears to be on paper.  They believe that these traits provide an immeasurable quantity of value that you can only get if you watch a player play on a daily basis.  For this reason, they not only look at statistics, but they attribute extra things to a player on top of that.  Well, I think that thinking is wrong.  Let's look at each of the three previously mentioned intangibles at a theoretical level.  This should shed some light on a topic that I think is commonly misunderstood: most intangibles have a completely tangible impact.

1) Athleticism

Anybody who has read the book "Moneyball" (or seen the movie, but I recommend the book) probably read about how important athleticism is in the eyes of old school scouts.  There are reasons for this, but they are not intangible.  They are completely tangible.  If all else is equal (competitive nature, hustle, work ethic, etc) then the impact of athleticism will be obvious.  For example, let's assume that the term "athleticism" means that a player has the following qualities that are above the norm: speed and strength.  These are the two most dominant traits that separate good athletes from great athletes in the eye of the public:

Speed- Well, we already know what speed impacts.  Speed affects one's ability to reach on weakly-hit balls (which increases batting average and on-base percentage), one's ability to steal bases and do so effectively (stolen bases and success rate), and one's ability to field his position by increasing range (this impact will be seen in scouting reports and defensive metrics such as UZR and rtot)
Strength- Obviously the biggest thing that increased strength will provide is the ability to hit the ball far.  This will increase home run totals, overall slugging percentage, and ISO (isolate slugging, which is slugging minus the singles).  Assuming that an athlete is strong, this could very well also mean an increase in throwing arm strength, since the player will be able to get more on the ball.  This will also show up in defensive metrics that measure throwing ability and will increase a player's outfield assists and will increase his abilities to make defensive plays on the infield as well.
So athleticism not only has a tangible impact, but it is one of the primary foundations of producing statistics.  It is probably the single most valued ability for a baseball player to have as it so heavily impacts every part of one's game.
2) Competitive Nature
This is probably the biggest one that comes up in a Jack Morris debate.  People believe he had a desire to win above and beyond what other pitchers did.  First of all, I don't think there's any excuse for professional athletes to not want to be competitive, considering they've made professions out of being skilled competitors.  However, that's not what I'm really interested in.  I want to look at a potential impact of an increased ability for competitive nature on the game of baseball.  What is competitive nature?  Just a desire to win games, right?  A desire to be better than everyone else you are competing against.  Well, this will impact every single statistic you can think of.  If a guy is best when he tries his hardest (fair assumption), then he will be performing at his best all the time.  Well, where's the argument?  If he's performing at his best, then you know there is nothing to add to his overall statistical accomplishments.  If he's performing at his best, his rates are going to be as good as they'll ever be assuming that the ability of one's teammates are equal to the abilities of everyone else's teammates.  It is a fundamental truth in baseball that the team that produces more runs than the other team is going to win.  How does one produce runs better than the other team?  Perform better statistically.  How does one perform better statistically?  Assuming everyone is equally talented, the answer is by trying harder and putting in more effort.  How does one try harder and put in more effort?  By being competitive.  Just like athleticism, a competitive nature is something that is a foundation of the formulation of all statistics.  There's no extra benefit to be gained by being competitive on top of what your stats already show.
3) Hustle
We'll call this the "David Eckstein" effect.  Is there any player in recent years that has been given more critical acclaim due to intangibles than David Eckstein?  Well, maybe Nick Punto, but David Eckstein is the guy I attribute most to it.  So what is hustle?  Let's go to for this one:
"to proceed or work rapidly or energetically"
Seems pretty straightforward to me.  Looks like hustling is giving maximum effort (gee, that sounds familiar to that competitive nature thing from before, eh?).  In this case, hustling is going to show up in just about every statistic you can see.  "Taking the extra base" turns a single into a double (which impacts SLG and ISO), "going first to third" is something people actually keep track of (thank you people at, and other forms of hustle (such as defensive plays due to hustle and stealing bases) will show up in the defensive metrics we use, the overall prevention of runs, and stolen base totals.  Every ounce of effort put into playing by a baseball player will show up in his statistics.
In the end, there's no added impact from hustling, athleticism, or competitive nature beyond the statistics that a player puts up.  Nobody is being sold short, and nobody should be cheated out of the numbers they put up because they weren't perceived as a quality person, didn't give 100%, or weren't the most athletic person in the world.  Writers and fans made a joke of the seemingly complete absence of effort from Manny Ramirez, but his overall numbers are a lot better than a lot of guys who have seemingly tried very hard.  It is wrong to penalize individuals for not appearing to try hard, and it is equally unfair to give added benefits to a player because he hustled and went from first to second.  Those individual intangibles do make players better.  However, the impact isn't "intangible."  The impact is perfectly tangible as these things impact most of the statistics we know: batting average, on-base percentage, defensive metrics, stolen base success, fielding-independent metrics, home runs, etc.
Arguing over the impact of individual intangibles gets us nowhere.  These things are already recorded, and players like Jack Morris aren't being sold short here.  Every ounce of Morris' competitive nature has been recorded in the numbers he put up.  There is no reason to give Morris additional credit for his competitive nature, because it would be redundant.  
So hopefully now people understand that our common individual intangibles do have a tangible impact, they are accounted for, and nobody is being sold short when their stats are being portrayed (as long as you use the right ones that is).  So let's let this argument die, already.


  1. Solid. I like it. I'm sure someone like Heyman would have a muddled response of some sort, because you can't talk reason into people who believe they can observe and appreciate things that are "intangible," but this pretty much nails the argument against it.

  2. Thank you. Feel free to read through some of our other articles. Always looking for constructive criticism/increased exposure haha.