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Replacement Level Talent?

Publication Date: September 3, 2002

I Think I Missed Something

I had something planned for this week -- yet another statistical study -- but I've had a random thought strike, and I want to throw it out there. This one has the advantage that even I don't know if the idea would work, and it would require a coach and athletic director (OK, most AD's don't actually pay any attention to baseball, but at least an assistant AD) to buy into it and try it for a few years to see if it would work, so the idea can remain a purely theoretical construct and therefore perfect. Nonetheless, I want to run it out there for you to see what you think.

Back in December, I wrote a column about the Oakland A's and the way that their management philosophy is changing the professional game (a column that looks much smarter right now with their winning streak currently at twenty games than it did when they were .500 in the first third of the season [a two-year phenomenon that may actually bear watching if continues to be a trend]). It's one of my better columns writing-wise, so go take another look (or a first look) just for fun. At the time I focused on their management of pitching and of the overall organizational credo that OBP is life. I still believe in those things, and I still believe that the first college coach to really live that philosophy will change the game forever.

However, there was one thing I wrote in that column that, it occurred to me in the shower this morning (I know, I know, too much information) may have been wrong:

There are three prongs to their approach. The first involves the notion of player cost relative to value, and that really doesn't translate to the college game, so we'll skip over it here.

What Billy Beane of the A's understands better than anyone in the history of Major League Baseball is how to properly predict and value player production. To understand this, from the pro perspective, you have to realize that we're talking about the extreme right end of an enormous Bell curve talentwise. Most general managers act like they expect the set of "major leaguers" to follow a Bell curve by itself -- a lot of guys around average with diminishing spreads in both directions. What actually happens is that the Bell curve actually represents the distribution of the world population as a whole, and the major leaguers are just the chopped-off extreme right end. This means that most of them are clustered toward the left (worse) end of their distribution, and the best players are worth far more than the average.

To some extent, GM's and owners understand this; there are a lot more guys making the major league minimum than there are guys making over $10 million a year, and most of the bad big contracts are due to bad player evaluation rather than anything else. On the other hand, there are some contracts that show they really don't quite get it. There are maybe 20-30 guys who are worth in the $10-25 million range to a team, and that's about how many there are who are paid in that range. However, there aren't many more than that who are worth in the $4-6 million range, and there are way too many players with that kind of contract. Much of this is due to a misunderstanding of the shape of player production over time -- most players peak in their 20's rather than in their mid-30's the way teams tend to assume; as a general rule you're better off with a couple of 26-year-olds than with a pricy veteran. That's why, for example, Jason Giambi plays for the Yankees rather than the A's now -- this year the A's would have been better off, but the last two years of his five-year contract are likely to be severely overpaid.

The secret, basically, is to concentrate your money into a few players -- Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Miguel Tejada -- and pick up the supporting cast at a bargain -- Scott Hatteberg, for example. At any given time, there are a half-dozen guys on other teams' benches, in AAA, or in Japan who are capable of putting up major-league first baseman average offense, so why on earth would you pay for Mo Vaughn, to pick a random example. Obviously, knowing the difference in Mo Vaughn (or Jason Giambi in four years) and Miguel Tejada is a key part of this plan.

How does this apply to college baseball? Well, first of all, the veteran/youngster dichotomy doesn't. On the other hand, there is a form of cost involved in college ball, and the talent level is still far enough above that of the general populace that the shape of the distribution is still the same, and that's where today's idea comes in.

Now, this isn't football, so players don't get paid. However, there is a financial investment in scholarships that matches up well to resource commitment. Currently, and for the foreseeable future, Division I baseball teams get 11.7 scholarships a year to spend. Most teams currently try to spread those over as much of the roster as they can, with the result that very few players get full scholarships -- a normal distribution these days will look like a couple of guys on 3/4 scholarship, 15 or so on half-scholarship, and another 8-10 guys on 1/4 to 1/3 scholarship.

Given what we know about talent distribution, though, I think a better distribution of scholarship money might be to put five or six guys on full scholarships and then spread the rest around among the rest of the team -- something like a quarter scholarship for each of twenty guys. Obviously, the talent recognition piece still comes into play -- giving a guy a full scholarship doesn't turn him into a star any more than giving Raul Mondesi $10 million turns him into a great player -- but I think the recruiting advantage to be gained could be substantial, and, since there are an awful lot of college programs that are two great starting pitchers away from being conference champions, this plan could pay off really well.

One thing that I've realized as I'm writing this is that I have no idea if anyone has already tried this. Since scholarship details are generally not publicly released, I don't have any way to check, but if you're aware of a program with the type of top-heavy scholarship distribution I've described, please let me know who it is.

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Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> Replacement Level Talent? About the author, Boyd Nation