In the 2011 movie, “Moneyball,” statistical analysis of baseball player performance proved effective in the 2002 season for the Oakland Athletics, and many teams today have followed Athletics general manager Billy Beane’s lead in using a sophisticated sabermetric method for scouting and analyzing players.
Katerina Bezrukova, assistant professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, has studied the demographic makeup of major league teams, and she and her colleagues conclude that where teams have strong “faultlines,” or divisions among demographic groups, team and individual performance suffered. But faultlines hurt some teams more than others, depending on player salaries and other factors.
Bezrukova and her research team used data from MLB teams from the 2004-2008 seasons. Controlling for a number of factors, they found that an effective manager can mitigate the faultline-performance link. Bobby Cox, who spent 26 seasons as a major league manager, quietly made sure when prima donna or ‘head case’ players like John Rocker, Yunel Escobar, and Kenny Lofton posed problems in working relationships in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse, they were readily traded.
“Approximately 40 percent of MLB players are people of color and nearly 30 percent were born outside the United States,” says Bezrukova. “While baseball has long had players from other countries, especially parts of Latin America, the league increasingly has sought and attracted players from nations not known as ‘baseball countries’ just a few years ago. Yet, the implication of this mix of cultures has been relatively ignored by research and not often publicly discussed. Our research asks if the demographic ‘mix’ or distinct divisions within teams defined by demographics affect how well players get along, and ultimately, team and player performance.”
The research also develops an interactive visualization tool that reveals faultlines in the aforementioned groups of players and that can be used to visually inspect the dynamics of teams based on faultlines and to predict team and individual performance.
The Santa Clara researchers drew on faultlines research that describes how divisions form within a team when team members’ demographic characteristics align and create subgroups (e.g., long-tenured U.S. born players versus short-tenured Latin players).
“We hypothesize that teams with stronger faultlines will see performance suffer,” says Bezrukova. “We also hypothesize that teams with a high payroll should see a stronger negative relationship between faultlines and performance because they have more to lose. Yet, the link between faultlines and performance will be lessened in teams with effective and highly regarded managers as they deal with differences between players.”
She notes that strong faultlines can be blunted by “healthy” faultlines. For example, last year’s San Francisco Giants had three clear divisions based on nationality -- American (29 people), Venezuelan (7), and Dominican (5), no other country had more than 2 players represented on the team. Yet, within these three subgroups, age and experience ranged from 1 to 13 years in the U.S. group, 1 to 11 years for Venezuelans, and 1 to 14 for Dominicans, proving the researchers point that healthy faultlines, where experienced and non-experienced players cut across national faultlines, potential harm can be reduced.
The idea that the right mix of players can be critical beyond the sheer talent has been tested many times but is being particularly evident in a high profile trade this year.
Justin Upton was seen as a dominant star at age 19 for the Arizona team, however, when the team did not meet expectations, he was publicly blamed by team management. Critics said too much pressure was put on such a young player and there was no veteran leadership to back him up on the team. In the off season, despite his high performance, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves who also brought Justin’s older brother BJ from another team to play together, partly to have the criss-cross “healthy” faultline. The Braves’ management believes this will be a synergistic combination, and we’ll see if they are right.
Hall of Fame MLB player Yogi Berra once said “90 percent of baseball is mental. The other half is physical.” No matter the actual proportion, Berra was on to something--much of sport is driven by chemistry among players and not just physical ability, says Bezrukova. “Our findings show that part of that “90 percent” is also likely associated with the mix of players and how well they interact” says Bezrukova and her colleagues.