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Baseball and Measuring Individual Performance October 4, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in baseball, Management & leadership.
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In early October 2012 one of the biggest current controversies in baseball is the question of who should be the American League’s Most Valuable Player: third-baseman Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers or center-fielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. Both have had outstanding seasons by any measure, and Cabrera has received worthy praise for being the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the hitter’s Triple Crown: leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs-batted-in (RBIs).

For many baseball writers, commentators, and fans, this Triple Crown achievement is the strongest argument for Cabrera as league MVP. On the other side is the growing movement of the sabermetrics community, which for over 20 years has challenged the conventional wisdom about what constitutes a good season for an individual player, and how we compare the performance of different players. One of their issues with Cabrera and the Triple Crown is the importance given to RBIs. If a batter gets a hit (or in some cases even an out) that enables a baserunner to score, they get an RBI. If a batter gets the same hit in a different situation where no baserunner scores, there’s no RBI. The point is that what the hitter did is the same in each case. RBIs are not a measure of the hitter’s isolated performance because it depends on what other people have accomplished (getting on-base), or will accomplish (scoring a run after the hitter does his thing).

This suggests that any good hitter would get roughly the same number of RBIs if they had the same opportunities to bat with runners on base. Or, conversely, Cabrera would have significantly fewer RBIs if he were on a different team that did not put as many people on base.

BTW, some people have argued that any high RBI total is evidence that the batter is a “clutch hitter” who somehow performs better in high-impact situations. Unfortunately for those folks, there’s absolutely no evidence to support the idea that the “clutch hitter” exists. When you examine any player’s performance over an extended period (large sample size), there’s no statistical difference between how they hit with runners in scoring position vs. how they hit with no one on base.

Another example: pitcher won-lost record. Certainly a pitcher who doesn’t give up runs is valuable, but whether his team wins or loses the game depends on how many runs the team scores. As with RBIs, the won-lost record of a pitcher is not a good measure of his isolated performance, although certainly the team will ultimately be measured by their wins over the course of the season.

This is interesting to me, not just as a baseball fan. As managers we’re often responsible for measuring the performance of individuals and teams. I wrote about this in an earlier post in 2009 (see Individual Performance Measures). Team performance can be judged by examining their accomplishments and contributions to strategic business goals. Individual performance is harder because it’s harder to isolate and measure the unique contribution of one person without considering the context and environment, yet at most companies the compensation and bonus plans are tied to individual performance.

We have to determine what this person did to enable team success or avoid team failure. We need to take into account the interrelated nature of work and the limited power and influence of one person, since there are few jobs where one person has full control over the outcomes. On an individual level, we need to match performance measures to the person’s assignments, which makes them binary: Did this person accomplish this goal, or not? The challenge for the manager is to understand context, and differentiate between isolated good performance and average performance under favorable circumstances.

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