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Do guys turn it up a notch in a contract year?

Apr 15, 2010, 9:49 AM EDT

That’s the conventional wisdom: players try harder when free agency looms, resulting in big walk years and big contracts handed out by teams who get hung up on the whole recency thing.

But it’s not true say the boys who run Bloomberg’s new baseball stats outfit:

Over the past nine years, 177 players performing in the last year of a
contract hit for a collective .282 batting average, with an .824 OPS
(on-base plus slugging percentage, an increasingly used measurement of
the moneyball era). They also averaged 19 home runs, 51 extra base hits
and 73 runs batted in per 500 at-bats.

That’s not much different
from their collective numbers from the previous year: .283 batting
average, .821 OPS, 19 homers, 51 extra base hits and 74 RBI. Two years
before? A .279 batting average and .809 OPS, with 18 home runs, 50 extra
base hits and 73 RBI per 500 at-bats.

The thing about players turning it up a notch in contract years is a species of confirmation bias based on the belief by many that ballplayers are money-motivated above all else. People believe that, then they tend to look for evidence that confirms it as opposed to evidence that disproves it, despite the fact that there’s abundant evidence doing so. A lot of bad baseball analysis follows this pattern. So-and-so is a clutch hitter. Whatshisface is a big game pitcher. We see it or believe it and it’s always so in our minds. It’s understandable. I fall prey to it myself all the time. Indeed, there’s science behind it, with some researchers believing that our brains have to take an extra, actual neurological step in order to process data which doesn’t fit with an idea we’ve already had compared to processing data which does conform to such an idea.

We talk a lot about biases around here. Mine, yours, columnists’ etc. But it’s probably worth remembering that people don’t work to maintain their biases. Our brains, trying to economize on the effort they expend, want to rest with the preconceived notion. When they do so and are mistaken about something, it’s an example of relatively understandable mental laziness, not active self-deception.

The trick to beating that? Just workin’ a bit harder, ya know?

  1. James Mason - Apr 15, 2010 at 9:54 AM

    When Milton Bradley was leaving the Rangers, he professed he turned i up to get a bigger contract (Cubs.) Oh well.

  2. Conor - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:09 AM

    Actually, a couple of years ago Baseball Prospectus published an article in their book “Baseball Between the Numbers…” and that article filtered out a lot of the junk that creeps into the above analysis where everything is just lumped together. For example, they accounted for age and injuries and myriad other factors. After filtering all the junk out, they came to the conclusion that there is, in fact, evidence that ballplayers do see an uptick (albeit a small one, but still statistically significant) in performance during a contract year.

  3. YankeesfanLen - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:16 AM

    While we’re “practicing psychology without a license”, looks like the net effect of you visit with “the suits” is that they have you twitter every unmissable episode. They should have taken you to the home opener instead- would have been an experience worth 3 or 4 great posts.

  4. lar @ wezen-ball - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:24 AM

    Thanks, Conor. I was thinking the same thing. Jonah Keri’s actually involved with both groups (the BBTN book and the Bloomberg sports group)… I wonder if he’ll have any comments on it.

  5. Jonah Keri - Apr 15, 2010 at 10:35 AM

    What Conor said. Dayn Perry was the one who wrote the BBTN chapter (and did so in stellar fashion), while Bo Moon, Stephen Orban + the other smart folks at BloombergSports.com were the ones who developed those awesome algorithms et al.
    Though I do have an affiliation with both Baseball Between the Numbers + Bloomberg Sports, my role was largely just being the Zelig of the nerdosphere.

  6. JGS - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    With older players in the last year of their free agent contract this wouldn’t apply but for players hitting free agency for the first time how much of this (I’m looking at the 15 point OPS jump over two years prior) is just due to being in the league longer and figuring out how to hit?

  7. Jonah Keri - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:12 AM

    JGS, Dayn accounted for that peak age/experience factor you mention, as well as injuries and just about any other variable you can think of when doing his calculus.
    Still showed a very slight uptick in contract year stats.

  8. JC Bradbury - Apr 15, 2010 at 11:18 AM

    The BBTN study finds the following. Of 212 prominent free agents from 1976-2000, 80 peaked (measured by WARP) in their walk years, 72 peaked in the years before their walk years, and 60 peaked in the year after they walked. I doubt the difference between the walk and pre-walk years is statistically significant. The year-after drop-off, maybe, but there is no accounting for aging that I can tell (contrary to the assertion in #2, please correct me if I missed the correction). Basically, the Bloomberg numbers are not inconsistent with Perry’s findings, but I would not conclude that there is a strong walk-year effect from Perry’s findings.
    I don’t think that players perform better in walk years than in preceding years; having a good year can never hurt you, especially many of those in the sample who have their salaries governed by arbitration. However, I would not be surprised if players shirked in years just following a new deal, because the next contract is several years away. I don’t think there is much evidence that players ramp things up in a contract year, but post-contract shirking is likely. Economists have studied the issue, but the findings are mixed. Not much of a ramp-up effect, possibly a shirking effect.

  9. lar @ wezen-ball - Apr 15, 2010 at 12:01 PM

    There’s some smart people commenting here. I’ll try not to pollute the dialog (I haven’t read the chapter in a while). If you want to get a glimpse at it, you can see a limited preview of the chapter over at Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=VsmnfVUKJskC&lpg=PP1&dq=jonah%20keri&pg=PA199#v=onepage&q&f=false
    .
    I highly recommend you actually buy the book – I’ve got mine, and it’s great stuff – but this preview should give you a sense of what Perry found.

  10. J. McCann - Apr 15, 2010 at 12:13 PM

    First of all you would think that players work out more and play more often in a walk year, but maybe that is just other sports.
    Bill James has said that what he found is “walk years” have a higher variation than normal. Some players go nutz and some crack under the pressure (or something).

  11. Baseball Fan - Apr 15, 2010 at 12:32 PM

    Someone once said you can get numbers to tell you anything you want. A saying I for one believe. Someone also said perception is reality. If you believe players turn it up a notch in walk years the perception is reality. To get to the point I absolutely believe players turn it up. I also believe that some of the players after they get that “big contract” regress and don’t necessarily put forth the best effort.

  12. IdahoMariner - Apr 15, 2010 at 12:54 PM

    actually, Baseball Fan hit on something that might be more interesting. Has BBTn and/or Bloomberg or anyone else done any similar study on performance after getting a contract? It’s probably another of those “confirming my bias” things, I suspect, but I still like to think I am open to thinking that it can go one of three ways —
    a performance mostly consistent with prior performance,
    a performance that drops because of complacency (I don’t buy this in most cases, but I think Yuni Betancourt might be the poster child for this),
    or a performance that drops because of the realization that someone’s paying you a LOT of money to perform and there’s heightened expectations, etc. (hopefully followed by an uptick back to normal after getting used to said pressure).
    Any such thing out there for some light reading for those of us practicing psychology without a license?

  13. Rays fan - Apr 15, 2010 at 5:08 PM

    Confirmation bias, neuropsychology…ooooooh, I love it when you get all science-y, I’m all a-quiver!
    Most ballplayers try hard all the time, so their stats would be expected to remain the same. A few individuals might indeed be contract-motivated; some would potentially do better, but others would potentially do worse due to pressure they hadn’t felt before.

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