March 31, 2011

Developing talent

Today (Opening Day 2011), an excerpt from Bill James' forthcoming book Solid Fool's Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom appeared on the Slate site. The article is titled "Shakespeare and Verlander: Why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?", and in it he provides some profound insights into discrimination in sports compared to the rest of society.

But along the way to that point, James takes a shot at the conventional wisdom that expansion dilutes the talent pool. James' contrary view is that expansion creates a short-term dilution, but over the long term more talent develops to fill the increased demand.

The thesis is built on James' assertion that raw talent is abundant, and simply needs the right opportunities -- incentives -- to be developed. In James' thought experiment, an expansion of MLB from 30 teams to 300 would over the long term have no impact on the level of talent, as talent development would expand to ensure the newly available opportunities were filled.

But can we really believe this?  There has been plenty of discussion elsewhere about the distribution of baseball talent (for example, Sabernomics and The Book), all of which would, at first glance, seem to run contrary to Bill James' argument. But those talent curves are drawn based on the current system of incentives, with enough room for 25 roster players on 30 MLB teams and roughly 9,000 players in pro ball in North America and a few more thousand around the world.

Criticisms  of Bill James' essay will no doubt focus on the fact that expanding the number of MLB teams beyond 30 requires some of the non-roster players currently in the minors to move up to The Show ... they aren't good enough to play today, but in an expansion environment they would be.

This might be true in the short term, but as Bill James argues, over the long haul the change in opportunities would shift, and talent would be developed to fill the new opportunities.

Currently around the margins of professional baseball are men who have given up baseball to work as a bartender, and those who have decided to pursue excellence in another sport. Players in both these groups would demonstrate different behaviour when provided a different set of incentives.  The shape of the distribution curve would not change, and the average player's performance would also be unchanged, but the absolute number of players would increase. 

Tom Wilhelmsen, former bartender, now pitching for the Seattle Mariners.

The latter group (the athletically gifted stars in other sports) would provide the increased numbers of players at the top end of the distribution curve, becoming the star players on Teams #31 through #300.  The bartenders of today would become the focus of rigorous development regimes. It's important to remember that not only would there be 10 times more opportunities at very level, but there would also be 10 times more teams trying to succeed, and 10 times more scouts, coaches, and others keen to see their players develop into stars. And this would be repeated around the world, ensuring that the best athletes are active in the sport that provides the greatest opportunities. Given enough time, there would be enough players developed to stock 300 teams with no decrease in overall quality of play.

There are examples of this in the past. One recent example is the growth of information technology occupations -- 40 years ago, very few individuals (both in terms of absolute numbers and as a percentage of the workforce) knew how to write a computer program. But with increased job opportunities and an expansion of training, people who might otherwise chosen other occupations and career paths now can write computer programs. This does not mean the talent pool of computer programmers has been diluted; in fact, an argument could be made that the average talent and the high-end extreme of talent has increased.

Another parallel is the availability of natural resources that lay unused until somebody found a use for it. Petroleum was known to exist for centuries, but wasn't a sought-after resource until the mid-nineteenth century when a method to distill kerosene was developed, making it a cheap alternative to whale oil. In a short period of time opportunities expanded, and as a result there was a rush to develop this previously ignored resource.