With the recent troubles of Miguel Cabrera, the question of what the Tigers are to do, inevitably comes up. Should a player's talent overshadow any personal issues?
If a player is vastly more talented than others, to what degree should an organization give the player multiple chances? What sort of offenses are so vile that an organization should cut ties with a player, no matter how talented?
Maybe the most important question is how things other than pure talent affect a player's performance. There is this caricature of the sabermetrician or the "stat geek" or whatever you want to call them as some guy in his mom's basement looking at spreadsheets and believing that players are robots and that personal issues don't affect player performance.
As a sabermetric sympathizer, and someone who reads a lot of sabermetric-influenced writing, I can tell you that the caricature is not accurate.
The statistical data is obviously evidence of what a player has done. Statistics are simply a snapshot of end results. These end results, as sabermetricians realize, are influenced largely by pure talent but also by other outside factors—work ethic, personality, personal demons, discipline, maturity, competitiveness, etc.
It's likely that if a player has or lacks certain traits (even aside from lacking remarkable talent), he will not make it to the majors and last. For example, it seems likely that if a player lacks a certain degree of discipline, he's not going to reach the majors and, if he does, he won't last very long.
Baseball players have to go through a fairly intense filtering system in order to reach the majors. There are five levels of minor league baseball and most players will go through at least three or four.
Before that they had to remain one of the top players at some amateur level. Many amateur players come under intense scrutiny and attention, especially over the last 15-20 years. So it seems likely that certain issues, at least to certain degrees, are basically cleansed out of the Major Leagues by this filtering process, but obviously not all.
If you are reading this, you probably know that this is not the first time Miguel Cabrera's had issues. There are also countless other players, even some of the all-time greats, who battled demons.
Then there are players who just can't seem to get along within certain organizations. Last season the Braves traded their talented, fairly young shortstop in Yunel Escobar for a much older one with a .294 career on-base percentage in Alex Gonzalez.
Escobar reportedly was too immature and undisciplined for the Braves organization's liking. Escobar wasn't performing, so it was fairly easy for the Braves to make the trade. The performance level didn't drop off that much, at least not in 2010, plus the Braves offense was already solid even with Escobar struggling.
So what is to be done with players who struggle with personal demons or with maturity or other issues?
The tricky part is that it’s just impossible to know how personal problems, maturity, competitiveness, work ethic, etc. influence the end result: performance. When we look at a player’s stats or scouting report, and even when we watch a player, it’s impossible to know how much of his performance is due to talent and how much is due to those other factors.
Yes, we can make assumption based on a player’s personality traits and actions off the field, and absolutely organizations should make those assumptions. Organizations should hire experts on personality and psychologist.
But it’s hard to know for certain how much athletes cruise on talent alone and how many do it. The lines are so blurry with regard to how much of performance is due to talent and how much is due to other things. It’s almost certain that both greatly affect performance. It’s unlikely that any athletes cruise completely and absolutely on talent alone. But it’s also unlikely that there are not some that get by mostly on talent.
You just assume and hope that when you look at performance (and the off-field stuff) over several years that the performance is going to reflect the total package of a player (talent and the other stuff), or that you can at least get some rough idea of what influenced performance and how and what will likely influence performance, and how, in the future.
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