He Looks Like a Ballplayer

I think one of the most interesting new ways teams can possibly gain a competitive edge going forward is by looking at the psychology of players, managers, and even their own scouts and front office executives. Of course, baseball pscyhologists have been around for quite some time, but there are always subtle aspects of the trade that can be applied to different areas.

A manifestation of the way managers, coaches, scouts, and execs think about players is the way in which athletes are assigned their roles and positions. As human beings looking to optimize order in every situation we can, we love to compare players. “What big leaguer does Prospect A remind you of?” “What player do you think your game is most similar to?” These are questions asked all the time. When we hear that x player is like y (i.e. I love saying Josh Thole is like a left-handed Paul LoDuca), it makes things easier for us to analyze. This was discussed over at The Book Blog last year, where I commented:

…I think a lot has to do with preconceived notations of what people think starters and relievers “look like.” Joba Chamberlain “looks like” a reliever. Jamie Moyer “looks like” a starter. I’m sure, on both a conscious and subconscious level, things like height, physical appearance, “makeup,” and even race are taken into account when managers are assigning roles to amateur pitchers.

Sometimes, organizations may choose to put a player at a certain position simply because they “feel” that said player is a “good fit” there, not based on analytics or statistics, but on subjective and inherently prejudiced (not in the conotational sense) beliefs. When I started following Mets prospect Jenrry Mejia, a baby-faced righty with a fantastic arm, I instantly got nervous. Despite his potential to be an extremely valuable starting pitcher, Mejia had the “look” of a reliever, in the Francisco Rodriguez or Mariano Rivera mold. In an interview with my good friend Jeremy Greenhouse at The Baseball Analysts this past winter, I said the following:

I’m really worried the Mets are going to put [Jenrry Mejia] in the bullpen to start the season. I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope they put him back in Binghamton next year. His peripherals in Binghamton were really solid last year. I hope he continues to prosper there and move up the ranks. I don’t want to see him get thrown in. He has that look of a set-up guy or closer that people can think “Oh, this is one of those late-inning guys, a K-Rod because of that electric arm.” And they can forget that he can actually be a very good starter if they leave him in the minors for long enough.

And then it happened. Right at the start of Mets Spring Training, Jerry Manuel and others saw Jenrry Mejia, and the thought of him pitching anywhere else but the end of ballgames vanished:

“I went to Omar and told him, ‘You’ve got to make this guy a closer,'” [Darryl] Strawberry was saying in animated fashion Tuesday…”He’s the only guy I’ve ever seen that reminds me of Mariano Rivera…I played with Mo, I saw it up close. I know what his cutter looked like and I’m telling you, I haven’t seen a pitch move like his, with that kind of velocity, until I saw this kid Mejia.”

Mejia is currently in the minors after a decent stint throwing mostly mopup innings in the big leagues. He hurt his arm in his second start back after being sent down to try starting again, most likely due to rapidly going from starter to reliever to starter in less than a year.

But the examples don’t stop there. Andre Ethier was the starting centerfielder for the All-Star Game this year despite never playing a game there in the major or minor leagues. In fact, the craziest part was that Brewers outfielder Corey Hart had played over 350 innings in centerfield during his major league career and as recently as 2007! Manager Charlie Manuel’s explanation for the move was hysterically sad:

“The reason he’s playing center field is because when we did the fan voting and the player voting, we, uh, Hart had the … he was ahead of the outfielders,” Manuel said. “He has to start. He was supposed to start the game, and Ethier’s the one I chose to play center field because I remember he played there a lot.

“We do not have what they call a true center fielder right now. We have some on our roster… at the same time… that was the reason why he started in center field.”

Best attempt at translation: When Braves rookie Jason Heyward pulled out of the game with a thumb injury, Hart moved into the starting lineup by virtue of finishing third among NL outfielders in player voting. Braun is a left fielder. Ethier and Hart are right fielders. Manuel recalled that Ethier used to play center field “a lot,” so decided to pencil him in there.

Of course, Manuel’s recollection was incorrect.

In fact, it was Hart who used to play center field, doing so as recently as 2007, when he played 34 games — starting 28 times — at the position.

Ethier, who was voted into the game by the fans and topped player balloting, looked surprised when he was asked about the last time he played in center.

“Center field?” he asked. “Am I playing center field? I heard rumors. I don’t even know the lineup.”

“Last time I played center field would have to have been … ugff … in college, 2003,” he said.

Charlie Manuel looked at Andre Ethier and looked at Corey Hart and decided that Ethier clearly “looked like” a center fielder more so than Hart. In fact, he knew one of them had played center field before, and his gut instinct was so strong that he incorrectly stated it was Ethier!

The people who make baseball decisions are human, and are subject to making the same mistakes as everyone else. However, it’s about time we put a little more thought into our decisions; subjective assignments based on misinformation are not only costly, they’re lazy.

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Pat Andriola is an Analyst at Bloomberg Sports who formerly worked in Major League Baseball's Labor Relations Department. You can contact him at Patrick.Andriola@tufts.edu or follow him on Twitter @tuftspat

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Charlie Manuel may not be an idiot, but he sure says some idiotic things quite often.