The Yankees and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

My wife is a school psychologist here in the Pittsburgh area, so naturally I learn about the profession and the field. One test of interest, and some amusement, that she’s discussed involves children and the concept of delayed gratification. Testers use all sorts of sugar-laden incentives for the evaluation. The tester presents a child with a cookie or chocolate or something else and informs the four-year-old that, after a short period of time, if the child can avoid the temptation to indulge in the first snack, that said child will receive a second. (I’m not sure such a test of will power would be all that easy for adults, either.)

The study, I believe, traces its origins to the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment conduced in the late 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel. The kids tested were given one marshmallow, and then a second if they were able to endure about a 15-minute wait. Follow-up studies found that the children who were able to wait generally had better life-outcomes, though the experiment is not without their critics. The Atlantic revisited the study in 2014:

Studies showed that a child’s ability to delay eating the first treat predicted higher SAT scores and a lower body mass index (BMI) 30 years after their initial Marshmallow Test. Researchers discovered that parents of “high delayers” even reported that they were more competent than “instant gratifiers”—without ever knowing whether their child had gobbled the first marshmallow.

While such a study and its small sample is, of course, imperfect, I think reasonable people can agree there are many merits to delayed gratification for children and adults.

So that brings me to the New York Yankees. The club is somewhat surprisingly resides in first place in the AL East more than a quarter of the way through the season, and boasts of the second-best run-differential in the American League (+53), trailing only the Astros (+58). BaseRuns suggests the Yankees actually deserve to be a game better than their actual standing (27-16).

Yankees GM Brian Cashman had sold Yankees ownership on the idea of delayed gratification last summer when the club traded Carlos Beltran, Aroldis Chapman, and Andrew Miller prior to the deadline. Back in March, I detailed how Cashman sold a rare Yankees rebuild. Of course, this wasn’t a dramatic teardown in Florida/Miami Marlins-fashion. The Yankees were still FanGraphs’ staff writers most common pick to secure the No. 2 Wild Card spot in our preseason predictions.

But few saw so many things breaking right for the Yankees: Aaron Judge‘s feats of strength, the improvement of Aaron Hicks, the prospect of Luis Severino and Michael Pineda both finally winning over some favor with the BABIP Gods. I could go on, but outside of Masahiro Tanaka and the injury to Chapman, a lot of things have gone right. And the Yankees have not yet dipped into the what was named the second-best farm system according to Baseball America’s preseason rankings.

There was this idea, or maybe it was just my idea, that the Yankees would wait and have another wave of talent reach the majors to join Judge, Severino, Gary Sanchez and company before going all-in on veteran talent after next season in what will be a historically good free-agent class. The Yankees appeared to be following the Chicago Cubs’ blueprint.

Now they appear to be ahead of schedule.

Said Cashman of last season’s partial teardown:

“I had recommended strongly that we push the reset button for our benefit,” Cashman told FanGraphs in March. “Probably starting [last] June, I had a lot of dialogue regarding what we should do and Hal Steinbrenner was telling me, ‘Well, I’m not thinking the way you are at this moment in time, but keep making recommendations.’ In my dialogue with ownership, [I said], ‘Every decision we make should try to put us closer to the next world championship. We want that to be in the upcoming season, but that doesn’t mean that is necessarily going to be the case.’ We have the most championships in the history of our sport, but we’ve been pursuing excellence for a 100 years plus and we don’t have a 100 championships. So there’s no embarrassment for not winning something [every season].”

So are the Yankees close enough to their next world championship in 2017, to, say, add a major piece like Gerrit Cole, who many in the public are beginning to link to the club? Of course, any ask from a club with a Cole-like asset to sell would likely begin with the Yankees’ top prospect, Gleyber Torres. That might end a lot of phone calls.

Still, should the Yankees begin considering cashing in some of their prospect chips?

FanGraphs’ projections have the Yankees playing over their true talent level to date. FanGraphs’ depth charts forecast the Yankees to go 62-57 the rest of the way (a .522 winning precentage) with a run differential of +26. That’s the eighth-best overall projected run differential for the rest of the season, and fourth-best run differential in the AL. That’s certainly not bad, but it’s also certainly not the profile of a title favorite.

On one hand, that forecast doesn’t seem worthy of betting too heavily upon, in terms of surrendering prospect treasure for an upgrade. On the other hand, it looks like a team that would have its odds of winning a division improved in a meaningful way with a significant buy — and every win could be critical in a wide-open AL East. But the value of midseason pick-ups often does not equate to the media attention surrounding them. Last summer, for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I studied the 2012-15 deadline-trade markets. Of the 70 major-league players acquired, 45 produced negligible or negative value — below replacement level — through the remainder of the season. Another 20 recorded more than one win above replacement for the team adding them, and five created two or more wins above replacement.

It’s perhaps an argument for delayed gratification, in favor of keeping the club’s top young assets, and hoping for the best in 2017 and 2018 and planning to be the best in 2019 and beyond. Instead of gobbling up a few impact months and/or years in the short term, the Yankees can create a greater window of opportunity by standing pat, or largely standing pat. The Red Sox have tried the opposite approach under Dave Dombrowski and, for as great as Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel are, FanGraphs’ projections have the Red Sox (89-73) finishing just one game better than the Yankees (88-74). The Yankees have a 3.5-game edge entering play Wednesday.

Sure, the Yankees could use another quality rotation arm. That’s true of most teams. But perhaps Tanaka will turn his season around. That prospect is a plausible and significant in-house improvement. There doesn’t appear to be an injury issue with Tanaka. Chapman will return. And a productive offense could soon return Gregory Bird, who was the star of the Grapefruit League, and is another fly-ball power hitter, who seems to be an ideal fit for Yankee Stadium II.

The Yankees are ahead of schedule, but their best days still rest ahead. So they are perhaps best served by waiting on the second marshmallow.

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

That experiment is awesome and should be used more often as an example. Kudos for thinking of it.

Twitchy
Member
Twitchy

They did a version of that with adults and cell phones. It was hilarious, as they weren’t allowed to touch their phones and the phones were on the table in front of them. The experimenters started calling their cell phones and texting them and most of the adults ended up picking up their phones once they heard the ringtone or it started vibrating lol.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
Member

Even when I was a little kid I had great control. I’d hold out for 2 marshmallows and asked if I could get 4 marshmallows if I waited. I kept doing this with the teacher until he realized he couldn’t pay off on his promise all at once.

That, young people, is how control can get you 1,048,576 marshmallows a day for 64 years.

John Autin
Member
John Autin

Just like his namesake, “Shirtless Bartolo Colon” never gets old.

A Flock of Seagers
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A Flock of Seagers

Happy 44th Bartolo!

Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes
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Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes

This is also what Bobby Bonilla would have gotten if he just asked the Wilpons to buy out his contract in marshmallows.

formerly matt w
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formerly matt w
tnt9357
Member
tnt9357

‘”Being able to delay gratification—in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow—not only reflects a child’s capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting,” says Kidd. “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay.”‘

This is why I’m skeptical of the conclusions from the Stanford version of the experiment, particularly when those conclusions conform so neatly with the latent Puritanism in our culture. Put simply, we as a society fetishize delayed gratification way too much.