Monday, June 7, 2010

What Bryce Harper Teaches Us About Promotions, Hiring and Admissions

Bryce Harper is the talk of Major League Baseball. He is the next can’t miss prospect, a 17 year old kid on a direct path to stardom. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last year, and today he became the first pick in baseball’s amateur draft.

The hype is extraordinary: to some, "He might be the greatest amateur player of all time," and to others, "He's the best position player I've seen come through here," or “the LeBron James of baseball.” He has been called “a prodigy” and “the chosen one.” According to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci:
So good and so young is Bryce Harper, however, that he explodes baseball convention. He has hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, and he did so in January, at age 16, with a blast that would have flown farther than the measured 502 feet had it not smashed off the back wall of the dome. Still only 16, Harper stands 6'3", weighs 205 pounds, has faster bat speed than Mark McGwire in his prime and runs so fast that he scored on wild pitches six times this season from second base. As a catcher he picks off runners from his knees, and when he pitches, he throws a fastball that has been clocked at 96 mph. He also does volunteer work, holds down a 3.5 grade point average and attends religious education classes nearly every morning before school.
I can’t help but wonder: does he leap tall buildings in a single bound?

In thinking about Bryce Harper, I also can’t help but think of college admission debates, or firefighter promotion tests, or law school hiring. These things are never sure things – this is true whether we are talking about promotions, admissions, or hiring – and to be behave as if they are is simply foolish.

Merit is in the eye of the beholder.

This is even true about Bryce Harper himself, who, according to some, “is not a sure thing, not even close to a sure thing… and it’s easy to lose sight of that.”

He might be the best prospect ever, or he might be a bust. This is not much different from the story of Mike Piazza, a high school catcher famously selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers on the 62nd round of the draft as a favor to Piazza’s father by then-manager and close friend Tommy LaSorda. Piazza went on to play 16 seasons in the major leagues, was rookie of the year in 1992 and a 12-time All-Star. This was some favor.

The drafting of amateur players for the professional leagues is notoriously haphazard, and Piazza's great story serves to underscore that. This is true in any sport, be it baseball, football, basketball, or hockey, regardless whether the sport has a minor league or depends on the college ranks to develop their players, and irrespective of how much information scouting departments are able to get on draftees upon graduating from high school. I can think of two reasons for this.

First, it is hard to figure out what characteristics will turn a young player into a superstar. Put another way, it is hard to quantify merit. How to determine whether a good high school player will turn into Michael Jordan? Is it speed, a good jump shot, a killer work ethic, or some intangible characteristic that cannot be measured at all, akin to "a fire in the belly" or "a look in the eye."

Second, how to properly interpret that which you see? This is crucial, because everybody sees essentially the same thing. To one talent evaluator, a baseball player might run fast, catch, bat for average, throw hard, and hit the ball hard -- these are baseball's five tools -- yet to another, the player is not quite fast enough, strong enough, or his fielding is not quite good enough. This is where interpretation bias comes into play: what you see is strongly influenced by your preconceived views and biases. Herding behavior and information cascades also play a role; past a tipping point, evaluators might begin to agree with prior evaluators and their assessments for no better reason than to find common ground.

I trust you see the obvious connections between drafting a 17-year old baseball player and hiring workers and promoting them, admitting students to college . . . or even choosing a Supreme Court nominee. Yet, we behave as if this is all so quantifiable, so certain, so fool-proof. We also act as if merit trumps all, and affirmative action is a lowering of standards.

In saying all of this, I return to Bryce Harper one final time. In the end, he may turn out to be a mega star in the mold of Alex Rodriguez; or he may turn out to be a bust. We have no way of knowing that today, any more than we could predict Mike Piazza's brilliance a little over twenty years ago. To pretend otherwise is to wish for the impossible.

1 comment:

  1. I guess you are right to the extent that you are saying that we have no way of knowing with 100% certainty whether Bryce Harper will be very successful. However, if your only point is that we can't be 100% certain, your post seems misleading. If your point is that we can't guess the likelihood of success of a prospect with ANY degree of certainty, then I would love to bet against you on the likelihood of success of players who are drafted by taking all players drafted in the first round and letting you have all players drafted in the 62nd round. I suppose we can define success by number of All-Star game appearances, unless you have a better criterion.