That’s the conventional wisdom: players try harder when free agency looms, resulting in big walk years and big contracts handed out by teams who get hung up on the whole recency thing.
But it’s not true say the boys who run Bloomberg’s new baseball stats outfit:
Over the past nine years, 177 players performing in the last year of a
contract hit for a collective .282 batting average, with an .824 OPS
(on-base plus slugging percentage, an increasingly used measurement of
the moneyball era). They also averaged 19 home runs, 51 extra base hits
and 73 runs batted in per 500 at-bats.
That’s not much different
from their collective numbers from the previous year: .283 batting
average, .821 OPS, 19 homers, 51 extra base hits and 74 RBI. Two years
before? A .279 batting average and .809 OPS, with 18 home runs, 50 extra
base hits and 73 RBI per 500 at-bats.
The thing about players turning it up a notch in contract years is a species of confirmation bias based on the belief by many that ballplayers are money-motivated above all else. People believe that, then they tend to look for evidence that confirms it as opposed to evidence that disproves it, despite the fact that there’s abundant evidence doing so. A lot of bad baseball analysis follows this pattern. So-and-so is a clutch hitter. Whatshisface is a big game pitcher. We see it or believe it and it’s always so in our minds. It’s understandable. I fall prey to it myself all the time. Indeed, there’s science behind it, with some researchers believing that our brains have to take an extra, actual neurological step in order to process data which doesn’t fit with an idea we’ve already had compared to processing data which does conform to such an idea.
We talk a lot about biases around here. Mine, yours, columnists’ etc. But it’s probably worth remembering that people don’t work to maintain their biases. Our brains, trying to economize on the effort they expend, want to rest with the preconceived notion. When they do so and are mistaken about something, it’s an example of relatively understandable mental laziness, not active self-deception.
The trick to beating that? Just workin’ a bit harder, ya know?