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Batter Up! A Baseball Lesson in Value-Added

August 21, 2010

This guest post was sent to us by Lois Angel Tims, a casual baseball fan and observer of education.  Ms. Tims wishes to enlighten teachers about the importance of producing results for our students.

So, I’ve been following some of the recent debates in education circles, and hearing all about value-added measurement.  It is an idea that makes perfect sense – teachers teach, kids learn.  Better teachers make kids learn more.  Kids take tests that show everything they learned, so we know who the best teachers are.  I know teaching is complicated, but it’s time for my friends in the classroom to take notes from the wonderful world of baseball.  Read to the end and I guarantee you’ll undertand why you need to embrace data and accountability.

Now, I’m no baseball expert.  I haven’t played on a team or coached a team or managed team, but I’ve watched a lot of baseball over the years, and read the sports page of the newspaper religiously.   In baseball, there’s only one outcome that matters: win the game.  Players who help their team win are valuable players, and players who don’t help their team win are less valuable, maybe not valuable at all.  Yes, it’s true that there many different statistics kept in baseball, and there’s lots of interest in batting titles and Cy Young awards, but the bottom line is you want to win the most games, make it to the playoffs, and win a championship.

Here’s a simple example to help my poor teacher friends with the concept of value.  The man to the left is a very famous baseball player named Alex Rodriguez.  He has a contract like you wouldn’t believe – maybe I shouldn’t get into the details considering the sorry state of teacher salaries in most places.  Anyways, he plays for the Yankees, who are in first place right now.  He leads the team in runs-batted-in, and is second in the American League in that category.  He’s also the third-best third-baseman in the American League by fielding percentage.  Many people think “A-Rod” is a wonderful player.  This season, he hit his 600th career home run; he’s the seventh player to reach that milestone, and he did it at a younger age than the other six guys.

However, he has missed eleven games this year, and guess what? The Yankees are 11-0 when he doesn’t play! (EDIT/UPDATE, 8/22/10: Yankees now 12-0 without A-Rod).

Their overall record right now is 76-47 (updated 8/22/10), but let’s break that down.  In games where A-Rod played, the Yankees are 64-47, which is a winning percentage of 0.577 – while their winning percentage without A-Rod is 1.000.   Therefore, it is clear that Rodriguez adds no value to the team.  In fact, his effect could be described mathematically as -0.423.   Clearly, Rodriguez should be put on the disabled list for the rest of the year, and then released.

Now, there are some A-Rod apologists out there who will try to make excuses; those are people who think that results don’t matter.  They’ll try to distract you with other supposedly relevant information like where the games were played, who pitched, which teams the Yankees were playing, etc.  They will even say that eleven twelve games is not a large enough sample to draw any conclusions.  To them, I say, hello?! The Yankees are 12-0 without A-Rod.  The results speak for themselves!   Any idiot who understands the concept of winning and losing can see how Rodriguez hurts the Yankees.  In the playoffs, they decide the best team in a mere best-of-seven games, and I don’t hear anyone clamoring for longer series.  And in fact, you can be declared the superior team by winning four in a row.  By that measure, the Rodriguez-less Yankees would sweep the A-Rod Yankees in two three consecutive playoff series and they’d be a win away from taking their third in a row.   How much more evidence do you need?

Sadly, there are people wandering around with their heads in the clouds, unaware of this all-important statistic about Rodriguez hurting the Yankees.  Even one of his teammates is, to put it bluntly, clueless.   Let’s hear what Curtis Granderson says:

“[Rodriguez] is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen. His drive and passion to win are above any individual accomplishments he could achieve.” – I almost feel sorry for Granderson, because he doesn’t understand that wins are what matters.   Hard work without results doesn’t cut it at this level, Mr. Granderson.  It’s nice that Rodriguez isn’t caught up in individual achievements, but if he is really that selfless, the logical next step would be for him to quit, for the good of the team.

More from Granderson: “I think it’s easier for people to get caught up and judge people based on what they see on ‘SportsCenter,’ or read …, but just remember that you don’t always get the whole story that way. I’ve had a lot of teammates in my career when you consider my time in the minor leagues, in Detroit and here in New York. But there is no doubt that Alex Rodriguez is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”  Granderson’s feelings are really sweet, quite touching, but have nothing to do with winning baseball games or championships.  I have to wonder what his definition of “best” is, because I’m looking at 11-0, looking at 1.000 > 0.577, and the numbers don’t lie. Anyone who understands baseball and who wants the right outcome can see that, for the good of the Yankees, A-Rod must go!

Teachers, you’re not used to having your stats appear in the paper, but when they do, if they look this bad, I hope you’ll recognize the obvious, maintain some dignity, and slip quietly out of the way to let more effective teachers raise those test scores.  That’s life in the big leagues.  If you’re looking for an easier career, one with less accountability and lower standards for accuracy, these guys might have an opening.   Good luck!

photo: Keith Allison; used by permission under Wikimedia Commons.
22 Comments leave one →
  1. David B. Cohen permalink*
    August 21, 2010 11:04 pm

    Yes, I’m the real Lois Angel Tims, and I can’t resist a good baseball analogy, or a little satire. For a previous piece that blends baseball and education without the satire, you can check out this post from last year.

  2. August 22, 2010 12:06 am

    Excellent! As a typically satirical person, this really hit it home (pun intended :-p)

  3. christian h. permalink
    August 22, 2010 5:40 am


  4. August 22, 2010 9:09 am

    Wow! What a fantastic post! Just goes to show that reducing something as beautiful as learning or even baseball (which is a sport in love with their numbers) conceals more than it reveals.

    Here’s my take on baseball, data and education:

  5. August 22, 2010 10:04 am

    Great piece, David!

    And never put a pseudonym on something so good! I had no idea that you were behind this until I read the comments…..


    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 22, 2010 7:37 pm

      Thanks, Bill. I thought the pseudonym would look fake enough, and resemble “Los Angeles Times” enough that it would jump out, but I imagine a lot of people jump right past the name and just pick up the “guest post” idea.

  6. August 22, 2010 10:24 am

    We could go a little bit further with this analogy (or take it the other way) and illustrate how pressure to perform at a high level and to accomplish statistical feats, several players have resorted to shortcuts to be the best (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez et. al). We have already seen this in the education field in alarming numbers because the cold stats of achievement tests are related to job retention for administrators. If we publish test results associated with teachers on a widespread basis as the LA Times has done here, don’t you think the pressure will cause more educators to cheat? We need to focus on a product other than just test scores.

  7. August 22, 2010 10:29 am

    I get the spirit of the post but…

    I was at a game this year in which Alex was pulled after 1 AB and they lost. He is also more likely to not play against the weakest teams. For example, he was pulled from the line-up for a series against the Astros. Also historically, and especially last year when he missed a huge chunk of the year, the Yankees winning percentage is much higher.

    Taking the Alex analogy a bit farther…it would be more like judging a teacher to be successful if they “win” but not acknowledging that anyone could have “won” with the same kids. There are plenty of schools that are successful not because of the teachers, but because of the kids. There are also schools that are the opposite. I have been in both types of schools.

  8. Bernard permalink
    August 22, 2010 5:47 pm

    The only problem with writing this as satire, is that Grant Wiggins made the exact same point, only without the satire, on John Merrow’s blog. Check it out.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 22, 2010 7:39 pm

      Hello Bernard – yes, my comments appear several times in that thread. Many of us who respect Grant Wiggins’ body of work were a bit surprised by his response.

  9. August 22, 2010 11:08 pm

    Seems like everyone’s got a baseball and education article. Here’s mine from a few months back:

    Anyways, you bring up some good points here. Strangely enough, though, it was A-Rod’s blast in his first at-bat off the DL last year that propelled the Yankees in the beginning of the season. He could have all the moments he wants, but if the numbers don’t corroborate, then it doesn’t help Yankees. That 12-0 though, that’s the important stuff.

    I love sarcasm wherever possible.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 22, 2010 11:17 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and also for the link to your article. June 9 was in the middle of final exams for me, and I doubt I read anything other than finals that week, so now I’m all caught up!

  10. August 24, 2010 10:43 am

    Surely, you know that baseball “sabermetricians” have tried to calculate value-added statistics, including the lovely VORP (value over replacement player)?

    Also, while we’re using this space to aggregate our baseball+education posts:

    Good stuff, David…err…Lois…

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 24, 2010 11:03 am

      Hi Jon – good point. Yes, I’m aware that they try. Do you have any info/examples that show reliable prediction of future performance? Surely all the teams doing the best job of that are in first place. 😉 What about players who are traded and suddenly thrive, or tank? Still, at least they have more hard data to work with, and low stakes (from my perspective – it’s not my money).

  11. August 24, 2010 11:31 am

    I have no idea how they calculate VORP, but it does mostly pass the smell test. That is, if you rank players by VORP in any given year, you’d have a hard time arguing that it’s not a “good” measure of player (hitters only) quality. The top 3 players this year are: Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols. Hamilton and Pujols are the leading MVP candidates.

    It would be interesting to ask an LA principal to list his 5 “best” and 5 “worst” teachers and see how that matches up with the VAA data the Times published. I’d bet it doesn’t pass the smell test.

    But, yes, there’s more data to work with in baseball and the stakes are incomparably low.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      August 25, 2010 10:58 pm

      Ah, the smell test! I’ve got to use that.

      Anytime you get into “best” and “worst” I worry about the perspectives being applied. To be perfectly honest, after nearly a decade in my current position, I imagine that I would make both lists if you ask enough parents and former students. I’ve also seen it from the outside, as a parent, and hearing from students and parents about my colleagues. That idea that “everyone knows” bugs me – it’s an opinion that tends to form in situations where you’re not really talking to “everyone” and where there’s a certain reticence for people to speak up and express an unpopular opinion.

      Also, I think my former principals all would say good things about me – but really, based on what? They formed opinions based on the way I handle myself as a colleague and team member/leader, as a communicator with parents and administration, and maybe even based on shared visions and priorities about education. And those things all matter, though not as much as the work we do directly with students each day.

  12. September 15, 2010 4:18 am

    I always appreciate your take. and by and large I agree with most of your post. But I must admit, as economics teacher, you lost me here:

    “”There is also little or no evidence for the claim that teachers will be more motivated to improve student learning if teachers are evaluated or monetarily rewarded for student test score gains.”

    Now, you might merely be stating a synopsis of the “research” but I hope you don’t mean to insinuate that teachers will not respond to incentives. The tenure based system employed by most districts is fatally lacking in this one area.

    Are you against incentives in principle? In my cursory glance, I do not see mention of this in your recommendations for changes to evaluation systems in CA.


    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      September 15, 2010 11:51 am

      Hello Mike,
      I always appreciate being pushed to refine my thinking and writing, but at a glance, I can’t find the context for the quotation you seem to be attributing to me, and I don’t remember writing it. Was it in a different post or comment? [EDIT – I found it, but it’s a quotation embedded from a report, embedded within a different blog post, “Variable Ambiguous Mistake.”]

      It does resemble my thinking, and to clarify, I’d say that the quote distinguishes between learning and test scores. So teachers might very well respond to test score-based incentives, but if the focus is on raising test scores, I have misgivings about the likelihood of improvement related to desirable learning outcomes. It’s the narrowing effect that we’ve seen with NCLB, and a dose of Campbell’s Law, which as you probably know, argues that high stakes decisions based on narrow measures will inevitably corrupt the measurement tool and the value of what’s being measured.

      I may also have been channeling a bit of Daniel Pink, who presents a convincing case in Drive that incentives generally work better for simple tasks that we might not otherwise be motivated to do. Complex, creative tasks, and those we generally enjoy doing, tend to suffer when incentives come into play. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose will drive intrinsic motivation, which is generally more powerful and sustained than external motivation guided by rewards and consequences.


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