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Intangibles & The "5% Principle"

Christian Petersen

If you're sabermetrically inclined, or just a fan of science over astrology, probably nothing infuriates you more than to hear about a player's intangibles as if how peppy they made the clubhouse, or how unflappable they appeared under pressure, or their perceived level of "desire," was worth .090 points of OBP or 4 MPH on a fastball.

You might wonder, "How can fans be so dense as to worry about a player's attitude when we have seen Manny Ramirez and Eric Sogard, and I'm pretty sure I know who gets drafted first 100% of the time." {double-checks Sogard's astrological sign} Yep. "Clubhouse chemistry" over "great skills"? Really?

Here's the thing. No one in their right mind, and few people in their wrong or left minds, will argue that things like "clubhouse leader" or "bulldog mentality" are of equal importance to "can recognize a slider" or "can throw strikes". If you were to make a pie chart (ideally one that Josh Reddick couldn't smoosh in your face) of the qualities which make up 100% of a ballplayer's value, probably at least 80% would come from flat out baseball skills -- raw tools, all the skills in the 20/80 scales that scouts use, the ability to make adjustments, and so on. Concrete things like health and age might take up a good portion of the rest.

The so-called "intangibles" -- hard to measure but somewhere between valued and useful -- would make up just a sliver. Maybe 5%. So if "good at baseball-ness" is 80% and "intangibles" are 5%, why worry about something that is 16x less important? It's a fair question.

Here's, hopefully, a fair answer. 5% isn't a lot when compared to 80%, but it's also not negligible in and of itself. Teams scratch and claw for a 5% advantage. Heck, 5% of the season is 8 games and 8 games can make or break a close race (just ask the Texas Rangers -- oh, oh I di'int!!!). An increase in wRC+ from 100 to 105 is not trivial, while a pitcher who throws 90MPH, if he could add 5% to his velocity, would now throw 94.5MPH. Imagine the hitter whose swing is 5% faster, or the base-stealer who succeeds 5% more of the time. The point being, anywhere you can gain a 5% edge, or an edge 5% more of the time, is worth attending to.

So when teams try to assess, or attend to, attitude, chemistry, makeup, etc., they are not putting these considerations ahead of "ability" in any way, shape or form. They are putting it alongside, recognizing that the intangibles absolutely cannot offset or overcome 80% of the pie chart -- but that they absolutely can make a difference.

Think of baseball as being a yardstick -- and then if baseball is indeed "a game of inches" that's, well...about 5%.