Does Smart Mean Good?

Since the Mets have done little in the way of providing storylines this winter, the media and blogosphere has had to grasp at straws in order to create content that involves the Major League Baseball team in Flushing.

One of the more recent angles has been the “intelligence” of the Mets’ new front office and their possibly not-so-coincidental targeting of similarly “smart” baseball players.

If you haven’t already read, new GM Sandy Alderson is a graduate of both Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School; his assistant Paul DePodesta is also an Ivy Leaguer, a grad of Harvard. Their combined smartness is expected to make the Mets a better organization. If you believe the Mets were a “dumb” organization before, then there is certainly some credence to that thought — even if DePodesta’s brains didn’t keep the Dodgers from recording the second-worst record in their LA history in 2005.

But when the intelligence angle is extended to the players, I’m not so sure it holds much water. The prospect of seeing brainiacs Chris Capuano, R.A. Dickey, and Chris Young in the clubhouse was interesting enough for an article in The New York Times, but that trio’s success will depend much more on their arms than their heads.

Maybe I’m just being my typically pessimistic self, but it wasn’t that long ago that the media made a big deal of John Maine’s intellect. More recently, there was Stanford grad Chris Carter, whose background in stem cell research apparently wasn’t valued enough by the Mets’ braintrust to offer him a contract.

One of my all-time favorite baseball stories about intelligence was rehashed by Mets By the Numbers a few days ago. It recounted the story of Jay Hook, an original Met whose sketches describing the Bernoulli Principle’s involvement in the flight of a curveball were published in an industrial magazine (pictured left, from the MBTN website). As it would happen, not long after the article’s publication, Hook was lit up (as he often was) by the opposition’s bats, prompting manager Casey Stengel to remark, “It’s wonderful that he knows how a curveball works. Now if he could only throw one.”

I know, I know — it’s a slow winter, and the writers have to come up with something. Intelligence is as good a topic as any; it’s hard to argue — at least, when there aren’t games being played — and getting smart ballplayers neatly follows the story of the intellectuals in the Mets’ fantasy front office.

What do you think? Would you feel more confident about the Mets’ chances if they acquired players with higher IQs?

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Lee Feigenbaum January 17, 2011 at 3:20 pm
    For me, I don’t understand what the big “controversy” is. Given 2 players with identical talent levels, I’d prefer the more intelligent one. He’s likely to use that talent level to better effect than the 2nd guy.

    But I’ll take a better, “dumber” player any day. Intelligence is merely one of several secondary attributes (secondary to talent) that I’d use to evaluate players and to choose between otherwise comparable alternatives.

    I don’t really see any evidence that the new administration is passing up better talent to pursue intelligence, do you?

    Lee

    • Joe January 17, 2011 at 3:51 pm
      Not sure I’d agree with taking the more intelligent player. Case in point: Ron Darling. There were few pitchers who had Darling’s physical gifts, but his constant self-analysis and over-thinking prevented him from realizing his full potential. Billy Beane was a similar case — great athletic talent, but his high IQ and using his brain too much were partly to blame for his never being better than a reserve outfielder.

      On the flip side, there have been many ballplayers with lower IQs or lesser education AND less god-given talent who had better careers.

      As for the current regime passing up better talent to pursue intelligence, no, I don’t see evidence of that, and didn’t mean to infer such a suggestion. That would be like saying Omar Minaya passed up better talent to pursue Latino ballplayers.

      • Lee Feigenbaum January 17, 2011 at 6:03 pm
        Luckily, the plural of anecdote is not data… unfortunately, I don’t know where to get the data to actually figure out whether there is a trend here either way. I’d imagine that intelligent ballplayers are more likely to prepare well and be ready for unexpected situations then they are likely to damage themselves via overanalysis, but without the data, who knows what’s actually the case?
        • Joe Janish January 18, 2011 at 12:47 am
          And the plural of datum is not proof.

          Your imagination is running away with you. In baseball, the more you think, the less you do. It’s not unlike golf in that way; paralysis by analysis is more the rule than a theory. It’s not a coincidence that many men think of baseball when they’re trying to do something else; in contrast, many men playing baseball try to think of something else to keep them from thinking about what their body is supposed to be doing as a 95-MPH fastball hurtles toward them.

      • Dan January 17, 2011 at 8:33 pm
        Don’t forget Heilman, with a dual degree in management information systems and philosophy from Notre Dame. Over thinking can be a big problem, especially if one feels he is being kept from reaching his potential.
  2. joe bourgeois January 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm
    Ollie.

    QED.

  3. Kenny January 18, 2011 at 1:11 am
    The Ivy League has been screwing up the world for decades. Why not the Mets too?

    Would you trust an Ivy Leaguer to run your local gas station? restaurant? barber shop?

    These eggheads have degrees. It doesn’t make them competent. Look at Tim Geithner. That clown probably can’t even dress himself.

    • Joe Janish January 18, 2011 at 3:03 am
      Hey watch yourself with those comments about the Ivy League. Barack Obama went to Columbia and Harvard, and George W. Bush went to Yale, and … oh, crap, never mind.
      • Dan January 18, 2011 at 7:59 am
        Touche!
  4. Tony January 18, 2011 at 10:30 am
    I think as far as the players, the intelligence factor may be overplayed by the media a lot.

    Capuano built his strenghth up working in relief last season after recovering enough, then his last 5 appearances were starts, averaging over 6 IP with good numbers. Sometimes graduating Pi Betta Kappa is also a result of hard work and dedication, something all the Brewers folks talk about with him, he’ll be 18 months out at the start of spring training, and is was to be spending the off season conditioning, working on long tossing, and band exercises, should be stronger this year, if his strength doesn’t hold up, they can move him to the bullpen.

    Young was targeted because of a strong finish, and the idea he would be even stronger by the start of the season.

    I will say this though smart guys generally have an idea of what they need to do to succeed, but Joe is right, that’s irrelevant if their elbow/shoulders’ don’t hold up.

    Maybe we should be learning more about the doctors reviewing their medical charts??

  5. mooshinator January 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm
    I think the key here is what Lee said:

    “I don’t really see any evidence that the new administration is passing up better talent to pursue intelligence, do you?”

    It looks to me as if the accumulation of brainy players is a bit of a coincidence, given that they also happen to be players with pretty decent potential and a low price tag.

    Hey, isn’t Moneyball all about maximizing undervalued assets? Maybe all of the OTHER GMs are avoiding these smart players because they are convinced that “smart = weak, uncoordinated nerd” and so Sandy is just taking advantage of that! :)

    • Joe Janish January 19, 2011 at 12:54 am
      Funny, I was thinking recently about what Sandy and the Fantasy Front Office Dancers are focusing on in regard to exploiting a market inefficiency … maybe it’s pouncing on smart alecks in a world of dumb jocks, as you suggest. My guess is buying up players whose values have dropped due to recent injuries. Maybe we’re both right — perhaps it is paying bottom dollar for smart guys coming off injury.

      Or maybe there is a new stat measuring pitchers that won’t be revealed until Moneyball II: Exercising Small Market Management in a Big Market Town.

  6. argonbunnies January 20, 2011 at 4:59 am
    There’s a difference between being smart and being busy-headed. At times Mike Pelfrey may think too much on the mound, but that doesn’t make him any sort of genius. And on the other side is Maddux and Schilling, who analyzed the hell out of things between pitches, but were able to focus on just throwing the ball when it was time to do that.

    I’d say intelligence is a tool that COULD be used to a player’s advantage. Pitch-by-pitch defensive positioning, for example. Choosing optimal workout programs. Knowing when to beg out of a game rather than turning a minor injury into a major one. You don’t have to be Einstein to make these decisions correctly, but you do have to not be a moron.