The Value of Experience


Does experience count? You bet.

But experience is not an undifferentiated quality. Experience as a “community organizer” — which means “professional rabble rouser” — hardly qualifies someone for the responsibility of heading the executive branch of the U.S. government. As millions of Americans have learned (and other millions have not).

Relevant experience, on the other hand, counts for a lot. Consider the following graphs:

The New York Yankees have enjoyed three “dynastic” eras of dominance in the American League: 1921-1964, 1976-1981, and 1994-2012.

In the first era, which predates free agency, the Yankees relied mainly on the allure of the team’s initial successes  to attract talented young prospects. (Those initial successes were due in large part to the acquisition of Babe Ruth in a trade that Boston Red Sox fans have ever since rued.) The best of the young prospects were then tested in the Yankees’ farm system, advanced (selectively) as they proved worthy, and brought up to the “big time” when they were deemed ready.

The second and third eras of  the Yankees’ dominance followed and coincided with the dwindling of the minor leagues, the expansion of the major leagues, and the advent of free agency. Because of the first two developments, major-league teams have been providing on-the-job training to players who, in earlier decades, might never have made it to the big leagues. The Yankees adapted to this change by picking up proven players through trades and free-agent signings — after those players had acquired polish and displayed their skills while in the pay of other teams. Thus it is that the Yankees faded after 1981, as their teams became younger, and became successful again in the mid-1990s, as their teams became older (i.e., more experienced).

UPDATE 08/20/13:

I’ve taken a closer look at the relationships discussed above, and they hold up well.

The following equation applies to 1901-1976 (the years before free agency was in full force):

WL = 0.258 + 0.458xWLP + 0.010xBHO, where

WL = won-lost record in a season

WLP = won-lost record in the previous season

BHO = batting holdovers (the number of batters who appeared in 100 or more games in both the current and preceding seasons)

It makes sense for WL to be strongly correlated with WLP (continuity of players, playing conditions, opposition, etc.). The interesting wrinkle is the presence of BHO in the equation, at a high level of significance (0.07), given the strong cross-correlations between WL and WLP (0.61) and WLP and BHO (0.66).

Since, 1976, however, only WLP explains WL with any degree of significance. This is consistent with my hypothesis that after the advent of free agency the Yankees (unsurprisingly) became more dependent on free agents (i.e., veteran players).

In fact, there was a significant change in the correlation between WL and the relative age of players. For 1901-1976, the correlation is effectively zero (an insignificant -0.11). For 1977-2012, the correlation is a highly significant 0.50. Moreover, the correlation between WLP and BHO drops significantly after the advent of free agency, from 0.66 to 0.22.

To summarize: Before free agency, the Yankees’ depended largely on the retention of proved veterans, but the team remained relatively young (on average) because of the constant acquisition and cultivation of young players, some of whom became valuable veterans. Since free agency, the team has relied less on “growing its own” and more on veteran players who had proved themselves elsewhere.

In any event, experience is valuable. It’s just that it’s acquired in a different way than it was before free agency.

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