The Motivation of a Player in his Contract Year

In America, we think of players in their contract year as motivated to prove themselves and earn their next contract.  Analysts mention it routinely (here are two different examples from before this season alone), and Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson once said, “Just give me 25 guys on the last year of their contracts; I’ll win a pennant every year.”  It is not limited to just baseball discussions, either; the other major American sports (the NBA and NFL) make similar assumptions.

There is some debate about whether the contract year phenomenon exists, and front offices are said to be wary of players who have performed abnormally well in their contract year because of the uncertainty about what that performance represents.  The arguments surrounding the contract year phenomenon are about its existence or predictive value, though.  We wonder whether players do actually perform better or if our noticing such performances is just confirmation bias.  We ask whether players who do perform better are doing so because they are motivated to get paid.

What we do not question in the same way is the fundamental assumption on which the contract year is based.  Even those who doubt that financial motivation drives improved performance don’t extend the question beyond the baseline of a player’s performance—that is, even those people who do not credit financial incentives for performance improvements don’t ask whether contract uncertainty could hinder performance.  They simply assume performance variations in contract years are caused by the same variables present for everyone else.

In European soccer (or football, depending on your country of origin), though, the assumption is the opposite.  For example, Arsenal’s two best players are currently in the last year of their contracts, and their manager spent the preseason answering questions about whether Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil would be motivated to play hard even though their future with the team was uncertain.  Reporters asking these questions are working backwards from the premise that players who are not financially committed to their team are not as likely to put their body on the line or play as hard as is needed to win games.

The players could simply be differently motivated.  European soccer and American sports are structured differently, so the lack of competitive balance in European soccer could play a role.  Where all American teams dream that they can win a championship within five years or so, the same six teams are almost certainly going to be at the top of the English Premier League every year until an outsider gets a cash infusion or the rules are changed.  American sports have drafts and more robust revenue sharing programs that allow for some measure of parity.  Soccer players therefore know that signing elite talent is the only way for teams to improve immediately, so they will be paid regardless.

This is mostly true in American sports as well, though; great players aren’t available via trade so often that it would skew the free agent market.  Yu Darvish, for example, knew going into this season that he would be one of the top free agent pitchers, and Chris Archer being on the trading block doesn’t make Darvish less appealing.  He remains a very good pitcher with some question marks, and the Brewers or Cubs or Dodgers or Red Sox would have to be interested even if they think Archer is better because only one team can get Archer.

Another key difference between soccer and major American sports is how infrequently soccer players reach free agency.  This would play the opposite way, though, as players transfer teams all the time despite not being “free agents”; soccer players have more power than do their American counterparts, and players move regardless of their contract status.  Elite teams therefore have more options to fill holes beyond just relying on free agents.

There are many other possible explanations.  MLB, NBA, and NFL are American leagues and built around American cultural values, while European soccer leagues are not.  The environment surrounding the leagues (whether it be media, front offices, or league executives) is influenced by those different cultures, and the assumptions about players’ behaviors are based on observers’ implicit knowledge of those cultures.  Relatedly, the players’ backgrounds are different: most athletes in the American leagues are from America, while most soccer players in Europe are not.  The athletes are therefore raised in different cultures, and their behaviors and motivations are guided by their upbringings.  As ­American leagues have more international players and American soccer players go abroad, though, these narratives are not changing.  It is therefore unlikely that the individual players’ cultures are playing a role.

I am not here to tell you which assumption, whether players are more likely to play hard or slack off because of financial uncertainty, is correct.  I have no idea, nor do I have any idea how to measure it.  Studies can measure outcomes, but we cannot determine motivational levels without resorting to interviews, and professional athletes are unlikely to be honest if they do actually spend their contract years being timid because they don’t want to get hurt.

What I do want to do is raise the question.  At its core, sabermetrics is about questioning the assumptions we base our analysis on.  Statistics that had been relied on for generations (such as RBIs, pitcher wins, saves) are now disfavored because people asked whether what they were measuring was actually important.  For years, people valued saves because they assumed it measured something of value, but that assumption is now under attack.

The next frontier of sports analysis is the mental side of the game.  At Baseball Prospectus, Russell Carleton has occasionally written about the role of psychology, and he is writing a book about it as well.  These intrinsic motivational and interpersonal questions are not as easily answerable or measurable, but they do almost certainly matter.  For years, observers and analysts valued team chemistry and lineup protection, but studies have questioned whether those effects exist.  The researchers who raised these questions wondered whether the psychological assumption (that the profile of the on-deck hitter affected a pitcher’s strategy) underlying the common belief was correct.

A similar doubt should be raised here.  We do not really know how financial incentives inspire people; we can make logical guesses based on how we as individuals would react and what professional athletes have said, but we do not actually know the answer.  These assumptions about motivation underlie the NFL’s entire non-guaranteed contract structure (in addition to their owners’ cynical desire to keep costs down), and they are part of the basis for incentive-based contracts.  But what if they are wrong?  We hear players mention frequently how much they value financial security, and contracts like Jonathan Singleton’s and Salvador Perez’s are evidence of that.

European soccer leagues provide some ammunition for this doubt, simply because they work on the opposite belief and have been equally successful.  We should not be so naïve as to think that our cultural assumption must be the correct one.  The opposite could just as easily be correct.  I imagine that the correct answer is somewhere in the middle—that each player responds differently—but I don’t know.  I do think, though, that we should continue to question the foundation for our assumptions.  The answers might surprise us.


Photo Credit: Bill Streicher, USAToday Sports Images

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