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Breaking down 'makeup' for MLB players

Makeup has been a concern for front offices for years and years, but it seems that there's been a renewed focus during this offseason.

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

This offseason, there's been a lot of talk about "makeup," a word ostensibly used to describe (in general terms) the mental component of the game of baseball. I think that much of this came from the offseason moves made by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who "sold low" (according to many perceptions) on high-talent players like Trevor Bauer and Justin Upton who were reported to have "makeup concerns." While we don't (and can't) know precisely why the players were traded, this issue of makeup has come up too often in discussions to be able to rule it out as at least one factor in the team's valuation of these players.

But what do we really mean when we talk about makeup?

Well, since this is Beyond the Box Score, and because we're in pursuit of knowledge, let's explore what it might mean to quantify "makeup" in some form. And to start doing that, we need to get a little more precise about (1) what we mean when we say "makeup" and (2) how makeup might translate to on-field performance.

First, what do we mean when we talk about "makeup". I'd like to say there are a few aspects to makeup. Here's a list of all the aspects that I'd think might make up (ugh) makeup:

  • The perceived desire to play professional baseball, and to keep improving one's skills through practice.
  • The perceived ability or willingness to play through injury and/or personal difficulty.
  • The perceived ability or willingness to receive coaching.
  • The perceived ability to get along with your teammates / the media / team management.
  • The perceived ability to avoid "trouble," with the law, with steroids, etc.
  • The ability to avoid mental mistakes on the field.
  • The ability to learn the concepts and cognitive skills that make up a not-insignificant portion of the game.
  • The ability to "forget" about previous at-bats or batters faced and re-focus on new challenges.
  • A positive attitude in general.

It is possible, and even likely that I've missed at least one aspect of makeup in the list above. But that, in and of itself, really shines a light on how terrible the term "makeup" is as a catch-all. In the category of makeup, we're looking at a number of different qualities or skills that may or may not be interconnected. A player may be a great guy in the clubhouse, but makes a ton of mental errors on the field. Does he have good or bad makeup? A pitcher may be especially hesitant to lean on his fringy slider after being burned by elbow injuries in the past, but he does more charity work than six other guys on the team and makes it to practice an hour early. Does he have good or bad makeup?

Worst of all, makeup can, like anyone's attitude, change on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. Can't a player with a bad month all of a sudden get a reputation for bad makeup? Can't a young player gain maturity and improve makeup over time? Of course they can. So not only does makeup comprise a host of possible mental skills and attitudes, but it also is something that may not be able to be measured accurately in a small sample.

Now that we're talking about what actual things comprise makeup, can we talk about which of these can translate to on-field performance?

It's likely that most of the aspects of makeup do translate to on-field performance in some way. If a player is willing to put in "extra" time in the cage, then they're more likely to develop their skills or reach a level of potential. If a player avoids mental mistakes, then they might take better routes to the ball and play better defense, or sequence their pitches in an optimal fashion.

There's also some issues where "makeup" might actually hurt a player's on-field performance. A willingness to play through injury could have value for a team that might receive sub-par performance from a replacement ... but it could also lead a player to aggravate an injury or put up sub-par performance themselves. And ability to take coaching might be a positive most of the time, but a player could also take bad advice, and see their performance falter as a result. It's possible that having a "high" makeup in one of the categories outlined above might wind up being a negative, the same way that a player with an 80 fastball might rely on it to the detriment of the rest of his skills.

So what should be a methodology for trying to apply a player's makeup to his overall value, or performance? Personally, I like an idea that I believe came from Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus -- applying the scouting "20-80" scale to makeup in an attempt to measure it in a way that is perception-based, rather than something that's "stat"-based. At least for now.

But perhaps one score for makeup isn't appropriate. Perhaps there are five mental tools as well as five physical tools: learning ability, commitment, positivity, focus, and "maturity" (I can't think of a better term than this to describe the ability to stay out of trouble). Maybe there's even room for "mental scouting" -- a specific branch of scouting dedicated to the evaluation of a player's mental toolbox. Mental scouts could be industry folks, people who'd had experience working with players -- but maybe it'd be more appropriate for these people to be a combination of adult-learning specialist and sports psychologist. Heck, maybe these people already exist.

The other aspect to grading makeup might be to have baseball insiders attempt to offer their best guess as to how much difference good makeup (or aspects of makeup) has on on-field performance. Is it worth a win over a full season? Two wins? Does it make up for .020 of batting average? One run in a tie game once a month?

The point is, it stands to reason that there's some correlation between the "mental" aspect of the game and on-field performance. It could be something that leads to injury prevention, to skill development, to choosing how to allocate resources. But simplifying the discussion by using a term like "makeup" seems reductive and muddies the waters. We've done a good job as a sabermetric community in using objective analysis in other areas of the game.

Perhaps it's time to do the same with what we used to call "makeup."

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