The Outlier

In his latest bestseller, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that great success is driven not purely by talent or genius, but by a combination of ability, determined practice over a long term, and fortunate circumstance. The book is full of challenging ideas and conclusions, some of them debatable; one of its most provocative and irrefutable arguments comes in regard to sport, and is broadly applicable to baseball. Gladwell notes that an overwhelming preponderance of high-level athletes are born in the days and months immediately following the annual cutoff date for youth sports leagues. The example he uses in the book is hockey. Canadian youth hockey programs have a January first birthday cutoff date. That means a kid born on the first day of the year will play on the same age level team as a kid born on the last day of the same year, even though he is practically a year older. Not surprisingly, the kid born on January 1 has a big advantage—he's basically a year older, stronger, faster, and more experienced than the kid born on December 31, even though they're on the same team. When the league those kids play in choose its all star squads, guess who's more likely to get selected: The older kid. And then you have a self-reinforcing loop. Because the older kid is perceived to be more talented, he gets better coaching and spends ever more time playing the sport under ideal conditions. Soon what was only the advantage of age develops into real advantage, thanks to all the extra work and coaching. To prove his point, Gladwell only needs to look at the birth dates on Canada's youth hockey championship teams. The kids are all born in January and February. Baseball is a little different. The youth baseball year in the US doesn't begin on January 1. It begins on August 1. He notes that in 2005, MLB had more than 500 players born in August, and just over 300 born in July. That's a huge discrepancy. And it does make you wonder about Alex Rodriguez, born on July 27, just 4 days short of the cutoff. Did he somehow manage to get himself put into the post-August 1 group? That would have given him a big advantage on his peers. Or could it be that his talent was so immense, that he is such an outlier, that he somehow developed into the generational player that he is despite being one of the youngest kids on his youth team? Food for thought.

9 comments… add one
  • So what the heck happened with Varitek? Somehow both Epstein and Boras made mistakes? Theo for offering and Scooter for declining? Given their reputations, it seems very hard to believe that both got the market so wrong. Something more was going on…

    Rob January 6, 2009, 5:38 am
  • Sorry, wrong thread. I have heard good things about the book.
    I don’t know if you can make the typical assumptions about A-Rod. He had a peripatetic upbringing:
    Rodriguez was born in the Washington Heights section of New York City to a Dominican family. When he was four, Rodriguez and his parents moved to their native Dominican Republic. After the family moved to Miami, Florida three years later…
    And in Miami, don’t they play year round baseball? They certainly do in the Dominican Republic.
    But, getting lumped with the older kids, based on Gladwell’s logic, would have put him at a distinct disadvantage, unless he was so good that people took notice in spite of his age. Maybe that was your point?

    Rob January 6, 2009, 5:46 am
  • Rob, which thread was the Tek comment meant for? I can move it.
    As for that, I think Theo expected Boras to reject: he almost always opts for FA, and Epstein probably played the odds, and smartly, to potentially gain a draft pick.

    SF January 6, 2009, 8:20 am
  • Thanks, I posted it there…but now it’s missing! Not sure who the author was but it was about why they are not a GM because they would have offered to Abreu.
    I’m still not sure Theo didn’t have an implicit agreement with Boras. Paying $10 million/year for Varitek is looking like lunancy. $3 million may be too much.

    Rob January 6, 2009, 9:26 am
  • Given his knowledge of the pitching staffs, and the confidence that our younger pitchers have with him behind the plate, I would pay 8mil at most.

    Atheose - SF January 6, 2009, 9:52 am
  • Regardless when you have an age cut off, there will always be a disparity. The age cut off for youth hockey in the US was June 1 for a number of years, now it is January 1. You still have the late VS early birthdays. There will be players that over come this issue. Look at Canadian born Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he is an August 87. A good athlete, with focus and commitment to their sport, will excel.

    Buzz Coady January 6, 2009, 1:01 pm
  • Little League rules are a little different than hockey and soccer, at least here in Northern CA. Out here, the cutoff date for both soccer and baseball is 8/1 but in soccer, it is not possible to “play up” a level while in baseball it is. Since baseball is played very differently as the kids get older (t-ball, coach pitch, machine pitch and then kid pitch), good players are always chomping at the bit to get knocked up a level. In soccer, you just kick the ball around the field at pretty much every level (can you tell what my sports prejudices are?).
    I also think there are those exceptions in certain sports where the child is talented enough to overcome the age thing. My 8 year old’s birthday is 7/26. It really shows in soccer that he is basically competing against kids who are a year older. But in baseball, he plays a level up and he is still one of the better players on the team. OK, it may have something to do with the fact that him mom brings him to every baseball game she can but she can barely sit through his own soccer games :).

    rootbeerfloat January 6, 2009, 1:58 pm
  • Sorry, Rob, I removed the post that was accidentally published last night. I was working on one and then stalled on it, but left the window open and then promptly fell asleep. My lady saw the save button and pressed it before shutting down the computer and this morning I was greeted (to my horror) to my incomplete awful post. Had to delete that crap.
    I like this kind of discussion although I have to think in A-Rod’s case, it was just his overwhelming physical talent that pushed him ahead at a very young age. I remember reading about Josh Hamilton playing little league baseball at the age of 8 with 12 year olds and dominating, which is pretty freaking ridiculous when you think about it.

    Nick-YF January 6, 2009, 4:52 pm
  • rootbeer,
    I grew up with CC (born 7/21) and coupled with his above-average size, gave him a distinct advantage from the Little League level on up. I remember he was on the LLWS team (went as far as state finals) and was a year younger than the rest of the roster.

    Nate January 7, 2009, 11:48 am

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