In 1951, a man by the name of Solomon Asch performed a psychological experiment to examine the phenomenon of conformity. Specifically, Asch studied how a group majority — what “everyone” was doing — influenced what an individual would do. Would an individual make a choice that was obviously incorrect, and perform well below their true talent, if it meant conforming to the group?
Asch did this by gathering a group of 12 people. 11 of them were actors, and the final one was the test subject. All were college-aged white males. All 12 were presented with two cards — one card with a single line, and the other card with three lines of varying lengths. Here is an example:
All 12 people were asked which of the three lines on the second card were the same length as the line on the first card. Pretty obvious, right? Well, yeah. When the test subject went first, or when the 11 actors chose the correct answer, the test subject would get the answer correct over 99% of the time. Which makes sense, because the answer is really obvious.
However, in some test runs the actors were asked to all choose the same wrong answer. In these trials, the test subject’s correct response rate plummeted to 63.2%. What’s more — 75% of all participants gave at least one incorrect answer that conformed with the group majority.
Why? Was it because the test subjects began to doubt themselves and began to assume their eyes had stopped working, or their brain had stopped functioning? Or was it pressure to conform to their peers to avoid being seen as a social outcast, a pressure familiar to all individuals, and certainly prevalent in the fraternity culture that is common among the tested demographic?
It’s hard to say. Interviews after the experiment revealed mixed responses, but people tend to be poor judges of their own character.
It’s easy to imagine a young Mariners farmhand, somewhat unsure of himself in a professional field that will cut him off the minute he begins to lose his luster. He absolutely raked in college, in high school, and in winter ball. The farm system has been tumultuous for years, and his Class A team gets another new hitting coach. This new coach has his own philosophy, and spoiler alert, it’s different from the philosophies of the last three coaches.
Some of the guys are eager to tweak their swings, their timing, and their mechanics. Anything to get an edge in a cutthroat environment like Class A baseball, where everyone needs to get to double-A before they turn 25 and are considered “old”.
Our young farmhand, who has so much promise, knows better. His swing is fine. His timing is great. His mechanics are quite good for someone in Class A. But what if he starts the year batting .250, and begins to doubt himself just a little? Maybe he starts to conform a little bit, and begins to phase out everything that made him good in the first place.
Let’s say this farmhand was in Modesto, but there were three or four in Jackson, and still another several in Tacoma. Let’s say together, these 10 comprised the top 10 Mariners prospects.
It’s easy to sit on the couch and yell “Culture of losing!”, but what does that actually mean? It might mean Justin Smoak conforming to the ineffectual teachings of then-hitting coach Chris Chambliss. It might also mean 2014 and 2015 Rainiers hitting coach Cory Snider encouraging goodness-knows-what mechanics on D.J. Peterson until he turned 25 and it became clear he would remain Not Good.
Or maybe it’s not about conformity. It could be a phenomenon known as the stereotype threat. The stereotype threat is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. If a group of individuals is stereotyped as being expected to do worse on a certain activity, the performance of the group will drop in relation to when they aren’t being stereotyped. Essentially, they will “perform down” to the standards enforced by society, even when they are perfectly capable of performing at a high level.
Take a simple math test that was administered to groups of people self-identifying as either men or women. When told beforehand that gender had no significant bearing on the results of the test, the results bore that out: no statistically significant differences were found between the results of men and women. However, when told beforehand that gender had an impact on the results, men performed better and women performed worse on the same test.
Perhaps stereotype threat is what caused the Cubs to go over 100 years between World Series titles, and what’s caused seemingly every Mariners prospect to fail. There’s certainly anecdotal evidence to support the thought. Most pundits have been calling the Mariners a bottom-third farm system for a few years. It was just two or three years ago that national articles were coming out about the Mariners’ “prospect purgatory”.
Could it be improving? Hopefully. Take this quote from Kate Preusser’s piece on Ian Miller last year, where Miller speaks of the encouragement he received from Todd Donovan, the Mariners’ Assistant Director of Player Personnel.
He [Donovan] told me to get out of my own head, and—I’ll never forget this—he said, ‘Ian, if you DON’T hit, you’ll be a good player. You can field, you can run, and you can throw…that’s valuable, you’ll be a valuable player and you’ll be a good player, but if you hit, you could be a star’.
It’s possible that the team’s minors leadership had been encouraging its players like this before. Knowing what we know of Bill Bavasi and Jack Zduriencik, however, it seems unlikely. The opposite of the stereotype threat is called the Pygmalion effect. It states that when expectation are high, performance increases to match them. It’s as good a place to start as any if the Mariners really are going to repair their culture of losing.