For most of baseball history, major league scouts were looking for “Five-Tool Players.”
To be a Five-Tool Player, you need to be better than most other players in five different categories: Batting average, hitting for power (extra bases), speed, throwing, and fielding.
Which is hard. It’s hard to be better than most other major-league players in one of those categories, much less five. Five-Tool Players are some of the best players in baseball history: Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey, Jr.
But Five-Tool Players don’t have those skills in isolation. Those skills interact with each other. A high batting average means you can use your speed on the base paths. Speed also helps you field better. And when you field the ball, you can use your strong throwing arm to get the other team out. The skills are complementary. The skills mean much more together than individually. It’s better to have one Five-Tool Player than five One-Tool Players. Five-Tool Players have stacked their skills.
Scott Adams calls this “talent-stacking.” In my fiction book The 24th Name, I call it a “skill stack.” Because talent doesn’t matter as much as skills, when it comes to stacking them together (To read more about this, here’s a blog post from a couple of years ago: The Rule Of Four (Or Five)).
In baseball, things changed.
In his book Moneyball, Michael Lewis talks about the evolution in evaluating baseball talent. The Five-Tool Player metric gave way to “harder” metrics. And algorithms for combining those metrics.
Teams like the Oakland A’s used those metrics and algorithms to get more wins out of less-than Five-Tool Players. Some players had barely one of the Five Tools (on-base percentage isn’t one of the Five Tools, but that turns out to be an important contributor to a player’s value to the team).
It turned out that the Five-Tool Players weren’t as important as everyone thought for winning baseball games.
And yet, many years after the Moneyball revolution, Five-Tool Players like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still get all the attention and the big contracts.
The reason is simple: The dominant game of baseball is not the Zero-Sum Game of competition. It's not how many wins your team gets at the end of the season.
The dominant game of baseball (and every other sport) is a Positive-Sum Game with the fans.
Fans aren’t interested in watching players take a walk to first base every time they bat, even if they end up winning a lot of games that way. Lots of walks may contribute to wins, but they don’t contribute to the fan experience.
Fans want to see home runs, speed, and great catches. Fans want to see hits and doubles and a long throw from the outfield to get an out at the plate.
Fans want the awe of seeing another human being do things that almost no one else can do. Fans want to see other human beings stack their skills in amazing ways.
Fans want to see Five-Tool Players.
Which is why Five-Tool Players like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado get the big contracts.
Because Five-Tool Players deliver value in the Positive-Sum Game with the fans.
It turns out that, for the fans, the scouts were right: Five-Tool Players deliver the most value in the dominant game of baseball.