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At core, it’s pitching

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Baseball teams looking to contend are best off devoting their resources to good pitching over skilled position players, according to new research from business professors at three major universities.

In an article to be published in the next issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, scholars from Penn State, Michigan State and Notre Dame concluded that pitchers are part of a team's "strategic core" and that teams that devoted more payroll to this "strategic core" historically have been the most successful. The authors contended that their findings can apply to team-like settings in the traditional business world.

The research team examined team data from 1974 (the first year of free agency) to 2002, analyzing how each team was constructed and how it performed. It also looked at salary data dating to 1985, the first year such information became available to the public.

In their 48-page report, the authors theorized that in all teams - including those in traditional businesses and corporations - there are certain "core" roles that are most important to the overall performance of the group. In baseball, the authors said, pitchers and catchers operate in these core roles because they are involved in every play, do most of the on-field communicating and have an inordinate impact on the outcome of a game. Thus, the authors argue, teams should work to ensure those positions are filled by players with skill and experience.

"We find that teams that invest more of their financial resources into these core roles are able to leverage such investments into significantly improved performance," the article said.

The article does not provide specific baseball examples - it is written for those interested in business management rather than fans - but does offer a number of charts that show a correlation between team success and having skilled and experienced players in "core" positions. Given that many baseball executives now use a horde of analytic methods when determining how to spend their teams' money, this report might come in handy as pitchers like CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets prepare for free agency.

The results of this study also back up recent conclusions from writers at Baseball Prospectus, which developed a formula known as "Secret Sauce" to determine which teams are most likely to be successful in the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus concluded teams with good starting pitching and a good closer historically fare better in the playoffs than offense-driven teams.

The study's authors point out that some outside industries already have begun to use the model of "core" and "non-core" jobs. General Motors and the United Auto Workers, for instance, recently agreed there should be a second tier of compensation for those workers who aren't directly involved in the manufacturing of cars. But the authors admit such an approach could be problematic in traditional businesses because the so-called "non-core" workers may be hurt if they're identified as less valuable to the company.

The authors of the study included Stephen Humphrey of Penn State's Smeal College of Business, Frederick Morgeson of Michigan State's Eli Broad Graduate School of Management and Michael Mannor of Notre Dame's Department of Management.

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