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Profiler Ritterpusch sent packing

Dave Ritterpusch, who openly touted his use of psychological data to rate players as director of baseball information systems for the Orioles, is no longer with the team after being forced to resign (along with his assistant, Ed Coblentz) yesterday by executive vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan. The official reason given by Flanagan was that Ritterpusch's blabbiness to the media about the club's evaluation methods had become an “unnecessary distraction.... I think it really undermined his effectiveness.”

Let that be a lesson to loose-lipped leakers everywhere.

Press reports on Ritterpusch's dismissal:

Puschy, pushy

Ritterpusch had become a divisive figure within and without the front office because of his outspoken advocacy of psychometrics in the process of player evaluation. He made no secret of his preference for acquiring ballplayers who had taken an attitude inventory questionnaire (called the "ISAM test" inside the organization, and also known as the Athletic Motivation Inventory or the Athletic Success Profile) and who had produced results that indicated an optimal set of traits according to Ritterpusch's proprietary scale. This scale was based on thousands of players' test results going back to his tenure as scouting director of the O's from 1973 to 1975. (For more on Ritterpusch's work, see the articles on this site about Ritterpusch.)

The test results were used to inform the Orioles' selections in the last three drafts, many of whom have fared well so far as pros (with the obvious exception of Wade Townsend). But Ritterpusch was not content to limit his influence to the scouting of amateurs. He also reportedly attempted to extend the use of psychometrics into other areas of evaluation, including the player development process. He went so far as to rule that “no position player will be signed who scores less than a 3 on a valid, accurate ISAM; nor will any pitcher be signed who scores less than a 4 on a valid, accurate ISAM,” according to a portion of an club memo reprinted in the Post two weeks ago. (The scores are based on Ritterpusch's custom scale, which ranges from 1 to 5.)

Don't rock the boat...

Ritterpusch's opinions were not unanimously embraced by the rest of the Orioles' baseball operations personnel. A “source close to the Orioles” told the Post, “Ritterpusch had alienated owner Peter Angelos by speaking publicly too often of his beliefs in psychological testing, which the owner believed put the franchise in a bad light.” If that is true, Angelos sounds none too sanguine about the reliability of psychometric analysis.

Angelos's skepticism reportedly was shared by others in the front office, including the recently demoted Jim Beattie (once executive VP, now a consultant); former director of baseball administration Ed Kenney, who received his pink slip last week; and Tony DeMacio, who was scouting director from 1999 to 2004. On October 12 the Post reported, “Beattie said the information he received from Ritterpusch was useful but said the practice of using such techniques to determine player transactions was ‘not well-defined’ and not the only way to judge talent.” And the Sun reported today that “several former Orioles executives, such as director of baseball administration Ed Kenney and scouting director Tony DeMacio, were openly opposed to what they perceived as a heavy reliance on Ritterpusch's input.” Some sources viewed the conflict as a struggle for power or influence within the front office, although others disputed that characterization.

Even Flanagan, whom the media has portrayed as a supporter of Ritterpusch and his methods, distanced himself somewhat from the topic of psychological testing two weeks ago, telling the Sun, “I think you are not doing your due diligence if you are not using every method to gain information and data.... [testing]'s a part of the pie, but there's probably eight slices of the pie.”

...Or toot your horn

However, more damaging than Ritterpusch's ideas was the ease with which he divulged the club's player evaluation methods to the media. From today's Sun:

According to team sources, Orioles executives had grown tired of what they perceived as self-promotion. Ritterpusch once proclaimed that he had ‘cracked the code’ for identifying profiles of prospects likely to succeed, and he wasn't shy about talking with reporters....

Ritterpusch was asked to tone it down on a couple of occasions.... Sources said Orioles executives grew tired of being asked about something that they felt should have remained a confidential means of evaluating players.

For a former intelligence officer, Ritterpusch was rather indiscreet when it came to discussing the Orioles' internal operations. During the past three years he was probably the most-cited person in the front office after Beattie and Flanagan, getting mentions in the Sun, the Post, and Fortune Small Business. He talked mostly about his specialty, psychometric player analysis, but he also discussed other aspects of the talent-evaluation process, such as the player-rating system he developed to help the club's decision-makers compose the major-league roster.

Why was Ritterpusch so open about the sensitive information he had helped to develop? Perhaps he craved the attention, or maybe he just couldn't resist talking to the media. And the media didn't stop calling him—they sensed a good story afoot. Sun columnist Peter Schmuck half-jokingly wrote in June that he would write a book about Ritterpusch and the Orioles and call it "Psychball" to ride off the success of Moneyball. And today's Sun reported that “an article that discussed Ritterpusch and the Orioles' methods was set to run recently in The New Yorker magazine, but it was held because of Hurricane Katrina.” Clearly, Ritterpusch was getting noticed, and he did not downplay his contributions or shoo the press away.

But Ritterpusch insisted yesterday that his motives were not selfish: “We didn't need publicity. What we cared about was the Baltimore Orioles. What I wanted to see was the results. I did everything I could to maximize the Orioles.” Yet others—notably Angelos and Flanagan—did not see it that way. In what was supposed to be an ego-less front office, Ritterpusch was making a bit too much noise in his corner.

Brain lop

With Ritterpusch gone, the Orioles' use of psychological data likely will diminish. The data collected by Ritterpusch presumably remains in the Orioles' hands, but without him pushing for its usage, it becomes just another piece of the puzzle. According to today's Post, Flanagan said that the Orioles will continue to use Ritterpusch's theories in some respects, although the source close to the team suggested a more extreme shift in strategy, saying, “I think there is going to be a strong sentiment to run from this.” The Sun reported today that “the Orioles might not hire a replacement [for Ritterpusch], but may reassign the testing duties to a current member of the front office.”

All psyched out

A few thoughts:

It's tempting to cast this as another round in the ongoing "stats vs. scouts" clash of philosophies. And while there are some peculiarities to this particular internecine conflict, many of the same characteristics apply.

One commonality is the excess of attention given one perspective to the exclusion of the others. In this case, the media and fans have been captivated by the supposed novelty of Ritterpusch's work, while the labor of scouts and other hardworking talent evaluators in the organization has gone comparatively unrecognized. The discrepancy in media coverage probably left some of those employees feeling underappreciated.

Another similarity is the lack of communication and understanding between the two sides. Ritterpusch never played professional baseball and apparently never even served as a scout; most of his life has been spent outside of the game, and all his baseball-related work, as best I can tell, has been in a front-office capacity. Perhaps as a result, he seems to have had trouble relating his ideas to several of his co-workers, most of whom are ex-players who have spent most of their professional lives in the game. Maybe he did an inadequate job of explaining how he reached his conclusions about the use of psychological trait profiles, or maybe he never even bothered to attempt a justification of his methods.

Also, though Ritterpusch may be bright, he sounds politically clumsy. His forceful adherence to his views, which bordered on dogmatism, was exacerbated by a tone-deaf mode of delivery that stunted reasonable discussion and prevented the parties from arriving at a middle ground. And Ritterpusch's telling the media that he had "cracked the code" came off as tantamount to bragging and probably overstated the importance of his psychometric work while minimizing the role of traditional scouting, which provides a wealth of other essential information that is just as important in the final analysis of players.

Poor communication is not a new phenomenon for Ritterpusch. In his first year as scouting director in 1973, several scouts left the Oriole organization, many because of discontent with the new regime. One remaining scout told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, “Too many good people are leaving and a lot of others feel there's no communication between the Orioles' front office and the scouts in the field.” Another unnamed scout described an atmosphere of disdain and rebellion: “I know for a fact of cases where scouts have laughed behind [Ritterpusch]'s back, taken his ridiculous forms and thrown them right into the wastebasket.” (James Edward Miller reprinted those quotes in his 1990 book The Baseball Business.)

There is at least one new ingredient roiling this situation, and that is society's lingering skepticism about psychology and the use of standardized tests. Although psychometrics has been around for the better part of a century, there remain issues with the reliability and predictive validity of standardized test results. The test used by the Orioles is hardly immune to such questions. According to the Twelfth Mental Measurements Yearbook, the Athletic Motivation Inventory's “internal reliability is good,” but “test-retest reliability [is] fair to poor.” (Test-retest reliability refers to the likelihood that repeated administrations of the test will produce similar scores for the same test-taker; internal reliability usually measures how well one half of the test correlates with the other.) The reviewer also noted that “no efforts to establish predictive validity were cited” by the test's authors, and in other publications, sport psychologists have warned against relying on mental trait inventories to project future athletic performance. So some reservations about the test are warranted.

Psychometric data contain a degree of uncertainty, as do statistical performance analysis, traditional scouting measurements, and other methods of rating players' skills. No approach is so sufficient that it can stand alone and trump all the others. Ritterpusch and other saber-analysts have often failed to properly acknowledge this, so enthralled are they by their own findings.

Lastly, most of the interest in Ritterpusch stems from his openness with the media about his work. But his looseness with company secrets threatened to undermine whatever competitive advantage he might have helped create. Flanagan, by his mention of a "distraction," seems to think that Ritterpusch's continued presence would have invited a Moneyball-like spotlight that would have impaired his front office's ability to operate.

Had Ritterpusch kept his mouth shut to the press, perhaps the intra-office conflicts would have been tolerated. But he allowed the media to peek into one of the organization's most important assets, its proprietary information, and as the gatekeeper to that information he should have known better. To a large extent, he brought about his own exit.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 25, 2005 11:57 PM.

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