Psychology of Decline

In professional sports, pay for past performance may imperil future results.

After declaring himself a free agent following the 2012 season, B.J. Upton, a rangy center fielder with the Tampa Bay Rays, quickly became one of Major League Baseball’s most coveted players. The 28-year-old boasted a rare combination of blazing speed and long-ball power. And though he had shown some inconsistency during his eight-year tenure with the Rays, his final campaign with the team was nothing short of exemplary: 28 home runs, 78 runs batted in and 31 stolen bases.

When the bidding war ended, the Atlanta Braves emerged victorious. Upton signed a five-year deal worth a cool $75.25 million, the largest free-agent contract in Braves’ history. “We think he hasn’t peaked yet,” said Frank Wren, the Braves’ general manager. “We think there is still more in there.”

Or maybe not. In 2013, Upton hit only nine home runs, drove in just 26 runners and stole a paltry nine bases. His batting average of .184 was by far the lowest of his career, and was one of the worst among all position players in the game.

Upton’s sad tale is hardly unique — the recent history of professional sports is replete with expensive free agent busts. Aficionados have long suspected that more than bum luck may be involved. The pattern of contract-year excellence followed by flat or declining productivity, they say, is just too common to be coincidental.

Now a pair of researchers at MU has published evidence that such a “contract-year syndrome” may indeed be real.

“We tested whether or not there was a bump in an athlete’s performance during the contract year and found that to be true for some scoring statistics. We also found a lingering negative impact. In this case, there was a general drop-off in performance after contracts were signed,” says Ken Sheldon, a professor of psychological sciences. He conducted the research with Mark White, a psychological sciences undergraduate.

Sheldon and White’s study, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, involved information on Major League Baseball players who had played at least 300 innings and National Basketball Association athletes who had played at least 500 minutes in each of the seasons examined. Players who had back-to-back contract years were excluded. If players had two contract years within the period studied, only the first contract year was included. The researchers examined data from more than 230 NBA and MLB players over a 10-year period.

“We applied psychological theory to predict what happens in the contract year and the year after,” says Sheldon. “Extrinsic motivation is the psychological term that refers to a behavior driven by external rewards like money and fame. Sometimes these rewards work, at least temporarily, but the downside is that the reward can often undermine people’s intrinsic motivation, or their enjoyment and engagement in the behavior.”

Sheldon says their analysis provides a new type of support for Self-Determination Theory, a well-known theory of human motivation that predicts exactly the effects they found. The study also suggests, he says, that the same model might be applied elsewhere. Comparisons between post-college athletic involvement of scholarship and non-scholarship athletes might be one example.

As to general managers of professional teams, such as Braves’ Frank Wren, Sheldon gently offers some candid advice. “Armed with this information, owners and general managers could perhaps tie large raises to contingencies that require the athlete to maintain the same productivity in the future instead of slacking off,” he says. Fans in Atlanta would undoubtedly agree.

Illustration: Ball player running between bases dropping dollars he is trying to hold. Illustration by Bob Dob.

Illustration by Bob Dob.

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