The resulting specialisation facilitates great improvements in output. One channel is the improved dexterity from allowing individuals to focus on one task. The downside of specialisation is that the individual’s ability at other tasks will diminish. This may be what is happening to pitchers in Major League Baseball. In a New York Times article last May, MLB historian, John Thorn, noted the decline in the battling competence of pitchers (here).
The impact of specialisation may be similar in other team sports. In a previous post on this blog Declan Jordan examined whether different specialist positions on a rugby union team allowed for different body types (here). My reading of his piece is that there is more convergence than divergence.
One of the reasons that specialisation might have more of an impact in baseball is the way the individuals contribute to the team. One of the more thought-provoking descriptions I’ve read of how individuals to team performance is in a book called Game Plans by Robert Keidel. Keidel's book is primarily aimed at business people. The book argues that it is important that business people know how their staff contribute to the team. He uses sport teams as models. Keidel labels baseball as the more individualistic of the three sports (football, basketball and baseball). He says that this "is vividly demonstrated by the way offense works: Players come to bat one at a time". He admits that scoring often involves a sequence of actions - including sacrifices. However, he claims the supreme act is the home run and it "underlines the discreteness and importance of individual offensive contributions in this sport, just as pitching does with respect to defense".
Another account of the economics of sports specialisation in baseball can be found on Matthew Kahn’s blog (here). The above piece was prompted by a link to Kahn’s piece I received from a student.