They say it’s your birthday

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Thomas Allen

Recently crowned Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Brandon Palaniuk will turn 30 years old on Nov. 3 of this year. That’s remarkable because it makes him the first angler to win that title prior to his 30th birthday since Timmy Horton did the same in 2000.

Palaniuk’s accomplishment may be extraordinary for how early he achieved it, but his late-in-the-year birthday is less so. I would’ve expected AOYs’ birthdays to be spread out relatively evenly throughout the months, but a quick glance at the data shows a marked bias in favor of birthdates on the second half of the yearly calendar. 

In the 12-year history of the Elite Series, we’ve only had two anglers win AOY whose birthdays were in the first half of the year, and both of them were in June – Skeet Reese on June 30 (within a couple of days of the second half of the year) and Mike Iaconelli on June 17 (not far off, either). They earned their titles in 2007 and 2006, respectively, which means that in the past 10 seasons, all of the winners’ birthdays have been after July 1. Brent Chapman (2012), born on July 6, 1972, blows out the candles each year before all of the rest of them.

In fact, if you look at the last 30 years of Bassmaster tour-level competition, only four of the AOY trophies were won by anglers with birthdays in the first half of the year – Skeet, Ike and Davy Hite (1997 and 2002). You have to go all the way back to Denny Brauer in 1987 (dob: Feb. 3, 1949), to find an AOY who celebrates before Hite’s annual May 18 shindig. That means that we haven’t had an AOY who was born in the first 137 days of the year (37.5 percent of elapsed calendar) since before Palaniuk was born. 

Of those past 30 years, on 15 occasions the AOY title was won by someone with a birthday in October, November or December. Of course that’s slightly misleading, because superstars KVD (Oct. 14, 1967) Mark Davis (Oct. 11, 1963) and Gary Klein (Oct. 11, 1957) have collectively accounted for 12 of those championships. Seventeen of the 30 are attributable to anglers born in October, November or December.

So what does all of this mean?

In his book entitled Outliers, pop culture phenomenon and Canadian native Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the likelihood of hockey stars being born in the first half of the year, and particularly in the first three months of the year. In the early years of competition, he wrote, they have an advantage over their year-class peers which continues to snowball in subsequent years of playing. This happens, he asserted, because a “boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year” and who is effectively 10 percent younger.

New York Magazine deduced that “[y]ou can guess at that age, when the differences in physical maturity are so great, which one of those kids is going to make the league all-star team. Once on that all-star team, the January 2 kid starts practicing more, and playing against tougher competition – so much so that by the time he’s, say, 14, he’s not just older than the kid with the December 30 birthday, he’s better.” 

The phenomenon Gladwell described is known as “Relative Age Effect,” and it’s most commonly ascribed in sports and academia, where age-based eligibility highlights differences between early birthdays and late birthdays in the first years of participation. That’s not to say that a kid with a December birthday can’t outplay a kid born in January of that same year, Gladwell wrote, just that “in any elite group of hockey players – the very best of the best – 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March.”

That concept would seem to correlate with recent AOY titles, where 30 of the last 30 were earned by anglers with birthdays in the last two thirds of the year, and well over half were earned by anglers with birthdays in the last quarter of the year. This wouldn’t indicate a difference based on how early in the year a birthday occurred, but rather what season it occurred in.

Is there any plausible explanation for this?

Well, you could extrapolate that anglers with birthdays near the end of the year were conceived during the winter months, when fishing is at its lowest level of participation (especially in states like Michigan, KVD’s home). If they came from fishing families, dad may have been away at fewer tournaments from December through March. Conversely, we might have few or no AOYs born in January, February and March because dad was focused on a different type of spawn during the months when they would’ve had to have been conceived.

All of that seems a little bit too simple and too cute by half, though. Angling prowess and education is not determined by how early you start. Moreover, if you widen your focus out a little bit, you can see that angling excellence isn’t limited to early birthdays. Four of the 12 Bassmaster Classic champions of the Elite Series era were born in the first half of the year (two, Skeet Reese and Jordan Lee, share the borderline birthday of June 30, but we’ll let it slide). Meanwhile, seven of the past 12 Rookies of the Year were born in the first half of the year. That leads me to believe that the 30-for-30 on AOYs is nothing more than coincidence.

Then you look back at the birthdays of the 110 anglers who comprised the initial 2017 Elite Series roster and the waters get muddy again. Only 10 percent of them were born in the first quarter of the year and only about a third in the first half of the year. There were more Elites born in each of July, August, September and October than in January, February and March combined. Weird, but I’m not sure that there’s any clear reason for it. If you can think of one, please let me know. 

Ultimately, much of Gladwell’s argument has been contested by other pundits. Smithsonian Magazine and SB Nation both offered conflicting evidence, arguing that the NHL’s numbers didn’t comport with Gladwell’s statements – there were more 2010 NHL players born in September than in January and players’ birthdates were relatively evenly distributed throughout the year’s quarters. In fact, Smithsonian cited one researcher who argued that a careful reading of the data suggested team executives overvalued birth month and that “[f]or any given draft slot, relatively younger players are about twice as likely to be successful. So if teams really wanted to win, they should have drafted more of the relatively younger players.”

That should give Matt Lee (Jan. 5), Matt Herren (Jan. 9), Gerald Spohrer (Jan. 9), Cliff Prince (Jan. 14) and Scott Rook (Jan. 22) some hope.