To Law, baseball’s sacred cows are worth . . . steak

2020-04-21 TheInsideGameHe’s never phrased it quite this way, so far as I know, but Keith Law is one baseball writer who believes that a sacred cow is worth one thing—steak. He rarely fails to provoke, instruct, and entertain all at once. Agreeing with him fortifies. Disagreeing with him still leaves you itching to think. Seeing him affirm what you’d already determined comforts.

If you already knew that hot streaks didn’t conceive sound investments, that winning managers often won despite their efforts, that groupthink doesn’t equal truth, and that Nolan Ryan’s durability makes him an exception and not a rule, Law’s new book The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behaviour Teaches Us About Ourselves will tell you something new only in the breakdowns by which he affirms them.

But if you still believe it’s that smart to ride the hot hand, that Bob Brenly was brilliant winning the 2001 World Series, that the way we’ve always done it is just the way it ought to be, or that if Ryan could throw 200 pitches in a game if need be then any pitcher ought to do it, The Inside Game may hurt more than the coronavirus quarantine ever could.

Based on his reading of the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which “went from unknown to must-read within baseball front offices in a fairly short period of time, a shocking development in a sport that generally moves at the pace of a sloth that is still hung over after a weekend bender,” Law identifies and forges individual chapters around biases he says shape the way baseball people—managers, players, commentators, fans—see the game without truly seeing it.

The method by which he analyses and discusses is simple enough. “I’ll start with a baseball story,” writes Law—former ESPN writer, now a senior writer at The Athletic—in his introduction, “then explain what cognitive bias or illusion I think underlies the error I’m describing, and will return to baseball with another salient example.” The nerve of him.

He opens with an examination of “anchoring bias,” prior information having nothing to do with the next decision but deciding it anyway, in terms of whether to use automated umpiring instead of the sacred “human factor.” “The umpire’s mind is anchored on that last called pitch,” he writes, “and therefore the umpire’s internal calibration is thrown off for the next pitch. That means they’re less likely to get the next call right—and that’s another point in favour of giving the job of calling balls and strikes to machines, not humans.”

Want to know what triggered Law on that one? Refer back to Game Five of last year’s World Series, in which umpire Lance Barksdale blew a pair of calls one of which irked Nationals manager Dave Martinez into demanding Barksdale’s awakening and the other of which—on a pitch nowhere within the strike zone’s ZIP code—speared Victor Robles into jumping like a jack-in-the-box and throwing his batting gloves.

“Availability bias” is what Law believes shapes how commentators, writers, and even fans discuss the game, which he defines thus: “When a specific act or example comes to mind more readily, we tend to overemphasise that fact or example—maybe we ascribe too much importance to it, or perhaps we extrapolate and assume that the example is representative of the whole.”

In other words, and Law hits it, too, Joe DiMaggio was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1941 mostly because of his fabled 56-game hitting streak but Ted Williams, whose whole season’s performance (in a year DiMaggio had a spectacular season streak or no streak) should have earned him the award, didn’t have a prayer against the unavoidable single feat.

“You thought about some question,” he writes, “and your brain went right to the hard drive and pulled out something relevant. Your brain didn’t go to the archives, though, and it probably just gave you one thing when you actually needed the whole set.” Like the writers in 1941 who handed DiMaggio the MVP. Or—because, as a collusion victim, of the blank-check contract he signed with the Cubs in spring 1987—Andre Dawson getting the writers’ MVP vote despite Tony Gwynn and Eric Davis having superior seasons.

A couple of decades later, of course, came an example Law doesn’t discuss but remains relevant: Maury Wills copped the National League’s 1962 MVP on no grounds further than that he smashed Ty Cobb’s single-season stolen base record and became baseball’s first player to steal in triple figures. Who says crime doesn’t pay, wink wink?

Little else suggested Wills was even the best player on his own team: Tommy Davis was his co-leader in wins above a replacement-level player with 6.0. Willie Mays was worth 10.0 WAR and nobody else in the league was too close. (Frank Robinson was second with 8.7.) The stolen base record-setter wasn’t even in the National League’s 1962 top ten for on-base percentage. (Sixteen players bested him, and none of them stole more than eighteen bases that year.)

DiMaggio’s 56-in-’41 was overwhelmingly available, and so were Wills’s 104 stolen bases. So were Roger Maris’s 61 home runs (smashing Babe Ruth for a single season) in ’61, when Mickey Mantle (10.4 WAR) should have been the league’s MVP but missed the last week of the season with a hip issue and fell out of the infamous home run chase.

That was all each season’s voters seemed to need. Their brains simply didn’t dig into the season’s archive as they might have. “Baseball commentary,” Law writes, “is often a victim of the tropes that have long defined it—and availability bias is behind much of it, if for no other reason than it’s convenient and often obvious.”

From there Law travels through outcome bias, in which you can believe someone a genius for winning even if he blundered his way through it. Brenly blundered his way to a 2001 World Series triumph. Among other things, he sent his team’s worst on-base percentage out to hit leadoff lefthanded against a pitcher who feasted on lefthanded hitters. He often left his best hitter, Luis Gonzalez, with nobody on base ahead of him. He misused his closer Byung-Hyun Kim and left the submariner in to face lefthanded hitters who could kill him. He wasted at-bats with bunts ahead of Gonzalez. He sent Kim out on a second consecutive night after he’d thrown 61 pitches in relief the night before. (Are you still shocked that Scott Brosius tied Game Five with a home run?)

The Diamondbacks won their first (and so far only) World Series despite their manager. “We would all like to believe that good process yields good results and bad process yields bad results,” Law writes, “so that we can tell from the results whether a process was good or bad. That would be true if life were deterministic, but it’s not. Sometimes you do all the right things and are stymied by bad luck. Other times you do everything wrong and are subsequently rewarded for it. That’s outcome bias.” Ask any politician, too.

Law takes you through the mythologies behind lineup protection and clutch hitting, drafting high school pitchers in the first round (something I’ve known for decades after the ruination of David Clyde in the 1970s), and why you should knock it off with the kind of “survivorship bias” that uses Nolan Ryan and even prehistoric pitcher Old Hoss Radbourne to counter the pitch count:

Nolan Ryan is the ultimate survivor, the survivor ne plus ultra, the ubersurvivor when it comes to survivorship bias . . . He is, however, an outlier, a great exception—not one that proves the rule, but one that causes many people to discard the rule. Most pitchers can’t handle the workloads that Ryan did; they would break down and suffer a major injury to their elbow or shoulder, or they would simply become less effective as a result of the heavy usage, and thus receive fewer opportunities to pitch going forward. Teams did try to give pitchers more work for decades, well into the 2000s, but you don’t know the names of those pitchers because they didn’t survive: they broke down, or pitched worse, or some combination of the above.

[The] pitching deity known as Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn started 73 games for the Providence Grays in 1884 and threw 678.2 innings, but survived to pitch another seven years beyond that. The game itself has changed dramatically in the last few decades, with pitchers throwing harder than ever, and hitters bigger and stronger than ever, but those outliers were even outliers in their own times—and they should not distract us from what we see from looking at all pitchers, not just the ones we remember.

Radbourne—who threw underhanded with assorted unstressed arm angles—pitched in a game that had no power hitting as we know it and in which pitchers were usually encouraged to throw things batters could hit easily enough. Radbourne’s baseball isn’t post-Depression baseball, never mind today’s baseball. And even he lasted only eleven seasons. He was one of the luckier ones there, in any era.

Law also takes on “recency bias” (the hot hand now isn’t always the most sound lineup choice or long-term investment) and status quo movement. (Grady Little and John McNamara, ill-fated Red Sox posteseason managers, will look even worse in this chapter than they looked in their moments of non-decisions. ) He examines the problem with the “moral hazard” (moves whose messes the next guys will have to clean up, as in the Angels’ ill-fated Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson deals) and the “primary agency” factor. (Pete Rose’s remaining partisans will wish to walk Law to the guillotine over this, regarding his gambling and how Pete Rose, manager, hurt his teams while letting Pete Rose, player, pursue the hits record to which he believed he was all but entitled, mind you, never mind his batting skills surrendering to Father Time.)

Not to mention what he calls the “fallacy” of the sunk cost. Law thinks the Angels were silly to play Pujols despite his injury-abetted decline merely because they were paying him three kings’ ransoms: “If you have already paid for something, your choice of whether to use it should be a function of whether you want or need to use it, not a function of the money that is already gone regardless of what you do.” He thinks likewise regarding the Tigers and Miguel Cabrera post-2107; and, the Orioles and Chris Davis since 2014.

Don’t get Law started about “eating money,” either. He’ll remind you of his indigestion when, two weeks after he joined ESPN as a writer in 2006, the Diamondbacks released Russ Ortiz with $22 million still owed the pitcher who’d “been a dumpster fire on a train wreck since signing.” The Associated Press said the Snakes decided they’d “rather eat the remaining $22 million . . . than keep him on their roster.” Law says the team ate nothing: “That salary was already somewhere in Arizona’s GI tract, likely causing indigestion but there nonetheless. Major League Baseball player contracts are guaranteed; there is no way to un-eat that meal.”

Before such dumpster fires on train wrecks are disposed of, Law goes on, he reminds you that managers and general managers don’t always want to keep them bristling and wrecking—but owners often do:

An owner might say that he’s not paying Twerpy McSlapperson $23 million a year to sit on the bench, or that he won’t release Joey Bagodonuts because he’s paying the guy $19 million this year and he’s determined to get something for his money. It’s entirely irrational, and can be at odds with the owner’s likely goals of winning more games and making more money. However, if you’re a manager, and your boss tells you to put Bagodonuts in the lineup every night, you’re going to do it.

Law gives you fair warning at the outset: he knows a lot of the biases he examines came subconsciously, and the best he can offer over 268 pages is a series of well-educated guesses. “I present them,” he writes, “to explain the cognitive errors, and to tell good baseball stories, some of which you’ll know and, I hope, some you won’t.” Marrying a gimlet eye and charming wit, he hits a line drive off the left field fence.

1 thought on “To Law, baseball’s sacred cows are worth . . . steak

  1. Pingback: Stick to baseball, 4/25/20.

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