A Law against expanded postseasons future

Would the fun-fun-fun Chicago White Sox have that much fun-fun-fun playing for diluted championships in the future?

So the first two teams to clinch postseason places were the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were seen as a powerhouse going into this season regardless, and the Chicago White Sox, third-place American League Central finishers last year and perhaps the most pleasant and entertaining surprise this side of the Slam Diego Padres this year. The Tampa Bay Rays—tied with the White Sox for baseball’s most wins this morning—followed quickly enough.

We know they’re going to have to navigate this pandemic-truncated season’s expanded playoffs. Will they have the same competitive incentive playing a normal 2021 season? Or, will commissioner Rob Manfred and those owners who back him on it get his way and keep regular-season and championship dilution next year and, bite your tongues, eternity to follow? Baseball’s inquiring minds demand to know, because what Manfred and company think they’ll gain isn’t good for the game.

Keith Law—author of two imperative books on re-marrying the thinking person’s sport to thinking, period (Smart Baseball, The Inside Game), and now an analyst at The Athletic—objects like me to that prospect. Let’s presume concurrence, too, from Law’s two analytical superstars, Joey Bagodonuts and Twerpy McSlapperson.

“Going forward . . . expanded playoffs would be primarily a money grab,” he writes, “and they risk diluting the regular season as a unique product while simultaneously reducing the value of individual games as broadcast properties in the playoffs. It also prioritizes short-term gain over the long-term financial health of the sport.” He knows that the regular season is supposed to mean something, and long enough did, and that baseball’s former disinclination to go the way of the NHL and the NBA (more than half its teams entering their postseasons) robs championship of more than half its meaning.

Law also thinks that making this year’s expanded baseball postseason eternity’s as well threatens the game’s integrity and the integrity of a fair and open market for those we spend our hard-earned money to see—and it isn’t Manfred or the owners he admits are his first priority in office.

It also feels like a possible shadow move to discourage the best teams from spending at or above the luxury-tax threshold, because the reward for being the best team in the regular season is so much less than it was previously. Winning 100-plus games in the regular season meant a guaranteed playoff berth when those were somewhat scarce — no team has won 100 games and missed the playoffs in the wild-card era — but with 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs, 90 wins would almost certainly guarantee you a ticket into the postseason.

If 100 wins doesn’t do much for you but improve your seeding, what is the financial incentive to spend more to get to 100 when we know that the results of playoff series aren’t that far from 50/50, and making your team that much better on paper barely increases your odds of advancing? The answer is probably “very little,” and that would impact the free-agent market at all levels — even at the very top, as teams that typically run huge payrolls would no longer see the return on a $30 million investment in one player as they did under a system where fewer teams made the playoffs, and you could easily win 95 games and go home on Oct. 1.

This year, the expanded playoffs carry a concurrent threat—to player health, particularly pitchers’ health, particularly the health of relief pitchers, some of whom have already had their struggles this season thanks to the pandemic-imposed truncation’s side effects.

Don’t think for one moment that spring training’s abortion and the eventual speedy enough “summer camp” didn’t knock several players including relief pitchers off their fulcrums going in as it was. The postseason tournament will be compressed, with no off days. Uh, oh. “The more we ask guys to pitch on short rest, the more they tend to get hurt,” Law reminds us. “These innings are already high-leverage; asking premier relievers to throw more such innings on little to no rest seems like a recipe to blow guys out.”

When I began thinking hard about postseason expansion and Manfred’s wish to make it eternal, I feared with reason that it was liable to do little to arrest baseball’s recent tanking trends and, if anything, give tankers even less incentive to break the habit. When Law addresses the tankers now, he takes a different stance, one that isn’t exactly dismissable too readily. He thinks the tankers will be “disincentivised” with the postseason bar no longer even a .500 record, necessarily:

[These teams] projected to win 75 to 80 games is on the edge of playoff contention, and they’d have a much harder time selling their fans (or players, for that matter) on tanking. These teams probably won’t be in the market for the elite free agents, but they’re less likely to sell off talent, and that could in turn prop up salaries for some lower tiers of free agents because buyers would have fewer options available in trades.

The problems include what Law notices and I fear: the tankers’ fan bases may be re-engaged deeper into the regular season, but the fan bases of the superior teams may be disengaged because their playoff berths could be secure (this is my guesstimate, not his) as early as late enough August. Law also notices what I have otherwise: this year’s model made eternity’s “also puts worse teams in the playoffs, a time when you expect to see the best of the best on the field, and increases the risk that we’ll see more blowouts against depleted or just inferior pitching staffs.”

For the longest time I’ve heard those lost for ways to re-engage long-incumbent baseball fans and court prospective new baseball fans suggest that expanded postseasons were just about the likeliest saviours. Even if they agreed that most such schemes ultimately equate the game’s common good with making money for the owners. Such people could be convinced only on rare occasions that perhaps the biggest factor separating baseball from the rest was that its ultimate championships were the least diluted of any major professional American sports.

Like me, Law thinks some of baseball’s changes have been or will be better for the game. Like me, he loves the universal designated hitter: “[It] is almost certainly here to stay, which absolutely will help the sport, removing the worst hitters in baseball from National League lineups.” Like me, he applauds the automated strike zone and rejects any lingering Luddism that rejects technology when it stands to improve the game: “[T]he idea of eschewing available technology in favor of noticeable errors is confusing to anyone who didn’t grow up a fan of the sport (and to many of us who did).”

In other words, Law—like me—is very willing to trade the intellectual delights of revisiting and re-debating the most notorious blown calls in the game’s history on behalf of getting things right and, concurrently, removing excuses when many blown calls lead to blown outcomes. Don Denkinger, call your office. We’ve had too many decades worth of fun deconstructing and reconstructing Jorge Orta and the bottom of the ninth, Game Six, 1985 World Series. Let’s say it now, Don: You blew the first out but that’s not really why the St. Louis Cardinals lost that Series. But you became in due course an outspoken advocate of replay, which has done the game a huge favour, really, bless your heart.

Sam Holbrook, call yours likewise. We know you blew the interference call on Trea Turner when you didn’t acknowledge a terrible throw pulled Yuli Gurriel off first base and his glove right into Turner after Turner was safe at first. But we also know the Washington Nationals were made of tougher stuff than the ’85 Cardinals. You saw it yourself, Sam, when one out later, with Yan Gomes returned to first, Anthony Rendon hit one into the middle of the Crawford Boxes and saved you from becoming the 21st Century Denkinger.

But diluting the meaning of a championship even further than the wild card era’s done it just to make money for the owners? (And, the players, more of whom would get to divvy up at least some of the postseason spoils even if they and their teams had no legitimate business playing toward a championship in the first place.) Remember the meaning of an emergency measure: the key word is emergency. When the emergency passes and things return to something resembling normal, emergency measures made permanent lead to new and prospectively more grave disasters.

Hasn’t baseball had enough disaster over its long and mostly storied history? Weren’t the self-destruction of the 1877 Louisville Grays (forced out of business in a gambling scandal), the Black Sox scandal, the Ray Chapman tragedy, the colour line, the 1957 Cincinnati All-Star ballot-box stuffing scandal (it cost fans the All-Star vote for over a decade to follow), the 1981 strike, the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, the mid-to-late 1980s owner collusion, the Pete Rose scandal, the 1994-95 strike, the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, and Astrogate/Soxgate more than too much of enough?

Since it’s so much on behalf of the owners making money, Law reminds us, too, that a few too many postseason games erode their value as broadcast properties from which the owners make millions enough. They’ll also help suppress the ratings already being suppressed in the wild card era, or doesn’t anyone think about viewer/listener over-saturation as much as they might? Should?

The safest bet on the planet right now may be that Manfred didn’t think all that hard about that part. The bet safer than that is that Manfred didn’t and doesn’t think.

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.