What Do You Know about Baseball?
You might not know what you think you know.
What do you know about baseball? Go ahead and make a list
ranging from the simple to the complex if you want. Now go through the list
and ask yourself how you know that each item is true. I’m sure for many you
know they’re true because it’s published in the rulebook as such. Many of the
things on your list you may have learned from watching others play or playing
the game yourself. Some you probably learned from others: family, friends, broadcasters,
sportswriters, players, managers, general managers, coaches. Still more you
may know from statistics. Maybe you have knowledge in another area like physics
or economics that can be applied to baseball. Finally, maybe some of the things
on your list are true because it seems to be obvious that they would be true.
Now I’m going to ask you to do something else. For each
item on your list, I want you to imagine that it isn’t true. In imagining this,
ask yourself what it would mean if the item wasn’t true. What would logically
follow from it not being true? What would the consequences and results be of
it not being true? How does the falseness of the statement affect other things
you believe to be true? Once you’ve done all that, go through your list and
for each item decide which ones it is possible that it isn’t true.
Congratulations, you’re a baseball skeptic.
Over the next several months I’m going to do exactly what
I outlined above. The list won’t be exclusively things about baseball I believe
to be true, but will often times be things that others say or believe to be
true. You see, all sorts of people believe all sorts of things about baseball,
many of which conflict with each other. Some people, needless to say, believe
things that may not actually be true. As a sport that takes place in many different
cities across the country, we have little choice but to get a lot of the information
we know about baseball from sources other than ourselves. It begs the question,
what does the information mean, and what is "good" information and
what is the proverbial "bum steer."
And that’s where critical thinking can help. Critical thinking
often involves a series of informal tools and methods that can help to spot
sound and unsound arguments. Sometimes finding unsound arguments is simply a
matter of reading it carefully and evaluating the terms of the argument that
can be clearly measured as true or false. Here’s a snippet from Los Angeles
Times sportswriter, Bill Plaschke:
"Today, the Twins wake up with zero chance to make
next year’s playoffs.? Like the Pittsburgh Pirates.? Like the Montreal Expos.?
Like about all but five or six teams."
If the above is correct and there will be eight playoff
teams next year, apparently, at least two or three of the teams making the playoffs
this year will have no shot at making the playoffs this year.
Usually, unsound arguments are more subtle. Often they may
appear to be reasonable arguments. Often the argument links one event to another,
with one event deemed the cause of another. On the surface many of these arguments
seem compelling. One event happens then soon after, another happens. Isn’t it
reasonable to speculate on whether the first caused the second? Drew Olson from
the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had this to say on the shape of the Mariners
after the departure of Randy Johnson and then Ken Griffey, Jr. (speaking directly
to Griffey and Johnson):
"Your former manager, Lou Piniella, and his players
are too diplomatic to say publicly what every Seattle baseball fan figured out
this summer. There is virtually no way the Mariners would have made it this
far (AL League Championship Series) if you two were still around."
The problem with these sorts of arguments is that they make
unsafe assumptions and often neglect all sorts of additional information that
may run contrary to the argument. The term often used to describe the Olson
argument above is called a Post
Hoc Argument. The assumption that if one event happens after a first event,
than the first event caused the next event is not a safe assumption.
Like the argument above, people often tend to favor one
explanation over another, despite the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any
stronger evidence for it. As Thomas Gilovich writes in his book, How We Know
What Isn’t So, "We are inclined to adopt self-serving beliefs about
ourselves, and comforting beliefs about the world." Above, Olson prefers
to believe that the Mariners wouldn’t be better with Johnson and Griffey on
the team, because the notion that ?team play? can and does override individual
talent is generally a comforting one for our society. Olson has no idea where
the Mariners would have finished in 2000 with the help of Griffey and Johnson,
and neither do I.? However, one has to consider the very real possibility that
adding two players the quality of Griffey and Johnson to an already talented
roster could have improved the team even more.
Another example of how the filtering of information can
lead us to reinforce beliefs we prefer to be true can be found below. In 1987
at the age of 23, Mark McGwire won the Rookie of the Year award by setting an
all-time rookie record for homers with 49. In 1991, McGwire hit .201 with 22
homers and 75 RBIs. In search of an explanation for the drop-off, sportswriter
William Nack wrote the following (from Baseball’s Even Greater Insults by
"McGwire got his 49 in his rookie year, before the
pitchers figured him out and with a lot of good batters on either side of him.
Trade McGwire to the Yankees, where everyone is struggling, and we would see
him in Columbus in a year."
It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why McGwire’s
stats had tumbled, but it’s only one explanation and one that is unsupported.
There’s information missing that may be contrary to Nack’s explanation. For
example, hitting was down quite a bit across the American League in 1991 from
1987. It also ignores the 39 Homers McGwire hit the previous season which was
second in the league or that he had hit 33 in 1989 which was good for third
in the league. It doesn’t really examine whether who was hitting next to McGwire
affected his hitting, it simply asserts it. In short, while Nack’s explanation
may be correct, it also just as easily may not be.
As it turns out, McGwire clubbed 42 homers in only 139 games
in 1992 and led the Al in slugging percentage that year. After a few injury
plagued seasons, McGwire then preceded to go on a homerun tear unprecedented
in the history of the sport. It culminated in a 70 home run performance in 1998
that is, of course, the highest total ever hit in a single season in Major League
Now, before people start thinking that this column is simply
going to be another round of "Kick the Mediot," I want to explain
that none of the above are criticisms of Plaschke, Olson or Nack as writers
or as people. Each certainly has significant strengths in their abilities to
perform their jobs, otherwise they simply wouldn’t be in the position they are
in. But they are humans and, as such, are subject to the same errors in logic
and thinking that we all are. Why? Because the things that cause these errors,
are also the things that are responsible for our biggest strengths. Assuming
correlation from causation may be a logical fallacy, but it is also responsible
for our survival as a species. With time to ponder the issue and the stakes
being merely more or less knowledge, indeed it is important to understand that
correlation does not imply causation. On the other hand, if the sound you just
heard is usually followed by a fanged carnivorous beast attacking your cave,
there is nothing wrong with the assumption. In fact there’d be something wrong
if you didn’t make that assumption.
In short, as Gilovich writes, "our questionable beliefs
derive primarily from the misapplication or overutilization of generally valid
and effective strategies for knowing… They are the products not of irrationality,
but of flawed rationality." It’s not the concept of who is right and who
is wrong, nor the fight over mainstream and underground ideas, nor the argument
over stats versus observation which is important, it is simply the understanding
that what we perceive to be true from our experiences, isn’t necessarily true
and that examining our beliefs in search of where they may be flawed can lead
to great insight.
And in case you think the "none of the above are criticisms
of Plaschke…" was just a way for me to be diplomatic and cover my ass,
chew on this quote:
"Jon Nunnally is twice the player Jermaine Dye is."
The writer of the above made several mistakes. He used a
numerical value that has no inherent meaning. What exactly does it mean for
a player to be "twice the player" of another? He ignored the possibility
that Nunnally may have been declining more than you’d normally expect from a
player, and Dye may have been improving more than you’d expect from a player,
even if those weren’t the most likely outcomes. As such he appeared more certain
of his statement, than he reasonably can be. Finally, he used bad soldiers in
service of a good cause. The Royals treatment of Nunnally may indeed have been
a mistake, and that their other decisions involving young players may have been
questionable as well, but just because an argument serves a valid point, doesn’t
make it a sound argument.
What’s the author’s name, you ask? Voros McCracken.
Posted: March 05, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 0 comment(s)
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