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Monday, August 27, 2001

Jeane Dixon?s Got Nothing on Me

How about Miss Cleo?

Let?s assume for a moment that I ran a restricted access pay   web-site that provided projections and player and team comments for the upcoming   baseball season. Now let?s say the homepage of this site provided the following   information as an enticement to sign up for the service:

?If you had subscribed to our site for the 2001 season, you   would have had the advantage of getting valuable pre-season evaluations like   these:

?It’s unclear what Sandy Alomar Jr. does to improve over Mark   Johnson.?

?Having Juan Gonzalez as your sleeper sounds strange.?

?If Shawn Wooten can catch at all, he’d deserve a real long   look from the Angels.?

?The Ichiro projection is a somewhat educated guess that the   system spit out. It seems real high but this is someone who was hitting for   consistent averages virtually unprecedented in Japan. Who knows, but I guess   I’d count him as an above average corner outfielder from jump street until further   results come in.?

?As it stands now, the Rangers offense is obviously pretty   loaded led by the two Rodriguezes. But I think it’s reasonable to put question   marks next to the projections of Galarraga, Caminiti, Mateo and maybe Velarde.?

?If the Astros think they need a bat off the bench, don’t   rule out a reappearance of Orlando Merced.?

?Kerry Robinson can run like hell and is exactly the kind   of player LaRussa occasionally takes a shying too. Might get some PT.?

?I’d like to see what Kevin Millar would do with 500 At Bats.?

?I consider Jimmy Rollins to be one of the better prospects   around.?

Now I?ll state that this site indeed had posted these comments   before the season and in fact have shown themselves to be more or less right   on the mark. Many of them could have some value to a roto-player, and others   can be seen as unexpectedly accurate (like the Kerry Robinson comment).

The picture the site would have painted for you would be very   pretty, would it not? Just sign up for the site, snag up all the little gems   of insight and cruise easily to the title in your roto-league.

Of course, life is never that easy. The above comments did   actually appear on a site before the 2001 season though the site offered them   up for free. The site which provided them was mine, and as such I can tell you   with some authority not to be overwhelmed by the apparent accuracy of the comments.

You see as the guy who wrote all those comments, I can tell   you that I wrote at least 100 more such comments, none of which were printed   above. Many were simple explanatory comments to use with the projections. A   good number of them turned out to be irrelevant, either the comments accuracy   never got a chance to be tested or there wasn’t really anything of import said.   Of course some of them turned out to be ?wrong?:

?A lot of people have written the Reds off and I think that’s   a mistake.?

?If someone asks me, ?Voros, who is your number one sleeper this year?? My   money would be on Chris Donnels.?

?Michael Tucker is starting to show flashes of the player   many thought he’d become.?

Now if I was trying to sell you my site, you?d be sure not   to see those on there. And that is the problem with judging assessments by picking   out various individual comments from a group of many. Quite often you?re provided   with a limited view of everything that has been said.

Here?s a good example: I want all of my readers to pick a   number from 1 to 50 , with the only restriction being that both digits in the   number have to be odd. You have your number? Okay, here it goes?

?37?

How?d I do? Now many of you are sitting out there going, no   you idiot, you were way off.

But there?s also going to be a fair number of you whose reaction will be, ?Wow!   Good guess! How?d you do that?? The key is that the people for whom I was correct   wouldn?t know anything about the people for whom I was wrong. As far as they   know I?m batting 1.000.

They are gambling tout companies who use this shady trick.   They have several ?independent? touts front for them, knowing that at least   one of them will do very well over the season by chance alone. Then the next   year they advertise the incredible season that tout had last year, meanwhile   having all their other independent touts continue making picks. Then the next   year, the guy with the big win percentage becomes the expert. Every year the   company will have at least one tout that they can advertise as having tremendous   success last year and not actually be lying. I had a friend who fell for this   con one time and before making his bets he was convinced that he had tapped   into somebody others didn?t know about and who could produce remarkable results.   My friend didn?t lose a lot, but he lost enough to ignore anything the guy had   to say from that moment on.

Bill James wrote an article on ESPN.com recently on the subject   of people selectively picking out decisions that turned out badly for MLB GMs.   However, he didn?t talk about the kind of nefarious activity described above,   but rather of a mindset of a certain set of fans to dwell on the negative about   the teams they root for. Where I believe James erred was in putting himself   above this kind of behavior. This isn?t the behavior of a distinct individual   group of people. No this is really one of the most fundamental characteristics   of human behavior: the search for confirmatory evidence of one?s beliefs. All   of us (myself and Bill James included) engage in the behavior James describes   (ironically one could argue that James is engaging in it in the article itself).   There are a few theories in Psychology as to why this is, and several related   theories as to what times and instances this behavior exhibits itself most strongly   (all of which have nothing to do with baseball and I probably don?t understand   them well enough to describe them anyway). To be sure, this is not the behavior   of some deranged egomaniacal anti-fan.

Using myself as an example (as both someone who engages in   this behavior and also as someone accused of being a deranged egomaniac), I   know that I?m likely to rationalize away the disappointment of Chris Donnels?   season. The way I do it may contain perfectly valid reasoning (e.g. he didn?t   get many at bats and I did comment that the projection was a bit iffy), but   the fact that I don?t take the same pains to rationalize away my correct predictions   (e.g. predicting Juan Gonzalez would hit well isn?t hard and while Sandy Alomar   hasn?t been great, Mark Johnson might not have enough at bats so far for someone   to conclude he?s been better). It?s fairly standard behavior for someone to   scrutinize why their incorrect predictions aren?t as bad as they appear, but   rarely do we talk about how our correct predictions aren?t quite as good as   they appear.

The thing is, people shouldn?t be made to apologize for such   behavior, as James seems to suggest. It?s like apologizing for creating mucus,   or wasting time sleeping eight hours a day. We?re human, that?s the way we work   and there are good reasons for why that is. Fundamentally, that?s why concentrating   on ?who said what? provides very little insight into finding the answers to   life?s (in our case baseball?s) questions. We are all subject to these kind   of flaws, so we are all going to have these moments where we fail to think or   speak logically about a situation. This is fine. The key should be to shift   the focus away from the person indulging in faulty logic and instead focus on   the faulty logic itself.

I?m sure Billy Beane has made decisions in the past that the   Drive-Thru guy at the Jack in the Box has disagreed with. I?m also fairly sure   that, at times, the Jack in the Box guy turned out to be right. The fact is   that the dumbest of us are often right and the smartest of us are often wrong,   and that the things we say and the points we make should be evaluated on their   own merits, rather than on some imaginary scorecard which keeps track of how   often we?ve been right in the past.

The advancement of everyone?s knowledge of baseball, be they   ?stat-head,? ?baseball insider,? ?sportswriter,? ?Joe-fan? or ?talk-radio junkie,?   would be greatly increased if we stopped concentrating on who was a ?stat-head,?   ?baseball insider,? ?sportswriter,? ?Joe-fan? or ?talk-radio junkie,? and started   concentrating on their respective arguments. Then again, what the hell do I   know? I?m just another arrogant stat-head.

 

Voros McCracken Posted: August 27, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 3 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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Reader Comments and Retorts

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   1. Roger Moore Posted: August 27, 2001 at 12:11 AM (#604075)
The more I read about Bill James's column, the more it seems to me that it's like a Rorshach test. Everyone seems to see something a bit different in the column and it always seems to focus on what they were already interested in. IMO, the critical issue is that people are spending too much time looking at individual piece of the puzzle- and as Voros says looking more at the ones that confirm their beliefs than those that contradict them- instead of trying to take a high level view.

An important side point, though, is that people aren't necessarily wrong in their perceptions when they do so. The people who think that the Royals are being badly managed are clearly correct, as their lousy W/L record clearly demonstrates. The wrongness is is focusing on single events as proof and/or confirmation of our own theories of where they're going wrong instead of stepping back and looking for long range patterns.

In many cases, the reason that people treat the situation that way is because they don't have a pre-existing basis for doing that kind of comparison. There's no standard groundwork for how to judge the behavior of a whole major league organization, and the problem is big enough that most people don't know where to start. Instead they get the general picture- and you don't have to look past the Royals' record for the past few years to get that picture- and start trying to find individual pieces of evidence that would help to explain the pattern. We know that the team isn't doing well, so we look for specific instances of things that they've done poorly as a first step of figuring out the general pattern.

If anything, the James article should serve as a caution that this approach is fraught with danger: the danger that we'll only confirm our pre-existing beliefs. Instead, we need to take a big step back and develop the tools needed to analyze any frachise, and only then apply them to the specific one in question. We should look at all of the general things that a team can do: signing amateurs, minor league development, promoting the right players, making trades, managing salaries, etc. Then we can figure out which strategies seem to be most effective, how effective they are, and so forth, and then turn around and see how the specific team in question is doing in those areas. By starting from the most general and working down to the specific, you minimize the risk of confirmation bias.
   2. David Nieporent (now, with children) Posted: August 28, 2001 at 12:11 AM (#604085)
CR, as Roger says, people see what they want to see in Bill James' column, but I think you definitely are misapplying it. You write: ". To criticize the general manager outside of the context of the entire organization is extremely short-sighted." But nobody is doing that. When people write that "Allard Baird is an incompetent boob," what they mean is "The Royals braintrust, collectively, are incompetent boobs." Allard Baird is the frontman for the braintrust. If he's just a figurehead, so what? It doesn't matter, from our point of view as outsiders, whether Allard Baird is actually Bill James operating under a nom de guerre, and whether the fault lies with David Glass. The *criticism* is still valid. The decisions being assessed are still crappy. The larger point is how to assess an organization, not who specifically deserves the criticism.

Meanwhile, Voros, your idea that the validity of the method, not the identity of the speaker, is what we should focus on makes sense in the abstract, but you can (and do) carry that too far. As humans, we have limited amounts of time. We need shortcuts, or our brains would explode from information overload. The identity of the speaker is one such shortcut. This doesn't mean we need accept everything Bill James says at face value, or that we need cover our ears when Harold Reynolds speaks. But you should pay more attention when a medical doctor diagnoses your ailments than when I do, and should pay more attention to my legal advice than to Dan Szymborski's. (If you pay me. Otherwise, I'm likely to deliberately give you bad advice.) I don't know everything about the law, and I do know some things about medicine -- but you don't have the time to run your life under the principle that the validity of the advice is completely independent of training and track record.
   3. Robert Dudek Posted: August 29, 2001 at 12:11 AM (#604098)
If Baird were really Bill James, then Bill James would be schizophrenic.

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