“The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves”
The publishing info:
William Morrow/Harper Collins
Released April 21
The review in 90 feet or less
The stories look as if they have some news value, but then you realize you’ve been blindsided by another hit-and-run post with an alluring headline. A debate starter. An incentive to click and be challenged, pretending most times there’s even some kind of analytical dissertation that allows for some critical thinking.
Emphasis on critical. Such as this recent post on DodgersNation.com:
Fred Claire must feel relieved. The one thing that people would never let go from his time as the Dodgers GM was the Nov., 1993 trauma of trading 22-year-old pitcher coming off his rookie season Pedro Martinez to Montreal for 23-year-old and 16th in NL MVP voting second baseman Delino DeShields, straight up. Claire still admits it’s the one he would “regret the most… my focus was on a single position (filling in a starting second baseman) and not the potential of Pedro. It was a major mistake.” DeShields lasted three seasons in L.A. and was out of the game by age 33 in 2002. Martinez, at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, threw 2,872 innings, was a seven-time All Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, five-time ERA leader, with a 219-100 record in retiring at age 37 in 2009, then going into the Hall of Fame in 2015.
Was it the worst deal in Dodgers’ history? History says it’s likely so, even if Tommy Lasorda’s temp-GM move sent 22-year-old rising star Paul Konerko to Cincinnati for relief pitcher Jeff Shaw at the 1998 All-Star break. It’s almost as silly as the Mike Piazza-to-Florida deal that happened on Claire’s watch, but he had nothing to do with it and quit after that).
Looking back at how it turns out is far less entertaining that trying to guess at the thinking behind moves like this, at the time they happen. When you get someone like Claire to reveal his thought process, and realize there’s some logic to it, it can be easier to accept. Then, the Dodgers needed a second baseman. With Konerko, they were desperate for a closer and he was deemed expendable (and then the Reds traded him to the White Sox for Mike Cameron, which may be even more tragic. As for Piazza, it was new Dodgers ownership trying to secure a sports regional network deal with the Florida Marlins. For real.
Any animated examination of the decision-making process of the modern game has become a whole industry on its own, here’s a Keith Law approach that really does draw on his media abilities (now a senior baseball writer for The Athletic, plus ESPN and The Baseball Prospectus) and his time in the Toronto Blue Jays front office to focus more on behavioral science.
From issuing a take sign to taking a risk on a pitcher who just had Tommy John surgery, there has to be an onion-peeling exercise of what the thinking is behind it, and if learning anything from history is even a factor any longer. What motivates some may discourage others, and both may make perfect sense. Don’t overthink it – this can also help in other walks of life and business.
We already know how smart Law is. His 2017 book, “Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats that are Ruining the Game, the New Ones that are Running it, and the Right Way to Think about Baseball,” and our subsequent interview with him about it, gives us reason enough to know that whatever he’s got to sell at this point, we’re buying.
And here, it should start with buying Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 New York Times’ best-selling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” with the simplistic cover you’d expect to see on another Malcolm Gladwell book.
Based on nearly 8,000 ratings on Amazon.com, this book has a near-perfect 5 star review. The 2013 Presidental Medal of Freedom recipient is also the subject of Michael Lewis (“Moneyball”) for his book, “The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Minds.”
Our minds are now focused on Law, who says Kahneman’s book made him “hyperaware of deficits in my own thinking,” but because it’s a dense read and “might be tough sledding,” it’s a perfect springboard for Law to apply it to baseball thinking.
And, admit you can’t always know the thoughts of someone else, no matter how many years you’ve known then.
(Husbands, can I get an ahem to that?)
This isn’t about analytics, but having this luxury of time to process how others process, there’s an analytical element to this that, in the end, whether intentional or not, makes us now terribly convinced the Angels had no business giving Albert Pujols a 10-year, $240-million contract in his age 32 year, before the 2012 season, and the continue to play him as his production has steadily declined.
Even as Pujols, who turned 39 last January and has $87 million more to make, insists he will honor the deal. Why wouldn’t he as he nears 2,000 career RBIs and will become the third player to have that along with 3,000 hits and 600 homers. Personal numbers are an incentive to press forward if given the ability to perhaps add to a team’s win total without grounding into another MLB-career-leading double play.
It’s the law of nature, the law of diminishing returns, and Keith Law’s common sense at work here to where Pujols’ time in Anaheim is by far the most analyzed situation in the book’s journey.
When good people made bad decisions – the blame can go on Angels owner Arte Moreno, or departed GM Jerry DiPoto – it can hamstring a franchise for years, and Mike Trout may have the utmost respect for the future Hall of Fame teammate, but, in all honesty, we can’t look at the Angels’ roster the same any longer. No matter what Joe Maddon maybe able to do at this point to make a feel-good signing still bear some fruit as the leaves turn dark and the branches gnarly.
The Pujols reference may seem like a running joke at times, but they all serve a purpose as to why and how teams allow this to cloud their progress for the sake of keeping a legend relevant. There may be a bigger payoff in off-the-field good will, but if on-the-field success is what’s at stake, as heartless as that may seem, you at least know why decisions – or even indecision – will always have some lasting ramifications.
As it pertains to why the Dodgers were extremely fortunate to have Texas high school pitcher Clayton Kershaw pan out as the seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft, versus the league history of such gambles with young live arms:
Our author Q&A
In 2017 we had the great experience of talking to you about “Smart Baseball.” Now with “Inside Baseball,” it’s really more about how the human brain, connected to a human heart, takes all the information at its disposal and chooses to make a decision. What do you believe will enlighten people most about your research and connecting theories and is there a lot of “smart baseball” aspect that overlaps here?
I hope this book helps illuminate the cognitive biases and illusions that affect everybody, regardless of your educational background or intelligence or what you do for a living. If you’re human, you fall prey to these, but we’re never taught these concepts in school. Baseball is a convenient and fairly universal way to explain some of these ideas, and also it’s usually fun to revisit bad sports decisions with more modern lenses, so I hope I can entertain readers as well as informing.
In Dec., 2011, the St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote that “The Los Angeles Angels accomplished in less than two days what the Cardinals failed to transact in two years by signing three-time National League MVP Albert Pujols to a contract that will run through the remainder of a Hall of Fame career.” So, with all you’ve said in this book, what do you really think about the Angels’ decision to commit him to a 10-year, $254 million deal before Christmas in 2011?
I thought it was bad at the time, but it’s turned out to be so much worse; it’s as if Pujols got to Anaheim and aged five years on the flight from Missouri, so that his decline phase started the moment he touched the ground in California. They really should just release him, but teams seldom do that with famous, highly-paid players.
You were helpful in delivering a forward to the book, “Future Value” (our April 17 review here), which seems to cross over into this as well – how and why draft picks are made. Is drafting a entirely different kind of decision-making process than trades or hit-and-run or anything else?
It’s different because of the artificial nature of the draft, but the evaluation and decision processes before the draft are quite similar. You still have to figure out how to balance subjective and objective data, and how to weigh more recent data against older information.
You launch into how Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” about behavioral economics is neither a sports book nor an analytics book. It is a book that “asks you to think about thinking so that you will make better, more reasoned decisions.” Can that, and your book, create some Venn Diagram (with anything else) that highlight the intersection of all the circles to be the sweet spot in decision making?
I don’t want to take any credit away from Kahneman – I’m standing on his shoulders here, as he and the late Amos Tversky really created this entire discipline. I hope I’m able to translate their work so that more people find it accessible, and so that you don’t need any background in economics or psychology to understand these ideas.
Do enough good people in the game learn from their so-called mistakes? Does that make them gun-shy the next time?
Many do, at least, although my understanding from the experts in the field is that we don’t stop falling prey to these biases once we know they exist – instead, we change our processes so we avoid repeating the same mistakes. The good people in the game build new decision-making processes so that they can take those biases into account and work around them.
What’s the target audience here and what can they do with this kind of information and insight unless they run their own fantasy teams? Can it be applied there at all?
My target audience is definitely broader than that – if you have to make major decisions in your life, whether at work or at home, you can probably take something useful away from the book, even if it’s just a question of personal finance, or deciding for whom to vote in an election. These are biases or illusions that affect everybody, all the time, because our brains wouldn’t otherwise be able to handle all of the information coming at us from the world. It should help you with your fantasy teams, or your general fandom, but I hope it’ll help you think about the world differently at work or at home as well.
One last followup: Are books like this difficult to pitch to publishers who don’t always get the somewhat esoteric ideas that pertain to sports and the way people think about them? Many seem to be so used to going with history and biography, that it might seem forcing readers to “think” isn’t necessarily what translate to book sales. Are you positioned well to get a book like this in to get traction based on your previous book – and was there any hurdles to overcome with ‘Smart Baseball” as well?
I was lucky – Harper Collins wanted to do another book with me anyway, and they bought The Inside Game off the pitch so I didn’t even have to write a complete proposal.
How it goes in the scorebook
At least we know we have an anchoring bias influence, accepting that we will learn something from Law in every corner of each chapter. And it pays off.
If we are to effectively overcome our bias, this isn’t where to start.
It’s a good decision to pick this up and think about thinking. We know more now about moral hazards, misaligned incentives and this fallacy about how teams “eat” money when in fact, it’s just a reality of a contract.
We all have blind spots as well in our thinking process. But the more one is aware – in baseball, in business, in life – why not work on making bad behavior come around to a new way of thinking?
More to consume
== There’s still time for this:
== Among the latest by Keith Law pieces for The Athletic: “Even with baseball shut down, specter of minor-league contraction looms”