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April 15, 2014

Baseball Therapy

Why Sabermetrics Needs Translational Research

by Russell A. Carleton


My father is fond of saying that a thousand “attaboys” is worth one “aw crap.” You can do a thousand things right, but if you get one wrong, all of the goodwill you built up over those thousand successes is now gone. It’s completely irrational, but no one ever said that human beings made any sense.

I’d argue that sabermetrics has a similar problem. One of the most common complaints that I hear expressed (to use a gentle term) is that while most teams proclaim that they have fully embraced the analytics movement, they still do things like bunt and put horrible hitters in the second spot in the lineup. We’re still waiting on optimal bullpen usage to become common and for managers (and general managers) to stop over-reacting to small sample sizes. In fairness, it’s not that the research has gotten things terribly wrong. There are strategic issues where, when you do the #GoryMath, it’s clear that things are being done inefficiently now, and where teams could benefit from changing things around. So… why don’t they?

I mean, we did the math.

Consider for a moment how many people out there do things that we know are horrible for them to do. People overeat, put off preventative medical care, drive too fast, and sleep too little. All of these are demonstrably bad ideas. If it were as easy as showing someone 10 different studies by 10 respected experts at 10 different medical schools, we’d have a country of health nuts. We don’t. Come to think of it, I’ve been guilty of all of the things I’ve listed—and my day job is in public health!

There’s a branch of research in public health known as “translational research.” Once we know that something is bad, how do we actually get that message out there in a way that actually makes people change their behavior? It’s easy to say that you know what’s wrong but so much harder to make it right. I think it’s about time that sabermetrics got its own translational research wing.

The Broccoli Problem
If I may frame the problem in a slightly different way: Suppose that someone asked you to do something differently in your life—perhaps increase your intake of fruits and vegetables to five servings per day, because the scientists all say that “five will keep you alive.” Right now, you maybe get two per day, but there aren’t that many fruits and vegetables that you like (he begins a series of questions with “but have you tried…”) and you don’t know a lot of recipes that contain vegetables (he hands you a cookbook).

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Related Content:  Sabermetrics,  Translational Research

16 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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BP staff member Dan Rozenson
BP staff

I like the creative thinking. Tackling cognitive biases that impede baseball efficiency is a tough task.

With third base coaches, though, removing them might transfer the risk-averse behavior rather than eliminate it. People don't want to be blamed for an out at the plate, whether it's the runner or the coach. What really needs to change is people accepting that certain situations encourage risks to be taken and that the world is probabilistic -- in other words, they still need to eat their broccoli, I guess.

Just a thought.

Apr 15, 2014 07:38 AM
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

In a perfect world, people would understand that it's a simple risk-benefit calculation and that sometimes, you do the right thing and it doesn't work. But, that's not the world we live in and we need to work within that world.

Apr 15, 2014 07:49 AM
 
therealn0d

Poker players understand this very well...well, good professional poker players. Perhaps it can be explained in those terms. You are going to have bad beats even when you are well ahead in the hand (it happens), and sometimes you will make a marginal call because the pot odds justify it even though you are behind in the hand. If you don't play that way, you lose money.

Apr 15, 2014 08:16 AM
rating: 5
 
SaberTJ

Spot on.

Apr 15, 2014 13:11 PM
rating: 0
 
gweedoh565

I imagine one of the reasons poker players are more likely to behave in this rational way is that they are playing just for themselves, and don't feel shared responsibility with their teammates, coaches, and manager.

For example, if you got Mike Trout on-board with the idea of being more aggressive when scoring from 3rd and then cloned a teamful of Mike Trouts, then they would feel less pressure to conform to the conservative strategic norms because they'd know that all of their teamselves have their backs.

So we see once again that the key is to have a team of cloned Mike Trouts.

Apr 15, 2014 13:33 PM
rating: 3
 
therealn0d

A team of cloned Mike Trouts splits the pot Mike Trout ways. A Mike Trout, however, wins every hand every time. Mike Trout beats a straight flush.

Apr 15, 2014 14:38 PM
rating: 3
 
therealn0d

On a related note, Mike Trout's two pair beats Chuck Norris' royal flush.

Apr 15, 2014 14:44 PM
rating: 4
 
therealn0d

I didn't have time at the moment to complete my comment above and how it relates to the article.

Mike Caro had a series of "lectures" on his website a long time ago (I printed them out back then, I can't find them online at this time). They were absolute gold. The advice he would give at the end of every article would be along the lines of "in your next session, every time you are last to act and the action is checked all the way to you, I want you to bet." Caro would give you a profitable strategy and tell you to try it and see what happens. No global learning, just bit by bit.

I think that could work here. Encourage small risks/rewards and if the coaches see the profitability, maybe they'll come around, bit by bit.

Apr 15, 2014 10:54 AM
rating: 2
 
lipitorkid

Russell this is fantastic. I'm a High School teacher who also tries to get other teachers to change their ways. This article not only gives me specific language and examples, but a few ideas to try. Thank you for writing this.

Now if you could just get all MLB teams to offer free/fast WiFi to every fan and let me order food from my seat.

Apr 15, 2014 07:49 AM
rating: 3
 
OrioleDog

On shifting closer preferences away from 3-run games to tie games, here's my translational bit. I like the irony too.

It's simple - Saves are hamburger, wins are steak - you should covet WINS! I'd love to hear a Kimbrel say I really want to win eight games this year, etc.

Apr 15, 2014 09:53 AM
rating: 1
 
Dan McKay

Great article. I love it when learning something about baseball teachers me about other parts of my life.

Apr 15, 2014 10:12 AM
rating: 0
 
4min33

"saves are available only in the ninth inning"
correction: saves are technically possible from any inning as long as the saving pitcher finishes the winning game without being the winning pitcher. Saves of fewer than 3 innings pitched require situational qualification (pitcher upon entry to the game a) faces tying run on base, at bat, or on deck; or b) has maximum of a 3 run lead and pitches at least one inning).

Apr 15, 2014 14:32 PM
rating: 0
 
Johnston

Great article. The transition you are looking for in the application of sabermetric knowledge by managers and front offices will only be complete when the last dinosaurs are no longer in their positions or are dead.

Apr 15, 2014 20:34 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

That's not true at all. You'd be amazed at the things that I have heard "old school" people say. At its core, Sabermetrics comes down to making a reasonable argument, and you don't last in baseball if you're not willing to listen to a reasonable argument.

Apr 15, 2014 21:54 PM
 
oldbopper

Another terrific article that exposes many old baseball men as neanderthals. Every 3rd base coach should be required to take Statistics and Probability 101. I have screamed at many a coach after watching him hold the runner on a medium fly ball to a rag armed left fielder with 1 out and a Mario Mendoza type in the on deck circle. Using a stiff, instead of a stud, at the crucial juncture of a game just because it isn't the 9th inning doesn't help my mental state either, but the refusal to attack the shift with a bunting attack still my cause celebre.

Apr 15, 2014 22:05 PM
rating: 1
 
devine

Fantastic article, and spot on.

Apr 16, 2014 10:18 AM
rating: 0
 
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