I believe you are all familiar with the hashtags. #Mathenaging. #Yosted. #BuntToWin. And that’s just the state of Missouri. It’s now common knowledge that there are certain strategic plays that were once popular, but upon further review, it’s clear that they are questionable tactics at best. Everyone knows it, and yet, bunting is still a thing. Even the “smart” managers do it. Why?
To figure it out, I think we need to take a field trip into the brain of a major-league manager. Or more to the point, into the brain of a human being whose job just happens to be managing a baseball team. Because as much as we’d all like to believe that we wouldn’t do the same thing… we’d all do it. At least we’d have to fight our own brains.
To begin, it’s important to understand that “the brain” is much more a collection of systems than a single organ. Different things are done in different places around the brain, and your brain does a lot of stuff, from making sure that your major organs are running to reading this paragraph. Even reading this paragraph takes more than one system. Your optic nerve is collecting the light from the screen and your brain is recognizing these squiggly shapes as letters and then combining them into groups which are words. And then those words have ideas associated with them. All of those tasks have their own little brain area where the magic happens.
So with that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to pieces of the brain: the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex. I’ve written about the pre-frontal cortex before here at BP, but basically, it’s the part of your brain that is right behind your forehead and it’s in charge of all of the cool things that we humans are so proud of. For example, we can use abstract reasoning and understand complicated patterns and all that. The limbic system comprises a few parts of the brain which handle our emotional responses, memory, and basic biological drives. Are you hungry right now? You can thank your limbic system.
From an evolutionary perspective, the limbic system is very old. One of the benefits of being very old is that these areas are very well developed and efficient. When was the last time you had to think too hard about whether or not you are hungry? The pre-frontal cortex, on the other hand, is evolutionarily very new. It takes a lot of energy (in the brain, that comes in form of the sugar molecule glucose) to do those sorts of functions. That fact comes in handy later on.
Now we come back to a curious thing that I once found about managers. Actually twice. Managers who call for a steal early in the game only to see the runner caught stealing were actually more likely to send another runner later in the game, even accounting for other factors that might influence the likelihood of a stolen base (inning, number of outs, score, speed of the runner). Similarly, managers are more likely to send a runner after the opposing team has pitched out earlier in the game, again controlling for the situation.
In theory, whether or not to send a runner should be a calculation handled by the pre-frontal cortex. In this particular situation, with this particular runner, does it make sense to hit “steal second” on the control pad? Does the expected payoff in terms of runs outweigh the risks? And yet, we find that these factors that – in theory – should have no bearing on that decision are very much an influence. Looks like the pre-frontal cortex isn’t totally in charge. In fact, given what we know about how the brain actually works, it makes total sense.
In the case of a manager who sends his runner only to see him caught, we have a manager who has just endured the sadness of a decision of his gone wrong. In the case of the manager who had his opponent pitch out against him, in some way issuing a bit of a challenge, it’s more of a slap to the face. I use that phrase precisely. There’s an emerging line of research that shows that the same region that processes emotional trauma (whether profound, or in this case, annoying) and social dominance cues is the same area that processes physical pain, an area located in the limbic system. When someone says “that was a real gut punch,” the body may have actually processed it as such. There are times when human language is well ahead of our understanding of neuropsychology.
Now, let’s go to the seventh inning where a manager sees that his seventh-spot hitter has led off the inning with a crackerjack single to left. His team is up by one and he’d love to have another run for cushion, so perhaps a stolen base here would be called for. Still, seven of nine isn’t particularly fast. Not Victor Martinez slow, mind you. It’s just that no one will mistake him for Billy Hamilton. Should the third base coach put his left arm in or take his left arm out when giving the signs? In theory, there’s a correct answer to this, and perhaps a set of general principles that our manager might follow in making his decision. If the chances of the runner making it are high enough and the chances that the batter wouldn’t do the job himself are low enough, then why not? But if the odds don’t add up, then better to have the runner stay on first.
If that was all that went into a decision like this, that would be the end of it. But humans aren’t run entirely by their prefrontal cortices. If they were, baseball (and the world) would be a very different place. Remember how we talked about the limbic system being evolutionarily efficient? It can get by without a lot of resources, so when the time comes to make the decision on sending a runner to steal and the manager is naturally calling up all information that’s relevant to that decision, that emotional memory of the guy he sent into a caught stealing in the second inning is still there and his brain doesn’t need much in the way of resources to bring it into conscious view. The resource-intensive prefrontal cortex on the other hand needs a lot of glucose to run this calculation. Sure, the manager can attend to that calculation and perhaps come up with the right answer, but let’s remember that managing is a complex and taxing job and he might be making other corrections at that moment.
I have a feeling that if I was standing next to a manager in that moment and asking him to discuss his thought process out loud (with a healthy dose of truth serum), he might say something along the lines of “I know that it’s the wrong decision to send him, but I just can’t shake the piece of me that wants to get that stolen base back from the second inning.” That’s the limbic system, so svelte and ready to make an impact. It can make a manager who can reason out the rational answer to a problem turn around and do something irrational.
We like to believe that we are people of the prefrontal cortex, but that’s not how the brain actually works. I’d argue that understanding how the limbic system works is the key to at least understanding the most commonly asked Twitter question: Why the (various expletives) did he do that? To take another WTF standby, the bunt, there’s a reason that it feels so good to bunt. The limbic system controls emotional responses and the reward circuitry of the brain (also called the “pleasure pathway”) as well as the pathways that control anxiety. The pleasure circuitry runs on a chemical called dopamine and it likes a nice steady stream to run through that pleasure center.
Now let’s take that into a game situation. Runner on first, no one out, and a manager in a situation where even one run would be soooooo nice and a guy is at bat who could probably drop a bunt. Everyone knows that getting that runner from first to home isn’t guaranteed and that it’s likely going to be a multi-step process. If nothing else, you have to get him to second and third somehow. Uncertainty is naturally anxiety provoking. (Now entering your bloodstream and making you a little jittery, cortisol.) When that happens, the limbic system jumps into action.
Even if the mathematically correct pre-frontal cortex answer is to let the hitter swing away, the limbic system is looking to get rid of the anxiety and to get that extra hit of dopamine that comes from knowing that the runner from first has at least made it 1/3 of the rest of the way home. And letting the hitter swing away means that he might strike out or pop up or something silly and it means that the manager (and the fans!) have to sit in agony for another few minutes waiting for a hit that might not ever come. Bunting doesn’t get the whole job done, but it does turn off the anxiety machine for a few minutes, and sometimes the limbic system just yells louder.
Lest you think this is some special failure of managers, there are doubtless plenty of examples from your own life of this very principle. Allow me to share mine. On my drive home, there is a certain part of the trip where I face a literal fork in the road. I can get on the highway like Waze tells me too, and wait in line on the on-ramp and deal with Atlanta traffic on I-85 or I can take the access road which has a mile of clear road ahead. My pre-frontal cortex tells me that Waze is smart because it has access to traffic data and knows that the jam on the on-ramp will probably clear after the next exit. It also knows that the access road is a trap with an awful traffic light at the end. But right now, it’s free and clear. And sometimes, the limbic system screams louder after a tough day of using my prefrontal cortex for 8 straight hours. Maybe this will be the one day that Waze is wrong.
If there’s a blindspot that Sabermetrics has, it’s the broccoli problem. We all know broccoli is good for us. Why do we still eat more pizza than broccoli? We’re good at doing the math, but honestly the math isn’t the issue any more. Everyone in baseball buys into analytics, or at least understands that it has a place at the table and real implications for how things should be done. At this point, the dividing lines are which teams actually pour resources into analytics and maybe even more importantly than having a department staffed with BP alumni, which teams have a clue on how to implement those findings in the real world of baseball.
Implementation starts when you understand what’s driving the behavior you want to change. And so if we really want everyone to #StopBunting, you have to understand where bunting comes from. It’s one thing to discuss the matter when you have the luxury of time and the absence of cortisol and adrenaline running through your veins. In real time, there is more influencing a manager than the logical part of his brain. You have to account for that too.
Thank you for reading
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