We need fear to survive—there's no other explanation for millions of years of evolution keeping such an unpleasant emotion in such a prominent position in the human psyche. Fear tells you not to stand too close to the edge of the cliff, not to run around the corner in the dark without looking, and not to antagonize the hungry pack of wolves.
Fear would be more useful if it only led us into behavior that would increase our chances of survival. In modern American life, this mostly manifests itself in terms of sports, which are relatively low-stakes, but the impulse is the same. The desire to seize the day, to make good on the promise that fortune favors the brave, is counteracted by the knowledge of the wages of failure. The questions from the media, the potential for embarrassment, the desire not to be singled out for criticism.
Last weekend, the Green Bay Packers lost to the Arizona Cardinals in an NFL playoff game. You might remember that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed two Hail Mary passes on the last drive in the final minute to cut the Cardinals' lead to one, and that Packers coach Mike McCarthy elected to kick the extra point to send the game into overtime, where the Cardinals ended the game, and Green Bay's season, without the Packers ever touching the ball on offense.
McCarthy's choice to kick the extra point instead of going for a game-deciding two-point conversion was automatic, the clear choice at the end of a road paved with the cowardice of orthodoxy.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell broke down how McCarthy’s conservative approach did his team in, so rather than regurgitate Barnwell’s analysis I’ll repeat a quote from Sir Clement Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud, that was paraphrased and misattributed in an episode of The West Wing. I’ve thought about it a lot recently.
“If you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving, you don't actually live longer,” Freud said, “it just seems longer.”
Football's having its own revolution of public empiricism, and if there's a single lesson to be learned that's as simple and clear as the glorification of OBP in Moneyball-era sabermetrics, it's that head coaches are too conservative. They punt too frequently, they don't go for it on fourth down enough. They mismanage the clock late in games and kick field goals when only a touchdown would make a real difference in their chances to win the game. They kick the extra point and force overtime when they ought to go for two.
At the heart of every easy criticism of football coaching strategy is the sentiment Freud expressed: You don't live longer—it just seems longer.
And because this conservative orthodoxy is, well, orthodox, it's preferred. It's referred to, ironically, as "playing the percentages" when the percentages actually say that it's better to be more aggressive.
But there is some truth to that idea—playing it safe might reduce your team's chance to win, but it makes it seem like you're in the game longer. Throwing away a chance to win while narrowing the margin of defeat makes the game look closer than it actually was, and if the box score says the game was respectable, seldom do mainstream critics conduct a deeper investigation.
It's an orthodoxy that's tantamount to point shaving, but because it's an orthodoxy, coaches across the NFL flock to it.
Which brings up a second useful aphorism. Or, well, a punchline: "I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you."
Baseball teams are getting better about trying to outrun the bear, or making it seem like they live longer. Sacrifice bunts and intentional walks both hit all-time lows in 2015, both down about 40 percent from where they were in the last full year before the strike, 1993.
But there's still work to be done. How does fear of failure enter into our evaluation of prospects? Do we overvalue proximity to the majors because of the uncertainty of what can happen on the trip from A-ball (let alone complex leagues) and the show? Do we undervalue the live-armed kid with no command compared to a low-risk, low-ceiling sinkerballer because Kyle Kendrick's pitched 1,281 major-league innings (and counting) while Stetson Allie and Jason Neighborgall have combined for a grand total of zero?
Or does fear of failure not apply to minor leaguers in general because, like sperm or World War I infantrymen, if a couple get through it doesn't matter how many others die along the way?
On the matter of in-game tactics, reliever usage stands out as an area where the percentage play is anything but. We still have defined roles that even the most anti-empiricist grit-and-hustle managers recognize as nonsense because when the games count most (i.e. the playoffs) they go out the window. There's probably something to the idea that a defined role is valuable, or that managing to the save rule is an easy way to manage an entire bullpen's workload over six months, but every time a so-called closer enters the game before the ninth inning, or when it's tied, or if a different reliever comes in to protect a three-run lead in the ninth, the safety of the herd disappears, as the 2003 Red Sox so famously proved.
Ultimately, for the millions of baseball fans who don't hold positions of power in the 30 baseball ops departments, the best way to encourage innovation is to discomfit the herd, to put external pressure on decision makers to choose the course of action that has the highest probability of success, and not just the lowest probability of conspicuous failure.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now