Ahead of the Curve
1 The Herd
“The group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits and emotions.”
—Edward Bernays, Father of Modern Public Relations
There is safety in the pack. One must understand this to completely understand why it is so difficult to act independently. To adopt new methods is not just to stray from the pack, but to mock the herd itself. For this, there are repercussions. The herd—large, powerful, belligerent—has ways to deal with rogue operatives.
In football, a sport seen as a quasi-military exercise, innovative head coach Bill Walsh was routinely called a “genius.” It was done as a tribute to his creative play calling. In baseball, a sport laden with tradition, innovative manager Tony La Russa was also referred to as a “genius.” It was done to mock him.
Football culture, unlike baseball culture, has welcomed the idea of “intelligence” as a tactical practice. It’s seen as necessary, even manly. Coaches are lauded for “attacking” in new ways, like a brilliant general. Yet even in football, the herd mentality is difficult to shake. ESPN.com
’s excellent columnist Gregg Easterbrook once asked Don Shula if there
was an innovation left in football. Shula said, “Someday there will be a coach that doesn’t punt.”
Over the last decade, the practice of mindless punting has decreased. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, though, has been able to maintain an almost automatic advantage over other clubs by frequently going for it on fourth down.
David Romer, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, churned out a mind-blowing study on the folly of incessant punting in 2005. Studying NFL data, Romer concluded you should go for it on fourth down in the following circumstances:
1. Inside your opponent’s territory, on fourth and seven or less.
2. Inside your opponent’s 33, on fourth and 10 or less.
3. Fourth and four or less, anywhere on the field.
So, given the statistics, why do NFL coaches keep punting? Because that is what has always been done.
In life and in sports, it’s easier to stay within the herd and fail than go out on your own and succeed. An innovative coach can insulate himself from a herd backlash by winning, but woe to him when the pendulum swings. If he begins to lose, he will not be “one of the guys.” Going against the herd is not a career path for the timid.
Reverential of its tradition, the baseball culture eyes innovation even more warily. The baseball equivalent to punting is bunting. Both are seen as automatic moves.
Let’s set the scene. The leadoff man gets on. You have a choice, let your next batter hit away or have him bunt. The manager stands on the top step, giving the sign to bunt. The batter squares up, the fielders are in motion, and the runner is primed to move. Here is the skipper, the leader of men, taking matters into his own hands, initiating a lot of action, with his players fully engaged. Unfortunately he’d be much more productive if he just sat on the bench and did nothing.
Here’s why: With even a successful bunt, you are giving up an out. It
feels good—you can actually see your base runner move closer to scoring. What you don’t see is that one third of your resources have been spent.
Here’s what bunting actually does in this situation:
Run Expectancy—Based on 1993–2010 Scoring Environment
Man on 1st, no outs
Man on 2nd, one out
With a man on first and no outs, you will, on average, score .94 runs. Move that man over on a bunt? You now, on average, will score .72 runs. So let’s be clear: Even with a successful bunt, you score fewer runs.
Of course, you often bunt not to maximize the scoring, but to score one, single run. Surely, the successful bunt increases the chances of that happening, right?
Run Expectancy—Based on 1993–2010 Scoring Environment
% of scoring
Man on 1st, no outs
Man on 2nd, one out
With a leadoff man on, a team will get that manager that one precious run 44 percent of the time. When the manager or player lays down the bunt successfully, that team will score a run 42 percent of the time.
Keep in mind this doesn’t take into account the times the bunt fails, which is not an insignificant percentage. But even when the bunt moves the runner over, it lessens your chances of scoring a run. You are working against your own goals.
Think of the psychology of this for a moment. If it’s late in the game and your team is trailing, there is an expectation that you will bunt. When a team doesn’t bunt, the manager is playing the percentages correctly. But
if the next three hitters fail to drive in the run, the manager “sat on his hands,” failing tactically. When a team bunts, and the next two hitters don’t drive in the run, it is the players who failed.
Conversely, if a run scores after a successful bunt for any reason, it is seen that the bunt “worked.” Sometime after a sac bunt, you’ll see back-to-back hits, or something that’ll bring in 2 runs. Even then it’s seen that the bunt “sparked” a rally. Perhaps. You should also ask, “How many runs would’ve scored had they not given the defense an out?” This, of course, is not asked.
It should also be pointed out that the object of bunting a man to second base is it gives you two chances to score that run on a single. In the dead-ball days, this may have made sense, given that the simple single—the base hit—was regularly seen throughout a game. These days, however, players do not hit many singles. Players currently have a risk/reward swing, which results in high strikeouts but hard contact. 2014 saw the fourth fewest number of singles in baseball history. The returns on bunting continue to diminish.
Yet managers have bunted mindlessly for decades. Think of the benefits:
1. Avoid all blame for failure.
2. Get all credit for success.
3. Look manly and competent while doing it.
Given the culture, it’s understandable. Most managers are better off giving the bunt-happy fans what they want.
You might not be convinced that failing conventionally has great benefits. If so, do you remember all the heat on Angels manager Mike Scioscia in
2014? Did you miss that controversy? Of course you didn’t. There was no controversy.
Game 1, 2014 AL Division Series. The Angels had the best record in baseball, and are opening their postseason. Tied 2–2 with the Royals, LA gets their leadoff man on base in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings. Each time they bunted, giving up an out. Each time they failed to score a run. Angels manager Mike Scioscia took virtually no criticism. Why?
By bunting all three times, he put the next two batters in the spotlight—there’s the man on second, waiting to be driven in. When he doesn’t score, it’s those two hitters that didn’t get it done. Failure is there visually—in the hitter slinking off field, having left a man on base. The manager walks off scot-free, even though he is the one who traded three chances for two.
This is a simple point that seems to be lost until you look for it. Anytime a team bunts, and the next two hitters end the inning, look to the on-deck circle; that’s the guy who should be hitting, but isn’t.
Not to dog-pile, but it’s also one thing to scratch away for a run when your offense stinks. But where do you think the Angels ranked among offenses in baseball that year? The correct answer is number one. The Angels led both leagues in runs scored, and had MLB’s deepest lineup. They were the only team that year in which every regular was above league average (above 100 in OPS+) (see Glossary). By bunting three straight innings, Scioscia took the bat out of the hands of Erick Aybar twice (103 OPS+), and Kole Calhoun (123 OPS+). The on-deck hitters who didn’t bat were Chris Ianetta (123 OPS+), Calhoun (123 OPS+), and David Freese (104 OPS+). That’s a lot of quality hitting lost—by both being ordered to bunt, and by having at bats exchanged for outs.
The Angels, with the best record in the major leagues, would lose that game, and the next two. They wouldn’t win a game in the postseason.
In mainstream-land—the national broadcasters and national columnists were focused only on Ned Yost and his plucky little band of Royals. Other managers that postseason took immense heat—Nationals manager Matt Williams for taking out his starter with two outs in the 9th for a fresh reliever, and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly for a variety of offenses. Scioscia, though, was covered. Moving within the herd, he and his best-offense-in-baseball moved safely out of the postseason.
Of course, herdlike thinking in baseball is not limited to bunting.
Closer by Committee—The Scourge of the Age
The 2003 Red Sox had new owners, a 28-year-old GM, and had hired the Godfather of Sabermetrics himself, Bill James. This new assemblage of brainpower was committed to a radically logical approach in its bullpen usage. Yale-trained GM Theo Epstein tried hard to explain it while not “scaring the straights”:
I’ll leave it up to Grady [Little] to find usage patterns in the pen . . . the way we’ve built the pen is with versatility and flexibility in mind. On any given day, we want Grady to have lots of options to attack game situations and opposing lineups.
Versatility? Flexibility? Seems like a reasonable fellow. Burn him!
Remember, this is pre-Curse-busting Theo. He would soon find out that being innovative can get you whacked in certain industries.
Unfortunately for the Sox, their bullpen wasn’t just bad, it was if they were dead set on creating the worst possible impression. Blowing a 5–1 lead in the ninth on Opening Day is definitely a way to lock in the perception of failure.
The failure snowballed, with the bullpen finishing April with a 5.68
ERA. Not good. The blame fell not on the pitchers or their short-term performance, but somehow on these pitchers being so dang-gummed confused.
Troy Percival, closer for the Angels, was asked what he thought of the Boston experiment: “
Anybody who thinks the 7th inning is like the 9th, should go get a uniform and experience it for himself.” If only we could take Percival up on it. I’ve never seen Bill James throw, but I’m willing to bet he would be just as bad pitching in the seventh as he would in the ninth.
The bullpen heresy was being linked to the man seen as the wizard-behind-the-curtain. Here is how A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson put it, “Tell Bill James to come into a clubhouse that has just blown a 3-run lead in the 9th inning. It’s a horrific experience.”
True, but could Bill also come in and gloat over a boring 5–2 win where Ortiz, Millar, Mueller, and Walker—all acquired in a three-month stretch upon his hiring—all got hits?
Theo initially hung tough: “
I think if it was any other city but Boston, where they ask you a thousand questions about why you don’t have a bullpen, it would just be a bullpen waiting for someone to emerge. We’ll be fine. The success or failure of any bullpen will come down to how your relievers pitch. Usage patterns might affect a game or two.”
But reliever Chad Fox, who struggled early, could smell the fear: “We are going to get a lot of heat on the bullpen by committee, because no one really does it like this.”
For those of us who never have had to hole up in a castle while mobs assemble with torches and pitchforks, it is easy to dismiss public pressure. The Sox stopped commenting publicly about their new philosophy, and traded for Byung-Hyun Kim in late May.
After starting several games, Kim was put into the pen, pitched 44 games, working 50 relief innings with a solid 3.18 ERA overall. The Sox traded for Scott Williamson, Todd Jones, and Scott Sauerbeck, and eventually brought up rookie Bronson Arroyo.
By early July, Kim was being called the “newly named closer.” In late
July, Epstein was quoted as saying, “We are extraordinarily happy with the job Byung-Hyun Kim has done as closer.” The white flag was up. Theo had learned to keep his Ivy League mouth shut, and Bill James was never formally charged with being a witch.
The club won 95 games and the AL Wild Card. What’s remembered is that the Sox shut down the stupid closer-by-committee nonsense, and added some “established closers.” Men who knew the difference between the seventh and ninth innings and who weren’t a bunch of gutless pukes about it. Here are the bullpen pitchers added after April:
Is it me? Or did all these guys except Kim stink?
Kim, Jones, and Williamson had all been “closers” before. While they all may have given sportswriters a warm, confident feeling when they took the mound, this group—with the exception of Kim—made things worse. Jones and Williamson finished with a combined ERA of 5.42 in 66 innings. What actually led to the staff turnaround was that two bullpen-by-committee-of-doom members straightened themselves out after May 5:
So it wasn’t the traditional “roles” that saved the Red Sox, it was the acquisition of a quality reliever coupled with other pitchers returning to their normal levels of production.
For Manager Grady Little though, it came down to the labels: “The
biggest factor was when Kim went down there to become the closer for us. It defined all those people’s roles down there, and they’ve been very productive.” It’s amazing, everybody has to “know their roles.” The role of “get outs when we call you” doesn’t seem to have been defined sharply enough.
The team that would win 95 games and the AL Wild Card would meet its end in one of the most spectacular failures in baseball history. Ironically, their postseason would end because they didn’t go to their bullpen.
The Grady Little Game
Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series was a classic case of stunningly poor decision making.
I was at this game. I can tell you firsthand, Yankee Stadium—the old rocking and rolling Stadium—was dead quiet. Down 4–0, Roger Clemens KO’d, and Pedro Martinez on the hill. This one was over. The Bronx crowd was facing the likely prospect of the Red Sox dancing on the field, celebrating an American League title and the end of the Curse. As Mandy Patinkin said in The Princess Bride, “Humiliations galore.” It was a feeling of deep dread.
Seventh inning, 4–1 Boston. With two outs, nobody on, the Red Sox win expectancy is 91 percent. The win expectancy, by the way, doesn’t know Pedro is pitching. If it did, it would have shut down the lights and called it.
With two outs, Jason Giambi clubs his second solo homer of the game, and it’s 4–2. Win expectancy goes from 91 percent to 84 percent, a big swing. What happens next is of particular interest: Enrique Wilson and Karim Garcia both single. Not Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, but Enrique Wilson and Karim Garcia. If the greatest starter inning for inning is giving up back-to-back hits late in a game to the opponents’ two weakest hitters, it’s time to starting thinking about your options.
Pedro then went six pitches before striking out strikeout-prone Alfonso Soriano on a 2-2 pitch. Martinez was at 100 pitches. The Red Sox’ win expectancy had dipped to 78 percent before the strikeout, and Pedro, the league leader in strikeouts per nine innings, was fortunate to have faced a low-contact batter (Soriano fourth in the AL in strikeouts).
Boston had escaped with a comfortable lead, but I’ll give you my own “eyeball test” on Pedro at that moment: He was done.
If for some reason my untrained scout’s eye doesn’t convince you, there’s always data: It’s not a secret that Pedro was not the most durable of pitchers. The Yankee MO on Pedro for a good part of a decade was to grind out at bats in the hopes of getting him out, and the bullpen in. To back that up, here is what the AL did against Martinez in 2003:
You don’t need Bill James or Theo Epstein to tell you that the American League hit like a washed-up bench player against Pedro until he got to 100 pitches. At that point, at least in batting average and on-base, they began to hit like American League All-Stars.
Unfortunately for Boston, somebody did need to tell Grady Little.
I still remember looking toward the Red Sox dugout and bullpen to see who might be coming out to pitch the eighth. I recall being absolutely incredulous when I saw Pedro coming out of the dugout. I exchanged stunned looks with the guys sitting next to me in the stands. Something along the lines of “You gotta be kiddin’ me” was uttered in a Bronx accent. I hadn’t even thought of the possibility Pedro would be back out there for another inning.
Pedro gets Nick Johnson to pop up, but it’s a seven-pitch at bat. Boston’s win expectancy is a solid 94 percent, but Pedro is at 107 pitches.
Jeter doubles. Pedro stays.
Bernie Williams singles in Jeter, and it’s 5–3. Pedro stays.
Where’s Grady? There he is! He’s come out to . . . talk to Pedro? Pedro stays.
Hideki Matsui doubles. Second and third, one out. Okay, that’s it, right?
Nope. With the Red Sox win expectancy down to 65 percent, Little leaves Pedro in to face Jorge Posada.
The ship hasn’t sunk, but water is pouring in. Posada has just had one of his best years—which is saying something: a .405 on-base, slugging .518. This is an extremely dangerous hitter, and Martinez is at 118 pitches.
I’m convinced that somewhere in Grady Little’s mind there was some bullpen-by-committee bruising that hadn’t healed. He could not have been oblivious to the obvious fatigue. He had to be aware that his ace fades—and fades fast—at 100 pitches. One hundred pitches is not some obscure stat, but the number for “has reached his pitch limit.” If you were playing Jeopardy! and got the clue “Starting pitcher tires at this number,” you would answer, “What is 100 pitches?” Yet, Little would not go to his bullpen.
The mainstream thought is still that Little didn’t trust a shaky pen. I’ve heard people say that. Yet Little had used the pen liberally in those playoffs, going five games against the A’s, and now seven against the Yanks. He had used nine pitchers out of the bullpen. The regular bullpen core had worked 30 innings, giving up three runs. That’s a 0.90 ERA.
Could Little have hesitated to go to the bullpen because he didn’t have a designated “closer” to go to? Byung-Hyun Kim was not on the ALCS roster. Kim had put base runners on in Game 1 of the Division Series against the A’s, which led to a Sox loss. After he gave the finger to a booing Fenway in the Game 3 introductions, he was banished, leaving Little with an effective, but closer-less bullpen.
So there we were; a gassed Pedro vs. Jorge Posada. When Posada drops in his double to tie it up, you could not hear yourself yell. Yankees are whirling around to the plate, Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon doesn’t have a play home, and it’s a 5–5 ballgame.
It’s not only deafening; the stadium itself is shaking. The fans’ delirium came from the improbability of the moment—timely Yankee hitting and historically bad Red Sox management.
The Yankees had come back from 4–0 and 5–2 deficits to tie it 5–5. Most of the night, the crowd was coming to grips with the end of the Curse. That the Curse was still very much in place, and actually more painful to the Red Sox than ever, was too awesome to contemplate.
The Red Sox’ win expectancy, still a decent 65 percent before Posada batted, cratered to 35 percent by the time Little came to take Pedro out. You know the rest—an Aaron Boone home run off Tim Wakefield in the 11th, and the Yankees vanquish the Red Sox again.
Remember the pressure that forced the Red Sox to name a closer? Years later, Epstein would say, “
It was bad execution because a few of the guys we got didn’t perform early, so it became a huge controversy. In hindsight, we were a little naive how big a story it was going to become and how it was going to take on a life of its own in a detrimental fashion.”
And yet, before Grady Little refused to take out Pedro in Game 7, he had, in the playoffs, used four different pitchers in the ninth inning: Alan Embree, Derek Lowe, Scott Williamson, and Bronson Arroyo.
Sounds a little like bullpen-by-committee, doesn’t it?
Yet when Pedro Martinez was sputtering to the finish line in Game 7 of the American League Championship, Grady Little looked to the bullpen and didn’t see his “proven closer.” He saw a “bullpen-by-committee” and could not, in the biggest moment of the season, pull the trigger. Historically, Little takes the hit on this. But he is not solely to blame.
The most forward-thinking club in the majors boldly stepped into a new era and then backed away. Their fear of the herd had delivered
the Yankees a chance at a reprieve on an old-school, data-hating platter. Little would be fired, but only after insisting to his bosses that had he a chance to play Game 7 over again, he wouldn’t change a thing.
Opening Day 2012, I’m at my meeting for MLB Tonight, and I’m telling everyone there the theme of the early season had already been set: The Shift was on. The Tampa Bay Rays were taking a major step forward in innovative baseball thinking.
The Yankees, stocked with big-money hitters, were hitting it right at fielders with a stunning regularity. Watching a game on TV, we’d all been trained to see the ball hit back up the middle and think “base hit.” Against the Rays, the sequence would be like this: Yankee ball hit up the middle, shortstop moves two steps to make the easy out, close-up of perplexed Yankee wondering what just happened. Clearly the Rays had taken a leap forward in the tactical battle. We would make it a major talking point on the program.
Still, though, there was resistance. I was told by one of our analysts that “teams had been shifting for years,” and that it “goes back to Ted Williams.” This was true, but what was unfolding in front of us, I argued, was quite different. At a network that goes to nearly every game—live—every day, this back-and-forth would be a daily drama. You’re ad-libbing for hours with two or three other analysts. Since I’m the host, it’s usually me and two other former Major League players. These were men who had spent a good part of their lives preventing runs, and they made it clear; they did not dig The Shift. Former infielders thought the slight “shading” from the coaches’ scouting reports was enough. Ex-pitchers said it would be demoralizing for a hurler to have a ball hit to a traditionally occupied spot, only to see it dribble through for a hit. Either way, all this shifting was too cute for its own good.
Understandably, they had trouble believing they had been misled all these years. When a ball would roll through the hole where the shortstop would normally be standing, one of our analysts would yell out, “Doubleday put ’em there for a reason!”
For the next two seasons, there would be on-air cackling at the sight of a ground ball that would slip through an open spot. Taking the bait, I would point out, “You know that there is always going be open ground somewhere, right?”
Abner Doubleday didn’t actually put them there, but thousands of coaches did for a century of baseball. Could they all have been wrong?
The visual evidence of a shift’s failing was powerful, and in another era, the trend toward shifting might have rolled back. But it happened as the data on hitters was increasing exponentially, being implemented by teams that had fully staffed analytics departments. It was the last days of defense without thinking.
One thing seemed certain to me: This was only the beginning. Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher was impressed by the Rays’ work, telling MLB.com
That’s the first time I’ve seen a shift like that. Righties, lefties, it doesn’t really matter. It feels like there’s 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield.”
The Rays were already shifting more than anyone in baseball. Manager Joe Maddon had been going after David Ortiz with new wrinkles since 2006. The use of spray charts in applying defensive alignments was hardly a secret. The Rays just believed in it the most.
Maybe their shift would have been ignored if it they hadn’t gone whole hog on Opening Day, which gets big exposure. Or against the Yankees, who draw a sizable audience. Maybe it would have been more easily dismissed had they not swept the $200 million Yankees in that opening series.
For at least that opening series, the Rays must have felt the way the Yankees felt when they had Babe Ruth in 1923: You are not prepared to play us.
Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, representing the Herd, insisted
there was plenty of luck involved in the Rays’ defensive show: “
They’re not above the game by any means. . . . They were in the perfect spot. Come on, man, that’s not going to happen all year.”
Maddon wasn’t above the game, but he sure was ahead of it.
By early May, the Rays had twice as many shifts as the team with the second-highest total. They had won the American League four years earlier, and had won 90 games in three of the past four seasons, despite a bottom-five payroll. With so many smart people in major league front offices, and with so much more data becoming available to track hitting tendencies, this particular innovation was about to reach what Malcolm Gladwell famously called “the tipping point.” The Rays had embarrassed the team with the highest payroll and the team armed with what was likely the largest analytics staff in the sport.
Within two years, the Yankees themselves would be shifting more than the Rays. And they wouldn’t even be leading the league. There were 2,358 shifts employed throughout MLB in 2011. In 2014, the number of shifts would top 13,000.
The Boudreau Shift
If you give it about 30 seconds of thought, you realize why, for about 130 years, professional baseball players stood where they did on the field:
1. It seemed to make sense.
2. That’s where they always stood.
Which is fine when the sport is 20 years old. Or you’re just playing softball with your Burger King co-workers (we were really good).
Realize there had been effective shifting before. Ted Williams was an extreme left-handed pull hitter. Lou Boudreau, the Indians’ shortstop player/manager, decided to try something to slow down baseball’s best hitter. You have to give him credit—he did not go halfway:
NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.
It’s something else, isn’t it? I mean, Boudreau, the team’s shortstop, is playing the second base position, and the third baseman is playing up the middle. There’s no one on the left side of the infield. The one player on the left side is a short left fielder. Boudreau had guts—this was a massive change for 1946. It would have been a massive change in 1996!
The shift did, in fact, frustrate Williams. Exact data is not available, but Williams was famously stubborn and chose not hit to the opposite field. Fast-forward to the 1946 World Series, Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer put up his own shift, which held an injured Williams to a .200 batting average in his only World Series. Williams finally bunted up the third base line in one of the games.
So you’d figure the shift would come into play in force in 1947. And you would be wrong.
With this brief exception, everyone at the professional level of baseball stood in the same defensive positions for 130 years. Then—in a span of four years—everyone decided that defensive shifts were an effective strategy.
With this inability to evolve it makes you wonder: How do we even survive as a species?
The National Pastime
While baseball is an international sport, American baseball has been the dominant culture, strong enough to repel any challenge to its cultural norms. The Nippon Professional Baseball organization is a high-level league, but has operated, until recently, within its own sphere. Hideo Nomo, the first Japanese star to play in the U.S., landed stateside in 1995. When Ichiro Suzuki came over in 2001 to great fanfare, his chances of success were openly questioned. A Japanese hitting star had never flourished in the U.S.
Ichiro could have been an excellent example of how a different sporting culture can influence another. Coming over in the height of the rocketball/juiced player offensive era, he was completely different from the American prototype: He hit for contact and average, not power, didn’t strike out, and didn’t look to walk. An excellent runner and fielder, he was not only an outstanding player, but was outstanding in a completely different way.
There were once plenty of players like this. In the 1920s and 1930s, even with home runs being in style, there were still players who slapped at the ball, just trying to get on base. Players like Lloyd Waner and Sam Rice hit for high average, didn’t walk, and didn’t hit for much power. There were some parks back then that were so vast that they lent themselves to a guy succeeding by hitting doubles and triples. But it was more than that.
I remember writing a story about Stan Musial a few years back. Musial was an all-time great in many ways. I had the good fortune to meet him at various Cardinals games and the Hall of Fame Induction Weekends, and he was an absolutely delightful person, as the many glowing features written about him suggest.
If you’re a fan of baseball, you’ve heard a lot about Musial, but have you ever seen him swing? We have gotten so used to one type of swing—the basic offshoot of Mark McGwire’s one-handed uppercut—that Musial’s swing, seen today, is stunning.
He was famous for his “peek-a-boo” stance, his back turned to the pitcher with only the corner of his eye peering out. When he swung, he
would spin his whole body with the bat toward the pitch. This was described as a corkscrew swing. It was the type of swing you might expect if you went to the Hall of Fame vault and they showed you some rare Wee Willie Keeler film; a level swing, with the bat plane through the zone for a long period. It looked like a dead-ball swing.
Musial, though, hit 475 home runs. When he retired, that was sixth on the all-time home run list. He also had a .331 lifetime batting average, and drew his fair share of walks. At different times he led the league in doubles, triples, walks, and of course batting average (seven times). When he retired, he was number one in total bases. He was both versatile and sensational.
But if a kid out of high school today goes to a minor league camp swinging like Stan the Man Musial, a squadron of coaches will descend upon him to change that funny swing.
At any given time, the herd says you have to swing a certain way to succeed, even when one of the greatest hitters ever showed us there used to be a different (swing) path to success. By 2001, bats had become lighter, home runs were everything, plate discipline was highly valued, and strikeouts were no longer a cause of shame.
So in comes Ichiro, not having gone through the local (U.S.) training. Year one, he hits for a .350 batting average with only eight home runs, and the eighth lowest strikeout rate in the game. He slaps 242 hits, with enough doubles (34) to slug a respectable .457. I opined immediately that this would start a new wave of players who could succeed the “Ichiro Way.”
It’s not as if he wasn’t noticed. He played for a team that won 116 games with him leading off, and he even won the AL MVP.
Yet there has been no wave of Ichiros flooding MLB. Ichiro was seen as an anomaly, and maybe he was. Not many can come into the major leagues and hit .372, as he did in 2004. But couldn’t more young players hit .300 if they adopted a singles-hitting approach?
The game’s emphasis on power was incentivizing the single out of existence. The year 2014 saw the fourth lowest rate of singles in baseball history. This at a time when defensive shifts were stifling left-handed
power hitters, batting averages were plummeting, and the diverse offense attack was dying.
I’m not saying Adam Dunn should have styled himself after Ichiro, but where had all the 5'9" singles hitters gone? I had this conversation with Randy Winn, an All-Star with the Rays. Randy was on MLB Now with us one day when I asked him about shifts and the lack of spray hitters who could adjust. He said, “Those players exist, but they’re not being promoted.” Organizations are looking for players with power—that had been the emphasis for generations. The goal is to get big-time talent to the majors, not maintain a diverse attack for the betterment of Major League Baseball.
Eric Byrnes, also an analyst at MLB Network, says singles hitters face a rougher path through the minors. “No question. And then good luck once you get to the majors. Check out my walk rates in the minors; I was patient. But when you get to the majors and you’re not a power hitter? You’re not a big investment for them? You’d better deliver right away. And that means hits. Next thing you know you’re pressing, next thing you know—you’re gone.”
Byrnes brings up a good point. A club will have patience for a slugger who hit 30 bombs at a high level, but for a non–power hitter, any slump can be taken as a sign that “his swing doesn’t translate.” This is the Herd Mentality manifesting itself physically, affecting not just strategy but player development.
Both Winn and Byrnes are not examples of a win for the “little guy.” Both are 6'2", 200 pounds, and in top shape. But both broke through despite not being sluggers. Winn for example averaged just 11 home runs a year, even during his peak (2001–2009). He also hit .298 and averaged 37 doubles a year. While this made him a slightly above average hitter (103 OPS+), his baserunning and defense made him a 3-win player, on average, according to WAR (wins above replacement—see Glossary). This is an extremely valuable player.
Byrnes scrapped around for years before getting comfortable, and then in 2007 erupted for a 50 stolen base season with a .353 on-base and .460 slugging percentage. Injuries derailed him from there, but he peaked
as a nearly 4-win player. There are ways of playing baseball other than taking your base and occasionally crushing the ball into the seats. There is a good chance these players just aren’t given the same opportunities, leading to a homogenized one-dimensional American player.
American baseball didn’t adjust to Ichiro because it didn’t have to. If a Japanese team filled with singles hitters was regularly challenging U.S. teams in international competition, things would be different. Japan won the first two World Baseball Classic tournaments, but that didn’t seem to bother the United States fan base the way it did in Olympic basketball. With the WBC being played during MLB’s spring training, it’s not seen as a true test of baseball strength. Even with the United States never finishing in the top three, we just don’t seem to care how we perform internationally.
Soccer is an example of what the open cauldron of world competition can produce. Unlike baseball, soccer has nations of competitive equals with different cultures and styles of play. Brazil played ball control, with lots of dribbling. England played the long game, sending the ball deep into the offensive zone to be chased. The Netherlands played Total Football, sending its backs on deep runs up the field. Italy had its signature defense.
This all began to change in the 1970s and 1980s as the world got smaller. Technology and travel triggered a cross-pollination in style of play. Countries were no longer isolated. The UEFA Champions League was just one of the international tournaments that had teams crossing borders and comparing notes.
There was a convergence of tactics, where best practices took over. Passing would be short, dribbling kept to a minimum. Players in the backfield would be freed up to make runs upfield, like the old Dutch teams. Clubs started moving as one, with the ball.
In the terrific book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski describe this shift in the soccer world: “Most countries on the fringes of Europe had dysfunctional, indigenous playing styles. The ones on the southern fringe—Greece, Turkey, Portugal—favored pointless dribbling, while the British and Scandinavians played kick and rush. Gradually, they
came to accept these styles didn’t work . . . You need to play continental European soccer.”
Dutchman Guus Hiddink would become the prime exporter of the new way to play. After a successful stint coaching the Netherlands, he began taking his ideas to the third tier of soccer nations: South Korea, Australia, and Russia.
Hiddink’s culture crash in South Korea is fascinating. He would bring a combination of tactics honed in the cauldron of high-level European soccer, and he would also challenge the very class system of the nation. He had the simple notion that he would form his national team roster with the best players. This sounds simple, but this was not, as we often hear, “how it was done” in Korea. Selection policies were “based on personal, family, education, and social class affiliations.”
Hiddink is an example here of diversity overcoming groupthink.
Those who study the “Hiddink Syndrome” note that a coach from South Korea would likely not have considered breaking the existing cultural system, nor would he have been given the power to do so. In Korean soccer, a “results over process” mentality led to a cycle of failure. A Korean coach who suffered a lopsided defeat would be expected to hand in his resignation. It didn’t matter if the team had been winning, was making progress, or had just run into an excellent team. The coach would be out, and the whole system would start with a new national coach. Hiddink twice suffered 5–0 losses early in his tenure, but was allowed to continue. This gave him time to work his transformation.
At the 2002 World Cup, having never won a single World Cup game, South Korea advanced out of group play, won two knockout round games against Italy and Spain, and lost close to Germany in the semifinals. Hiddink became a national hero in South Korea, with his philosophies branching out far beyond that of sport.
“Hiddink’s recognition is also linked to his ability to demonstrate that success could be achieved through hard work, skill, and merit rather than inherited social standing or political connections,” write Kuper and Szymanski. “Beyond this, the fact that Hiddink, a foreigner, was able to
challenge the authorities and even operate outside traditional cultural protocols signaled that Korean society was changing and perhaps, more important, needed to change in order to be successful in the new global economy.”
All teams—national or club—that didn’t adapt would be left behind. Being lazy or stubborn in the old ways—whatever they happened to be—was becoming a losing option.
Baseball has never had a Guus Hiddink, an outsider challenging the authorities and operating outside traditional cultural protocols. Japan might slash at the ball and save their pitchers for once-a-week starts, but the U.S. doesn’t have to worry that Japan has found a better way. No one else—Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or Venezuela—has a league that is big enough to challenge Major League Baseball. The U.S. has enormous advantages: a head start in creating the game and culture, a huge population, and a powerhouse economy. That counts a lot in global competition.
So we can leave a starter out on the mound long after he’s exhausted. We can play defense without any thought to where a batter has a tendency to hit the ball. We can give away outs bunting even when it lowers the chances of scoring a run. We can keep our best pitcher in the bullpen for the ninth inning even if the game is on the line in the sixth. We can do all sorts of things that don’t make any sense because there isn’t anyone else forcing us to get better.
The pattern is not likely to hold. U.S. hegemony will not last, even in baseball. As we will learn, with the influx of data and new front office talent flooding the game, the Herd may be forced to change from within. It’s been a long time coming.
What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You
Herd mentality is only one reason we resist good information, but it is a powerful one. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman writes that inertial (old school) thinking can survive when it’s “
supported by a powerful professional culture,” adding,
“people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.” Like-minded believers are not limited to baseball, nor are we merely limited in our thinking when it comes to baseball.
There are times when a culture needs to step back to see clearly how to do things better. I recall attending two very different seminars I could describe as mind-blowing—where I sat listening to an expert who had studied an issue I had barely considered. One was a nutritional seminar by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, the other an interview seminar at ESPN by interview guru John Sawatsky. In both, there was insightful, life-changing, and in my opinion, irrefutable information. Yet during both presentations, there was vehement resistance by the audience. Whether being told they needed to eat more vegetables or ask better questions, people at both seminars seemed to be downright angry.
Humans are a social animal, a herd animal,” said Fuhrman. “We have beliefs based on what the herd believes. It’s uncomfortable to believe things other than what your herd believes.” The bestselling author says it’s more than just the taste of junk food that leads to a poor diet. “You need societal approval. We all belong to a societal group. It’s hard to go against it. People have been trained, indoctrinated, not to think.”
I told Dr. Fuhrman what I do in my study of baseball, how I challenged conventional baseball thinking in the mainstream media. He said, “So people are annoyed by you, right? We have a lot in common. People are infuriated by me.”
Sawatsky had studied the art of interviewing for years and was passing along easily applicable lessons to ESPN anchors and producers. Most were fighting him at every step. “People are resistant to change instinctively,” says Sawatsky. “We’re conservative by nature. It goes right back to the reptilian brain—you have to conserve your energy, in order to have energy to get food. That instinct is still there.”
There may be an evolutionary component to holding on to information. Listening to a parent telling you not to eat certain berries or get too close to fire can help you survive your childhood. “People are weak
at being able to weigh consequences and facts,” says Furhman. “It’s inherently primitive to still believe what we learned when we were young, despite what’s right in front of us.”
Why can’t we override these impulses with our intellect? We have more information available to us than ever before, but that is a very recent phenomenon. Much stronger inside our personal system is the belief that listening to received wisdom will insure our survival. The instinct that makes us wary of an animal baring its teeth may also make us hold tight to believing the numbers on the back of a baseball card.
Bill James says a major shift in baseball will happen only when the information reaches down far enough demographically. “
The orthodoxy still believes what they were taught to believe when they were eight years old. You have to change the orthodoxy in order to permeate to the level of the high school coaches. Once you permeate to the level of the high school coaches, you change what the players believe, and eventually you get to the eight-year-olds.” It is an internal fight against the evolutionary tools of human nature. Kahneman says we are hardwired to avoid doing the math. Thinking causes actual physical exertion, requiring glucose. We recognize that we will often avoid physical labor, but we need to recognize we all avoid hard thinking for the same reasons. Kahneman calls it the “
law of least effort,” writing, “The law asserts if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action.” He adds: “Laziness is built into our nature.” It’s more than fighting off laziness, it’s fighting the evolutionary tools of human nature.
In Furhman’s case, the information he gives out—to eat nutrient-dense food—is actually life-saving. Do people listen? “I’m still, after all these years, staggered by nonsensical beliefs. You hope, in time . . . well, you just help the people you can help, and do what you think is right.”
Is it different when it’s just interviewing skills? Sawatsky says most will try, but eventually revert to their old ways. It’s a truth that transcends this issue: “It’s one thing to change your mind,” Sawatsky says. “It’s another to change your habits.”