A note on revisionist history and baseball decisions


I’ll apologize in advance to Maniac reader camdoug1 (on Twitter) for singling your example out, even though this idea had been brewing in my head for a while. This is not an indictment on you so much as it is a thought I’ve had for a while that I think all fans should be aware of. Call it a rule, if you will.

You’ve all by now seen Cody Ross’ steal of home off a double steal with Cameron Maybin. Great play, fun to watch, I wasn’t sure when I saw it that it was a good move. Before we get to my rant, let’s analyze the move.

Quick Analysis

I typed in the current National League batting statistics into Tom Tango’s excellent Markov calculator. Using that, I got a run environment of approximately 4.6 runs per game. Obviously, it would be a bit higher playing in Wrigley Field, but I don’t want to get too complex. In this environment, teams were able to score 0.486 runs by the end of the inning in a two-out, runners on first and third situation. The expectancy drops a lot (I’m pretty sure) given that the situation had two strikes. Let’s say the expectancy drops to 0.25 runs.

A successful steal of home yields one run. Let’s assume that the other runner advances to second successfully as well (that’s of course not guaranteed). Going from runners on first and third to runner on second with two strikes probably drops the expectancy to let’s say 0.1 runs, a loss of 0.15 runs. That means that this successful event yields 0.85 runs (the run scored equals one run, and the loss of 0.15 runs is from the change in game state). If that’s the case, then you would only have to succeed 29.4% of the time to make this move breakeven. Considering the runners involved and the left-handedness of the pitcher, I’d say that’s not a bad move at all.

But here’s what I don’t like to hear (and again, I’m only using camdoug1’s comment as an example of what many fans normally think about baseball moves):

"It worked, therefore it was a good call. Simple as that, IMO."

There is more that goes into decision making than whether the desired result occurs. Allow me to explain.

Hindsight is 20/20

The phrase is so common that you would think most people would have a handle on making determinations about decisions without using hindsight, but I am certain that many decisions made in the world of baseball and in general are evaluated based on hindsight rather than process.

Here is the crux of the argument: decisions are made before the results are known, so judging decisions by their results can lead to incorrect conclusions. In the case of the steal, we only knew (presuming we did the research beforehand) that the move would break even at around a 30% success rate. As the team manager, we would also generally know enough information about Ross and Maybin to know whether this would be a success around 30% of the time. We definitely do not know whether the play will succeed this time. In fact, if we did, the decision would be infinitely easy.

Yet baseball decisions on the field are always judged by their success or failure at a given time. Announcers will always point out the success of a hit-and-run or bullpen move decision if the results turn out well, while lamenting the poor decision making of the manager if the same decision fails. If a hitter strikes out whiffing at a slider out of the zone in a 3-2 count, the pitcher is commended for throwing a “good pitch” out of the zone; however, if it the pitch is taken and the batter walks, the pitcher is often questioned as to why he threw a breaking pitch at the time.

Revisionist history with prospects

This extends beyond on-the-field decisions and into decisions made by the front office. The Cleveland Indians get a lot of slack for signing Travis Hafner to that huge extension all those years ago because, in the last three years, the contract has not panned out. But how would the Indians have known that Hafner would get hurt or fall off the face of the earth offensively? With the benefit of what we know now, the move would not be made again, but the Indians did not have that knowledge when they signed the deal.

There is a similar problem with the concept of “rushing” prospects, which leads us to a Marlins-related point. In the last few months, we have discussed the possibility of stud outfielder Mike Stanton being promoted to the majors despite his age. Fans in favor of the move will emphatically point out the success stories, such as this season so far with Jason Heyward. Opponents of the move will cite guys who were rushed to the majors and went on to have mediocre careers.

The problem is that the idea of a rushed prospect, as Bryan Smith of FanGraphs puts it, could very well be a mirage of hindsight.

"…here is my problem with that analysis, and I don’t think you will find yourself alone in it: the idea of a “rushed” prospect is a reactionary term. We have never constituted what rushing a prospect consists of, so we slap it on players that fail to explain their shortcomings."

This is a perfectly articulated point on this idea of rushing prospects. Those prospects who come up early and fail (a good example for our team is Andrew Miller) are said to have been “rushed” because they came up early and failed. A prospect who came up early in his pro career and succeeded, like Heyward appears to be doing now, is not considered rushed because he succeeded. Right now, Heyward is playing like a success story for 20-year old players stepping into the majors. However, had he come up this year and struggled, he would have been labeled “rushed” and Atlanta fans would have blamed the front office. But the front office would have had no additional information either way! How were they supposed to know that Heyward would succeed or fail, and whether or not it would behoove them to bring him up or not?

Just don’t do it

Needless to say, I really dislike this idea of judging decisions by results without considering the information available at the time of the move. It is not appropriate or fair to the parties involved in the decision-making process. Keep that in mind when you blame the Marlins for drafting Jeremy Hermida, for example. Assuming there was nothing evident about Hermida that would make him a poor decision over, say Nick Swisher or James Loney, then the Marlins could not be blamed for the move. This doesn’t mean you cannot argue against the move, but if you plan on doing so, you had better bring a better reason than “Well, look at how they’re playing now.”