Andres Torres and Confirmation Bias

In September, Andres Torres hit .164/.188/.328 in 69 plate appearances, finishing with his worst month of the season. In the NLDS, Torres hit .125/.176/.125, striking out six times in 18 trips to the plate. After going 1 for 9 with five strikeouts in the first two games of the NLCS (four of those coming in a brutal Game 2), he took a seat on the bench. He looked awful at the plate, and everyone began to talk about how he had finally been exposed.

His line since then? .414/.469/.655 in 32 trips to the plate. He’s struck out just six times, and he leads the Giants in extra base hits during the World Series. His production is one of the main reasons they’re a game away from being World Champions. Two weeks ago, Torres was being written off as a guy who couldn’t hack it. Today, he’s in the running for World Series MVP.

His postseason is a classic case study in confirmation bias. Torres’ odd development path, where he went from being a scrub to a quality player at age 31, bred skepticism over his performance. When he slugged .533 last year, well, it was just 170 plate appearances. When he kept hitting this year, there were no easy explanations, but there was still an expectation that it wouldn’t last forever. He had been a Triple-A outfielder for nearly a decade, and that made it hard to accept that he may have actually become a good hitter late in his career.

So, when Torres struggled in September, then again in the first round of the playoffs, and finally capped it off by looking hopeless against Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt to start the NLCS, we had six weeks of recent performance where the results matched our preconceived notions – Andres Torres had reverted back into being Andres Torres. We didn’t know how to explain what he had done in the couple of years prior, but the last six weeks, well, that was the real Torres, the one we had been expecting all along. The one who couldn’t hit.

The only problem is that as soon as he was written off, he caught fire. Torres began to disprove the narrative as quickly as it gained momentum. Had the Giants bought into recent performance and kept Torres on the bench, they wouldn’t have champagne on ice tonight, just in case they have some celebrating to do. They had to ignore the bias that comes at us all when something we expect actually happens and realize that a larger view of the situation needs to be taken.

Overcoming confirmation bias is a critical part of good decision making. Fulfilled expectations are often the worst thing that can happen to someone’s analytical process, as we get an overinflated sense of the value of what we believe is going to happen. Torres wasn’t exposed as a guy who couldn’t hit in the playoffs – he was simply in a slump.

If Pat Burrell launches a couple of home runs tonight, don’t be shocked. If the Rangers win three games in a row and steal this series back from the Giants, it won’t be the biggest surprise in sports. In reality, the narratives that have been shaped by recent postseason performances – Burrell can’t hit, the Rangers can’t win in San Francisco, the Phillies are unbeatable, etc… – are often just not a reflection of reality, but instead just a big collection of confirmation biases.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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13 years ago

Bochy sitting Torres that game is one of the great moves he’s made this post season that hasn’t really been talked about. Torres was struggling in the post season not because he couldn’t hit, but because he was trying to hit everything, and lucky for the Giants, Bochy realized that. Torres admitting he was pressing way to hard and even said to the media on his day off that when he gets back into the line up he isn’t going to swing, which caused a couple of the local radio guys to laugh when in his first at bat back he walked.

I could be guilty of confirmation bias myself, but it really seems like that day off allowed Torres to refocus and get back to the plate approach that allowed him to start hitting in the first place.