Joe Girardi and the Tragedy of the Recent

This post isn’t really about Joe Girardi, even though his name is in the headline and his decisions from yesterday are the inspiration for this post. It’s about Girardi in that he’s a human being, but it’s not about Girardi as a specific human being, because — as I think the results of the poll I put up last night show — there are a lot of people who would have made the same decisions he did. Because, just like the rest of us, Joe Girardi’s decision making process was formed long before he ever played or managed a single baseball game.

At the risk of generalizing, I’d imagine that most of us had parents who let us try things that they knew weren’t going to end particularly well because we’d learn from the pain we were about to bring upon ourselves. Whether it was pulling the cat’s tail or biting into that delicious looking lemon on the table, they would warn us that it wasn’t in our best interests, but knew that we had to experience the results for ourselves to know that it was something we really wanted to do. And, for many of these experiences, we only had to do it once before we realized that we never wanted to do it again.

We learn how to think in a predictable environment. Punch your brother? Go to your room. Eat your vegetables? Have some ice cream. The actions we take as kids almost always have positive or negative rewards that are designed to teach us what kinds of actions we prefer. As a culture, we teach children that every action comes with consequences, and that they can predict what those consequences will be based on what happened the last time they performed that action. You can describe a lot of parenting as predictable repetition.

That training is extremely effective for most things in life, because many of the decisions we face follow this kind of cause/effect relationship. Most of the time, you can effectively judge what the consequence of an action will be based on your own personal experience of what happened the last time you did that same thing. Unfortunately, that decision making process — the one that works really well in life as a whole — is a miserable failure in baseball.

Baseball is not a cause and effect environment. You can do all the right things and have it blow up in your face, or you can screw up badly and still be rewarded because the other variables simply went in your favor. The amount of control any one person has on the outcome of a single play in baseball is limited. To really identify small but significant lasting effects takes time, and usually, a lot of it. In baseball, making decisions based on the most recent outcomes is almost always a mistake, and yet, it’s a mistake that we all struggle to resist.

Even after Raul Ibanez struck out against Phil Coke last night, 30% of FanGraphs readers voted that they had more confidence in his abilities to get a hit in that situation than they had in Nick Swisher (a switch-hitter) or Alex Rodriguez (a right-handed hitter) facing off against a right-handed reliever. You don’t have to do a deep dive into the numbers to know that having Ibanez face a left-handed pitcher is a losing proposition most of the time, nor should it be outrageous to suggest that Swisher and Rodriguez are quality big league hitters. Two weeks ago, this wouldn’t have even been a a discussion – it was accepted as fact that you wouldn’t want Ibanez facing a left-handed pitcher in the playoffs.

That’s why, in Game 2 of the ALDS, Raul Ibanez didn’t start against Wei-Yin Chen. He didn’t start in Game 4 either, even though he was the hero of Game 3 and had homered off Brian Matusz to win the game. It was so well known that Ibanez versus a left-hander was a bad match-up that he sat the day after he could have been most accurately described as “in the zone”, simply because a left-handed pitcher was starting for the Orioles.

And yet, as he sat, Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher continued to fail, often striking out and looking hopeless in the process. And with every failure, our collective opinion of Swisher and Rodriguez fell. As failure piled on top of failure, our human reaction simply told us to try something else. Anything else. Because we simply aren’t taught that when an action leads to a negative consequence, we should keep doing that thing until the consequence changes. In fact, we’re taught the very opposite.

We’ve all heard the quote (often attributed to Albert Einstein or Ben Franklin) that says “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That the definition of insanity is actually not that at all — “mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior” — doesn’t matter, because we’ve all been told that repeating our failures and hoping for success is nuts.

But, in baseball, repeating your failures and hoping for a different result is often the correct decision because the original decision was likely made based on rational logic. You know, like not starting Raul Ibanez against a lefty, because everything we know about baseball tells us that it is an outcome that is likely to end badly. A week ago — after Ibanez had hit two clutch home runs, including one off a left-handed reliever — Joe Girardi agreed that Ibanez should be reserved until a right-hander was available to pitch. This decision wasn’t about Alex Rodriguez’s slump since August, or Nick Swisher’s career postseason failures, because those things were true a week ago, and Girardi chose both of them over Ibanez.

They just let him down. And they let him down so many times that his natural human response was to do something else. Anything else. Yesterday, anything else resulted in Brett Gardner starting in left field, with Swisher and Rodriguez on the bench. And then it resulted in Gardner hitting in the ninth inning of a one run game, and then allowing the Tigers left-handed specialist to come in and face three left-handed batters when he only needed to get two outs.

After the game, Girardi said he “felt really good” about having Ibanez up there in that situation, because of course he’s having a great postseason. But, in reality, he only “felt really good” about having Ibanez up there relative to how badly he would have felt with the slumping Rodriguez or Swisher up there, because his decision was much more about their recent failure than Ibanez’s recent success.

Since the HR off Brian Matusz — which was followed the next day by Girardi keeping Ibanez on the bench against a left-handed starting pitcher — Ibanez has had four plate appearances against a left-handed pitcher. Troy Patton struck him out in Game 5 of the ALDS. Phil Coke got him to groundout in Game 1 of the ALCS, then Drew Smyly got him to pop one up to the second baseman a few innings later. And then Phil Coke struck him out in the ninth inning of Game 2.

Before that final at-bat last night, the only thing that had happened between when Ibanez faced a lefty and the last time Girardi decided that Ibanez shouldn’t start against a lefty is that Raul had gone 0-4 with two strikeouts and an infield fly. There were fewer reasons to feel good about Ibanez against Coke last night than there were to feel good about Ibanez versus Saunders last week, when Girardi made the opposite decision. But there were more reasons to feel bad about Swisher and Rodriguez, so relative to the other options, Ibanez hitting against a lefty felt less bad this time around.

The argument for letting Ibanez hit isn’t that he wasn’t likely to fail in that situation – it’s that everyone was likely to fail in that situation, so you might as well fail in a new way rather than the old way. Swisher and Rodriguez’s slumps had essentially beaten down everyone watching them to the point where no one simply wanted to watch them fail anymore. And when push came to shove, Girardi went with his feelings over his logic and reason.

It’s what we do. We’re humans. We have feelings and we respond to them, because this is how we were raised. In most areas of life, it works. Baseball is not one of those areas.

The predictive power of recent performance has been exhaustively studied — there’s a nice collection of studies here, though I haven’t read the book the blog is promoting — and the empirical data all points to the fact that recent performance data tells us almost nothing about future performance. The Yankees have a living breathing example of this phenomenon in Robinson Cano, who went 24 for 39 in his final nine regular season games but is 3 for 36 in the postseason. We can read all these studies, we can know all the facts, and yet, at the same time, we can just not care.

The overriding human emotion when we do something that leads to failure is to do something else. In the last week, Raul Ibanez has provided strong positive reinforcement of his abilities, while Swisher and Rodriguez have done the exact opposite. We know that performances over eight games shouldn’t matter, but we’re humans. We can’t help but watch Rodriguez and Swisher struggle and feel like it would be insane to run them out there again and expect a different result.

But that’s exactly what a manager is there for. The manager is hired to be the responsible adult in the room. To be the one who rises above emotional response and makes the trustworthy decision. The one that makes the mature call to not let the kids play with fire, even though kids love to play with fire.

Last night, Joe Girardi made emotional decisions. He played with fire. The Yankees got burned. Given how many other managers have made these same kinds of calls over the years, and given how much support the decision has gotten in the aftermath of the loss, we have to consider that it is perhaps not possible for most humans to detach themselves from the emotional responses that are conjured up by recent performance. To be dispassionate and cold in that situation when your job is to be a caretaker of individuals is to ask a human to be two very different things at the same time. I don’t know that I could have done any better in that same situation, having to watch Rodriguez and Swisher fail up close and personal and still be able to point to them and say “hey, I believe in you.”

But that’s the call that needed to be made. Sending Ibanez up there was the easy decision. It was the comforting decision. It was the one that had recently made us feel good. But the hard decision — the one that told emotions and feelings that they were deceptive liars who weren’t to be trusted with that kind of decision — was the right decision to make. It’s why we train doctors to maintain a professional distance from their patients, and we invest our money with people who stare at spreadsheets all day and get accused of having no soul. Because, with important life decisions, we’ve learned that we should trust not in how we feel, but in what we knew to be true before our emotions took over and caused us to question everything around us.

As human beings, we suck at rational action in critical situations. We panic and we look for comfort. Raul Ibanez was comfortable. Raul Ibanez facing a left-hander was also the worst option available to Joe Girardi, a fact he knew to be true a week ago. And yet, with perhaps his team’s season on the line, he chose the comfortable, because after all, Joe Girardi is a human being.

I don’t think Joe Girardi is an idiot who deserves to be fired. I think he’s just the newest example of the tragedy of the recent. We all make decisions like Joe Girardi did last night, because this is how we were all taught to behave. And, until we figure out how to deprogram ourselves or hand over the decisions to some unfeeling robot, we’ll continue to make these kinds of mistakes. We can’t help it. It’s who we are.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Malcolm Gladwell
11 years ago

Hey man, I like your style.

11 years ago

I’m sorry, but this is not a good example of what Fangraphs endeavors to accomplish. The essence of Fangraphs is not to lecture on the logical fallacy, operant conditioning, or whatever. Fangraphs distills quantifiable data into a form that deciphers truths about baseball. There have been something like 1000 words presented on Jerardi’s decision in the last 24 hours on this site. Alarmingly few have dealt with raw data. We know what the L/R split data is for the principle players involved. We know the degree to which PHs receive a punishment. In concert, these data points should inform our view on whether Jerardi made the correct move, and if he didn’t, the degree to which he was wrong. Where is this data presented?

For Game 162, Cameron made the claim that removing Griffin/Dempster after their first pass of the hitters would be advantageous because of the expanded bullpens and relief pitchers BAA. Whether you agreed him or the data, he laid it out and you couldn’t help but to see his logic. Here, I see him arguing against some radio call-in show premise, designed to distract half-wits, not get to the bottom of an interesting, reasonably quantifiable question.

11 years ago

Stopped taking seriously after “Jerardi”

11 years ago

^I admire your admission of that fact.

11 years ago

I bet bloggers just love when commenters tell them what they are and aren’t supposed to write about.