Managing Decisions and an MLB Team

Author Michael Lewis described his new book, ‘The Undoing Project’, as a “prequel” to Moneyball in an NPR interview, so it should have our attention.

“It explains why experts’ intuitive judgments can go wrong and why you need to have data to rely on as a check against the judgments of these experts,” Lewis said.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book — which examines the work and relationship of Israeli psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky — is the idea we are wired be more sensitive to pain than pleasure in decision making.

Said Lewis in an interview with Time advancing the book:

“Some of the most interesting ideas were these throw-away thoughts, like Danny’s idea they played with for a while—how people making decisions aren’t actually trying to maximize their returns, but minimize regret. I see it all that time in people’s decisions.”

For instance, when offering research subjects $1,000 — or — having a 50% chance to earn $2,500 depending on the result of a coin flip, most chose the certainty of $1,000. From a Kahneman and Tversky paper recounted in the book:

“The greater sensitivity to negative rather than positive changes is not specific to monetary outcomes,” wrote Amos and Danny. “It reflects a general property of the human organism as a pleasure machine. For most people, the happiness involved in receiving a desirable object is smaller than the unhappiness involved in losing the same object. … Happy species endowed with infinite appreciation of pleasures and low sensitivity to pain would probably not survive the evolutionary battle.”

Kahneman and Tversky changed how “we think about how we think”.

Their work, Lewis’ book, had me thinking about how it might apply to baseball decision making, and to the role of a major league manager.

The role of manager has been diminished in the modern age of baseball. The front office has grown its power and influence in regard to roster construction and even in-game strategy. Managers are more and more often seen as extensions of the front office, that must be in general agreement with the philosophies and practices of the general manager. But managers are still making the greatest volume of decisions on a daily basis for a major league club. They still hold the power over the lineup card, bullpen usage, and pinch-hitting decisions. They ultimately give green lights to base-runners, choose whom to rest, and preside over advance scouting meetings when strategies are set.

However lessened the role is, a major league manager is still a key decision maker.

And unlike a general manager, whose role is assessed at intervals, a manager is subject to questioning 324 times during the regular season by the press alone, as managers are required to speak with the media twice a day (before and after games). The manager has to deal, daily, with players whom his decisions effect in terms of playing time and future earning potential. He also has to answer to a front office. There is much answering to be done. And, like the rest of us, managers are subject to second-guessing themselves.

So in reading the studies of Kahneman and Tversky, what interested me is how major league managers avoid the trappings of their human hard-wiring. How do they avoid acting against their own club’s own interest? For example, how do they avoid shying away from making bold call —- a decision that might be unorthodox though it would increase the probability of a win — but could yield much more second-guessing if it fails? How do they stick to what they believe is the best decision when thinking about a situation in the quiet of their office before a game, but a decision that could be swayed by the in-game emotion in the dugout during a game?

To gather some understanding, I spoke to three MLB mangers recently about the subject: A.J. Hinch, Terry Francona and Joe Maddon.

Seated in the visiting dugout at Progressive Field for his pre-game media briefing last month, Hinch said he tries to “manage the game at 2 o’clock” in the afternoon.

“It keeps the emotion out of the game,” Hinch said.

Hours before the game Hinch said he is trying to conceive of every scenario possible his club might face, and he tries to out an approach for each situation in his office. He attempts to make as many pre-determined decisions as possible. For example, if the Astros are facing Indians first baseman Edwin Encarnacion late in the game in high-leverage situation, he already knows whom he wants to face him, and how he wants that pitcher to attack him.

“I second guess myself only if I come across a possibility I didn’t recognize before hand,” Hinch said. “Maybe I could have someone else up in the bullpen … I don’t second guess the result, I second guess the process. All I can do is put my guys in a position where I feel it’s the right thing to do, whether it’s batting order, playing time, inserting a bench player, sitting [Jose] Altuve …… But If I had a bad process, I will beat myself up.”

Hinch mentioned a situation when Brian McCann faced Andrew Miller later in a game earlier in the series. After the game, he thought he perhaps should have pinch-hit for him. He noted how he regrets having Chris Devenski up in the bullpen when he doesn’t call upon him.

If a plan goes awry he said he is second-guessing himself about a decision “way before” the media ever approaches him after a game.

Hinch said he’s always thinking at “100 mph” that his “mind never stops.” But he believes he’s more “conservative” before a game.

Of course, not every scenario can be foreseen hours before a game. Like Hinch, Madden is seen as one of the more analytically-minded managers in the game.

I asked Maddon about how he avoids regret in decision making.

“Fortune favors the bold. That is what you are talking about,” Maddon said. “If you are concerned about answering a question about a [poor outcome] then you will never make that decision, the bold decision. You are going to choose the conservative method that is easily answerable. And I totally disagree with that. I would never want to be that guy. I don’t mind being second guessed. I would definitely mind making a decision based upon the path of least resistance, avoiding turmoil, if it doesn’t work.”

Maddon embraces data, and is supported be a robust, analytically-friendly staff and front office. Maddon tries to work out some decisions, like Hinch, hours before a game but notes not every scenario can be foreseen before hand.

Interestingly, Maddon does see more and more value in intuition. It was after reading a different book, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink that Maddon became more comfortable with trusting his instincts during games. In Blink, Gladwell argues the human unconscious is a powerful tool and often leads us the right way in making snap judgments.

“I try to keep the emotion out of it,” Maddon said. “But since I read ‘Blink’ I am more comfortable with it. Understanding intuitive thinking, I’m a little bit better now at trusting it. And realizing it is not just pulling something out of the air. It actually can be something you’ve nurtured for a long period of time, unknowingly, then you draw upon it in the moment. Thinking in those terms, I’m comfortable with it. But most of the time, everything I do, I think about it right now before the game begins. I come out here and talk to you guys [the media] and go back and re-address it. The game starts and stuff happens and things get blown up a little bit then you have to be able to adjust on the fly.

“Everyone wants to treat this like it’s fantasy baseball. It’s not. If you just want to sit in a cocoon somewhere based upon numbers and … pitching match-ups, whatever. That’s one way to do it. But that’s not reality. You have to plan out in advance, but then you have to be flexible to adjust.”

Indians manager Terry Francona is also supported by an analytical-friendly front office. He has an appreciation and grasp of the statistical tools available to him. He makes some decisions pre-game, like the availability of relief pitchers, so he cannot, say, get caught up in the emotion of the game in the eighth inning and call to the bullpen for a trusted but overworked arm.

But Francona says he limits the pre-determined decisions. He is comfortable letting the game unfold and making decisions on the fly.

“I always look [pre-game] at the lineup to see where guys can fit, then I look at the bench to see what they potentially could do,” Francona said. “I think A.J. [Hinch] is probably a little more book-smart than I am, probably a lot more. I can’t necessarily do that at two in the afternoon, but you certainly try to look and see what could happen, and what you’d like to do. Like, there’s certain guys I’m more comfortable with some of our guys facing. You get in crazy games, sometimes you can’t do that. If everything’s going according to plan, I have certain guys I’d rather face.”

All managers manage their clubs in different ways, but all managers questioned are putting in place pre-game practices to protect them from themselves from decisions that might be more rooted in emotion than logic in games. Managers are wary of being second-guessed, particularly by themselves.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Jeff Long
7 years ago

The Undoing Project is excellent. I’d highly recommend it. As I was reading it I thought to myself – man, each chapter would make a great article with the concepts applied to baseball. Great stuff Travis.

But seriously, stop scooping me. 🙂

David Wiersmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Long

I’ll echo the endorsement for The Undoing Project and add Kahneman’s Thinking, Slow and Fast as a must-read.

7 years ago
Reply to  David Wiers

Unfortunately, so much of that book has not survived the replication crisis.

7 years ago
Reply to  CliffH

Yeah, Chapter 4 is a mess. Ironically, if he had taken his own advice on rationality he would have seen this coming. See: