Mookie Betts and the Whole Entire Science of Decision-Making

The author is telling zero tales out of school when he suggests that baseball analysis — and conversation about baseball, in general — that it’s all improved by the introduction of concepts from other fields into that analysis and into that conversation. It’s obvious that the work at this site, for example, borrows liberally from economics and statistics. A passing familiarity with physics, meanwhile — with which endeavor Dr. Alan Nathan can be of some assistance — allows one to better understand PITCHf/x data. One finds, moreover, that group from Columbia University submitted a paper to this year’s Sloan conference on the use of neuroscience in evaluating a batter’s pitch recognition. Sabermetrics — under the banner of which all this research and all these tools loosely fall — isn’t an isolated field, but rather an interdisciplinary one that is improved by greater cross-referencing of multiple fields.

We’ll return to this discussion briefly, but first let’s consider some technicolor video footage, whose relevance will become clear momentarily.

Betts 2

That’s Mookie Betts stealing second base on Monday against the Washington Nationals and then also stealing third base moments later. When I first saw this highlight on Tuesday morning, it confused me. What I thought was happening was that Mookie Betts, after stealing second and returning to his feet, mistakenly believed that the throw from catcher Jose Lobaton had sailed into center field — but that, owing to a combination of his footspeed and Washington’s poor defensive positioning, that he successfully made it to third base, anyway.

What actually happened was that, with David Ortiz batting, the Nationals infield had executed a shift. Betts, recognizing that third base was left uncovered following his steal, attempted (successfully) to beat the nearest defender (in this case, pitcher Jordan Zimmermann) to it.

The startling moment of this sequence occurs in that interval between when Betts slides safely into second and then begins to set out for third — because he never really slows down. It’s just one motion. The celerity of Betts’ decision-making suggests that some part of it was premeditated. Which is to say, Betts probably recognized that stealing second base might expose such a weakness in the shift and that, if third base were open, he might have an opportunity to advance that far, as well.

But there still existed for Betts a moment when he was compelled to weigh the probability of successfully stealing third base versus the reward of successfully stealing it. And he seems to have performed that math really quickly, especially for how unusual the play is. This isn’t an instance where he’s rounding third base on a single to center, for example. This is specific arrangement of variables that might occur only once during his whole season — and not much more often than that over the course of his whole career.

And here’s where we revisit the opening paragraph. Having had some of the thoughts about Betts that I’ve shared above, I wondered what field it is that’s responsible for examining questions about decision-making. I resolved that I’d endeavor to read for roughly an hour about the subject. I resolved, moreover, that I would document this process in a post at FanGraphs with a view to extending my five- or six-year streak of being not fired.

Below, please find the sad, sad fruit of that particult labor: an annotated bibliography such as a precocious fourth-grader — or below-average sixth-grader — might produce in the service of his or her first research efforts.

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Begley examines mostly the relationship between the quantity of information available to an actor and that same actor’s ability to make a rational decision based on the information. It would appear that, as the quantity of information increases, decisions becomes objectively poorer. Overloaded sufficiently, one main region responsible for decision-making — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — actually just shuts down, as if out of fatigue. Begley examines how information overload might have contributed to certain poor decisions made during cleanup of the BP oil spill in 2010. Also, humans are able to retain just seven digits at a time in their working memory, is another true fact one learns here.

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The Wikipedia entry is useful in that it provides a working definition of decision-making, as follows:

[T]he cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several alternative possibilities. Every decision-making process produces a final choice that may or may not prompt action. Decision-making is the study of identifying and choosing alternatives based on the values and preferences of the decision maker.

The language here is distinct in that it separates decision-making as a cognitive or neurological process from decision-making as a feature of economics and other assorted fields. The latter (broadly speaking) examines the means of finding optimal decisions and (also broadly speaking) assumes an entirely rational actor. The latter study is more concerned with the internal processes of the brain.

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This is a reprint, in full, of one of Mr. Jarrett’s contributions to a text called 30-Second Brain, which features a series of similarly brief — but not entirely unrigorous — explanation of the brain, its mechanics, and its chemistry.

In this case, Mr. Jarrett explains how — contradictory to a tradition in which reason and human emotion are regarded as opposite forces — how the latter is actually integral to employing the brain’s capacity for the former. He cites as an example a patient, Elliott, who lost access to the part of his brain responsible for producing emotions. Instead of becoming a purely rational thinker, unencumbered by emotion, he instead became paralyzed by every decision.

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This is an interview with researchers from Yale, Columbia, and Yale, respectively. Of particular note with regard to recent research on the science of decision-making is the capacity not only to record neuronal activity within the brain but also to “distinguish changes in neuronal activity due to perception and motor control from those related to mental simulations and decisions.”

Current research shows that decisions are made in three areas of the brain: the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (abbreviated as ACCd in the graphic below), lateral intraprietal cortex (LIP), and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).

Monkey Brain!





Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter

It was a great play by Betts, but from an entertainment perspective I think it would have been better if he never slid. He should have just rounded second and gone to third, as if it was a ground ball to RF.

Stanatee the Manatee
Guest
Stanatee the Manatee

He had to slide to be safe (in both senses of the word). He was aided by the ball being on the first base side of the bag, but if the throw is on line or on the third base side, he gets tagged out immediately when he rounds it standing up.

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter

Yeah, I agree that he had to slide. I’m just saying from a pure entertainment standpoint it would be funny to see him running full-speed the whole time.