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‘The Inside Game’ goes deep on the biases of baseball

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Baseball is a game of decisions, both on the field and off it. And when we talk about Major League Baseball, well – there are A LOT of choices that need to be made. Whether we’re talking about in-game strategy or front office maneuvering, the sport is rife with opportunities to make decisions.

But how do we know if they’re the right ones? How do we know if we’re truly making optimal choices or if we’re being guided (or misguided) by subconscious belief systems and biases of which we may not even be fully aware?

Answers to those questions are among the many things that Keith Law is delving into with his new book “The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s an effort to make accessible the behavioral science behind the inherent biases that can impact our decisions, baseball or otherwise.

By walking us through the conscious and unconscious influences that impact how baseball works, Law gives us a new perspective on the intricacies of the sport – a perspective that matches the more data-driven and analytically-inclined model followed by 21st century practitioners of the game.

He hits the ground running, with an opening chapter making the case for robot umpires via the phenomenon of anchoring bias – basically, the notion that the present is influenced by the immediate past. In essence, umpires aren’t just calling the pitch in front of them. Not out of any deliberate choice, mind you, but by an unconscious bias shared by all people.

From there, we’re off, following through various categories of on- and off-field decisions and the behavioral science behind the biases that impact those decisions. Just a few examples:

Outcome bias: Wherein the end result is the only one considered, regardless of the relative quality of the choices that led to that result; a failure to acknowledge that the nature of sport means that luck or chance can overcome a litany of poor calls. Law’s primary example is Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly basically stumbling into a World Series title despite objectively bad choices.

Base-rate neglect: Ignoring the results indicated by data in favor of personal belief that one’s choice will prove to be an exception to those results. Here, Law spends some time spelling out just how poor a decision it is to draft high school pitchers in the first round, even though there are some major success stories a la Clayton Kershaw.

Recency bias: The idea that using only the most recent data is a useful indicator of future performance. Basically, this chapter debunks the notion of streaks – whether they are hot or cold, the limited data sets drawn from a handful of recent games is not enough to properly discern outcomes going forward.

On and on it goes, with an assortment of defined biases being explored through their connection to the workings of baseball. The sunk cost fallacy, optimism bias and survivorship bias. The dangers of groupthink and moral hazard and principal agency. All of these internalized and inherent tendencies of which we have little or no conscious awareness acting to influence our decision making – largely to the worse.

“The Inside Game” presents an interesting dichotomy, matching Law’s undeniable baseball acumen with his more dilettante understanding of behavioral science; there are a number of ways in which this whole thing could easily have gone off the rails. However, Law maintains a firm hand, never allowing his personal levels of knowledge overly skew the conversation.

Be warned: “The Inside Game” definitely gets pretty wonky in spots. It is far from the traditional baseball book for sure, although if you have any experience with the author’s previous work, that shouldn’t come as any great surprise. He ventures farther afield than he did in his last book “Smart Baseball,” but this new offering is still anchored in Law’s unwavering … Law-ness – and that’s a good thing. His authorial voice is a distinct one, blending intellectualism with snark to present something that is equal parts informational and entertaining, all with just the right amount of edge. He’s throwing heat and painting the corners, to be sure.

While it is far from your typical sports book, “The Inside Game” is definitely indicative of the ideas being utilized by the game’s thought leaders. Forward-thinking organizations are embracing awareness of these biases in an effort to build teams that operate more efficiently both in the dugout and in the front office. What Law does here is find a way to make the behavioral scientific concepts accessible to a broader audience by exploring the connections – direct and indirect – to the baseball realm. Smart and savvy, “The Inside Game” is a gem.

Although who knows? Maybe I’m biased.

Last modified on Thursday, 30 April 2020 10:17

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