Using Professional Baseball to Explain Cognitive Bias.

We Can Learn a Lot About How We Think From Sports

Creator: Win McNamee | Credit: Getty Images

Stephen Strasburg was the number 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft. Bursting onto the scene a year earlier, the San Diego State standout showcased a plus fastball and one of the most devastating curves ever unleashed on college batters. ESPN called Strasburg the “most hyped pick in draft history” and they were not alone in singing his praises. He was arguably the top pitching prospect of all time. There was little suspense when the Nationals stepped to the podium to claim there prized future ace. He did not disappoint.


He quickly ascended to the major leagues and was scheduled to pitch in his MLB debut on June 8th, one day before the one-year anniversary of being the top overall draft pick. His total of 14 strikeouts in the evening was also a Nationals record. He was also the first pitcher in history to strike out 11 batters without issuing a walk in his debut. Suffice it to say, he had arrived.


The dominance continued through the season and into the beginning of the 2011 season. Then the most feared words in baseball were uttered; UCL tear. Strasburg was headed for Tommy John Surgery and a 12-month rehabilitation. Fortunately, when Strasburg returned, he retained his utter dominance. By the end of April 2012, he was second in the MLB with a minuscule ERA of 1.13. He remained dominant throughout the season. The season, however, was on a limit


The shutdown

For the Nationals fans reading this, I apologize for opening old wounds. The Nationals were one of the top teams in the league and World Series contenders. They had a strong team and a new ace ready to be deployed in the most important games of the season. One problem.


Because of his recent injury, he was on an innings limit of 160–180. While the wiggle room provided hope for some fans that he may be stretched out or available in a relief role, he was completely shut down for the season on September 12 after compiling 159.1 innings.

Making the decision even tougher to swallow is the fact innings limits are more best guess than hard science. Well, one of the most prized arms in the world had approached that best guess. While fans clamored for Strasburg to pitch — and I would venture many players as well — the team stayed true to their plan and placed him on the physically unable to perform list. To call this a controversy is a gross understatement. To make matters worse, the Nationals were booted from the postseason in the divisional round by the St. Louis Cardinals in five games (as a Cardinals fan, I did not hate this outcome). Let the ‘what ifs’ begin.


Sticking to their guns

Over the next six seasons, while still a great pitcher when on the mound, Strasburg was establishing an ‘injury-prone’ label because of his frequent trips to the disabled list, now known as the injured list. The frequent injuries and the heartbreak of additional first-round playoff exits only strengthened the frustration over the shutdown for many fans.

Mike Rizzo, the Nationals General Manager, continued to defend the decision stating, “It’s a good conversational piece, it’s a good debatable subject. But most of the people that have weighed in on this know probably 10 percent of the information that we know, and that we’ve made our opinion based upon.” This comforted few of his detractors. The facts remained, Strasburg would have helped the National’s chances to win, Strasburg suffered multiple injuries regardless, and the innings limit lacks hard science — even his surgeon, the renowned Tommy John specialist Dr. Lewis Yocum, did not provide a firm innings number, only stating it should be limited.


The Nationals contended Strasburg may have re-torn his UCL — in addition to the other myriad of injuries he was enduring — and the success rate for returning from a second UCL tear is far worse than the original. But we can only speculate. The lack of time travel to play out multiple scenarios bites sports fans yet again. The Nationals would finally have their moment, though.


Justification

On October 30th, 2019, the Nationals finally held the Commissioner’s Trophy signifying their achievement as MLB champions. The World Series MVP was none other than Stephen Strasburg. That year, he threw a career-high 245.1 innings, including the postseason, and finished 5th in the Cy Young award voting. He was the first pitcher in MLB history to compile a 5–0 record in a single postseason.


He was rewarded with a staggering seven-year, $245 million contract shortly after the season concluded. While at the time of the signing it was the highest in total value and the average annual value of a pitcher in MLB history, Garret Cole bested it 9 days later when he signed with the New York Yankees. All in all, Strasburg’s career has turned out well.


While Strasburg and the Nationals finally obtained the elusive title, many Nationals fans still look back on 2012 as a missed opportunity. Scott Boras, Strasburg’s agent, and Mike Rizzo continue to defend the shutdown. Boras, who is ever-present in the media and among the most famous sports agents for his lengthy negotiations, high profile clients, and elegant media quotes, used Strasburg’s 2019 performance as proof they made the right decision in shutting him down. Boras, always an advocate for the health of his players, shortly following the World Series victory said:


“We came to them with doctor’s information about protecting a player that caused great concern about the team’s performance that year, but the club took a long- term interest in that player. I think that Stephen Strasburg has rewarded the Nationals with a championship, his performance, a World Series MVP because of the position that this organization took to take the medical advice and protect the player long term, even though the immediate effect caused a great deal of angst among the club and the fans.”

Strasburg’s long-time teammate Ryan Zimmerman added to the sentiment stating, “In the moment, it was a tough decision and maybe not a very popular decision. But you could also say that Stephen wouldn’t be the pitcher that he is now or be doing what he is now if they didn’t make that decision.”


Boras doubled down by bringing trust into the equation, arguing that the shutdown did more than simply protect Strasburg, it established a bond between player, agent, and team. “I must say that for Stephen, for him to establish a legacy and wear the curly W for his career was something that was very important to him,’’ Boras said, “and I think it was because he knew that people in this organization cared deeply about him and always cared about his interests and the interests of his family. And because of that, he decided to stay at home and stay in one uniform and remain a Washington National for the remainder of his career.’’

Boras argues that the massive contract was only possible because the Nationals stuck to their word and put the health of the player over the chance to win a World Series. Whether his health was truly at risk if he exceeded 160 innings is the debate.


The Dark Night falls



Some will point to another anecdotal case to argue that there was a risk. Matt Harvey, nicknamed the Dark Night, was another future star. The 6th overall pick in the 2010 MLB draft, the year after Strasburg was drafted, did not quote match Strasburg’s MLB record, but he did manage to set the New York Mets franchise record with 11 strikeouts in his debut on July 26, 2012. In 2013, his dominance led to him being the starting pitcher for the NL team in the 2013 MLB All-Star game. As September neared, he was entrenched in the Cy Young award conversation – the yearly award given to the best pitcher in each league. Unfortunately, like Strasburg, he suffered a torn UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery. There was a key difference in the road to recovery, however.


Harvey attempted to rehabilitate his torn UCL injury non-surgically initially. While this has worked for some pitchers, such as Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees, it failed for Harvey; he finally went under the knife in October 2013.


Instead of rushing back for the end of the 2014 season, Harvey decided to take the extra time to rehabilitate and prepare for the 2015 season. While this may seem like a smart choice, it isn’t the whole story. The Mets decided against an innings cap, reasoning that he had sufficient time to recover. Harvey threw 189.1 innings in the regular season and then another 26.2 in the postseason when the Mets made a World Series run; they lost in five games.


The 216 total innings thrown that season far exceeded the 159.1 of Strasburg in 2012. Harvey pitched well in both the regular and postseason, but it was not to the level of his impressive 2013 run when he finished 5th in Cy Young voting. In fact, he never returned to his 2013 level of performance.


Harvey has not had a winning season since 2015. In 2016, his ERA ballooned to 4.86, his command faltered as strikeouts decreased and walks increased, and he finished with a lousy 4–10 record. For the baseball fans more interested in the advanced metrics, those numbers were trending in the wrong direction as well. In 2017, he fell below a replacement player level and was no longer worth keeping in the starting rotation. From 2016–2019, he averaged a paltry 100 innings per season with an ERA north of 5.5 while remaining a starting pitcher. Initially unsigned, the Royals decided to take a flyer on Harvey in the middle of this pandemic-shortened season. He has rewarded them by allowing 15 runs in only 11.2 innings. He is among the worst pitchers in baseball


Who was “right”?

You may look at these two scenarios and conclude the Nationals got it right and the Mets got it wrong. The Mets took the risk and went for the World Series while the Nationals took their chances without their ace and lived to fight another day. Would the hindsight be different had the Mets won the World Series? Would shutting Harvey down have preserved his career? Proponents of either viewpoint can cherry-pick any of the components of the story to fuel their confirmation bias. The outcome bias, a close relative of confirmation, is unofficially known as “the ends justify the means” bias. This too is dangerous thinking.


What if we had more data? What if we track hundreds of pitchers and retrospectively assess whether a shortened season following Tommy John surgery is associated with few injuries? There would be some value in knowing that number, but it would be limited. Regardless of the number of observations made — and it would have to be observations as no professional baseball players would potentially put their career on the line to conduct a randomized control trial to assess this issue — a causative conclusion could not be made.

Correlation does not equal causation. The lack of hard data does not temper the emotions of many sports fans.


Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

The stories of Strasburg and Harvey garner more attention and emotion because they involve high profile athletes. When emotions run high, our system 1 thinking — snap decisions susceptible to bias — often takes over. Sports fans will vehemently argue one side and they will search for every argument that supports their point of view. When the other person is speaking, they are running through the potential ways they can next support their claim. Neither side is objectively listening to the other.


How do we combat the confirmation bias? First, we need to invite system 2 thinking to the party. This involves slowing down and using critical thinking to assess all the information available. It is also being willing to say “we don’t know.” Often times, we lack sufficient information to draw firm conclusions, but we can make the best guess with the information we have. This is where doubt and uncertainty enter the fold.


The mantra “strong opinions, weakly held” contends we should stand behind our beliefs, but be willing to rapidly change them in the face of sound data. Sound data is not our anecdotal experience. Sound data is hard science. To be sure, our experiences and values are important and they should influence beliefs and decisions, but they are not trump cards.

Taking the stance of Charlie Munger — business partner of Warren Buffet — will help anyone fight the confirmation bias. He said, “I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” This is far easier said than done. It is uncomfortable and requires effort. But knowing both sides of any argument allows you to make an informed decision and take the best course of action.


Our biases can help us make quick decisions, but they can also easily lead us astray. We must remain vigilant of their influence on us, mobilize system 2 thinking, and remain ever curious.

“Your mind constantly seeks proof that will confirm your beliefs. If you have negative beliefs, your mind will seek to prove those negative thoughts. If you have positive beliefs, your minds will seek to prove those positive thoughts. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of our beliefs.” ― Akiroq Brost

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