This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the difference between effort and results. Professional athletes and coaches focus on effort, but fans and, all too often, some members of the media focus on results. A fly ball is hit to the outfield. The fielder breaks forward, realizes he’s misread the ball, reverses course, runs a bad route, gets into a backpedal too soon and makes a snow-cone catch while falling over backward. The crowd cheers the results: The ball was caught. Look in the dugout, and you’re likely to see a coach shaking his head in disgust: It was a horrible effort.
The fans are happy because their team recorded an out, but the coach knows that effort will not succeed most of the time.
Here’s another example: Say a manager faces a situation with three options. Option A has a history of succeeding 70 percent of the time, Option B works 40 percent of the time and Option C works 30 percent of the time. Which one would you choose? (And if you didn’t choose Option A, you’re probably not managing material.)
But remember, Option A also has a history of failing 30 percent of the time. It’s clearly the best option, but it doesn’t work every time. So the manager does the right thing, picks Option A and it fails. He made the correct choice; it just didn’t work out…yet some fans and members of the media will be upset because he didn’t choose one of the other options, an option that had even less chance of succeeding. Why?
It has to do with being human: Sometimes, we’re morons.
We want to be perfect, and that can make us be dumb. Here’s proof: I was reading a book on odds (yes, I’m that boring, and no, this isn’t the dumb thing I was talking about). The book described a psychological experiment. A test subject is put in front of two lights, one red and one blue. The goal is to predict which light will come on next. The (let’s say red, because I really can’t remember) light is set to come on more often than the blue one. There is an observer in the room with the subject recording results.
At some point the subject will say something like, “Boy, the red light comes on a lot.” The person conducting the test will agree: the red light does come on a lot. After further testing, the subject will then say something like, “Does the red light come on more than the blue light?” The person conducting the test will say, “Yes, the red light comes on more than the blue light.”
Even though they’ve been given that information, even though they’ve just been told they can be right more often than not, nobody in the entire history of the experiment has ever said, “Then I’ll just go with the red light.” They want to be perfect all the time, even at the expense of being right most of the time. As a result of passing up their chance to increase the odds of success, they manage to work their way back to 50-50. That is about what they’d do without the crucial information that one light comes on more often than the other.
A manager’s job is to pick the red light every time because he knows it’s the best option. But fans and some members of the media will criticize him for choosing the best option whenever the blue light comes on. They want perfection, and the manager failed.
One more example:
A third-base coach (it wasn’t Eddie Rodriguez) had two outs and a slow runner on second. The on-deck hitter was left-handed. A third-base coach has to think about the on-deck hitter, because if the coach throws up the stop sign with two outs, the on-deck hitter may have to drive the run in.
The coach could see into the visiting bullpen. The opposition was warming up a left-handed pitcher to face the left-handed hitter on deck. A third-base coach needs to know if his team might pinch hit in this situation. That also means he needs to know the possible match-ups (if we send up so-and-so, they’ll counter with what’s-his-name). In this case, the left-handed hitter on deck was not a guy they would pinch hit for, so he was going to face the lefty reliever warming up.
The third-base coach knew that the left-handed on-deck hitter was batting .181 against the left-handed reliever he would face. So the coach made the decision to be very aggressive about sending the runner. If the coach held him up, his team had an 18 percent chance of scoring the run, based on past history.
Sure enough, the guy at the plate gets a hit, and the coach waves the lumbering runner home. At this point the coach was hoping for a bad throw or a dropped ball, because if the defense did everything right, the slow runner would be out. Even so, sending the runner was the right move, because he had a better chance of scoring than if he stopped the runner and let the on-deck hitter try to drive him in. The coach sized up the situation and took the percentage play.
Naturally, the throw was a good one, the catcher handled the ball cleanly and the runner was out by six feet. The coach got showered with boos during the game and roasted in the press afterward. And the coach couldn’t say anything. As they say in baseball, he had to wear it. He couldn’t say, “Don’t look at me — our lefty can’t hit their lefty.” That would be throwing a player under the bus. The coach made the right choice and got hammered for it.
All because people focused on the results, not the effort.
So next time you’re sitting in the stands, think through the options before the next pitch is thrown. Try to figure out which one has the best chance of succeeding, then live with the results. Then you’ll be thinking like a pro.
As long as we’re on the subject
In the book “Backboards & Blackboards: College Athletes and Role Engulfment” by college professors Patricia A. Adler and Peter Adler, they describe how athletes think about success and failure. (By the way, I realize I’m throwing out a pretty impressive reading list, but trust me, there’s lots of Raymond Chandler in-between.)
Anyway, here’s a quote from the book about how athletes think:
“They tried to discount the flattery of others as exaggerated or false. As Jones and Nisbet have hypothesized, ‘There is a pervasive tendency for actors to attribute their actions to situational requirements, whereas observers tend to attribute the same actions to stable personal dispositions.’ Basketball players, then, tended to evaluate their behavior less globally than their audience, and to interpret their successes as based less on their own outstanding characteristics than on some complex interaction of circumstances.”
OK, first, I have no clue who Jones and Nisbet are, but I get what’s being said: Observers will label someone a “winner” or a “choker” based on results. Athletes see results as the logical outcome of specific circumstances. Fans say, “That guy’s a clutch hitter.” Athletes say, “I got a good pitch to hit.”
Understand the difference and you’ll go a long way toward understanding why athletes talk the way they do. You’ll also be less likely to make sweeping generalizations that can be harmful, not to mention inaccurate. At some point, all major-league players have come through in the clutch. They wouldn’t be in the major leagues if that weren’t true. At some point, all major-league players have failed.
If you think specifics instead of labels, once again, you’ll be thinking like a pro.
The bullpen change
I was looking through old notes and came across this one. Tex has been gone awhile, so I guess it’s OK to finally tell this story.
Before he left the team last season, reliever Kanekoa Texeira talked about the advantages and disadvantages of the Royals changing their bullpen from right field to left. Tex said the sun beat down on the right-field bullpen and the left-field bullpen had more shade. On the other hand, the right-field pen has access to the rest of the stadium, while the left-field pen is closed off, with just a bathroom and equipment room. The coaches like the left-field pen because they can look directly into it and see what the players are doing. Some pitchers prefer the right-field pen for the same reason.
But, according to Texeira, there was one final advantage to the right-field pen that I hadn’t considered: Talking to girls from the sports bar. He said it was a long season, and that helped pass the time.
(And now you’re really thinking like a pro.)