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Human decision-making is a mess. Sure, we like to believe our judgment is rational, formed by careful consideration of evidence and ideas. In reality, our opinions are often based on beliefs that have a fast-and-loose relationship with facts. Much of our thinking is tainted with bias. Rather than data driving our decisions, preconceptions cause us to filter or twist facts. We accept bad information because it reinforces our beliefs.

Dozens of cognitive biases in humans have been identified by researchers.

Here are a few:

Confirmation bias is when we search for and give greater weight to evidence that confirms what we already think and ignore or discount facts that contradict. It explains why we tend to watch cable news channels that reinforce what we already think. The same bias holds for visiting websites (like this one) and reading posts (like this one).

Mere-exposure bias occurs when we develop a preference for something merely because we are familiar with it. This effect has been demonstrated across cultures with many examples. Familiar things – food, music, activities, our surroundings – make us feel comfortable, so we continue to choose them.

In-group bias is the tendency to give preferential treatment to others who are members (real or perceived) of our own group. We form tighter bonds with people we know and become suspicious of outsiders. We believe this helps us from making mistakes in our choices. In-group favoritism causes us to overestimate the abilities of our immediate group relative to people we don’t know.

So despite our desire to be objective, fact-based decision-makers, we are all subject to subconscious distortions in information processing. These biases affect all kinds of choices, including hiring decisions. It turns out that humans are limited in ability when it comes to judging the potential of other humans. We resist that conclusion, but all those biases infect our objectivity and judgment.

That brings us to the Jocketty Paradox.

Walt Jocketty has been the Cincinnati Reds general manager since April, 2008. As the team’s win total has gone 97 > 90 > 76 > 64 over the past four seasons, Jocketty’s decision-making chops have become the subject of great attention by Reds fans. That scrutiny is natural when you’re the GM for a major league team that loses 98 games. Questioning the manager or coach is a rite and a right of sports fans. The same goes for second-guessing general managers.

A huge part of a general manager’s job – and certainly in Jocketty’s case – is being the personnel director for the major league club. The GM assembles the team’s roster through promotion and acquisition within the constraints of a budget. In evaluating whether Walt Jocketty is doing a good job for the Reds, the primary consideration is his ability to acquire the right players.

But when you dive into that subject, you immediately encounter evidence that points in contradictory directions.

There are plusses on the Jocketty ledger when it comes to acquiring young players through trades. He has presided over several recent deals that, at least according to early returns, look to have brought a great bounty of talent to the Reds. It came at a cost – Jocketty shipped off four-fifths of the 2014 starting rotation in the past year. But those sell-offs were beyond question, dictated by contract status or off-field considerations. The Reds return in each of those trades looks like full market value or better. For example, the three-player haul Detroit received from trading ace David Price about a week after the Reds moved Johnny Cueto looks roughly comparable to the Kansas City Three.

But Jocketty’s veteran acquisitions as a group have been less inspiring. The list is more befitting a haunted house than a major league roster: Skip Schumaker, Cesar Izturis, Jason Marquis, Kevin Gregg, Willie Harris, Brennan Boesch, Jack Hannahan, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Burke Badenhop, Wilson Valdez, Jim Edmonds, Willie Taveras and Ramon Santiago. There have been successes: Arthur Rhodes (2009-10), Mat Latos (2012-13), Sean Marshall (2012), Ryan Ludwick (2012), Shin-Soo Choo (2013) and Alfredo Simon (2012-14), but scant few recently. Ludwick belongs on both lists as his pricy two-year extension was a disaster due to injury and aging. Many players on the first list never made another major league roster after their time with the Reds. The bench misfires made the Reds’ depth paper-thin. The bad outweighs the good.

Thus the paradox. How can one person be responsible for glittering successes in trading for prospects but have such glaring failures when acquiring veterans?

Maybe the paradox is a product of graduated difficulty. Trading for prospects is easier. You take the best package offered. Exchanging contract-expiring veterans for minor league players is straightforward – the low hanging fruit on the personnel acquisition tree. On the other hand, acquiring veterans, at first glance, seems a more complex and error-prone process due to the irregularity of aging curves. Yet, isn’t there more of a solid track record with veterans compared to raw prospects? It’s not clear that finding successful players from the minor leagues is easier. Many prospects bust.

So much for the “graduated difficulty” explanation for the Jocketty Paradox. Let’s keep looking.

How about we return to those cognitive biases. One difference between the young and old players is that Walt Jocketty doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of the prospects, but generally does with the veterans. Many from that list of older players were actually on his teams in St. Louis. For the prospects, he relies on outside data from scouts and the Reds analytics department. But with free agents, like Marquis and Schumaker, he had direct experience.

That’s how the biases – confirmation, familiarity, in-group – begin to pollute decision-making process.

If you think this factor couldn’t be real, consider the experience of Ben Baumer. In his eight years as a stats analyst with the New York Mets, Baumer worked for two general managers, Omar Minaya and Sandy Alderson. Baumer was asked in a recent interview to compare the two GMs:

“Omar is a former player turned scout, and he cut his teeth scouting. Ultimately, his personal evaluation is going to color any decision he makes about a player. Most people working in baseball are like that – including analysts like me. … Both Sandy and Omar have a similar process that leads to a decision: They try to collect as much useful information from their advisors as they can; but the way they weight that information in order to make a decision is different. Omar, like just about everybody else, is going to – subconsciously or otherwise – also includes input from his own evaluation of that player. But it always seemed to me that Sandy was able to remain very impartial when weighing the evidence. That may be Sandy’s greatest strength as a GM.”

The difference between Minaya and Alderson resonates as an explanation of the Jocketty Paradox.

Walt Jocketty’s personnel decisions with veteran players reveal the influence of his personal observation and experience. His practice of signing so many former Cardinals (not just former Cardinals, but players from when Jocketty was the St. Louis GM) lays this bare. He lets his own evaluation trump the objective data. But with young players from other teams, where he has zero first-hand knowledge, Jocketty has to go with information from scouts and analysts. No outsider or FanGraphs player page could convince Walt Jocketty about Skip Schumaker, because Walt knows Skip. But John Lamb in the Royals organization was nothing more than a scouting report and an in-house statistical projection by Sam Grossman.

The difference is profound. Jocketty’s biases wouldn’t be a huge issue if his own evaluations weren’t increasingly out of date and based on antiquated criteria. And if his preferred player pool hadn’t progressed well down its collective aging curve. This aspect of his decision-making has proven to be fraught with mistake after mistake.

The same dynamic occurred when the Reds hired Bryan Price. It had been 19 years since Jocketty had last hired a manager. Yet when it was time to replace Dusty Baker, Jocketty didn’t look beyond Joe Nuxhall Way, beyond his own direct experience.

He didn’t need to. Price, as the Reds pitching coach, was familiar. Price was part of the in-group. Hiring Price was the comfortable decision. Replacing Bryan Price with Barry Larkin would have been more of that same narrowness. Oh, that manager Jocketty had hired before Price, back in 1996, was a guy name Tony LaRussa – who had worked previously with Jocketty in Oakland. Of course he had. With hiring his assistant general managers, rinse and repeat.

The balance of Walt Jocketty’s recent ledger in Cincinnati shows that anyone interested in the Reds winning should recoil at the thought of him (or anyone else) basing personnel decisions mostly on his own opinions. Remember right before the trade deadline last July when Jocketty was in Florida, not Cincinnati? He said he liked being away from the office “because you’re not influenced by people around the club.” Yikes.

For better or worse, that’s Walt Jocketty’s move now. Hiring from a bias-filled memory lane paved with Cardinal-red bricks, when he can. That’s why the Reds have done so much better trading for prospects than they have adding veterans in recent years.

16 Responses

  1. VaRedsFan

    Loved the article (and the Big Bang-ish Title). So is it possible that the same thing can be said about the owner? He’s familiar with Walt, therefore he continues to put his apples in the Walt basket. They are stuck in this endless loop. Walt is now a lame duck (hopefully) GM. It’s up to the owner to break the In-group bias.
    How does Phil Castellini figure into the future of ownership? What is his role with the team? Has he shown any skills to lead the Reds out of this cycle?

    • jazzmanbbfan

      If Phil Castellini is more modern and aggressive, I wonder if he can have any influence on his father and help him see how decisions are dooming this team to years of mediocrity or worse.

  2. WVRedlegs

    Great insight into the Reds front office and decision making. It has been confounding at times, more often than not. The Kevin Towers hire as Asst. GM was a head scratcher. What has he brought to the table since his hire? Other than possibly being involved in grabbing Matheus and Sampson off the scrap heaps. Finding pitchers on opposing teams that have been de-valued or discarded altogether was supposed to be one of his strengths, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt on Matheus and Sampson.
    This will be a very crucial and pivotal off-season for the Reds. The Reds need every advantage they can get in rebuilding this team, it would seem like investing more in the analytics would be a no-brainer. But it seems like the Reds are content on doubling down on old, out-of-date philosophies that have resulted in a nose-dive into the NLC cellar.

    • RFM

      Kevin Towers wasn’t hired as a Reds Assistant GM, he was hired to be one of ~11 “special assistant(s) to the GM”. Dick Williams is the only guy to hold a title of Assistant GM for the Reds.

      Towers and Bonifay are two of six guys holding that special assistant title in the Pro Scouting department, while Mario Soto, Miguel Cairo, and Eric Davis are listed as having the same title in the Baseball Operations Department. Are these guys really key decision makers, or just guys with token jobs called upon for scouting, opinions, or advice?

      Part of the cognitive dissonance surrounding Jocketty is the perception that Kevin Towers (or anyone else who is currently unpopular) is the right hand man secretly running the show.

      http://cincinnati.reds.mlb.com/team/front_office.jsp?c_id=cin

      • Craig Z

        Dwight “Assistant the Regional Manager”
        Michael “No,it’s Assistant TO the Regional Manager”
        Dwight “It’s the same thing”
        Michael “No, its lower”

  3. ncmountie1

    Steve, Another good read. Curious as to the real trade return though. I get he got good prospects, but other than DeSclafani for Latos, what other example do you have of MLB production for production (to date) ? I know you’ll know this without me having to Google. My point being, do we know the real outcome of these trades yet in terms of true production at MLB level?

    Cue Peter Ponds in 3, 2, 1…..

    • ncmountie1

      Thanks. Yes I like Suarez but I need to see more than one season at that level. They may all turn out fine but jury is still out and it still points to IMO, and I think many others, the need for a complete change of leadership. One could also argue, Peter Ponds, aside, that the foundation wasn’t built by WJ to reach those 90 win seasons either. He did add pieces but BP, Votto, Bruce, Cueto where all in the system. Just not a fan. I think Reds can do better as an organization.

  4. Chuck Schick

    DeWitt runs the Cardinals like a business. They’re a corporation that happens to be in the business of selling baseball. They produce a great product by focusing on R and D and the
    ” manufacturing” process. They have diversified revenue streams ( stadium, ballpark village, parking garages) that dramatically increase their profits. Those profits are reinvested in R and D and manufacturing in order to continuously improve the product. In a nutshell, they use their success to create greater success.

    The Reds are a baseball team that needs to have revenue meet their expenses. Every possible dollar is allocated to maximize the payroll and win as many games possible in the current year. R and D and manufacturing are cost centers, not investments. Creative non baseball decisions are made simply to maximize revenue to focus on maximizing short term results.

    The Cardinals operate in a perpetual state of improvement and advancement. Every October, the Reds start over and hope things work out.

  5. WVRedlegs

    Anyone know how ex-Red Logan Ondrusek did in Japan this year?? It would be nice if he could get better control of that 97mph fastball. The Reds could have used the good Ondrusek this year. The bad Ondrusek was just another inning arsonist. I wonder if the Reds will give him another shot on a minor league deal next spring, if he did well that is?

    • WVRedlegs

      Thanks. Those stats are not too bad. Do you think Jocketty dips down into his mere-exposure bias and brings Ondrusek back, albeit on a minor league deal? Maybe he picked up something in Japan. I’d like to see them give him an opportunity to win back a bullpen spot.
      I like the % stats too.

  6. streamer88

    Very nice article. No doubt bias and confounding variables are the banes of decision-making and the scientific method, respectively. As the devil always gets an advocate, I’ll mention Scott Rolen, whose acquisition (if I recall) was initially very perplexing to many Redlegnation faithful, until his leadership and production was reportedly instrumental in the rise of the young Redlegs. I’ll also paste this link in here:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/tomvanriper/2012/08/27/red-sox-were-left-in-disarray-by-theo-espstein/

    Summary: Theo Epstein (fawned over by many on this site) left the Red Sox in a mess and his influence on their ascendence is questionable by those closest to that franchise (unbeknownst to me prior to reading the article). Interesting read.

    Changes of scenery can be good for everyone – but how is it that Theo is a better GM now than at the end of his time in Boston? How is it possible that after making some poor personnel decisions, he has now made better ones? Those are both rhetorical and loaded questions for multiple reasons. Too many to squeeze into a readable, salient post.

    My point: While bias perhaps changes the odds of right/wrong, it does not eliminate the uncertainty. If your point is that Jocketty is no longer learning from his mistakes, then by all means, boot him. But you can’t say “fire him” necessarily because he has put together a string of decisions that didn’t pan out, unless you’re convinced his methods will continue to generate bad decisions, AND you can find someone better, like Boston did by firing Dan Duquette and hiring Theo Epstein 😉 — tongue in cheek reference to article.

  7. Victor Vollhardt

    Your whole story is a good one and well thought out—But there are things that influence decisions that only in house people know. I can only guess what some of those things COULD be: A. directions from the top to do things a certain way–this might include not dealing with certain agents, getting information from other sources that the ownership group values above all else. B. imposed money restraints that may real only in the owner’s minds, but it becomes real none the less.. C.being told to show a “united front”(we are rebooting not rebuilding) even though management knows success in further down the line(2017/2018?).D. potential income (and how much)coming up(TV contract)–lets give lip service now until we have a known amount so that we can spend wisely (and big– they have done it before Votto, Bailey, Bruce etc). TV contracts and near term ticket sales may depend on that lip service..E. If chemistry and loyalty count higher on WJ’s scale than anybody else–well then there is my bias because over a lifetime in business-I have found this to be very, very important and when things go bad-without that chemistry and loyalty the whole shebang can be lost. Oh, also maybe just a little bit of bias subconsciously slipped into your story–I”m pretty sure the Alex Gonzalez deal was before WJ was making deals. We all have biases and what is perceived as negative by some people–those same biases would be considered as postive strong points by others.

  8. james garrett

    Walt is one of the last remaining founders of the good old boy club You know the one that hires people that are home setting on the couch or have been out of the work force for a few years like me.

  9. Michael E

    Steve, well and deeply written. I have my on biases for sure, and might not make much of a GM either. I love the pitching Walt acquired via trades. I do think we need to improve hitting, but sometimes you take whats there and in a few years, look like a genius.

    I just pulled out an old Sporting News. The Reds had just swept the As in 1990. I looked at the lineup and it was a bunch of so-so hitters that all could make the opposing pitcher work. There weren’t many swing-n-miss types. This is what we see on the Giants, Cards, Royals and such the past several years. The Reds pitching mirrored the Royals (great bullpen), okay starting pitching, though the Reds had a dominant Rijo, while the Royals lack a dominant starter.

    I don’ t necessarily think we need stud hitters. We do need a bunch of .270 – .285 hitters that collectively are right at the bottom of the team K list. If we get that, along with what appears to be a promising future in pitching, we should contend in just three seasons or so. Earlier if a FA gem is unearthed or an international signing fills a starting role in a big way.

    As for finding the type of hitting we had in 1990 (Larkin and Davis were very good, O’Neill and Sabo were solid, but not quite stars of any kind yet), it shouldn’t be that hard. Those kinds of hitters are out there, but it will require demanding that any FA signing, drafting or trading for hitters be for a hitter that has proven they can work counts and take bad pitches moreso than HR bombers and first-pitch rippers.

  10. TR

    I agree with your last sentence. Working the count is often the best way to raddle the opposing pitcher. The Reds need one or two more OBP guys at the top of the order; one of those leading off. This would give Votto more runners to drive in. The long ball will come from Frazier, Mesoraco, and Bruce and Phillips if they are still around.