I know little of human psychology, I’ll admit it. But I do know enough to say this one thing rather definitively: Cognitive biases will mess you up.

To wit, Jose Iglesias, among Reds with at least 40 plate appearances, sits second in batting average, fourth in on-base percentage, and sixth (!) in slugging. Jose Iglesias, light-hitting defensive wizard brought in on a minor-league deal, has out slugged both Yasiel Puig and Joey Votto through the first quarter of the season.

Now obviously, a hitter’s slashline doesn’t paint the whole portrait of their season. Iglesias is seventh in wRC+ among the same group and eighth in ISO. In truth, Iglesias has hit exactly as we expected he would. Lots of contact with a little pop and most of his value coming from the glove side of the field. But still, Jose Iglesias is fourth on the team in bWAR, ahead of Tanner Roark, Sonny Gray, and every hitter not named Eugenio Suarez or Derek Dietrich. He’s doing something extraordinary, right? He has to be.

Let’s go back to cognitive biases and my own version of psychology. The sitcom How I Met Your Mother created a cognitive bias called “the cheerleader effect” that has since been proven by actual scientists and not Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney Stinson. The Cheerleader Effect says that individuals will seem more attractive in a group, with each person’s negative qualities averaging out based on the others’ positives.

Think of the Reds over the first month of the season. Not a single player expected to hit the ball well and with authority did either of those things. Every mainstay of the Reds lineup put up ugly numbers. Except Iglesias and Dietrich, the two castoffs expected to be nothing more than bench guys, put up attractive lines.

As such, fans began to assign outsized attractiveness to each’s production (not that they haven’t been attractive in their own right). Heck, I did it in the second paragraph of this blog. Jose Iglesias has out hit Yasiel Puig and Joey Votto, two conventionally attractive hitters. Therefore, his performance must have been that much better, that much more unexpected than his hitting in the past.

Not quite. Jose Iglesias has actually barely outperformed his career numbers. That .288, second-on-the-team batting average? Only .017 points higher than Iglesias’ career average. The OBP that outdoes Votto, Jesse Winker, and Nick Senzel? Only .011 higher than Iglesias’ career mark. The true marks of his talent, the eighth-best ISO and seventh-best wRC+? Both identical to the numbers he put up last season.

Iglesias hasn’t unreasonably outperformed at the plate at all. He’s outperformed for sure — his .324 BABIP likely will recede — but he’s also seen an uptick in his strikeout rate from his career mark. If his luck regresses and his strikeout rate ticks back down, then I’m not convinced that Iglesias cannot maintain this pace all season long. The short answer to why Jose Iglesias is hitting so well seems too simple. It’s just…he really isn’t hitting that well at all.

The Cheerleader Effect, as proposed in a 2015 study, could arise from two potential psychological phenomenon. The first, the Gestalt law of similarity, says that humans automatically group things of a similar nature in close proximity to each other. It doesn’t quite apply to Iglesias and the Reds, but in an abstract way, it might. Because Iglesias was hitting like we expected Puig or Votto to hit and because he hit like them in such close proximity to them, we as fans grouped his performance with their expected performance. It’s a stretch, but plausible.

But the second, selective attention, applies quite directly to Jose Iglesias. Because the Reds shortstop was the only one in the Reds lineup doing anything of note with the bat, our selective attention as fans told us his production was abnormal.  I mean, when you’re only hitting home runs in the late innings of close games….

….it’s hard not to pay attention. Jose Iglesias captured our imagination by outperforming his more highly lauded peers and in the process convinced us he was doing something unlike himself.

Iglesias sits in the bottom 3% of the league in hard hit percentage, where he always has. His barrel% and average exit velocity are both in the bottom 10% of the league, both normal career marks for him.

Jose Iglesias set his own narrative as an overperformer early, so now whenever he falls a homer shy of the cycle or singles in two runs in the first, we all collectively sit back and smile, proud of our Reds for snapping up such a great all-around player from under the rest of the league’s nose. Jose Iglesias is our star cheerleader, the belle of the ball, the only Red worth his salt at the plate. Every extra-base hit, RBI knock just folds into the confirmation bias of his early season success amid the Reds struggles.

Even if I don’t quite understand all of the nuance of psychology, it’s not hard to see that our cognitive biases have made Jose Iglesias’ accomplishments into something more than they are. By no means has he gone on a Cody Bellinger-like tear or even a Derek Dietrich-like one. But he has taken advantage by simply being a slightly better himself.

Soon, the Reds mainstay bats will catch up to Jose Iglesias as he steps back down to his average marks. But if his regression comes quietly enough, I’m not sure we’ll even notice. Can Jose Iglesias keep hitting? Sure, there’s nothing to indicate that he’ll do anything more than take a small step back. That’s the beauty of Iglesias making a small step above his average seem so extraordinary. He’s turned his normal into something beautiful.

13 Responses

  1. Scott C

    The “Cheerleader Effect” RLN is not the place I thought I would see a Barney Stinson quoted but I can certainly see the application. Good facts laid out. When I first saw the signing and looked at Iglesias’ stat line my initial thought was that if he could maintain that with the Reds and stay at his defensive level, we will have an upgrade at SS. I have no problem with Peraza but I still feel that his offense last year was an outlier. He still has the same issue at swinging at pitches outside the strike zone that he always has. His walk rate is still terribly below average. His defense is still sub par particularly at short. I believe the Reds can live and thrive with a weak hitting defensive shortstop as long as there is offense at the other 7 positions and at this point we have it (at least potentially) at 6 of the other positions. Catcher being the other weak position. I would be fine with signing Iglesias to a 2 year contract knowing what we have.

    • sultanofswaff

      Indeed, Iglesias’ defense will age well given that his floor is so stinkin’ high. Will make an excellent backup at 2B/SS on a playoff caliber team. I would think he’s open to a 2 year extension given his recent foray into free agency. Second basemen are a dime a dozen, but shortstops who can hit are very very valuable. For that reason, Senzel is my guy. It frees up Trammell for CF as well. You slide Tyler Stephenson in behind the dish and all of the sudden you’re quite strong up the middle with high ceiling/high draft picks. Pair that with our controllable ace starting pitcher and now you’re really onto something.

      • lwblogger2

        But Sultan, they don’t think he Senzel can play SS every day in MLB. They don’t think he has the defensive chops. There are a ton of things I will argue with the Reds on but when it comes to evaluation of what a player can handle defensively, I will trust their judgement on it. They have all the data. They’ve seen him way more than pretty much anyone else have seen him. They have Larkin and Benevides and others watching him take grounder after grounder, watching his footwork, how he moves laterally, and his throws. They evaluate how he goes back on the ball and how quick his first step is. They also look at his history, where he played some SS in NCAA but when the team’s regular SS returned, he moved back to 3B. His NCAA coach thinks he can do it but what is he supposed to say?

        I trust the Reds on this one. Senzel is very likely not a SS if they don’t think he is.

  2. BigRedMike

    Jose’s offensive numbers are not too far from his career, the BABIP is higher as you noted.
    Jose is 12th in Defense at SS on Fangraphs and 18th in WAR.
    He is doing fine, not sure there is any need to rush to extend him. As noted, a decent back up player, not a starter that will help get the Reds out of last place.

    • Pete

      You raise very good points. Something to consider: if Jose is not the shortstop then who is? Also, the Reds really need a better catcher and possibly a new first baseman. To me the important thing with Jose is the cost of a contract. If it is team friendly, I say go for it.

      • BigRedMike

        The Reds likely think Peraza is still the SS of the future.
        Jose might be a good option going forward. That can be addressed after the season, no real need to extend him right now. What if his hitting goes downhill?
        At some point, the Reds need to have difference makers at multiple positions instead of just alright. There is a reason why the Reds continue to finish in last place in the division. Talent

    • BigRedMike

      Having him as a utility player would be a great option. Peraza is struggling and might not be the answer. He is cost controlled and could improve.
      At some point, the Reds need to develop young position players that a difference makers. If not, last place finishes in the NL Central will continue.
      Starters like Barnhart, Iglesias, Schebler, Puig, and a declining Votto is not going to compete with the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals.

  3. John Ramos

    Good point, who care how hard is hit ,if it’s caught by the first baseman. A soft liner to left is a hit. The guy who
    Smoked it is sitting on the bench and the soft liner is on first base. Please give me not stats I can tear apart
    The Coachjohn

    • Doug Gray

      We should all care how hard it is hit since how hard it’s hit tells us that the process was good, even if the result wasn’t. Keep hitting the baseball hard and the hits are going to come. Keep hitting it soft and even if that specific one did fall in, they won’t keep doing that.

    • Bill J

      I’m with you John, a soft bloop single over the infield to bring in the winning run is just as good as 430 foot home run that wins the game.

  4. BigRedMike

    Most teams have young talented players and are bringing them up earlier all the time.
    The Reds will need to start developing some players as the Free Agent market is shrinking quickly. Teams are locking up their young players.
    The advantage to developing players is that they can be utilized in trades in addition to playing on the 25 man roster.
    Suarez, Senzel, Castillo, Gray, maybe Winker are the core. Votto is declining. SS has no above average talent coming, Catcher is likely irrelevant anyway, just have a good defensive player at that position.
    The Rays are substantially better than the Reds and are doing it with a lower payroll. The Twins have developed a great core of young players and are utilizing them.
    The Reds are heading to another last place finish for a reason.

    • Roger Garrett

      The Reds always have guys a couple of years away.They did the same with Winker.Senzel is the first guy since Bruce who was brought up and put on the field to play right now.The rest come up to get coffee and doughnuts.The kid that was tearing it up came up and maybe has one start.Why do silly stuff like that and at the same time use Peraza to spell Winker and Iggy and Dietrich.Don’t we know about Peraza?Wouldn’t it be a good thing to give Van Meter 5 or 6 starts in a row somewhere or how about Siri who is hitting at AA and we know he has the speed and plays centerfield.The Reds wait and wait and hoping a guy gets to be a super star in the minors,which rarely happens or until he gets to be 27 years old.They waited 5 years on Billy and now are watching Peraza in year 3 do the same things while others set and watch.Just don’t get how some get unlimited years and chances while others get nothing.

  5. Brian S Jolley

    As long as he can out hit Tucker Barnhart his glove makes him worth it. Man, is he smooth and impressive on defense. I don’ t remember seeing anyone play SS like he has the first 40 games of the season.