Everett Teaford remembers the executive’s curious gaze across the room. Teaford, a former major league pitcher, had joined the Houston Astros in early 2016 as a professional scout, and at an organizational meeting, his new colleague Sig Mejdal glanced at him.
When the group adjourned, Mejdal, then a senior Astros manager, approached Teaford and declared his interest. A decade earlier, when Mejdal was an analyst with the St. Louis Cardinals, his preliminary statistical model had given an optimistic forecast for Teaford’s future career. Teaford, then a Georgia Southern left-hander, had a brilliant statistical résumé – he had a 5-1 record in the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer and an earned run average of 1.84 – that made his stature fit Agreement made.
Teaford is 6 feet tall, but he was skinny for a professional and weighed 160 pounds “on my heaviest day,” he recalled. When giving the backstory, Mejdal Teaford explained, “Well, one of the biggest problems was that the cross-checker thought you were working on the ground crew.” He was referring to the area surveillance scout who saw Teaford see the hill without his uniform scratched.
Baseball is littered with examples of different body types – Astro’s second baseman Jose Altuve (5-foot-6) and Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge (6-7) finished the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player Award 2-1 – but also cognitively Prejudice can cloud judgment. In Teaford’s case, the scouting score was predisposed to a mental abbreviation called the representativity heuristic, first defined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In such cases, a rating is heavily influenced by what is considered the standard or ideal.
“When we look at the players who play the national anthem, it’s hard to see that some of these guys are anything but stereotypical or prototypical,” said Mejdal. “Yet our minds are still drawn to stereotypes and prototypes rather loudly.”
Kahneman, professor emeritus at Princeton University and a 2002 Nobel laureate in economics, later wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book that has become indispensable in many baseball front offices and coaches.
There aren’t many explicit references to baseball in “Think Fast and Slow,” but many leaders swear by it. It was widely used in the front offices of the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles, and Astros, among others. But there is no more passionate student in the band than Mejdal, a former NASA biomathematist who holds a master’s degree in both cognitive psychology and operations research.
“Pretty much everywhere I go, I bother people. ‘Have you read that?'” Said Mejdal, now Deputy General Manager at the Baltimore Orioles. “From coaches to front office people, some come back to me and say that this has changed their lives. You never see decisions the same way. But others have said, ‘Sig, thank you, but please don’t recommend another book to me.’ “
However, some swear by it. Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations for the Dodgers, recently quoted the book as “really in-depth” and said he thinks about it when evaluating organizational processes. Keith Law, a former manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, wrote the book Inside Game – an investigation into bias and decision-making in baseball – which was inspired by “Think Fast and Slow.” Law said he found it through a suggestion from Mejdal.
John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations for the St. Louis Cardinals, views the book as illustrative.
“Since the decision tree in baseball has changed over time, we can all better understand why it needed to be changed,” Mozeliak wrote in an email. He said this is particularly the case when “working in a company where many decisions are based on what we see, what we remember and what is intuitive to our thinking”.
Sam Fuld, the new general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, said reading “Think Fast And Slow” is a great reminder to be aware of your own basic human errors. He plans to start a front-office book club in Philadelphia that could include Kahneman’s work as well as titles by Adam Grant, Carol Dweck, and others.
Teaford, who proved his skeptics wrong after the 12th round election, is now the pitching coordinator for the Chicago White Sox. He recommends his coaches read Kahneman’s book, although he was initially skeptical of Mejdal’s suggestion, saying, “Can a man who has not studied fully in Georgia Southern understand this book that Mr. NASA was talking about?”
The central thesis of Kahneman’s book is the interplay of system 1 and system 2 of each mind, which he called “psychodrama with two characters”. System 1 is a person’s instinctive response – one that can be improved by expertise, but is automatic and quick. It seeks coherence and applies relevant memories to explain events. System 2, meanwhile, is used for more complex, thoughtful considerations – it is characterized by slower, more rational analysis but is prone to laziness and fatigue.
During his tenure as a college coach, Joe Haumacher, a minor league pitching coach for the Orioles, used to pursue a policy that he would only take with a player if he could offer his undivided attention. He wondered if that was fair, but reading “Think Fast and Slow” helped Haumacher understand his reasons.
Kahneman wrote that if System 2 was overloaded, System 1 could make an impulse decision, often at the expense of self-control. In one experiment, subjects were asked to do a task that required cognitive effort – remembering a seven-digit number – and then given a choice of chocolate cake or fruit salad for dessert. The majority chose the cake.
“I don’t want to get into a situation where I’m halfway through an issue. Then I talk to a player and give him the answer to the chocolate cake he may be looking for compared to the answer to the fruit salad he probably needs, ”said Haumacher.
No area of baseball is more prone to bias than scouting, in which organizations aggregate information from a variety of sources: statistical models, subjective ratings, state of mind characterizations, and more. Kahneman emphasized the importance of maintaining independence from judgments in order to decorrelate mistakes – that is, to separate inputs so that one does not influence the other.
“The independent opinion aspect is critical to avoiding the group think and becoming aware of the dynamics,” said Josh Byrnes, senior vice president, Dodgers. “There is a certain purity in how the information is collected and how it is ultimately weighed.”
Matt Blood, the director of player development for the Orioles, first read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” as a Scout for the Cardinals Area nine years ago and said he still consults it regularly. He worked with a Cardinals analyst to develop his own scouting algorithm as a tripwire to mitigate distortion. He also urges caution with regard to the common practice of handing out “comps” (scouting jargon for comparisons) from a young player to an established professional.
“We have a tendency to compare a player to what we’ve seen in the past or to a player who plays in the major leagues and suddenly everything about this amateur player looks and feels like it is in this major league Player, ”said Blood. “And that’s dangerous.”
Mejdal himself fell victim to the representativity heuristic trap when he started the Cardinals in 2005. His first draft model projected Stanford’s Jed Lowrie as the best available player. Mejdal lived nearby and visited that “conceited Paul Bunyan of a second baseman,” he recalled, only to find a player who seemed too small even for a college field.
Mejdal had just quit his job at NASA and doubted his analysis of what triggered a panic attack in the Stanford stands. “I remember the breakup described by Kahneman,” he said, adding that it took a few hours to identify his mental misstep. Remembering Lowrie’s greatness didn’t change the fact that he won the three-time Pac-10 conference crown for his sophomore year.
Despite the interest of baseball players, the book contains only one notable reference to the sport: a paragraph explaining the premise of Michael Lewis’ bestseller “Moneyball”.
Lewis later wrote “The Undoing Project” on the work of Kahneman and Tversky (who died in 1996) as the direct result of a “Moneyball” book review in which two scholars found that the market inefficiencies in baseball could be explained by their cognitive psychology research Psychologists. Lewis later wrote in Vanity Fair: “It wasn’t long before I found out that Kahneman and Tversky had made my baseball story possible in a less cumbersome way.”
Kahneman, 86, declined to be interviewed for this article. He said he didn’t know enough about baseball. However, baseball knows a lot about him.