Major League Baseball Cares About Integrity And I Wish This Proved It…But It Doesn’t

I know this will be a shock, Henry, but there's forest here, not just trees...

I know this will be a shock, Henry, but there’s forest here, not just trees…

On Baseball Prospectus, one of the scholarly baseball sites, Henry Druschel has a provocative, inspiring and ultimately silly post pointing out that if baseball teams were only concerned with winning, they would forfeit games for strategic purposes, yet they literally never do. He writes…

“Teams are almost certainly harming their long-term win rates in a meaningful way by playing until every out of every game has been recorded. For example, the Red Sox encountered a grueling quirk of the schedule on Wednesday night, when they were scheduled to play the Orioles at 7:05 p.m. before traveling to Detroit and playing the Tigers at 1:10 p.m. the next day. When it began to pour in Baltimore at roughly 9:00 p.m., the Red Sox were leading 8-1 after six innings, but imagine if the situation was reversed, and Boston was instead trailing 8-1 with three innings to go. Their odds of coming back to win such a game would be something like 0.5 percent. In such a scenario, they could either wait in the clubhouse until the game was either resumed or officially cancelled, or they could forfeit as soon as the rain began, and head for the airport and Detroit right away. In the non-hypothetical game, the rain delay lasted about 80 minutes before the game was officially called; it seems obvious that an extra hour and a half of rest before the next game would add more to a trailing Boston’s total expected wins than remaining in Baltimore and hoping for a miracle would. That might seem like a corner case, and truthfully, it is; I bring it up to note that no one would even consider a forfeit in such a scenario, despite the strategic logic of the move. This isn’t limited to corner cases, however; every time a position player enters a baseball game as a pitcher in a blowout, teams are harming their long-term expected win totals by not forfeiting instead….”

The writer concludes:

Given that forfeitures would be win-maximizing in certain cases, and given that teams choose never to strategically forfeit regardless, there are two possible conclusions. One: Teams are behaving irrationally. Given the immense value even a single win can have to a franchise, I feel confident stating that this is not the case. That leaves the second conclusion: There is something the team values more than winning as much as possible. There is a societal norm that places something—a competitive ideal, maybe, or just completion—over winning, a norm that would be violated by a strategic forfeit, and a norm that teams invariably follow.

As someone who values other things over winning, this excites me…

Don’t get too excited, Henry.

Yes, I believe that baseball teams take considered actions sometimes that do not maximize their chances of winning. I was roundly pilloried in baseball circles for an article I wrote in 2008 (for another scholarly baseball site)  which argued that Barry Bonds, the shameless steroid cheat and home run champion who was suddenly a free agent and who could, based on his recent exploits, still hit though well past 40, would not be signed by any team—not even the Yankees!—because doing so would signal to that team’s fans, city, players and organization that the team endorsed flagrant dishonesty as well as a willingness to disregard fairness, integrity and sportsmanship for a few extra wins. I was on a MLB radio show where the host laughed at me. “Of course he’ll be signed! You’re crazy!” were his words. “Just wait,” I said. “If he isn’t signed, it will mean that baseball colluded against him!” he said. “Just wait,” I said.

Bonds, who said he was dying to play, that he was healthy, that he’d play for the Major League minimum, that he’d sue MLB if someone didn’t sign him, never swung a bat in anger again. There was no collusion, either. It was pure cognitive dissonance, you see. Remember the scale?

Cognitive Dissonance

Barry and the rotten values he represents were (and are) near the bottom of the scale in most fans’ eyes. Their favorite teams are high on the scale, along with the U.S.of A, motherhood, and apple pie. The cognitive dissonance caused by a team (high) signing Barry the Juiced Homer King (low) would raise Barry (and cheating) in their values set, but it would also drag the team down, with disastrous long-term results for that team’s  reputation, fan loyalty, self-esteem, attendance, TV ratings, the works. It wasn’t worth the cost, and even if the feeling was only at a gut level for executives who don’t know Dr. Festinger’s scale from a sweet potato, that gut feeling was enough. Good.

Quitting is also low on the scale in American culture and especially American sports culture. Baseball’s legends elevate heroes who did not quit when it was easy or even wise. Ted Williams, on the final day of the 1941 season with his average technically at .400 with a .39955 mark, was advised to sit out the day’s double-header to preserve the achievement. He refused; he said he didn’t want to just technically hit .400, while sitting on the bench. He played both games, risking the goal he had chased all season long, and ended up with an indisputable .406 mark, and as the Last of the .400 Hitters to this day.

There are so many similar tales at the core of the sport: Kirk Gibson limping to home plate to pinch hit in the 9th inning in the World Series, and hitting a game-winning home run…broken down and maybe drunk pitching great Grover Cleveland Alexander summoned from the bullpen to save another World Series game (1926) by striking  out Tony Lazzeri.  Baseball especially is about players coming through when they seem cooked, and teams winning when they seem beaten. Forfeiting a game that can still be won, however long the odds, strikes at the heart of the baseball’s values and the reason why everyone involved got in the game to begin with.

Never mind impugning integrity; quitting models cowardice and weakness, and being a weenie. Athletes hate looking like weenies, and fans hate rooting for them when they do.

In addition, those games that can’t be won without .05% events coming to pass are won, every season, and they are the games everyone remembers and goes to games in the hope of seeing. The Baseball Prospectus  article is further proof that many  stats fiends don’t understand the game they obsess about.

The stats say that teams almost never win when they are trailing in the 9th inning. Statistically, it’s futile to play at all: why not just forfeit and get some rest? Here’s why: the fans will hate it, the players will hate it, the losing pitcher will hate it, and as soon as it’s done even once, the baseball high command will fine the team so much that no team will even consider such a thing ever again. The manager will probably be fined, suspended or fired. If it happens twice, MLB will make a rule against it with dire penalties.

Why is it exciting to Henry that managers and teams won’t cut their own throats?Trying this tactic will cost money. Is the fact that sometimes players and baseball teams value money over winning a new discovery, or surprising in the least? It is not.

Baseball obviously does value some things besides money more than winning. Here’s another example: look at how the Yankees continued to start Derek Jeter at shortstop all season long in his final year (2014), and continued to bat him at the top of the line-up, when any other shortstop who couldn’t hit or field (and the Yankee icon no longer could do either) would have been treated like Alex Rodriquez just was, told that he could quit immediately or be paid his salary and be chucked away like a used light bulb. The team didn’t do that to Jeter because that’s not how you treat employees who have elevated and ennobled your organization. If you do treat them that way, you will kill loyalty deader than a mackerel.

The forfeit tactic isn’t used because it’s foolish, would harm the team, and is not nearly worth the cost.

11 thoughts on “Major League Baseball Cares About Integrity And I Wish This Proved It…But It Doesn’t

  1. Baseball is called The Great American Pastime for a reason, and part of the reason is that there are some ethical areas that they WILL not give up.

  2. Case in point — that actually happened whilst I was reading this post — Yu Darvish, in his 14th career at bat over 4 seasons with the Texas Rangers, launched a 410 foot home run. That radio broadcasters were agog. It doesn’t happen that often in the AL, but you’ll probably remember Bartolo Colon earlier this year becoming the first player ever in his 40s to hit his first career home run.

    Yeah, it might be .5% chance of coming back from 8-1 down, but we’ve all seen it happen and if it’s your team you’ll talk about it forever. I think, in fact, there was a team earlier this year that was trailing by 6 runs going to the 9th and came back to win it.

    Baseball is at the same time endlessly predictable and endlessly unpredictable. For fans, it’s one reason it has such a hold on us.

  3. Given that forfeitures would be win-maximizing in certain cases, and given that teams choose never to strategically forfeit regardless, there are two possible conclusions. One: Teams are behaving irrationally. Given the immense value even a single win can have to a franchise, I feel confident stating that this is not the case. That leaves the second conclusion: There is something the team values more than winning as much as possible. There is a societal norm that places something—a competitive ideal, maybe, or just completion—over winning, a norm that would be violated by a strategic forfeit, and a norm that teams invariably follow.

    Three: Because this is baseball.

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