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.