[4/5]

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.

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.

Join the conversation! 40 Comments

  1. *shudder*

  2. 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?

    • 1. Yep, starts with the owner.

      2. Phil Castellini runs the non-baseball side of the organization now. If he’s interested, he’d take over ownership of the team after his father retires.

      3. The non-baseball side of the Reds operation has been modern and aggressive.

      Breaking out of the cycle will take someone (Bob Castellini or the next owner) deciding to modernize the Reds baseball operations. More on that in [5/5].

      • 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.

        • … Like Katie Blackburn and Mike Brown? It’s gonna take a while. 🙁

  3. 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.

    • 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

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

  4. The introductory section about cognitive biases is some of the best stuff ever posted here, be it in regard to sports or anything (everything) else in life.

    • I agree. We all do it too. I do it in baseball evaluation even though I tend to lean more towards analytics than traditional thinking. I still have “my type” of player that I will tend to value more highly than the analytics and statistics say I should. The game isn’t played on a computer or in a vacuum. These are human beings and the numbers don’t say everything. They say an awful lot though and sometimes we may pay attention to our own biases more than what the data about a situation or person says. This is an error, perhaps not in all cases but in many. Just like not playing the odds properly when you gamble and going with your gut. The statistics say the house is going to win, but you know that the card, number, or dice-roll you want is going to come up. Usually, you end up getting burned.

      • LW, did you see that CBJ canned Todd Richards this AM and brought in Tortorella? For you non-hockey folks, this would basically be replacing an (outwardly) easy going guy like B.Price with Pinella in Pinella’s high energy heyday. I think it is worth watching as a possible cross sports example of bringing in a butt kicker to try and “fire up” a talented but underachieving roster that seems to lack effective leadership and sense of direction (sound familiar).

        • Yes, got an alert on the Jackets app on my phone. I am a bit stunned Richards was fired. Yeah, they’ve gotten off to a horrible start but he’s been the winningest coach in team history as far as win%, playoff appearances, and total wins. For hockey though, going with a fiery guy like Tortorella may shake a team up and get them performing better. I’m not sure if that translates as well in baseball. I never performed well for the more high-strung managers/coaches I played for. I always seemed to relax more and play better for guys who were more laid back. Of course, every player is different so what worked for me may not work for another player.

  5. Really good work, Steve.

    I think one of the biggest issues is that Walt values chemistry over depth. Once he has his starting eight position players, he seems to want to fill out the rest of the roster based on his idea that depth and clubhouse chemistry is vital. So he chooses his backups based solely on his evaluation of their character.

    There are lots of problems with this. First off, he tends to only look at guys he’s had experience with. Second, while chemistry may be important, it’s really subjective and a certain type of personality may be great for some teams but bad for others.

    Finally, depth seems to be really important right now. The Dodgers, Cubs, and Cardinals all had really good depth this year and were successful. Even when you look at his “Bash Brothers” teams that he gets so much credit for, they were really paper thin.

    • Meant to say: “fill out the rest of the roster based on his idea that personality and clubhouse chemistry are vital” Not depth, obviously, as the point is that Walt doesn’t value depth.

    • I think you hit on something important when you said that chemistry is “really subjective and a certain type of personality may be great for some teams but bad for others” … Getting that right personality type isn’t even the same for the same team going year-to-year. Also, based on some of what we hear from former players, there are mixed reviews about how successful Jocketty has even been in building the right clubhouse/dugout chemistry. Maybe it’s best to work with what can be quantified first (depth and talent) and then let the chemistry develop?

    • That’s an interesting point. You can’t find chemistry measurements on a FanGraphs player page, or even in your in-house analytics office. That pushes the decision-maker to rely on personal observation more, whether his or someone else’s. Full of bias compared to ISO or BB%.

      • You’re right, Steve. There is no purely objective way to measure it. But the Reds could be more scientific about it.

        I’ve always been skeptical of the value of team chemistry in baseball, but I wouldn’t have nearly as much of a problem with Walt’s “theory of team chemistry” if they were doing something to try and quantity it. Say bringing in experts on group dynamics and psychology or experts on personality traits and how different personalities interact. Who knows? Maybe there is a market inefficiency there that the Reds could use to increase productivity. I kinda doubt it, but there are a lot of cutting edge companies that spend a lot of money on team building seminars.

        But that doesn’t appear to be what they do. Instead it just seems like Walt says “we need a better clubhouse, and this guy was great in the clubhouse in St Louis, so let’s bring him in.” I mean that has to be the reason Skip was brought in, right? We can all discuss Walt’s strengths at player evaluation, but there’s no way he thought that Skip was still a good player, is there?

        • One of the Luhnow quotes from a previous post in this series had him saying something about “character” grading out to a “C” and how did that fit with the metrics. That to me seems pretty close to implicitly acknowledging his (Luhnow) scheme is trying to factor for character which would seem to me to be akin to chemistry.

      • 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.

        • You’re right about Alex Gonzalez. I put his name on the list by looking at the 2009 roster. But he was signed for 2007 and 2008 before Jocketty.

  6. Off-topic but does anyone have thoughts on Domonic Brown? He was outrighted by the Phils and could choose to become a free-agent. Personally, I think he’s got some holes that the league figured out. He is still young though and there is some raw talent to work with. He could be a nice change of scenery candidate. The Reds are rebuilding anyway so maybe you see what he can do for you? Thoughts?

    • Saw last night he was outrighted and also had many of the same thoughts. Can’t be any worse than the cast of AAAA characters the Reds seem destined to work with if they could get him into camp on a minor league deal or a split salary MLB deal.

      • Not sure he’d do a minor league deal because if he was thinking of taking one, he may as well accept the outright. Maybe an incentive laden MLB deal or a split salary deal like you mention. Didn’t know they did that in MLB though.

        • I was reading about minor league salaries a couple of weeks ago and came across a piece that said that 40 man roster guys must be paid at least 80K when in option.

          Also most of the material I came across indicated that guys who have been outrighted often negotiate minor league deals that pay substantially more than the $80K, often comfortably into the 5 figure range. However they are typically the “3rd catcher” or “6th starter” types as opposed to garden variety position guys. The year the Reds had Navarro on ice at AAA, he was supposedly being paid over $500K on the minor league deal.

  7. 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…..

    • DeSclafani is one, as you mention. While I’m not as sold on Eugenio Suarez’s total game as others are, he appears to be at least a well above average utility player and maybe a capable major league middle infielder. Getting that return for Alfredo Simon is great – although I’ve read that the Tigers were the drivers of that trade, not the Reds. I think it’s safe to say that Brandon Finnegan will be a major league player, either in the bullpen or rotation. The latter is worth way more than the former, obviously.

      But yeah, your point is valid. Most of the players the Reds got for the four starters are still unproven.

      • 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.

  8. 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.

    • I think your thoughts on the Cards are spot on. I’m hoping your thoughts on the Reds starting over every October aren’t so spot on but I think you’re probably closer to the truth than what I’m hoping.

    • Great post, Chuck. Sounds very likely!

  9. 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?

    • For Yakult he went 70.33 IP, giving up 52 H, 17 R (16 ER), 22 BB, 62 K, 2.05 ERA. Rate stats are in the per/9IP category and not the % stats I like better but his BB/9 was 2.8, his K/9 was 7.9, and H/9 6.7… I have to think he got lucky on some flyballs because his HR/9 was only 0.3.

      • 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.

        • I’d be surprised if Jocketty didn’t at least consider it. I honestly have no idea how he makes his decisions or what information he goes on though.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. This might be my favorite article of yours, Steve. Thanks for the effort.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. I wouldn’t necessarily call Marshall, and Ludwick successes for Walt. Ludwick was to the point that few teams wanted him. His numbers weren’t too good. He got a hot bat at the right time and took that to an extension, where he promptly got injured soon after that. Marshall was good before he got here, was adequate while here, but we haven’t seen him for most of two years. As well as, all the others were just here for a season or two. No one here, for example, 4-6 years lighting it up. Not much success at all.

    Where Walt’s work breaks down in trades I believe is he is asking for too much in the trades. He is trying to get the best deal he can for us. But, that deal isn’t being good enough for the other teams. I mean, look at the Padres trade for Latos. 4 minor leaguers for Latos? 3 of them higher prospects, and a major league starter? I believe that was a lot for Latos. I still don’t know why we went after Marshall, much less 3 players for him. But, then, look at Cueto’s trade with the Royals. Three left handed pitchers, of that quality? That was a steal.

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About Steve Mancuso

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky's Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve's thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.

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Modern Baseball