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….
— Strand Sport Stats (@StrandStats) May 2, 2019
We got a tie ballgame!!!!
— FOX Sports Ohio (@FOXSportsOH) April 11, 2019
….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.