Romanticizing Sacrifice

The sacrifice bunt has been much maligned in recent years. (via Dirk Hansen)

The sacrifice bunt has been much maligned in recent years. (via Dirk Hansen)

In both baseball and macroeconomics, there is a passed-down supposed wisdom that comes from the late 1970s and early 1980s that holds back modern thought. These schools share a common ideology, likening suffering to eating your green vegetables: if something feels bad, then it must be good for you.

In baseball, this is the concept of avoiding the big, flashy plays at the expense of gritty moves with less glamour. The sacrifice bunt is the ultimate green vegetable in baseball. It may be fun to swing for the fences, but if you give yourself up for the team and make the play that won’t show up on ESPN, you will get a pat on the back from the sages who played the game in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In macroeconomics, contractionary policies are the green vegetables that get rewarded. But in baseball, sacrifice bunting is giving up one of your outs. If you raise interest rates or cut your budget in a recession, you have cut public spending—a bad idea when low total spending is the problem you should be solving. But doing the “tough” thing, foregoing what seems easy, is rewarded. Perhaps there is a cultural link between the two, something that happened in the 1980s that drove people toward romanticizing sacrifice.

Home runs were rarer in baseball before the 1990s. In the low run scoring environment of the late 1970s and early 1980s, teams could not afford to swing for the fences and wait for the long ball to change the game. Sacrifice bunting, hitting the ball to right to move runners over, and stealing bases became the way to win games. As the league home run rate grew in the 1990s, giving away outs was no longer the best approach. You wanted players to swing hard more often. Choking up with two strikes was not the right approach for a lot of players. But for men who played the game a decade or two earlier, the virtue of sacrifice seemed to have disappeared.

Runaway inflation was a persistent problem for the United States economy in the 1970s. This was solved by tight monetary policy. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in the early 1980s until inflation fell. This was unpopular, because raising interest rates hurts spending. Indebted farmers drove their tractors onto C Street NW in Washington DC to blockade the Fed’s building in protest. But this tough policy was the right approach at the time, and inflation has never returned to those levels again. That does not mean this policy can solve all problems, but many people who lived through this period see low interest rates as a vice that causes problems, and raising rates as a virtue. Paul Krugman calls these the Very Serious People, a concept whose definition has been somewhat controversial lately, but which is mainly defined as people who present facile common sense as Great Wisdom. Very Serious People continued to warn throughout the Great Recession that the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy would lead to soaring inflation. It has actually been consistently lower than the Fed’s two percent target.

The common link here is the concept of sacrifice as a virtue, even when sacrifice is detrimental. Sometimes you’re just giving away outs. Sometimes, the malcontent power hitter who swings for the fences is better than the guy who “plays the game the right way.” Sometimes you’re just smothering your economy when it can hardly breathe.

It’s not just sacrifice bunting where this attitude is pervasive in baseball. Baseball teams constantly make other sacrifices in an effort to seem “Very Serious.” Right-handed hitters are encouraged to hit the ball to right field to move runners, and power hitters are often criticized for being so undisciplined as to swing for the fences. Similarly, left-handed hitters who face the shift are encouraged to actually hit the ball weakly to the left side to get on base. The peculiarity of this is that the more logical alternative to avoiding ground outs to right field would be to encourage southpaw sluggers to hit fly balls to right field—something that does not require they learn a new skill set, as Dirk Hayhurst has pointed out. However, the restraint required to forego the opportunity for a flashy home run is a virtue, so ground balls to left field are seen as a more exemplary alternative than fly balls to right field.

“Productive outs” is a common refrain from announcers, such as moving a runner from second to third base while making the first out. Never mind that a team’s run expectancy goes down when a hitter does that—it’s a virtue to sacrifice.

Outs are not the only things that players are encouraged to sacrifice, despite better evidence otherwise. Before blocking the plate was against the rules, catchers were encouraged to sacrifice their bodies to lower the odds ever so slightly of a single run—and teams felt the need to communicate otherwise if catchers were not to block the plate. Several catchers have seen their seasons end this way. Pitchers are often encouraged to pitch through pain and conceal injuries. The extremely high pitch counts of yesteryear are recalled fondly by those who remember the feeling of a pitcher giving it his all.

Even players who are clearly inferior but appear to play the game in some sort of admirable way are looked upon fondly. Backup middle infielders with solid gloves but little hitting skill are often referred to as secret MVPs of their teams. Playing defense well in spite of poor offense is treated as virtue. Pitchers who throw slower are often celebrated for their prowess at deception and movement, despite the fact that pitchers who throw faster are consistently better performers on average and actually are more likely to improve. The feeling people get from the scrappy pitcher getting by on smoke and mirrors is often more positive than the flashier whiffs generated by high velocity.

In baseball, these various forms of sacrifice are glamorized. In macroeconomics, raising interest rates or cutting budgets is lionized. Those can be good policies, but not when the problem is that consumers and businesses are reluctant to spend.

Lots of people lionize the policies that worked when they were young. Scott Sumner talks here about how policymakers that grew up in the Great Depression viewed low spending levels and associated unemployment as the problem that always required fighting—even when the problem was inflation when they became world leaders. He talks about how policymakers that grew of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s viewed inflation as the great evil that required targeting, even now that they are world leaders when inflation has been low. And then he opines that future policymakers will view bubble-popping as the great goal of policy. That is probably true, and it is natural to apply last generation’s strategies to this generation’s problems. But there is something oddly specific about the glamorization of sacrifice that links the same time period in baseball and macroeconomics.

Perhaps cultural change that occurred as baseball’s Steroid Era and the economy’s big finance era emerged hardened the views of old men who were of age during different eras. As cable television spread through the country, ESPN changed the way baseball was consumed. Highlight reels full of big home runs boiled down the game into the big moments. Moving the runner over got lost in the shuffle—many casual fans never saw this. For players and fans who watched the game before cable, the smaller things seemed to be ignored. As the finance industry and income inequality grew, policies like raising rates—that punished markets but were good for the economy—became virtuous. The era of “Greed is Good” and era of the ESPNization of baseball seemed to move away from strategies that worked a generation earlier. Seeing people ignoring gritty players and apply expansionary economic policy made the older generation recall a nobler time.

There is nothing inherently wrong with sacrifice. Moving the runner over can help you win a game. It is often a wise move if home runs are scarce. Cutting budgets or raising rates can make an economy healthier too. But when run scoring is higher and when the economy is depressed, these strategies do not fit. When someone makes a tough recommendation, “give yourself up for the team” or “raise unemployment to make the economy healthier,” they seem like they like they are suggesting the tough, right thing. They seem like they’re telling you to forego a candy bar and eat your green vegetables instead. But sometimes, when your blood sugar is low, a candy bar is just what you need—even if it seems like surrendering to vice.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Matt writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and models arbitration salaries for MLB Trade Rumors. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Swa.
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Mark L
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Mark L

I like this article, thanks (even if, as a socialist, I’d suggest an entirely different way of doing things than raising and lowering certain rates). But…didn’t BP do a chapter in their book about how bunting is only useful in very limited circumstances? Like, bottom of the 9th, down by 1, no outs, guys on first and second.

Even as a relatively new fan, it made sense immediately that an out was way more precious than a base.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWQbN0jFo_k&sns=em
Here is Earl Weaver philosophizing about the virtues of “small ball.”
Basketball also has its variant of this school of thought. The good player shuns the 15 foot jumper and passes the ball inside so a 7 footer can jam it. Call it the Un Pete Maravich style

tz
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tz

The basketball analogy is actually a good lead-in to the game-theory value of the sacrifice, as discussed by Mitchel Lichtman in “The Book”. If you’re a Pete Maravich type and want to score 30 points a game, you should pass the ball often enough that the defense doesn’t adjust to you with a double or triple-team. Similarly, if you’re a pass-first point guard, you should take enough shots that the defense doesn’t play off you and clog up your potential passing lanes. Likewise, by occasionally sacrificing when the theoretical WPA value doesn’t justify it, you force the defense to draw… Read more »

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Some of this is a remnant of our Puritan heritage, where sacrifice is inherently good. This, despite the fact that very few people actually choose sacrifice; rather it’s typically having other people sacrifice for the common good-generally, poor people. What’s interesting to me, philosophically, is that sports is sort of the last refuge of the “sacrifice for the common good” theme. This is manifested by things like the sacrifice bunt, but also in fans’ approach to players’ salaries. A lot of sports fans-who would never think of giving up they gas guzzlers or much of anything else for the common… Read more »

Rick Groves
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Rick Groves

Our Protestant/immigrant ethic of painful sacrifice for supposed long-term gain is a cultural heuristic that seems to short-circuit actual critical thought. This was a fascinating connection I hadn’t considered. One aspect of this you perhaps thought about but didn’t include: the bias toward action. That is, we have a tendency to prefer solutions that we can actively enact rather than passively await. The sacrifice bunt isn’t just seen as the team-first move because of its sacrifice, but because it is visual evidence that the player was thinking about his team. Likewise, austerity in times of depression is a much more… Read more »

Mike
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Mike

So if I don’t like bunting, I also have to be a Neo-Keynesian idiot?

Randy
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Randy

“Playing defense well in spite of poor offense is treated as virtue. Pitchers who throw slower are often celebrated for their prowess at deception and movement, despite the fact that pitchers who throw faster are consistently better performers on average and actually are more likely to improve. The feeling people get from the scrappy pitcher getting by on smoke and mirrors is often more positive than the flashier whiffs generated by high velocity.” There’s probably a vicarious element to this. When you see a guy who’s 5’9″, or a guy who throws 88, you can relate to them a little… Read more »

DJG
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DJG

I really enjoyed this article. Another area in which you see this is the “lack-of-hustle player.” That Robinson Cano doesn’t sprint on every (almost) meaningless ground ball might help explain why he’s played almost every game the past nine years. Contrast this with, say, Bryce Harper who has yet to play more than 140 games in a season.

Fans don’t like to hear it, but maybe Ricky Watters was on to something with his “For who? For what?” quote.

Tesseract
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Tesseract

I am a believer of hustling. You don’t need to kill yourself running every time, but if a player is too “tired” to run at close to full speed 4 times per night maybe he should not be a professional athlete, IMO. Catchers are the only ones that should get a break.

Dave Kingman
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Dave Kingman

This dude and Tyler Drenon should get together in Portlandia and have a hippie love child. Cutting public spending is bad? Quoting Paul Krugman? Throwing out ridiculous straw-man arguments like “unemployment is good….” that nobody believes, except for the talking heads on MSNBC? And you.

Dude, come out of your parents’ basement and get a real job. This drivel is an unfortunate indictment on the impact the public teachers’ unions have had on an entire generation of American children.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

So, Paul Krugman, who, I believe has won a Nobel Prize is not worth listening to? Only conservatives can have something to say? And your only argument is that people who disagree with you are hippies? It’s the same kind of bullshit austerity thinking that is why Europe is in so much trouble. As for cutting spending; even most conservative economists would acknowledge that cutting spending during a recession is a bad idea. Dave, why don’t you get your head out of your ass and start doing something besides listening to Rush Limbaugh? All conservatives know how to do, apparently,… Read more »

yurzet
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yurzet

Marc, please don’t generalize conservatives. I don’t like the general mix of political views in most of the media (a slight majority of which is in the most liberal third of the spectrum), but I can appreciate a well-thought out article when it comes along an Matt has actually stayed objective enough in explaining his analogy that I enjoyed the article. Normally, when a sports or entertainment article goes political, whether I disagree or not with the author, I check out and feel cheated that someone’s sneaking a political cheapshot into one of my few respites from such controversy. Kudos… Read more »

obsessivegiantscompulsive
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I love the article and the analogy of baseball and economics. I guess it helps me both to have lived through both periods (for example, a joke back then was “it’s a recession when your neighbor is laid off; a depression when you are laid off”), as well as have a degree in economics. But I would note that the sacrifice was not solely a 1970’s thing, that’s been around almost forever, since the early days of baseball. Hence why sacrifice bunts and sacrifice flies are not counted against the batter in his batting average. But to your point, it… Read more »