“The Shift” Grounds Analytics in the Human, and Vice Versa

Sabermetrics as a discipline finds itself in a sort of odd spot at the moment. There are still mysteries to solve, but a lot of the biggest breakthroughs appear to have been made already. Every team employs statisticians and analysts. The nerds won. What remains to discover lays either at the margins, in complex mixed models, or within the murky realm of Statcast data.

Given that, a reader of baseball literature might look at Russell Carleton’s new book, The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking, and wonder how essential it is. But while The Shift sometimes uses familiar debates as grist for the mill, it proves itself to be a vital new entry in the genre.

Early on, in a discussion of the controversial 2012 AL MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, Carleton frames the central purpose of sabermetrics by saying:

If we’re to understand baseball–or anything–better, then the way to do that is with better questions. Before you answer any question, question the question first. If you want to understand sabermetrics, you don’t need to fully understand the math. You just need to hold on to the moment of doubt that comes from wondering why batting average doesn’t include walks. Why are we asking a question that pretends that something that really did happen never happened? If a question itself doesn’t make sense, then the answer to that question isn’t worth much. That’s the real goal of sabermetrics. It’s not creating Byzantine numbers for the sake of creating them. It’s about asking better questions about baseball. The math works itself out.”

Asking better questions about baseball is the book’s central project, as is expanding our understanding of where the answers for those questions might come from. That isn’t so unusual for a statistically inclined writer. What makes the book sing is Carleton’s own expertise in both analytics and clinical psychology. At various points, he refocuses the unit of analysis onto the people who play the game–not just as technicians or tacticians of baseball, but as human beings who go to work every day, with rich and shifting inner lives, and bodies and brains that are constantly changing in the very years when they are their most physically productive.

It allows Carleton to explore a fresh angle. We tend to think of pre-sabermetric baseball knowledge as mostly guided by tradition and intuition. Of course, tradition and intuition often fail us as we endeavor to make decisions informed by rigorous analysis. As such, the sabermetrically inclined analyst can be a bit distrusting of people and the humanity they bring with them. What Carleton’s book invites us to consider is: What if the so-called human element, properly interrogated, is itself a rich and compelling data set?

Carleton is still critical of bad strategy and bad math; there is no argument for sacrifice bunting here. “There is a middle ground somewhere between viewing baseball players as random number generators and viewing them as fairy tale characters. That’s where we find the real ‘human element.’ It’s possible to appreciate the humanity in a baseball player and be scientific about it.”

We shouldn’t tip too far into that humanity, but appreciating the scientific basis for human cognition and critical reasoning allows Carleton to offer fuller answers to traditional sabermetric questions. The book works through a number of sabermetrics’ most intense debates– the shift, managerial decision making, optimal base running– but brings to them something new. When considering whether David Ortiz, who as a pull hitter sometimes experienced rather extreme shifting, ought to have occasionally bunted against the shift for base hits, Carleton doesn’t simply calculate the point at which the run expectancy of a bunt single outweighed that of swinging away, or explore the underlying statistical wisdom of the shift as a strategy, and pronounce an answer. Instead, he folds statistical detail into a broader understanding of how humans process risk vs. reward; how they overvalue recent information; and even how cultural forces like masculine pride might lead a player to make suboptimal decisions.

The combination of statistical analysis with topics that might be more familiar to behavioral scientists and neurologists reclassifies players’ lived experiences, psychology, and cognition, shifting it away from the realm of squishy feeling and transforming it into new sources of baseball understanding, there for the unlocking if we only ask the right sorts of questions and are willing to live with complex answers.

A pickoff move then isn’t just a matter of how quickly the pitcher gets the ball to the first baseman or the anticipated speed of the runner or how large a secondary lead the runner takes. It is also about the real, measurable psychological effect such an action has on the runner, and whether, having made it safely back to the bag, he will take the same size lead again.

Later, Carleton objects to the new intentional walk rule on very specific grounds– throwing four pitches the batter to recognize that something unusual and important was happening, the way slow motion might in a movie)– and in so doing, comes upon another animating principle of the book: “What might seem irrelevant, like the nitrogen gas that we breathe in and breathe right back out, turns out to have a profound effect that few bothered to notice. There aren’t any unimportant pieces. There are just pieces that we haven’t yet given their proper attention.”

In an era when we can measure more and smaller bits of information, Carleton challenges us to recognize there are entire aspects of those who play the game that we aren’t currently accounting for, even as teams are. I wouldn’t have necessarily thought to describe “good makeup” in the psychological vernacular of having good emotional regulation skills or a well developed prefrontal cortex, but I do now. Sometimes we have to revisit the things we think we know in order to give them their proper attention.

Tales of baseball analysis are colored by stories from Carleton’s own life, giving the book a lived-in quality that isn’t always present in tomes produced by WAR devotees. This is as much a memoir detailing a fan and analyst’s love affair with baseball as it is a statistical analysis or psychological case study, with each piece bolstering the other and offering readers different entry points into a complex subject.

He deftly weaves the Trolley Problem, a classic thought experiment from ethical philosophy, with statististics on steal attempts and Kansas City Royals’ third base coach Mike Jirschele’s fateful decision not to send Alex Gordon in the 2014 World Series to describe the tendency of third base coaches to be too conservative when sending runners. Why are they too conservative? Carleton theorizes the risk attendant with one of a third base coach’s most important responsibilities (that of a sent runner being thrown out) “feels icky”; humans recoil from proactively causing harm, whether it is giving up a needed run, or flipping a trolley signal and killing one person to save five.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

What Carleton does so well here is to ground a relatable human experience in both statistical fact and psychological insight. We believe the conclusions he reaches because they are arrived at using rigorous methods, but we also come to understand something new about what causes a familiar dilemma. We also walk away with a solution: that we, along with the baseball men we watch, should push through feelings of ickiness when the math tells us it is the smart thing to do.

As with any book that strives for mass appeal, there are moments when ardent FanGraphs or Hardball Times readers may find themselves revisiting well-trod ground. The second chapter, for example, is devoted to familiarizing the uninitiated with core mathematical concepts common to both general statistics and baseball analytics. It is a testament to the quality of Carleton’s prose that these sections, which could so easily drag with the burden of the familiar, instead breeze by.

And I wish we could have lingered longer on some of the cases where Carleton’s past clinical work and obvious expertise in psychology came into sharper relief. I could have read another fifty pages on minor leaguers’ cognitive and emotional development or the mechanisms smart teams are putting in place to support players not only as ballplayers but as young people. But it is perhaps an unreasonable expectation; with such a massive topic, no book could do justice to it all, and the depth he is able to bring to the subject is to Carleton’s credit.

Ultimately, what Carleton succeeds in doing isn’t just illuminating human psychology or advanced analytics, though he certainly sheds new light on both. Rather the book’s real accomplishment is in reminding us that how we ask our questions matters, and that even in a time when many obvious questions have been answered, players’ humanity provides us with a whole host of new ones and a font of data from which to go about answering them.

In the interests of full disclosure, Carleton and I used to be colleagues at Baseball Prospectus, during which time I always endeavored to read the “Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!” sections of his Baseball Therapy columns, because science has convinced me I should eat my vegetables. I recommend you do the same.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.
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5 years ago

This is the first book since Moneyball that really has challenged me to look at baseball in a different way. There are lots of books out there about sabermetrics and its impact on the game, but Carleton’s approach in adding the human element has led me to even deeper thinking about seemingly small moments in a ballgame and management decisions.

5 years ago

I want this book, looks as good as Larry Schechter’s – Winning Fantasy Baseball

5 years ago

I now HAVE to read this book. Thanks for an intriguing review to the essay typer, you tried hard to shed light on the plot.

5 years ago

It’s not making Byzantine numbers for making them. It’s tied in with making better inquiries about baseball. Do My Homework For Money. The math works itself out.