The Art of Perception

Regardless of our levels of objectivity, we're all doomed to fall prey to misperceptions and bias from time to time. The key is to question what we believe is true, and take steps to find out if what we see matches with reality.

Adrian Gonzalez - Photo Credit: Samara Pearlstein

Those of you whom have been reading my work for the past 15 months know that one of my favorite things to do is to expose and correct common false perceptions.  It’s not so much that I like proving people wrong.  (Although, I do.)  It’s more so that I enjoy comparing what I anecdotally believe to be true with reality.  As such, I’m sure you can imagine my excitement when I read Pete Abraham’s latest piece titled “Pedroia, Gonzalez, and Perceptions,” a piece specifically designed to break down the walls so many fans and writers have been trying to build up around the slumping slugger.

“Here’s a little lunch time quiz for you.

Red Sox Player A: Is 13 of 33 (.394) with runners in scoring position this season with a .425 in-base percentage and .606 slugging percentage. He has 15 RBIs this season.

He hit .337/.441/.483 with RISP in 2011.

Red Sox Player B: Is 9 of 29 (.310) with runners in scoring position this season with a .375 on-base percentage and a .446 slugging percentage. He has 11 RBIs this season.

He hit .316/.408/.471 with RISP in 2011.

Which is one is scrappy, passionate, ever-so-clutch Dustin Pedroia and which one is Adrian Gonzalez, the emotionless supposed choker who can’t handle Boston?”

This is a pretty fun exercise.  Dave Cameron of Fangraphs is pretty well known for doing such exercises during the offseason when comparing and examining the perception of free agent pitchers and their respective contracts.  Now, Pete Abe gets himself into the mix, and asks a fantastic question.  Of course, the question is leading, and just from the context clues, we can already see where he’s leading.

“Gonzalez is Player A and Pedroia is Player B.

All of us — the media, too — are quick to pin labels on players based on what we think we see and not what is actually true. We extrapolate one important game or one week into a full narrative when it’s only a snapshot.

There’s a book out called “Thinking Fast And Slow” by Nobel-prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman that examines how we’re conditioned to make quick, emotional judgments and then place too much confidence in those judgments.”

The mind, though capable of storing extraordinary amounts of data and memories, is terrible at properly sorting through thousands upon thousands of entries.  For example, over my lifetime, I’ve watched an unbelievable number of baseball games–as have many of you.  While I can remember an awful lot of specific moments in my personal baseball history, I can honestly say I’ve forgotten even more.   My memories largely consist of my most emotional moments as a fan:  the tremendous, the exciting, and the gut wrenching.  The routine, every day plays and the non-descript 5-3 wins and losses all fall to the wayside.  Important things may have happened in those instances, but our minds cast them aside in the same way we eschew drab or dull clothing and jewelry for the flashier variety.

Additionally, as Abraham later mentions in his piece, is that the manner in which certain players are perceived by the media can have a large effect on our views.  One of the best examples I can come up with for this is J.D. Drew.  To many, he came across as lazy and disinterested in the game of baseball.  He was too passive at the plate; avoided making diving plays in right field; and rarely showed emotion on the field.  For a fan base that lives and dies off of the “Dirt Dog” concept, this was a poisonous combination of characteristics.  Once you add a five year $70M contract, underwhelming primary stats, and undervalued skill set; you start to realize he didn’t have a chance in Boston.

Contrary to popular belief, our (collectively) perception was incredibly far off target.  Drew wasn’t lazy or disinterested, he was introverted.  Unfortunately, we live in the age of Sports Center where we’ve watched Barry Bonds do his patented walk after hitting a bomb; Kevin Youkilis get noticeably angry after every called strike; and Ozzie Guillen share his colorful quotations with the media.  On ESPN and MLB Network, we see former extroverted players like Kevin Millar, John Kruk, Rick Sutcliffe, Mitch Williams, Curt Schilling, and Sean Casey (none of whom are shy about sharing their opinion) serve as analysts.  After awhile, we’ve come to expect all athletes to be cocky, gregarious, and overly emotional.  As a result, it’s not hard to understand how we’ve lost sight one of the most basic principles of human personality:  everyone is different.  Rather than accept this difference, we criticized him for having a less attractive, but completely unchangeable trait.  By same token, guys like Pedroia are championed because of their desire, and hard nosed style of playing.

Like it or not, Drew’s approach at the plate was a huge factor in his ability to create runs.  He took pitches, worked counts, and drew walks.  While that isn’t a sexy skill, it’s vitally important.  People don’t understand that because of their fundamentally flawed perception of how runs are created (i.e. getting on base).  They’re more interested in run production (read: RBIs), which is really just the aftermath of everything that’s been done before that moment.  The media helped perpetuate this fallacy because they, too, valued the results over the process.

As for his fielding, Drew didn’t dive mostly because he didn’t need to dive.  He was a spectacular outfielder who had good speed, got great jumps, and took excellent routes on fly balls.  Unfortunately, much of this gets lost because his plays appeared to be unspectacular.  We don’t get to see Drew’s initial jump on a fly ball because we’re watching the pitcher/batter interaction.  Then, once our minds recognize contact had been made, it takes us a short moment to pick up the ball.  By that point, Drew (and every other fielder) is nearly half way through the play.  If a play ends in a diving catch, we automatically assume it was a great catch.  While that may be the case, it may also be the result of a horribly flawed played that turned out lucky.  A catch that doesn’t result in a slide, dive, or jump is usually considered routine, when it may actually be excellent defense.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to fully appreciate a fielder’s brilliance (or lack thereof) because it’s impossible not only watch every play from start to finish, but also accurately sort though, classify, and rank every play made by every player during a given season or subset of seasons.  Even if we could do so, personal bias would set in.  Our distaste for a certain player or even a certain team could potentially cloud our evaluation of a player’s skill set.  The debate between Pedroia and Robinson Cano is a great example.  I bet if you asked members of either fan base which player was a better overall player, they’d pick “their” guy.  Does it make them wrong?  Not necessarily, but it doesn’t make them right either.  Why?  Because bias comes into play.  If one really looked at both players objectively, they’d probably find that the two players similarly skilled; albeit in different ways.

Regardless of our levels of objectivity, we’re all doomed to fall prey to misperceptions and bias from time to time.  The key is to question what we believe is true, and take steps to find out if what we see matches with reality.  This isn’t just true in baseball, but in all realms of life.  Accepting conventional wisdown or the status quo gets us nowhere.  One of my favorite quotes is by controversial author and philosopher Ayn Rand:

“Throughout the centuries there were men who took the first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision.”

We’d all benefit from using this same sentiment in our baseball watching and every day lives.

Categories: Adrian Gonzalez Boston Red Sox Dustin Pedroia J.D. Drew Kevin Youkilis Robinson Cano

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

4 Responses to “The Art of Perception” Subscribe

  1. Edd May 11, 2012 at 2:45 AM #

    The problem for Gonzalez is he is NOT okay hitting at .850 OPS just like Pedey did. He is a first baseman and paid 20 millions a year. His ceiling is hitting over .300, 40 HR, 120 RBI or so. But it seems like he was not trying to do so (reach or exceed it). Looking at Papi, he is 5 year older than Gonzalez and still playing hard to make himself better. That' s what I am really disappointed about. And the team is losing.

    • ChipBuck May 11, 2012 at 7:01 AM #

      Wow, Edd. Way to miss the entire point of my article by falling right into the trap of perception without facts. Very nicely done. Your feelings about A-Gon not trying are clouded by your disappointment for both his performance and the team's. In order to assess blame or create meaning, you've pinned it on his "lack of trying" to help you understand. Sometimes a slump is a slump. Sometimes players are introverted and not extroverted. Your penalizing him because you're looking for the simplest answer rather than the correct one. Your opinion is based on armchair psychological philosophy. Unless you're his best friend, teammate, or therapist; I'll just assume you know little about his psychological makeup. I'm not trying to be mean. Just stating a fact.

      • Edd May 13, 2012 at 2:47 AM #

        Alright, I am really sorry. I shouldn’t put my anger at the team totally on A-Gon. He is hitting very well with RISP this year. That also means he is not doing that well without it though.
        But my anger is not based on his or the team’s performance of last month. I can promise you I am not that stupid the last comment seems. I have watched Red Sox’ games since 08’. Even I haven’t watched every game. I still believe you can see people’s attitude through the television screen. You don’t need to be his best friend or something like that to judge he is a good player or not. Certainly, it has its limit. I FEEL the team is not focusing on victory. I FEEL my passion doesn’t deserve this treatment. It’s personal. We love these sports’ games because we aim for excellence, right? (I know somebody is for entertainment) As a result, I am upset in 2012, but only disappointed in 2011.

      • Edd May 13, 2012 at 2:52 AM #

        One reason I am overly angry at A-Gon is we think he is fully healthy this year. And to prepare well for the baseball season is his job, right? That's not hitting an OPS under .700 in the first 30 games.