The Utility Of Shrugging

Jeff Sullivan · June 6, 2013 at 2:40 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

A few days ago, someone on Twitter asked me if I thought the Nationals had any chance of signing Bryce Harper to a long-term contract. It’s not like I’d just written about Harper, and it’s not like there have been contract rumors, and the Twitterer in question had spent the previous few days suggesting that Harper’s a princess for sitting out injured. But I answered and answered honestly, saying I had no idea. I’m not a Nationals expert, and I don’t have insight on any potential negotiations. The guy responded, just asking for an opinion, any opinion. He wanted me to say something. So, again, I answered as honestly as I could, saying it’s possible but Harper probably wouldn’t give the Nationals a discount. Essentially, insight without being insight. My answer said nothing.

People want opinions. They want strong, certain, oftentimes provocative opinions. This is not a desire to give in to. This is a desire to fight. It’s good to have opinions. It’s great to have opinions! But it’s critically important to recognize when you don’t have an opinion, or when you’re not sufficiently informed. It’s important to not always declare a position on something. It’s important to not be afraid of uncertainty. In this way, trust can be established and built. In this way, actual strong opinions can carry actual weight, standing out from the ordinary baseline.

It seemed like draft day was the right day for this post, because draft day brings out a whole host of strong opinions. Let’s make one thing clear: when it comes to roster construction, drafts are the thing you know about the least. You’re not out there scouting draft-eligible players. Scouting itself is in large part a subjective exercise, which is why so many scouts differ on so many players. There are statistics, but they’re empty, and no one really cares about numbers in high school or college. Numbers matter a lot in the majors, and a little in the minors. Draft-eligible players don’t have a meaningful, statistical track record. If there’s one time to just defer to the organization, it’s when it’s conducting a draft. They know more than you do, by a lot.

But people care, and people care so much. People select favorites, based on their own preferences, and they celebrate when the favorites are taken and flip out when they’re missed or passed up. It’s not sensible behavior. You know how you think college players are better investments than high schoolers? They’re not. You know how you’d probably rather have a position player than a pitcher? Just because a lot of pitchers have flamed out doesn’t mean a specific one will. There are so many opinions on draft day, and so many of them are way too strong.

Okay, so it usually seems like a mistake to use a high pick on a reliever. That’s infrequent, and it’s not always the wrong thing to do. Let’s think about a team’s draft position. Let’s think about that team’s highest pick. They’ll be selecting from a pool of the best available players. There’s no one right choice. They’re all going to be projected for some career WAR, and many of the WARs are going to be pretty similar. Maybe there’s a Strasburg or Harper standout, but that’s rare, and those guys don’t make it past first. Maybe you want Player X, and maybe the team instead drafts Player Y. The difference in their projections is probably small. They might pan out very differently, but only so much is known at the time of the draft. Every player taken early has an expectation, and every player taken early is good. Teams might blow it on draft day, but odds are you’re not going to know.

In 2005, the Mariners took Jeff Clement instead of Troy Tulowitzki. Tulowitzki is one of the best players in baseball, and Clement has been worth negative WAR. The Mariners are said to have audibled to Clement at the last second, and he proved to be a tremendous disappointment. This is considered one of the worst draft decisions the Mariners have ever made. But Tulo has exceeded his projections. Clement has undershot them. Clement was widely considered a top draft-eligible prospect, and remember that he was a patient, powerful, lefty-hitting catcher. The way things have gone is the way things have gone once. What if the same thing were repeated a hundred times? Maybe, in a different universe, Clement stays healthy and hits, and Tulo struggles. Maybe Clement would’ve turned out were he drafted by another team. At the time of the draft, Clement and Tulo were similar in outlook. So it wouldn’t have made sense to strongly prefer one over the other. There’s a lot of luck that goes into how draft picks turn out. The best ones have great stories about how they were scouted and about how the scouts really believed in them deeply, but the scouts believed in all the busts, too. Clement went third overall in a draft. He didn’t suck, then.

I’ve gotten into talking about the draft specifically, but this is also a bigger-picture principle. Have strong opinions only when they’re warranted, and only when they’re informed. Seldom are they warranted and sufficiently informed on draft day. I get a little self-conscious about the fact that so few of my baseball posts have strong conclusions, but that’s the way I like it, because if I took more positions, I’d be wrong more. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know much. We don’t know a lot about how things happen, and we don’t know a lot about how they will happen later. One can’t be afraid of that, and one can’t pretend like it isn’t true. Predictions can be fun, but they’re a waste of time. The important life skill isn’t arriving at a concrete conclusion — it’s developing the right thought processes. Often, those processes will lead to educated uncertainty. Present and recognize evidence, but don’t make more of the evidence than you should. Assume that everything’s in the gray area between the black and the white.

If you’re expressing yourself, control yourself, and use a volume level you feel is appropriate. There’s a reason there are dynamics in music. People will pay attention to your strong opinions if you arrive at them appropriately and sparingly. If you always sound certain of yourself, people will start to tune you out or point out when you’ve been wrong. If you’re reading or listening, meanwhile, accept and appreciate evidence presented for evidence’s sake. Don’t expect the author to conclude with an authoritative position, and don’t be disappointed if the presentation ends with something soft. That’s for your benefit. To be disappointed by the absence of a strong conclusion is often to be disappointed to not have been misled.

Sometimes, of course, you do just need to make a decision. If you’re dealing with something minor, it doesn’t matter. If you’re in a group and you can’t decide where to go for dinner, just go somewhere for dinner and it’s going to be fine. You don’t need to obsess over making precisely the right choice. And I suppose you could argue that baseball is minor, so you might as well have strong opinions, since ultimately isn’t it just a game? That’s up to you, but personally the way I handle baseball is the way I try to handle my life in general. It’s important to be able to think through things critically, it’s important to say only as much as can be said, and it’s important to accept the uncertainty that’s everywhere, just everywhere you look. Certainty makes you feel safer. That’s temporary.

This has meandered, because I’m writing it off the top of my head and I didn’t prepare an outline. And, ironically, this post about strong opinions contains a strong opinion. You probably have a strong opinion about my use of “ironically.” Let’s move past that. Always be looking for answers. Always understand when an answer isn’t within reach, or when the answer is “I don’t know.” The answer to most questions is “I don’t know.” The fun and the real truth is in the exploration.


2 Responses to “The Utility Of Shrugging”

  1. Athanasius on June 6th, 2013 3:14 pm

    Great post.

    At least in my opinion, proper analysis requires an acknowledgement of perspective. Another way to say it is that proper, nuanced analysis requires the acknowledgement of interpretation of statistics — numbers in and of themselves are not reality — I bring a bias and perspective to them that I draw conclusions from.

    When I acknowledge that I have a particular perspective among more than one possible perspective/conclusion, I acknowledge the potential limitation of my own conclusions. While some might construe that as artfully avoiding arriving at a conclusion (i.e., being a chicken), I feel it is the more nuanced and honest way of doing analysis.

    In recent weeks on this blog (and in previous years), I see statements that indicate that interpretation does not exist. Numbers = reality and if you “ignore” numbers you therefore ignore reality. This sort of analysis is ignorant of what I would call the “reality” of perspective/bias and as a result gives way to statements that dissenting views are only made by idiots (those that ignore reality). Of course, as Jeff states, it is good to still have opinions and even strong opinions. It is just more honest to acknowledge potential limitations in arriving at your opinion/conclusion.

  2. MrZDevotee on June 6th, 2013 3:19 pm

    I’m in the same camp, Jeff… It amazes when people are able to answer the question “what would you do if __________”. When it’s a circumstance they’ve never been involved with before, and one that can’t really be forseen.

    How do you answer that with any sort of veracity? You can speculate, but people want a definitive answer, when I always answer “I don’t know, after it happens I’ll tell you.”

    The idea of something and the actual occurrence of that thing happening are less alike than people tend to believe, in my opinion. People like to try to take emotions out of decisions, but to me that makes a decision less honest, because people are NOT devoid of emotions.

    In the same way if someone’s child is tragically killed, it amazes me the stoicism with which most Americans will react, while the same Americans will be thinking it odd that a mother from a 3rd world nation will throw herself on the ground and cry out at the top of her lungs, faint, go into hysterics.

    Her decision seems more appropriate to me, because it involved MORE of her human-ness. To respond the other way seems to me to purposely work against what the parent must be feeling.

    Anyways, to agree with you, I often post opinions here without much care in my assertions, when truth is– most of the time– “I don’t know.”

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