There are a lot of things I miss right now, but near the top of that list is baseball. It’s late April, which means normally that America’s Pastime would be in full swing — all the teams would still be in contention, with the promise of a whole summer of the sport stretching out in front of us. Instead, we have to contend ourselves with old games on cable, which can’t help but make fans reflect back on some of the greatest — and also the most head-scratching — moments in Major League history.
Keith Law, senior baseball writer for The Athletic, has spent a lot of time recently pondering the latter. His new book, The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves, is a deep dive into the mistakes that managers, ownership, journalists and fans still make about a game that’s been played for more than a century and a half. Applying his background in sociology and economics, Law (formerly of ESPN) devotes individual chapters to bad decisions and then explains the cognitive biases and faulty logic that went into those choices — the same mistakes that we’re all guilty of in our daily lives.
A discussion about Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little’s blunder in not pulling Pedro Martinez late in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series morphs into an analysis of status quo bias — a belief that it’s better to stick with what you have, even if it’s no longer working, rather than face the risk of trying the unknown. Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly’s disastrous handling of the 2001 World Series, even though his team won the championship, is a springboard for a breakdown of outcome bias, while the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s foolishly expensive signing of an aging Albert Pujols — once the game’s greatest player — turns into a helpful illustration of the sunk cost fallacy.
The Inside Game is a baseball book, but it’s really about how we think — or, more accurately, how we don’t think.
Ever since Law started working for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2002, where he served as the special assistant to the general manager, focusing on statistical analysis, the 46-year-old has been at the forefront of the game’s embrace of advanced metrics. His first book, Smart Baseball, tore down the antiquated statistics and going-with-your-gut rationale that had long governed the game. (Seriously, kill the save now.) But above all, Smart Baseball sought to rewire our baseball brains — and The Inside Game is even more focused on that task.
Law’s ambition stems from an impatience for lazy thinking, and if you spend any time on his highly entertaining blog or Twitter account, you know that his impatience extends far beyond the diamond. He’s incensed by anti-vaxxers and climate-change deniers, and even got reprimanded by his bosses at ESPN back in 2014 for tussling with colleague Curt Schilling on Twitter over evolution. (Law’s highly controversial opinion was that evolution was real.) Logic means a lot to Law, and it made me wonder where that drive started for him.
I had a lengthy conversation with Law in 2017 for Smart Baseball, and I was glad to have a second opportunity thanks to his new book, which is just as smart and sharp, but also breezy and accessible. (Once again, Simpsons references abound.) I wanted to start our chat with the idea of thinking itself — why reasoned thinking matters so much to him and what it was like to be “the smart kid” growing up. But because Law has always been open about his battles with anxiety, I was curious, too, about how he’s dealing with quarantine and our shared uncertain future. Along the way, we talked about how fear impacts our decision-making, what he tries not to do anymore as a writer and why exactly anti-vaxxers in particulars drive him so crazy.
And since I called him at his home in Delaware — where he’s living with his teenage daughter, his girlfriend and her two young daughters — he also shared what it’s like to have a do-over as a father.
While reading The Inside Game, I realized that, if there’s a grand theme to your work, it’s the idea of thinking itself — how we think, and why we think what we do. You just seem fascinated by the actual process of how thinking works. Is that fair to say?
I’ve described this book as a “thinking about thinking” book, which I’m stealing from an [undergrad] class that I actually didn’t take. But I always liked the phrase — I thought, “That’s an interesting way to describe it.” I think that is very much what this book is about — more than the first one, but it’s fair to say that the interest grew out of the first one. It’s sort of me trying to be a little bit educational in addition to trying to entertain: “I think I can teach you something. In the case of both [books], I think I can teach you, the reader, things that I myself have learned over recent years — but maybe I can do it in a way that’s more entertaining or more accessible than other books that have maybe tried to teach some of the same kind of material.”
That’s something I think I can do reasonably well. People have told me they like the way I explain things. It’s funny: I’ve had people in the board game world say they really like my reviews: “Nobody really reviews games the way you do, the way you break them down.” I couldn’t think to write them any other way — I almost have no control over the process.
But with this book, I know these things now from doing all this reading and talking to people in the field and talking to people in the baseball industry — and also giving a lot of thought to decision-making [itself]. I’m trying to teach people to think a little bit better — but at the same time acknowledging that this is hard for everybody. I also tried to keep the mood of the book kind of light so that nobody feels like they’re getting preached at or lectured.
The challenge is not coming across as a know-it-all. Did you face that as a kid who knew a lot?
I was always the youngest in my class, and I was always torn between “I know the answer” and never liking being the kid who always knew the answer. So it made me much more reluctant [to speak up]. I was never the kid who helped other kids learn stuff, because I’d get embarrassed — for myself, not for the other kids. I was picked on when the teacher would be like, “Can you help so-and-so learn this thing?”
That was never something I enjoyed until, really, adulthood. You get to a certain age where it’s okay to know things — it’s no longer uncool to be the smart kid. Well, I like to think it’s not uncool — and if it’s still uncool, just don’t tell me, because obviously I’m at an age where that’s never going to change.
So I definitely wasn’t comfortable with that until much, much later in life. Now, enough readers have told me, over time, that they like the way I explain concepts. It definitely helped encourage me and gave me more confidence that I could do this in a competent way for this book. But even as I was finishing [The Inside Game], I was still worried I hadn’t done what I’d set out to do. You never know until you release something like this into the world.
When I was a kid, I was always a good student, but I was always embarrassed about that — as if, by being smart, I was inherently showing off. Going to college and grad school, did it make that discomfort go away when you found similar smart people?
That’s definitely true, and it was in stages. I went to college and suddenly it’s like, “I don’t have to hide anything about who I am. In fact, if anything, I need to try a bit harder.” But the flip side was, “I’m not special — what the hell? There’s like 1,600 other kids in the freshman class here, and they’re all just like me. A lot of them are frighteningly smarter than I am.”
But I went [to college], worked for three years, went to graduate school, and in graduate school I said, “I’m good. I’m ready for this.” I felt way more confident in just being myself and not being at all shy about what I could or couldn’t do in the classroom. I enjoyed the experience a lot more and took different classes that were more challenging — a bit out of my comfort zone — just because I felt like I was freer to learn.
I still love learning. Obviously, it’s hard to do when everyone’s working from home and there’s multiple kids trying to do homeschooling and there’s a global pandemic and we’re all supposed to be learning instruments and foreign languages. [laughs] But each additional step in my life became easier for me to accept that this is who I am and that I could use this to my advantage in the work environment.
I don’t mean to minimize all the work that actual teachers do, but I wanted to take that approach, which is a little bit educational and then a lot entertaining. I mean, I write about baseball for a living — there’s always a little sense that this isn’t exactly the most important work I could be doing in the world. I just do it because I love it, and so writing something that feels educational certainly makes me feel like I’m doing a bit more good.
Smart Baseball was all about looking at the advanced stats and decision-making that were revolutionizing the game. And the model team for that way of thinking was the Houston Astros. The Inside Game was written before the Astros’ fall from grace this past winter, which inspired a lot of schadenfreude from anti-analytics types: “Oh, they were so smug about how smart they were, but they were just a bunch of cheaters.” And that’s not even getting into assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s awful behavior.
Watching the Astros implode, was it frustrating? Because it seemed like the model of baseball’s future was also imploding.
I would actually say the opposite — well, not quite the opposite because I definitely didn’t enjoy watching it. But the Astros definitely had a reputation inside the sport of not treating people particularly well — particularly [General Manager] Jeff Luhnow. I don’t want to [tar] everyone with that same brush because that’s not true. For example, [Director of Amateur Scouting] Mike Elias didn’t have that reputation. People who worked for Mike in Houston really liked him, but with Jeff, people had very mixed things to say about working for him.
It’s public knowledge that Jeff offered me a job many years ago when he first got to Houston, and I turned it down. One reason was concern about the work environment and what [my] work/life balance would be if I were to take that job. I can only speak personally, but I’m glad I did not [take that job]. My work/life balance has been right where I want it to be ever since then — I think I would have lost that if I’d gone to work for Houston at the time.
I’ve known [manager] A.J. Hinch a long time. We sat together, watched amateur players together many times, had some great conversations. He’s super-bright — very, very personable. From multiple people I talked to in the Astros organization, it seemed like he did some things to try to stop this. Watching him get caught up in all of this and receive the same punishment as Jeff Luhnow was bittersweet for me, because I know him and I think I know who he is as a person. And from what I heard, he wasn’t necessarily as culpable as many of the other people who received the same punishment or received no punishment at all.
That was definitely hard to watch — even though on some level, I understand, too. Their argument is he should have done a lot more to stop it. He should have reported it to other people, even if it put his own job at risk. I think [Rob] Manfred’s been consistent about that particular thing, and so I don’t necessarily like it on a personal level, but I definitely understand it.
Since you didn’t have time to include the Astros in your book, is there a certain decision-making error that can explain what happened there?
My editor actually asked me if we could work [the Astros] in somehow as we were finishing the book in November, just as some of this started to leak out. This is before any of the punishments or additional details came out. It would have been very late to try to sneak something in. But also, I was having a hard time making it work. What the Astros did — and, ultimately, what the Red Sox did — [with sign-stealing] was a bit more like a morality question than an economics matter or a cognitive psychology matter. Maybe there is a way to tie them together, but I couldn’t do it.
What the book only slightly touches on is that, for a lot of us, fear can factor into decision-making. We’re afraid to rock the boat, so we make the same faulty decisions that other people have in the past.
I totally agree with that. Leaning a little bit on my economics background, we refer to things like loss aversion — which I mention in the book — which is the idea that you’re particularly anathema to losing money in certain situations when it’s asymmetrical. You fear the loss of $100 — that is much more painful to you than the positive feeling of gaining $100. It should have fairly equal strength of feeling in either direction, but to me, that’s absolutely fear — a fear of losing money. In economics, you don’t really use the term “fear” — we use terms like “loss aversion,” but ultimately what drives a lot of it is the irrational seeping into the rational.
I took a bunch of economics classes in college and in graduate school — and we didn’t learn any of this behavioral-economics stuff, except a little bit on moral hazard and sunk costs. What they taught at the time was very classical economics: Man is rational. Man makes rational decisions. He will do what is in his best interest. That is not true — we know for certain now that that is not true. There’s a huge body of work in behavioral economics that shows that that is just not true. But in the rational-man model of economics, there is no room for fear, because fear is not rational. But, obviously, fear drives a ton of decision-making.
People who are afraid of losing their jobs — that drives a lot of irrational decision-making. You might think, “I’m going to lose my job anyway, so I might as well swing for the fences and take this one last shot to save my job.” And [that decision] might be a terrible thing for your company — although it might actually make more sense for you specifically. But you’re ultimately being driven by this fear that you’re going to lose your job or not get a new contract as GM, manager or whatever. “Let me do this extra-risky thing, because who cares? If it doesn’t work, I’m gone anyway.”
Those emotions absolutely come into play, and it may be that, in the economic sphere, we’re just not used to using that language of emotions because, for 100 years, it’s been “rational, rational, rational.” I think it’s pretty clear by now that people don’t do the rational thing at all.
The book isn’t designed to do this, but I also thought about how our personal hang-ups can affect our decision-making. Let’s say, for instance, that Grady Little was really intimidated by Pedro Martinez — or he really wanted Pedro to like him. That also might have explained why Little kept him out there longer in Game 7 than he should have. Those types of intangibles can really cloud our judgment, too.
There are absolutely interpersonal interactions that I just have to overlook in the book. Just following your Grady Little/Pedro Martinez example, I remember some game Mike Mussina basically staring Joe Torre back into the dugout [when he wanted to take the pitcher out] — Torre almost scampers like a little kid who’s been scolded. There’s no behavioral economics explanation for that — it’s the interaction between two adults who know each other very well at that point, and this is just the nature of their relationship. Roy Halladay, when I was with the Jays, would absolutely try to stare the manager back into the dugout sometimes. Pitchers are basically brought up to never, ever want to be taken out of a game — that’s a whole separate, very real issue that I essentially treated as untouchable in the context of the book, because all of these examples I’m speculating to some extent on what people were actually thinking.
Many of these decision-makers are gone or just out of the game — or Grady Little, who’s well-known for not really wanting to talk about that game anymore. (I can’t blame him for not wanting to talk about that game anymore.) But I did try to go back to contemporary news accounts to get actual quotes from [the decision-makers] at the time, because I figured that was the best way to understand what they might have been thinking. But, in general, I tried to set those interpersonal or highly emotional things aside a bit, because I knew there wasn’t really any way to discuss them without truly clouding the issues that I really wanted to get at, which is “We know these biases exist, and here are some examples that might illustrate them in a way that people can really understand and relate to.”
There’s a line in the book that really struck me: “[G]iving facts to people who believed falsehoods about vaccines only made them further convinced in the falsehoods.” You’re talking about anti-vaxxers, specifically, but that counterintuitive phenomenon happens everywhere. I actually wrote in the margin of the book: “So what do we do?” Is there actually a way to make people think differently, or is it just impossible?
First of all, there are some people you’re just never going to reach — you sort of cut off the right-most portion of the continuum of people and say they’re a lost cause, essentially. They will never believe that vaccines are safe and effective. You don’t even try to reach those people — it’s just not worth the effort. If it were even possible, it would cost you way too much to actually get through to them.
I’ll stick with the anti-vaxxers, because it comes up a lot and I try to follow a lot of these stories. There are true anti-vaxxers who are out of their minds, but there are also people who are referred to as “vaccine hesitant” and those are the ones who are probably the most reachable. These are parents who may have heard some of the anti-vaxxer bullshit, and now they’re concerned: “I’m not sure if I really want to vaccinate. Is it really safe?” Their language is different. It’s fairly easy to identify them versus a true anti-vaxxer.
You can reach the vaccine hesitant, and there’s a small but growing body of work on strategies for talking to people like that to acknowledge their fears or hesitations. It is a slower, much more individual process — mass messaging isn’t great for those people. But you can get through to them [with] a much more individualized and highly personal approach. That’s part of why I’m more vocal about trying to drown out or shut down anti-vaxxer messaging, because you don’t want those people to get touched by it in the first place. Once somebody has been moved from vaccine accepting to vaccine hesitant, there’s a higher cost to try to get them back.
It’s not to say it’s not worth doing — it’s absolutely worth doing — but it’s harder to move them back in the other direction. Once they’ve been inundated with disinformation, it’s more costly and more [time-consuming], ultimately for doctors — these are the people who are actually spending the time with the parents trying to convince them of something that should be incredibly obvious about vaccinating their kids.
Outside of baseball and board games, anti-vaxxers might be the thing you write and tweet about the most. I’m curious why you’re so drawn to that topic. Is it because it’s such an obvious, infuriating public example of people not thinking?
It’s two things, and that’s the first one — people who are very clearly not thinking. It’s people who aren’t thinking but they think they’re thinking. They think they’re very smart: “I read this on the internet. I’m a very intelligent person.” That’s inherently bothersome.
But it’s also that their idiocy affects many, many other people, and the ultimate victims of their choices aren’t them. It’s their own kids, or it’s other vulnerable people in their communities. That feels so grossly irresponsible to me. It feels criminal to me. If an adult wanted to say, “I’m not going to get this particular vaccine,” I could at least see your argument because you’re an adult — you’re wrong, but fine. The problem is, that adult’s choice to not get the vaccine for themselves affects everyone in their community.
But we’re really arguing about childhood vaccines, so immediately that adult’s choice to not vaccinate their child, to me, is child neglect. You’re denying essential medicine to your child. Your child didn’t make that choice. The whole “My body, my choice”? It’s not your body — it’s your kid’s body. The government is very clear: You can’t do anything you want to your kid’s body. You have a responsibility to keep your child healthy and safe. These people are really contorting arguments about personal liberty — or absolutely bogus arguments about religious liberty — to justify totally errant beliefs. In my opinion at least, [they’re] doing something very criminal as parents.
For me, it goes back to being angry when one kid in grade school does something dumb and the whole class gets in trouble: I didn’t do anything, why do I have to get punished? There’s something that felt unfair about that, but I was raised to believe that, as adults, things would somehow be fairer. I feel like Trump’s election mostly just proved to me…
…that so many adults don’t act like adults? Yeah, absolutely. We’re suffering now as a country particularly because of the racism-driven choices of the few and the anti-science-driven choices of a few and the superstition-driven choices of a few. If you want to believe all those ridiculous things, okay, fine. You probably have a constitutional right to be a racist in your own head, but just keep that to yourself. You can be an anti-vaxxer — I’m going to think a lot less of you as a person, but you can be that person. That’s fine, but you don’t get to make choices that harm your kids or potentially put your community at risk.
When it comes to climate change, that’s the whole planet — you’re going to screw us all, which bothers me on an existential level, and it bothers me because I love coffee and don’t want to spend $7 every time I have to get a cup of coffee because coffee plants are already starting to migrate up mountains because they want cooler temperatures than what they’re getting now on the ground. There are so many reasons that these things bother me.
It’s funny: The word “libertarian” has definitely gotten a bit of a connotation now that I want to avoid, but I will say there’s one libertarian thing I really believe in, and that is that I shouldn’t suffer for your choices. You can do really dumb things in your own life as long as they don’t affect me.
Film critics often have to hear, “Hey, you’re not creative — you’re just criticizing someone who actually had to put themselves on the line.” How much have you heard with The Inside Game, “You never had to make these difficult decisions. It’s real easy for you to second-guess these managers and GMs years after the fact”?
I haven’t gotten it yet, but I expected it, and I still expect at some point people will bring that up. I readily acknowledge I’m writing all of this with the benefit of hindsight and with the handicap of not actually being in people’s heads to really know what their thought processes were. I try to acknowledge that I have this benefit of looking at it after the fact — and with some of these managerial decisions I talk about, they occurred in real time. Some of them don’t, obviously: Bob Brenly setting the worst lineup he possibly could have made in the 2001 World Series — he had all day, and he still couldn’t get it right.
It’s why it’s almost better as an academic exercise to go through these [decisions]. I would never say you should go up to Grady Little and say, “Hey, you really screwed that up.” That’s not the point — the point is actually not to pick on Grady Little. The point might be to pick on Bob Brenly just a little bit, but most of these are “Let’s talk about how we get it right the next time,” as opposed to excoriating the decision-makers in each of these individual choices. Their mistakes are illustrative for us, but I’m not really trying to place blame or belittle anybody, even though I understand it may very well come off that way in certain parts of the book.
How do you define the line between criticizing a player or manager’s actions and attacking them personally? Between “this was a bad decision” and “this is a bad person”?
That’s definitely something that’s evolved in my writing over time. I’m sure some of the stuff I wrote for Baseball Prospectus 25 years ago didn’t strike the right balance between those things — it was all about the joke, it was all about the one-liner. I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to be that kind of writer anymore. I try to make sure that the humor is kind of impersonal in that sense. If I’m making fun of Albert Pujols, it’s very clear I’m not making fun of who he is as a person. I’m making very specific fun of something he doesn’t do well on the baseball field — like move…
…or anything, unfortunately.
Or anything. Albert Pujols may still be a wonderful person and a good member of the community and all of those things, and that’s fine — I don’t even want to get involved in that. That’s there to the side. It has been about, for me as a writer, learning to really narrow that focus of criticism and humor so that it’s very clear that I’m not targeting the person — I’m targeting the act or targeting some kind of impersonal aspect of their play.
I don’t want to be that guy anymore, and I’m sure that I was at various points much earlier in my career. I would say I probably didn’t have the right balance. It’s definitely changed a lot of specific things that I write — jokes that I probably once thought were funny that are now kind of off-limits — but also, just in general, to make sure I’m nowhere near as personal about it as I used to be. It’s always been in the back of my mind: “What if I run into this person? Would I answer for this?” I think now I would be happy to answer for anything that I write. I don’t want to be a person who stoops to personal insults.
How has being a parent during the pandemic been?
For my daughter, who’s in eighth grade, she hasn’t had a ton of homeschooling. She’s had some, but I don’t think it’s as much work as she would have had if they were still continuing classes. So that has taken out one of the more stressful parts of the equation. A lot of the parenting experience is driven by how much work your kids have. My girlfriend’s [older] daughter hasn’t just had a lot of work but so many different websites we’re all expected to use for her work and to submit her work that it’s dizzying. My girlfriend created a whole Google Document to just be a guide for all of us: “Here’s where we put her work. Here’s where we go to find her work.” That ends up taking away a lot of stress and [removes that] extra step of work before the child actually gets to do the work that’s assigned to them.
We’re lucky in that we’ve all really enjoyed the time together. We’ve done more group activities as a family when all the kids are here. My daughter, she’s a teenager, so she wants some private time. But she came down yesterday between my radio hits [promoting The Inside Game] and said, “Hey, let’s play a board game.” Last night, we watched a couple of classic movies that she’s never seen — she’s suddenly got an interest in watching those. So my daughter and I have gotten a lot closer during the pandemic — maybe because a lot of it is just because she can’t go see her friends and I’m here, but I’ll take it. I know I’m going to end up appreciating that very much on the other side — we’ll actually look back on this time with some fondness, at least, because of the quality time we were really able to get together.
Your girlfriend and her two young daughters are living in the house with you and your daughter. How has it been parenting someone else’s kids?
I love it. I love being a dad. I’ve always loved being a dad. It’s just been really fun for me to revisit certain ages — it’s like it’s a bit of a do-over. I just enjoy being with her kids and doing things with her kids. The older one sees all the board games in the house and wants to try some of them. The younger one is more like, “I want a piggyback ride to the next room!” Okay, well, we can do that, too. We’ve been reading Harry Potter to the older one, and I did the same thing with my daughter at the same age, and I still have all the different character voices that I do from the first time around. [Does a spooky, ominous voice] “The chamber of secrets has been opened…” They’re still there six years later. I’m so enjoying all of that, and her kids are wonderful.
For me, it’s so great to get to redo a lot of these things that I enjoy doing with my own daughter and also just to think back and say, “Here are things I should have done better as a parent.” Well, now I get to try to do it better the second time around. So it’s really been all good, and we’re just very lucky. Everyone’s been happy. I can totally understand people whose kids have more work or everyone’s stir crazy — I’m sure that’s happening. I think we’ve all been very lucky that we’re all very happy and getting along, doing lots of things together. And there’s just enough space in the house where, if everybody needs to go to their own space, I converted the attic into an office so one of us can maybe work at the kitchen table and the other one is two floors away, and we have quiet space to do calls or Zoom meetings or whatever. One of us is always still accessible for the kids if they need homework help. We’ve got a system now that seems to be working.
In our last MEL Conversation, we talked a lot about anxiety and antidepressants. I couldn’t help but wonder how you’re coping on that front with the pandemic.
Yeah, that’s hard. I’ve been seeing my therapist through telemedicine, which definitely helps. There were [other] things I wanted to be working on in therapy, but how could you not talk about this? If you’re prone to any of those things, how could those be not front of mind right now?
It’s a weird feeling to wake up each day and be like, “Oh, it’s not over.” It’s not a nightmare for most people — unless the virus is affecting you or someone close to you — but for most of us, it’s like, “I want to be done with this. I’m ready to get back out and do normal things again.” I miss going to restaurants. I miss going regular grocery shopping. I like to cook, and one thing I really liked was going to Whole Foods and spending a little time picking out produce or walking through and saying, “What do I make for dinner tonight?” I’d go to the store and see what speaks to me. I get it — that’s privilege — but it’s something that I particularly enjoy doing, and we can’t do that now.
It’s amazing how annoyed I get about the small things that have been altered — basic aspects of life that I never thought I took for granted that I now miss.
My friend Meghan Montemurro, who writes for The Athletic — she lives in Philly, so I drive into Philly a couple times a year and we get coffee. I was texting her just the other day: “Hey, how are you doing?” “Congrats on the book. I’m just ordering it.” I said, “I’ll sign it for you the next time we get coffee.” And then I’m like, “Oh, wait … [we’ll see each other] eventually, but not soon.”
I mean, literally, we’re not supposed to leave Delaware. If I leave Delaware and come back in, a police officer could very easily stop me: “Where were you? What did you do?” And if you spent time out of state, you’re actually supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days after you come back into Delaware. I’m not messing with that.
I can’t go have coffee with my friend and colleague, and we’ve been doing this for a couple of years now. So, yeah, is that a stupid thing to miss? Okay, maybe. But I miss it.