Go Where the Data Take You, Even If It’s to New Jersey…

Baseball numbers geek Jonah Keri (author of two books: Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong, which I can heartily recommend, and The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First which I am looking forward to reading) has a great recent piece at Grantland about LA outfielder Mike Trout.

Trout should have been the AL MVP last year (his rookie season) and is by most measures even better this year. After exhaustively chronicling his astonishing performance since reaching the big leagues, Keri asks the obvious question: ” How the hell did Trout last until the 25th pick in the 2009 draft?”

The answers he gets from Eddie Bane, who drafted him for the Angels, are revealing. They tell us a lot about how hard it is to accept what the data are telling us, and how preconceived notions keep getting in the way.

Bane explained to Keri that

It was the fact, unfortunately, that he played in the Northeast. Billy Rowell had come out of there, got drafted by the Orioles, and failed. A couple others too. Scouts tend to do things in packs, kind of assume things. Trout had played on some East Coast showcase teams, but not the U.S. [national] team. He got a scholarship to East Carolina, but not to Clemson, Miami, or Georgia Tech. It was a group mistake.

Look how many mistakes in reasoning there are in that paragraph. That there’s something innately inferior about baseball players from the Northeast (to hold this belief, you need to overlook the careers of Carl Yastremski, Manny Ramirez, Carlton Fisk, and many others). That because a recent pick from that region flamed out, the whole place is now suspect. That because all the others in my profession believe these things, I should as well. Groupthink, recency effects, geographic bias; the mental mistakes here are the ones featured in Cognitive Psychology 101 courses.

The fact that Trout was passed over by the top baseball colleges seems like much better sign that he wasn’t an absolute top talent, but the plain numbers available told otherwise. As Bane explains

The average major league runner will run a 4.3 to first on a real major league swing — 4.1 was a jailbreak. You never get a right-handed hitter under 4.0. Mike runs 3.7, 3.8 all the time.

It’s just those preconceived notions. If you got that time to first base in high school, you’d question the distance of the bases rather than believe your eyes. You’d wonder if he was getting a jailbreak, instead of following through properly on his swing. We just … many of us just weren’t ready to believe.

Instead of getting out a tape measure and checking that the distances were correct, it appears that a lot of the scouts that looked at Trout just weren’t ready to believe. As a result, 24 teams passed on a once-in-a-generation talent.

Keri’s piece makes clear that Trout’s ridiculous abilities were quite evident when he was a high schooler in New Jersey. Yet even in the post-Moneyball era the people who spot baseball talent for a living missed him, and they essentially missed him because of their accumulated expertise, experience, and intuition — not despite these things.

When are we going to learn to get ourselves out of the way and listen to what the evidence is telling us?