“It Has a Place”

ControversyIt was a situation every kid who plays baseball has dreamed about.  With his team trailing last night, 4-3, with two outs in the ninth inning, Adam Rosales of the Oakland A’s launched what appeared to be a game-tying home run off Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez that bounced off the railing just beyond the high left field wall.  Tie game.  Glory time.

Not so fast.

After striking the railing, the ball caromed back onto the field (see above).  The ruling on the field was that the ball had come back off the wall, limiting Rosales to a double.  Fortunately for the A’s, Major League Baseball allows television replay to correct such errors.  Unfortunately for the A’s, the umpires were the only people who have seen the replays who did not recognize the obvious.  TwitWatch the video here, which includes the calls of both television and both radio crews at the game (one for each team); everyone agrees — except for the umpires.  MLB acknowledges as much. Perez eventually escaped a bases-loaded jam and preserved a hotly disputed 4-3 Indians victory.

It was second-base umpire Angel Hernandez (a controversial umpire without the best reputation, even before these events) who ruled that the ball did not leave the yard, and the umpiring crew concurred with the original ruling after three umpires left the field to review the videotape. When the umpires returned and told Rosales to stay at second, A’s manager Bob Melvin sprinted onto the field to argue and was immediately ejected by Hernandez.

After the game, Hernandez — in full CYA-mode — refused to allow his words to be recorded but did tell reporters that “there wasn’t enough evidence” to overturn the call. Except there was.

The umpires missed the call initially.  That’s unfortunate, obviously, but there is nothing necessarily shameful about it.  People make mistakes and the call wasn’t entirely obvious at full speed in real-time.  But failing to overturn it based upon the replay evidence was a howler of an error, and one that could end up costing Oakland a lot. 

It’s easy to concoct conspiracy theories when people ignore the obvious.  But the more likely explanation is that this is simply yet another example — as if another is needed — of our cognitive and behavioral biases at work. 

None of us likes to have our errors demonstrated to us.  Given their general aggressiveness with respect to disputed calls, umpires are especially touchy.  Thus we should not be surprised when confirmation bias works to prevent umpires from seeing what is obvious to the rest of us.  They think they’re right — it’s their job to be right after all — and they expect the video to support that notion.  Moreover, the human tendency toward motivated reasoning means that umpires will judge the apparently critical video harshly — so as to try to avoid admitting error. As Hernandez put it, “you can’t reverse a call unless there is 100 percent evidence and there wasn’t 100 percent evidence.”   

Notice how Hernandez responded (besides trying to duck the issue).  He wouldn’t say the video confirmed his call — that would be nuts, even for an umpire.  He would only say that the evidence wasn’t clear enough. 

I have received a number of reactions to my recent comments on a dreadful product that I have criticized (see here and here). The investment world at large either laughs at the product and those who sell it as ridiculous, get angry that consumers are being taken advantage of so badly, or both.  But those who sell it react just like Angel Hernandez (but even less publicly).  They won’t defend it exactly. That would be nuts. Instead, almost everyone says something like “It has a place.”  That sounds just like “there wasn’t 100 percent evidence,” doesn’t it?  I have no doubt that they tell their prospects something quite different.

“Advisors” in our industry who sell garbage to unsuspecting consumers ought to know better.  Sometimes they do.  But I suspect that most of the time their biases “convince” them that they are doing the right thing or, even if a poor product may not be best for clients, it is somehow suitable.  It has a place.  In the words of Upton Sinclair:  “It is difficult to get a man [or woman] to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

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