Buck Showalter wasn’t dumb. He was scared.


Buck Showalter is being crucified for not using closer Zach Britton in last night’s Wild Card game. It’s a pretty straightforward indictment: he refused to use his best pitcher and, instead, put in a series of inferior pitchers until one, eventually and perhaps inevitably, blew the game and ended the Orioles’ season.

It doesn’t take math or spreadsheets to explain why this was a bad move and no amount of argument from authority can spin it to have made sense. The only possible reason Showalter could’ve given for his decision that would’ve absolved him was if Britton was injured or somehow unavailable, and both Showalter and Britton himself said after the game that Britton was fine. Showalter and others on the Orioles were pressed — pressed hard — but they could not come up with any answer other than the old bit of baseball “wisdom” about how it is wrong to use one’s closer in a tie game on the road.

People have long discussed the reasons closer conventions, including the tie-game-on-the-road thing, the one-inning-only thing and the ninth-inning-only thing, even came to be. Among the explanations are the belief that pitchers prefer certain, defined roles or that managers and pitchers foolishly believe that “save situations” are more important or entail higher leverage than non-save situations. Sometimes it’s just chalked up to mindless stubbornness and adherence to habits without examining them.

The long-held conventions of closer use have been criticized and debunked as sound over and over again by analysts, but they still hold pretty firm. For some managers, they are gospel. As a result, when critics take aim at these conventions, their fire often implicitly or explicitly contains a criticism of the manager’s intellect. Think about all that has been said about Ned Yost, Mike Matheny or Brad Ausmus and their bullpen decisions over the years. It’s all, on some level, “wow, that guy is dumb!”

Buck Showalter has not, however, been criticized in this way historically. His intellect and his bullpen decisions have, in fact, been long considered his strongest skills as a manager and he has long been considered superior to his peers in these respects. In practice he has not been as devoted to closer use orthodoxy as many others. Indeed, this year he used Britton in more high-leverage situations than any of his other relievers. He used Britton eleven times in the eighth inning, actually. Yet his answers and the answers of every Oriole asked at least nodded to “being on the road” as an explanation for Britton not coming in. He was being saved for a save, even if it meant that save would never come. Why?

One of the answers Showalter gave to Tyler Kepner of the New York Times may be more revealing than any of the others:

“You can use Zach Britton in the seventh and eighth inning and not have anybody to pitch the last inning,” he said. “So there’s a lot of risk taken every inning, every pitch.”

On the surface that seems like standard nod to the conventional wisdom: gotta get that save! But note the way Showalter couches it as a risk. As loss (i.e. you won’t have anyone to pitch the last inning). To me, this reveals not just that Showalter was following the conventional wisdom. It reveals why that conventional wisdom holds in the first place. And it’s much deeper than merely catering to relievers preference of a set role or the importance of the save statistic.

Human beings are inherently risk-averse. It’s evolutionary, really. If you’re out on the savannah, competing with other Australopithecines for food and fending off predators, what you have now matters far more than what you might gain later. You protect your in-hand resources like crazy and don’t work quite as hard to increase your stores for tomorrow or next week if there is any risk that you might drop a hunk of meat or piece of fruit you already have. The long run is important, but the short run means the difference between life and death.

While we’re no longer fighting for our very survival on a day-to-day basis, we’ve continued, generally, to follow those patterns into modernity. In the 1970s, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated it scientifically and gave it a name: Loss Aversion Theory. The short version of it: people have a strong tendency to prefer avoiding the loss of something to acquiring equivalent gains. Studies have suggested that, mathematically speaking, the pain of loss to people is, in fact, twice as powerful a motivating force as the possibility of a gain. Whether it’s money, or opportunities or shiny objects of any stripe, study after study has revealed that human beings are willing to leave a lot on the table if it means holding on to something we already have.

As a result of loss aversion, people hesitate to deviate from a standard practice because it means exercising agency. It means making a decision that is their responsibility. And with every decision comes the very real possibility that we’ll make the wrong one causing us to lose something. We feel much better not losing something even if we it means we may not gain something greater. We fear that loss and are comforted by what we have in hand.

Which brings us back to Showalter. Who is being accused today of having a brain lock. Of mindlessly adhering to some old conventional wisdom. Of behaving way too recklessly — using inferior pitchers when one hit could end the game — for any number of reasons, in a manner which unreasonably put the loss of the game at risk.

This, I believe, is the wrong way to look at it. Showalter was not dumb. He was not consciously taking a risk or acting like some riverboat gambler. He was not worried about losing the game, at least not as such, and was not worried about being questioned if he strayed from the conventional wisdom.

To a baseball manager, players are the only actual tangible resources. Managers want to win games and hate to lose them, but game outcomes are more abstract concepts than bodies right in front of them or names not yet crossed off of a lineup card. To Showalter, Zach Britton was a hunk of meat he had, and the fear of losing him in the eighth, ninth or tenth inning, was a far greater motivating factor than the possibility of winning the game in the 11th or 12th inning was. A possibility, like some of that fruit out there on the savannah, that was there for the taking but which was uncertain and might cost him something. Maybe, as studies about such things have born out, he was twice as afraid.

Showalter is going to be called a lot of things today and in the coming days. He’ll be called dumb. He’ll be called stubborn. But even if the thought process he employed ended up being the clearly wrong one and one which was, in effect, dumb, it wasn’t Showalter’s inherit stupidity or stubbornness that caused last night’s debacle. It was human nature. A force which even a major league baseball manager cannot escape most of the time.

A’s running out of time to find home in Oakland, Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — The Oakland Athletics have spent years trying to get a new stadium while watching Bay Area neighbors such as the Giants, Warriors, 49ers and Raiders successfully move into state-of-the-art venues, and now time is running short on their efforts.

The A’s lease at RingCentral Coliseum expires after the 2024 season, and though they might be forced to extend the terms, the club and Major League Baseball have deemed the stadium unsuitable for a professional franchise.

They are searching for a new stadium in Oakland or Las Vegas, but they have experienced difficulties in both areas. The A’s missed a major deadline in October to get a deal done in Oakland, and there has been little indication they will receive the kind of funding they want from Las Vegas.

“I think the A’s have to look at it in a couple of ways,” said Brendan Bussmann, managing partner at Las Vegas-based B Global. “Obviously, they have struggled in Oakland to get a deal across the line. It isn’t for a lack of effort. . You have an owner that’s willing to pony up money, you have a club that wants to sit there and figure out a way to make it work, and you keep running into obstacles along the way.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait. Oakland, do you want them or not? And if not, where are the A’s going to get the best deal? Is it Vegas? Is it somewhere else? They’ll have to figure that out.”

What the A’s are thinking is a little bit of a mystery. Team President Dave Kaval was talkative earlier in the process, saying the A’s are pursuing two different tracks with Oakland and Las Vegas. But he went silent on the subject several months ago. A’s spokeswoman Catherine Aker said mostly recently that the club would withhold comment for now.

The A’s have been negotiating with Oakland to build a $1 billion stadium as part of a $12 billion redevelopment deal.

Newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao said reaching a deal is important as long as it makes economic sense to the city. Her predecessor, Libby Schaaf, led prior efforts to reach an agreement, but after the city and the A’s missed that October deadline, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed reservations a deal will ever get done.

“The pace in Oakland has not been rapid, number one,” Manfred said at the time. “We’re in a stadium situation that’s really not tenable. I mean, we need to do something to alter the situation. So I’m concerned about the lack of pace.”

Recent California history justifies his concerns. SoFi Stadium in Southern California and Chase Center in San Francisco were built with private money, and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara was 90% privately financed.

“And then I think there was some contagion where around the country people realized these deals could be done well privately and could generate a return on investment to those investors,” said David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California. “Why are we throwing public money at it at all?”

That’s also a question being asked in Las Vegas, even though the Raiders in 2016 received $750 million from the Nevada Legislature for a stadium. That then was the largest amount of public money for a sports venue, but it was surpassed last March by the $850 million pledged to construct a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Another deal like the one for Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders play, appears unlikely in Nevada. T-Mobile Arena, which opened in 2017, was privately financed. An arena planned for south of the Las Vegas Strip also wouldn’t rely on public funds.

Las Vegas, however, has shown financing creativity. Its Triple-A baseball stadium received $80 million in 2017 for naming rights from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Room taxes fund the authority, so it was public money in a backdoor sort of way.

Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, who is on the board of the convention authority, has spoken with A’s representatives about their interest in Las Vegas and said he is aware of the club’s talks with other Nevada officials. He said the A’s are taking a much different approach than the Raiders, who identified Las Vegas early as their choice landing spot after many years of failing to get a new stadium in Oakland.

“When the Raiders decided to come to Las Vegas, they had a clear plan,” Naft said. “You had a clear body that was tasked with assessing the worth and the value, and they committed to the destination. I have not seen that from the Oakland A’s at any level, and it’s not really our job to go out and beg them to come here because we have earned the reputation of the greatest arena on Earth. We have put in both the dollars and the labor to make that the case.

“I think I’ve made myself clear, but from conversations with others, I don’t think I’m alone on that.”

New Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo “will not raise taxes” to attract the A’s or any other team, his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ray, said in a statement. But she said the club could qualify for other ongoing “economic development programs,” which could mean tax breaks similar to what Tesla received in 2014.

Manfred said in December that the A’s relocation fee would be waived if they move to Las Vegas, a savings to the club reportedly of up to $1 billion.

“We’re past any reasonable timeline for the situation in Oakland to be resolved,” Manfred said then.

Naft said Allegiant Stadium filled a hole that went beyond landing an NFL team. It allowed Las Vegas to attract major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four and major concerts such as Garth Brooks and Elton John that “in many cases we would not otherwise have.”

He said he doesn’t believe a baseball stadium would accomplish that, and sports economist Victor Matheson agreed.

“I think there’s a real question about how much people are willing to watch baseball in Las Vegas,” said Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It’s not like locals don’t have a huge number of entertainment options right now, and it’s not clear exactly how much people might travel to watch baseball in Vegas, either.”

If the A’s truly want to be in Las Vegas, Naft said they need to make that clear.

“I just believe you can’t play destinations against each other,” Naft said. “If you want to come here and you want to be met with open arms, you’ve got to commit.”

Should the A’s fail to reach an agreement in Oakland or Las Vegas, they could consider other destinations such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville; and Portland, Oregon. Whether they would have the time to explore such options is another question.

Oakland has already shown it will watch the Raiders move to Nevada and the Warriors go across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

Las Vegas, Matheson noted, is hardly in a desperate situation. He also expressed caution that Las Vegas could go from being among the largest metropolitan areas without a major professional sports team to among the smallest with three franchises.

“So you’ve gone from kind of being under-sported to being over-sported in a short period of time if the A’s were to go there,” Matheson said.