My Mother is a Root Sports Zombie: Confirmation Bias and Mark Appel

Root Sports is a terrible thing for hardcore sports fans.  A lot of what they do doesn’t have any effect beyond annoying people who actually care about the game by not actually talking about the game.  However, quite a lot of what they do manipulates their viewers and directly causes their viewers to hold certain opinions.  The clearest representation of this is the broadcasters’ unwillingness to speak ill of the Pirates.  They do this because if people think the Pirates are a good baseball team, they are more likely to watch the game on television.  This is understandable, if annoying and regrettable.  What is more irritating is the broadcasters’ efforts to build up a cult around players because fans will connect with them.

The two examples that come immediately to mind for this phenomenon are Mike McKenry and Neil Walker.  Both of these players are good fits to be popular with the Pirates fanbase. McKenry is a “scrappy” and “blue-collar” player.  He plays catcher, the position that most requires a player to be tough.  Players that are “blue-collar” have always been popular in Pittsburgh (e.g. Dan Kreider, Darian Kasparaitis, Rob Scuderi).  These players weren’t stars, but they sacrificed their bodies and did their jobs.  Unfortunately, in football and hockey, certain roles call for a “scrappy” player who works and hits hard, even if they aren’t particularly skilled (e.g. fullback, special teams, fourth line winger).  Unfortunately, in baseball “scrappy” is synonymous with “can’t hit”.  A player can only accomplish so much through hard work on the baseball diamond.  I’m not saying hard work preparing doesn’t accomplish anything, but in the actual games, hustle only does so much.  There are no battles or races for loose pucks or one-on-one shoving matches.  Either you can hit or you can’t.  Either you can do certain things in the field or you can’t.  Mike McKenry can’t hit.  The fact that he seems like he is “blue-collar” doesn’t change that.

Neil Walker is a different and more obvious case.  He is from Pittsburgh, which endears him to fans.  This is understandable, and it happens everywhere.  His case is also different from that of McKenry because Neil Walker is a good baseball player.  Unfortunately, the broadcasting team’s desire to exploit his popularity has made Pirates fans think that he is better than he is, to the point where people like him as much as, if not more than, the baseball god named Andrew McCutchen.

The result of this is a fanbase who is convinced of things that are not true.  For example, anytime I tell my mother that McKenry is a bad hitter and that Neil Walker is a league average hitter, she tells me that they are “clutch hitters”.  I can’t deny that I’ve seen both of them get hits in huge situations; I obviously have.  But I’ve seen the same from McCutchen, Rod Barajas, Pedro Alvarez, Josh Harrison, and many others.  This does not make them “clutch hitters”.  There actually is a statistic that measures the “clutch” ability of hitters by measuring how well they do in “high leverage situations”, i.e. important and game-changing at bats, compared to how well they do in all situations.  McKenry and Walker have both fallen in between what is generally classified as “average” and what is classified as “above average”.  That is to say, they have performed slightly better in high leverage situations, but in a statistic where the league leader scored 2.7 McKenry and Walker scored 0.36 and 0.29 respectively.  They were not much more clutch than the league average last year.

While I diverged into a longer discussion about a particular misgiving, I am only trying to illustrate the point that Pirates fans’ views are shaped in large part by what they are presented by the broadcasters and media.  I am concerned about how this will affect the public reaction to what happens with the Pirates’ first round draft pick Mark Appel.

I think that the Pirates have handled the situation with Appel beautifully.  By conducting the rest of their draft and signing process as normal, they have taken all of the leverage away from Appel and made sure that the worst-case scenario isn’t actually all that bad.  That being said, the fact remains that Scott Boras is Appel’s agent, which may result in a dynamic that prevents Appel from signing.  It is my belief that if this happens, it will not be because the Pirates made a mistake, but because Boras is acting selfishly and/or Appel is being short-sighted.

That said, for 20 years Pirates fans have been hearing about how the Pirates’ owners are evil and refuse to spend money.  Even though it was a different regime, fans remember taking Danny Moskos ahead of Matt Wieters for signability reasons.  Casual Pirates fans expect the Pirates to fail to sign players because they are unwilling to spend the money.  They aren’t going to read or listen to a long and complicated explanation of the new draft rules; it’s far easier to hear that the team is cheap and the owner is evil and fire Neal Huntington gosh darn it.  Confirmation bias is a dangerous thing, and it could bite the Pirates in the rear end if this situation goes south. In fact, it may be the only bullet in Boras’ gun.

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