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The Rationale for Irrational Thinking

Recently there's been a lot of discussion and debate about the whole "throwing" the season to keep our protected draft pick vs. playing the season out "the right way" and winning as many games as possible. Often these discussions have gotten heated. I thought maybe we could all have nice, civil, respectful conversation about our differences together.

It seems to me that there exists a divide among sports fans that has become so entrenched and polarizing that it leaves little room for moderation. Either you are a stark rationalist who looks only at numbers and what mathematics can prove, and who expects--and in many cases even believes--that others will do the same; or you are a gutsy, gritty traditionalist who "watches the games" and knows, regardless of what the numbers say, that a sacrifice bunt is generally a good idea, and that the stolen base is as time-honored a baseball tradition as the human umpire behind the plate.

Neither the rationalist nor the traditionalist seems very interested in accomodating viewpoints that fall somewhere between the two. Not surprisingly, this creates a climate in which very few of the owners of such viewpoints are comfortable speaking up about them. Why bother to challenge the dichotomy when the traditionalists will call you a robot and the rationalists will call you an idiot? Obviously, sports fandom wasn't always this way, but every time some newbie tells PaulThomas that he doesn't "watch the games," and every time I lose my cool at someone who doesn't care about Jack Cust's on-base percentage, the divide gets more polarized. I don't think anyone really wants that. We're all fans, and I think when we focus in on what we don't like about the opposing perspective, we miss the pieces of that perspective that bear careful consideration.

This manifested itself most recently in the debate about whether or not the remainder of the A's 2010 season should be allowed to die. The point probably became somewhat less urgent after the dismal series against the Rangers, but as long as there are games left in the season, the question has to persist.

Prominently figured on one side were guys like PaulThomas and DFA, arguing that protecting the draft pick was of the utmost importance. Who cares about a couple of wins either way in the grand scheme of things, they argued. The pick is more important. The most prominent voices opposing that line of thinking, as I recall, were Grover and WaddellCanseco. The counterargument ran that, aside from the ethical implications of throwing games, an 85-win team looks better to a potential top-shelf free agent than an 80-win team does. Over .500 and in second place looks attractive; under .500 and in third place looks less so.

Paul firmly rejected that idea. Surely, he maintained, any potential free agent would see the wisdom and forward-thinking strategy of a team that jockeyed for good enough draft position that it maintained a higher pick. That's a better mark of a team that wants to win than an extra five wins. When I countered that I didn't think too many baseball players thought that way, Paul flatly disagreed and didn't seem particularly interested in hearing the idea.

Somewhere in this argument, what got lost is that I think most of us can agree that, in a vacuum, when players' irrationalities and misunderstandings are absent, keeping the protected pick is more important than winning five more games. But we don't live in a vacuum. We live in a nation populated by people who say things like "It's time to stop trusting the experts." We are fans of a sporting community that holds up as wise thinkers people like Joe Morgan. We follow a baseball world in which people can talk seriously about Trevor Cahill and CC Sabathia being Cy Young candidates, even though most people with a good handle on statistics would tell you that the award rightfully belongs to Felix Hernandez.

I think that "stat guys"--for lack of a better term--have spent so long hunkering down and defending themselves against wild allegations of being robots that they are losing their ability to accept certain irrational realities. For example, even though Ron Washington doesn't make smart managerial decisions, and in my mind often makes decisions on a Bob Geren level of stupidity, he has a fire and he has the respect of his players, and that intangible, unquantifiable factor may well have been part of the difference between the Rangers and the A's this season (that and interleague scheduling.)

Anyway. I don't mean to draw conclusions or come across as pretending to have definitive answers. Part of my point, after all, is that there's a lot more irrationality to the world than those of us who were raised and educated to subsist on logic may be comfortable thinking about. There's a lot more irrationality and a lot more subjectivity. Those aren't bad things; they are just things that we have to incorporate, deal with, and as the case may be, minimize or mitigate to whatever extent possible.

So let's just have a conversation about the place of rationality and irrationality in sports discussion and analysis, and maybe even come to some consensus ideas about the way the rest of this A's season should be run. Or we could not have that conversation. Whatever works for you.

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