Salk: What 3 kinds of bias have to do with this Mariners season

Aug 9, 2023, 12:12 AM

Seattle Mariners Teoscar Hernández...

Teoscar Hernández of the Seattle Mariners reacts after hitting a double on July 22, 2023. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

If you watch, read about, or listen to sports conversation today, you probably recognize the word “bias.” It’s everywhere.

Every announcer is biased. Every umpire. Every list, every ranking, every column and sometimes even factual reports, all guilty of bias. Some in the media hate it. They rail against the idea of a fan of one team accusing someone who is trying to remain impartial of leaning against that team. Actually, just writing that sentence makes it sound pretty absurd.

But I’m not here to complain about bias or about those who claim to see it everywhere. I’m here to admit to it. And I’m hoping you might be willing to, as well.

These 2023 Seattle Mariners have been… challenging. They played a disappointing brand of baseball for the first half of the season but never poorly enough to drop out of contention. They have played much better for the last five weeks – to the tune of the best record in baseball during that stretch – but it’s taken some a while to recognize it.

Tuesday: Gilbert strikes out career-high 12, Mariners beat Padres 2-0

In thinking about this season, it dawns on me that the Mariners are proving the theories of confirmation bias, recency bias, and primacy bias.

Applying bias to the Seattle Mariners

1. Confirmation bias

This occurs when we focus on information that confirms our existing beliefs and preconceptions while often automatically discounting information that does not confirm our original belief.

I know that I have been guilty of that this year. I think highly of the folks in charge of the Mariners baseball operations department, so I liked what the they did this offseason. I thought they got better in right field by adding Teoscar Hernández and at second base with Kolten Wong.

Was I wild about AJ Pollock or Tommy La Stella? No, but I didn’t focus on those signings because I saw what appeared to be improvement elsewhere. I was (perhaps overly) patient because of the track record of the last two seasons. I saw a plan that I thought would build on their success, and because of that I may have missed their failure to add a DH or the pressure they put on some players to succeed or else. I was willing to be a lot more patient with some of their signings than I should have been. I bought into the organization’s belief that it was ready for the World Series.

At the same time, there were others who were frustrated by the offseason. They saw a payroll that didn’t rise, free agents that went elsewhere, and a team that didn’t go hard enough to support the young core that had developed. But their confirmation bias was problematic, as well. It caused many to ignore the positives.

The money spent on signing that nucleus and on trade acquisitions. The annual group of relievers who got better as soon as they arrived. And the next wave of young starters waiting to take the big leagues by storm.

And so they treated the first few months of the season like it was the end of the world. A team with a .500 record became horrible and the folks who built it and steered it needed to go. Nevermind that the standings showed the Mariners to still be in it. Nevermind that we’ve seen countless examples of good teams taking months to find themselves. What they were seeing on the field confirmed what they expected.

2. Recency bias

This is the tendency to overemphasize the importance of recent experiences or the latest information we possess when estimating future events. It often misleads us to believe that recent events can give us an indication of how the future will unfold.

Sound familiar? It should. Baseball is played over 162 games for a reason. While I understand the folks who want to shorten the season and try to make the game more palatable to a younger generation, it would make the game even more dependent on luck. It’s a weird sport. Good hitters sometimes stink. Bad hitters get hot now and again. A .300 hitter could hit .350 for half a year and .250 the other half. They play so many games to take as much of the randomness and luck out of the results as possible.

But we all tend to see what is happening and expect it will continue.

Julio Rodríguez isn’t hitting for power? “They paid him too early!”

Cal Raleigh has a bad month? “Last year was a fluke!”

Bryce Miller has a rough outing? “The young arms can’t last!”

Ty Adcock has a scoreless debut? “They have another dominant young arm in the pen!”

Sometimes these snap judgements turn out to be accurate (see Wong, Kolten and Pollock, AJ). Sometimes they represent just a short slice of time and turn back around. And while we as sports fans will always react to what we see and will never stop overreacting, it’s helpful to remember that this sport is different. This sport changes more during the season than others do. While it’s helpful to judge where a team is at a specific point in time, it might not be the best indicator of where it is headed.

It’s easy to get mad when they lose and think everyone involved screwed up. It’s fun to get ahead of yourself when they win and believe that the World Series is right around the corner. The truth is that this sport is incredibly hard to predict based on the small sample size of what we are seeing at any given moment.

3. Primacy bias

Finally, this is the tendency to recall information that we encounter first more easily.

In the case of the Mariners, we have decades of primacy experience, which we think will dictate the future. They have always fallen short and so they always will. They have never added the extra piece they need and so they never will.

Growing up in Boston, I am quite familiar with this phenomenon. The Red Sox hadn’t won since 1918 and had come up with more creative ways to blow big moments than any fan base should have to endure. But with the right changes, the right mix, and a little bit of luck, they changed that story in 2004. Now, many have a very different view of that organization.

The Mariners likely won’t get the benefit of the doubt until they win it all. I can understand that. But expecting this team to act like the 2010, 2002, 1992 or 1982 teams just because they wear the same name on the chest doesn’t really make sense.

We could probably expand this column to include familiarity bias: we assume players whose name we know are better than those we don’t. We ignore that older players are more likely to decline or spend time on the injured list because we have seen them around the league.

Or we could consider selection bias, in which we only follow one team carefully and thus are convinced they are the only ones who struggle with driving in runners from third, striking out in key spots or whatever else drives us crazy.

What’s the point of this whole column? Am I trying to tell you I was right and you were wrong? No. Am I trying to admit I was wrong and you were right? No. I think I’m just trying to say that we all bring our biases to the table when we watch and discuss the Mariners, and I’m going to try to remember that moving forward. Hopefully, it will make watching each game more fun.

This is a fun team right now. They are starting to play like they were designed to play. They are stacking wins and pulling themselves out of the hole they dug to start the season.

We often hear that the first third of the season is for identifying your problems, the middle third is for tinkering and fixing them, and the final two months are when your true team is on display. Those final two months are now underway, and the Mariners will probably have games where it feels like they are about to win it all and others where you’ll swear they are no better than they were in April. But they’ve put themselves in a position for all of those games to matter.

In the meantime, now that you’ve read about confirmation bias, you’ll probably see it everywhere.


More on the Seattle Mariners

Watch: Julio Rodríguez fools everyone with HR-robbing catch
Seattle Mariners place Bryan Woo on IL, make three other roster moves
Seattle Mariners to call up 2020 first-round pick Emerson Hancock
Drayer’s Notebook: The role players key to Mariners’ surge
The Seattle Mariners are red-hot – have they finally clicked?

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