Phase 1 – Decision Clarity – “The Coach Who Second-Guessed Himself”-11.07.17

by Peter A. Arthur-Smith, Leadership Solutions, Inc (R)

“…choosing not to ask for a video review after the home-plate umpire incorrectly ruled…” Article by Billy Witz, New York Sunday Times, Sports Section, October 2017. 



Can we all agree we’ve been in Joe Girardi’s shoes – New York Yankee’s coach – where we should have made a decision-call and have second-guessed ourselves?  Girardi’s crucial decision turning-point in a baseball league playoff series, between the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians, will likely live with him forever.


Perhaps some of us have been in his in-the-moment situation, too. A thunderous crowd in your opposition’s baseball park screaming mayhem coupled with a decisive but erroneous call by the home-plate umpire. Girardi ignored appeals by his on-the-spot catcher, his assistant coaches, and other team-mates in the dugout. His second-guessing rationale: it was taking too long to produce a dugout replay – he only had 30 seconds to do it. He didn’t want his favored pitcher to lose momentum. That pitcher felt overwhelmed – you could see it in the man’s eyes. Girardi could have used his umpire-decision, appeal

-time to allow his relief pitcher a few more warm-ups. The next Indian batter was the most dangerous on its team.


Of course, we would have all called it differently than Girardi; especially in hindsight. At the same time, many of us might have reverted to our deep-statistical playbook; something Girardi is well-known for. After all, he comes from an engineering background, so numbers are important to him. He is usually armed with a heavy folder containing all sorts of comparative statistics.


To indicate another numerical decision that went against the team: was when he retired pitcher CC Sabathia after two-thirds of the sixth inning. As Girardi recalled after the game, “We made the decision before the game to pull CC after 60 pitches.” And that’s what he did; at what also proved to be a crucial point, when Sabathia was cruising along against some pretty aggressive Indian batters and holding a five-run lead. Girardi wanted to insert a favored pitcher, even though that favored pitcher had gone above and beyond only two days before. Would we have done the same in his shoes? (NOTE: In fact, Girardi pulled Sabathia after 77 pitches: still well below the 100 usually expected of successful starting-pitchers.)


This was Girardi’s second decision oversight in a crucial second game in a five-game series.  Lady Luck now definitely left the Yankee’s side, especially when the grand-slam hit by that dangerous batter bounced the right way off the right-field foul-pole into delirious spectators. With such a real-life decision story, it raises yet again the specter of rational versus intuitive decision-making?


Our extraordinary emphasis on rational, quantitative decision-making has been drubbed into us by management books and educators for almost a century, which has now risen to an overwhelming but unwarranted cacophony in this writer’s view. The “quant” people completely and persistently overlook the scientifically proven fact that our intuition always makes our final decisions, irrespective of any obsessive rigorous analysis we may have made. Our intuition synthesizes the data that our rational mind extracts, in order to make sense of it. When our rational mind doesn’t produce enough intelligence on a given issue, our intuition hesitates and so we hesitate, too.


People’s intuitive minds draw upon our many life experiences, from the moment we were born, as a comparison point with the new rational issues we are confronted with. They aid us in making an optimum decision. Irrespective of this, a quant approach to baseball, started by the Oakland As many years ago and made into a movie, has now placed numerous quants on professional baseball team payrolls. It’s more than possible that data-driven decision-making, which has entered into the game over recent years, has provided a leg-up relative to the more ad-hoc, gut decision-making pursued in days of yore. However, the fact that pretty well every team is doing it, what competitive advantage is that? Of course, this writer appreciates your response: “We have to do it because everyone else is doing it.”


Following the herd is a great rationale. But what about going one step ahead of your competitors? If our sports and business worlds are awash with data, then why don’t we access it and then respect that our instincts – notwithstanding our many biases – will usually be available to help us make optimal calls. And probably, if we complement this activity by allowing our intuitions to review the right considerations, again based upon our life’s experiences, we will usually arrive at optimal conclusions. Take a look again at some of the earlier issues that Girardi took into consideration. His fatal error: he second-guessed his intuition, when he saw his catcher signaling or when he saw Sabathia cruising through the Indian batters. More often than not, once you do that, you’re on a slippery slope.


Coming back to the important question of our biases: In Girardi’s case, this is his penchant for numbers and cold rational solutions. We all have our own biases, which we need to be honest about. In any case, because Girardi appears to be a pleasant and rational guy at press briefings and because he has led a largely rookie team further than anyone expected during the season; he has probably earned many points as a decision maker. But now his team is in the play-offs, where the Yankees are playing the best of the best, it’s on-the-margin where decisions count. As Aaron Judge, one of his rookie batters with a new record for rookie home-runs, was reported to have commented: “It’s like we have just finished the spring-season and now the real season has just started.”


If you are in Girardi’s rational corner and there’s a very high percentage of us who are; it’s about time you have more respect for your life-long experience, deep professional know-how, and intuition. Organization executives can help by:

» Allowing their people to make many more reasonable mistakes, as long as they don’t make them twice on the same issue. They should resist pillorying people in their lust for blood when someone makes an honest error.

    » Where an error is made, the executive should make the time – which too often they don’t – to review the mistake objectively with the individual. Help them see other options – –  to learn from.

    » If the individual makes the right call next time, take the moment to complement that person and reinforce their decision-making confidence.

    » Complement them, whenever they make the right key calls. They will remember that moment for a long time. We’re too quick to bash people, rather than uplift them. Perhaps bashing makes us feel superior in some way.


So, as a coach and team leader, can Girardi recover from his over-reliance on management data thinking? Although he owned up to his second-guessing, he was especially back to his play-book for the final two games of the ACLS series against the Houston Astros. He used his playbook to choose pitcher Robertson over Bettances toward the end of game 6. Based upon numbers he was right, but a leader would’ve spent 10 minutes with each before the game to discuss options and look them in the eye…the latter would’ve told him Bettances was up to his game much more for many reasons.


In Game 7 he could have turned his playbook upside down and done something really unconventional to give his batters a chance. When he knew Sabathia would fade after 3-4 starter innings, he should have emulated the Astros’ coach with game 4 in Boston (using Verlander for non-starter innings). Girardi could’ve used his starters one or two innings at a time after Sabathia; Gray, Tanaka and Severino. That would’ve kept the Astros in check and given the Yankees batters more reason to find a play to win: their faith in Girardi was blown with reliever Kahnle not holding his nerve. Saving his starters for the World Series didn’t matter, since it would’ve been a monumental achievement for his team to land there.


    At the end of the day, if players or people in your workforce have paid their dues with at least 10, 000 hours of playing the game, batting, pitching, coaching or leading: which they probably have been doing since they were 5 years old: then they should rely upon their intuitions as much as possible to make the optimum call…within their particular circumstances at the time. No second-guessing or definitive playbooks. Occasionally it may still be the wrong call, possibly influenced by personal biases, but it would still likely be small fry relative to the pain inflicted with not trusting your expert or leader instincts at crucial moments. Ask Joe Girardi?

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