Andres Torres and Confirmation Bias

In September, Andres Torres hit .164/.188/.328 in 69 plate appearances, finishing with his worst month of the season. In the NLDS, Torres hit .125/.176/.125, striking out six times in 18 trips to the plate. After going 1 for 9 with five strikeouts in the first two games of the NLCS (four of those coming in a brutal Game 2), he took a seat on the bench. He looked awful at the plate, and everyone began to talk about how he had finally been exposed.

His line since then? .414/.469/.655 in 32 trips to the plate. He’s struck out just six times, and he leads the Giants in extra base hits during the World Series. His production is one of the main reasons they’re a game away from being World Champions. Two weeks ago, Torres was being written off as a guy who couldn’t hack it. Today, he’s in the running for World Series MVP.

His postseason is a classic case study in confirmation bias. Torres’ odd development path, where he went from being a scrub to a quality player at age 31, bred skepticism over his performance. When he slugged .533 last year, well, it was just 170 plate appearances. When he kept hitting this year, there were no easy explanations, but there was still an expectation that it wouldn’t last forever. He had been a Triple-A outfielder for nearly a decade, and that made it hard to accept that he may have actually become a good hitter late in his career.

So, when Torres struggled in September, then again in the first round of the playoffs, and finally capped it off by looking hopeless against Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt to start the NLCS, we had six weeks of recent performance where the results matched our preconceived notions – Andres Torres had reverted back into being Andres Torres. We didn’t know how to explain what he had done in the couple of years prior, but the last six weeks, well, that was the real Torres, the one we had been expecting all along. The one who couldn’t hit.

The only problem is that as soon as he was written off, he caught fire. Torres began to disprove the narrative as quickly as it gained momentum. Had the Giants bought into recent performance and kept Torres on the bench, they wouldn’t have champagne on ice tonight, just in case they have some celebrating to do. They had to ignore the bias that comes at us all when something we expect actually happens and realize that a larger view of the situation needs to be taken.

Overcoming confirmation bias is a critical part of good decision making. Fulfilled expectations are often the worst thing that can happen to someone’s analytical process, as we get an overinflated sense of the value of what we believe is going to happen. Torres wasn’t exposed as a guy who couldn’t hit in the playoffs – he was simply in a slump.

If Pat Burrell launches a couple of home runs tonight, don’t be shocked. If the Rangers win three games in a row and steal this series back from the Giants, it won’t be the biggest surprise in sports. In reality, the narratives that have been shaped by recent postseason performances – Burrell can’t hit, the Rangers can’t win in San Francisco, the Phillies are unbeatable, etc… – are often just not a reflection of reality, but instead just a big collection of confirmation biases.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

45 Responses to “Andres Torres and Confirmation Bias”

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  1. Matt says:

    Bochy sitting Torres that game is one of the great moves he’s made this post season that hasn’t really been talked about. Torres was struggling in the post season not because he couldn’t hit, but because he was trying to hit everything, and lucky for the Giants, Bochy realized that. Torres admitting he was pressing way to hard and even said to the media on his day off that when he gets back into the line up he isn’t going to swing, which caused a couple of the local radio guys to laugh when in his first at bat back he walked.

    I could be guilty of confirmation bias myself, but it really seems like that day off allowed Torres to refocus and get back to the plate approach that allowed him to start hitting in the first place.

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  2. B N says:

    “If Pat Burrell launches a couple of home runs tonight, don’t be shocked.”

    I would not be shocked in the slightest. On the other hand, I would also not be shocked if he struck out a few more times either…

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  3. Dan says:

    I’m simply stunned that Dave Cameron would toss a jab at the Phillies into a blog entry that otherwise had nothing to do with them. STUNNED.

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    • don says:

      I think in general Dave’s a little rough on the Phillies but it’s hardly the case here. Look at the early Vegas lines or any of the ‘expert’ picks – most of the sports world had penciled the Phillies in to the World Series as if playing the games was a simple formality.

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      • Dan says:

        An unexpected upset isn’t an example of confirmation bias. My point was that his jab at the Phillies (1) did not advance his hypothesis and (2) came out of nowhere.

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    • Jason B says:

      A jab that’s completely on-target, by the way. I’m sure we all read plenty about how unstoppable the Phils would be, breezing into the Series with that daunting trio of starters backed by a “high powered” offense…

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Actually, wasn’t Dave saying how great the Reds offense was?

        Not that I’m brilliant or anything, but FG ain’t right about much stuff outside of the obvious.

        I don’t want to hear about no one at FG should be shocked by anything Giants, especially since they are one of the most mocked franchises on this site. Every move they made has been ripped.

        Of course, every move any team makes gets ripped if projected WAR/$ is less than 4.5M.

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      • Jason B says:

        “FG ain’t right about much stuff outside of the obvious.”

        Really now? Let’s not say silly things to overstate what could be a reasonable hypothesis (predictions tend to be no better than average here, outside of the obvious ones, or something to that effect).

        Also, you leave a *lot* of comments on a site that “ain’t right about much stuff.” Surely your hours would be better spent where the writers know their ass from a hole in the ground, no? =)

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      • jackweiland says:

        I often confuse my ass with holes in the ground.

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  4. darryl0 says:

    I see your point, but there’s a huge hole in your story.

    If you’re going to point to Torres’s poor stats in Sept. then shouldn’t you mention that they were almost without a doubt greatly attributable to his actual physical health? Torres lost 2 weeks in the middle of Sept. due to an emergency appendectomy operation on Sept. 12th. It was amazing that he recovered in time to get 28 ABs in the last 8 games of the season. Don’t you think that would have affected how any hitter (even the best in the game) performed in the playoffs? He was unsurprisingly still rusty and not in true game shape when the playoffs started.

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    • kaliber says:

      I was just going to comment about this. The appendicitis affected his play for a couple weeks leading up to the surgery as well. He came back so quickly, that it is easy to believe he wouldn’t be on top of his game right away.

      Of course, the slump could have coincided with this, but I have to believe it was a factor on both sides of the surgery.

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      • fierrpawz says:

        Recovery time for an appendectomy is 4-6 weeks.
        Torres was back in two.
        I don’t know about you, but I think my numbers would suffer for a a month post surgery.

        Hard to call it a slump a few weeks after abdominal surgery.
        Noted, he declined a bit before, but the fact he found his swing at all is amazing.

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    • Bigmouth says:

      Excellent point, darryl. As I recall, he also came back more quickly from the surgery than was recommended/predicted.

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    • this guy says:

      That doesn’t fit the desired narrative. Just like injuries didn’t factor into the Mets’ problems while Omar was the GM.

      Get with the program. The truth has nothing to do with what we choose to believe.

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  5. this guy says:

    No. It’s simply the media using whatever is at their means to generate their desired narrative, often times at the expense of reality. You guys do it on a regular basis.

    Stupid will always find a way to be stupid, regardless of data quantity/quality. Numbers are just tools. Handing me a wrench doesn’t make me a plumber.

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  6. Evan says:

    Yeah, but I’m still confused. Is Torres good or not!?

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    • Anon21 says:

      Dave’s obvious point is that the real Andres Torres…is in your heart.

      All in all, a clever attempt to repackage “The Dangers of Small Sample Sizes (Part 157,928).”

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    • this guy says:

      He’s good enough when your rotation is amongst the best in the game.

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  7. Mike says:

    Thus whatever Torres has done in the WS is also useless and pointing towards it makes one just as guilty of confirmation bias.

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    • Deelron says:

      No, it doesn’t. It’s being pointed to as a counterpoint to the “Torres has been exposed” narrative. If the topic of the article was “Who is the real Andres Torres” you’d have a debate there, but that’s not what the article is about.

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  8. intricatenick says:

    If you really want to take this idea to its logical conclusion, the human mind is simply a collection of biases duking it out to see which one gets to win. If one is to go down the rabbit hole, the argument could be made that the statistically minded are too aware of confirmation bias resulting in a bias against it.

    I mean to say, there isn’t really a way to “win” this argument other than predicting things better.

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    • this guy says:

      There is a century of data that says 1 month of data for anything baseball related is insufficient. To point this out as a counter argument against any conclusions drawn from 1 month of data is not selection bias. It’s called “thinking”.

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      • intricatenick says:

        Of course, I was not suggesting that it was. The way to “win” as I said – was simply to predict better. What you say is accurate – one month of data does not predict better since it is not reproducible. What I think is hilarious is that MLE’s from his minor league days are not in evidence. So the bias in this post, while better than the bias it is opposing, could be opposed by data from an even longer period of time that occurred earlier in his development phase. I don’t know what the answer will be.

        So am I not “thinking”? Or did you simply automatically boil my argument down into what you wanted it to be by relying on the small sample of my comment. ;)

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  9. Scout Finch says:

    Good read. Bruce Bochy endorses this article.

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  10. Jeff Wise says:

    I love stories like this especially in baseball. You never know who is going to step up and be the hero for a particular game. Everybody has equal opportunity to play great.

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  11. waynetolleson says:

    Basically, what I take from this entry is that Dave Cameron is god’s gift to baseball analysis, and that baseball players can be streaky.

    It’s truly an ingenious bit of analysis. Thanks, Dave.

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  12. Matthias says:

    I think Dave is just trying to warn against searching for data/stats/results that back up preconceived notions. As people, we have a tendency to remember things that support our preconceived notions and forget things that go against them.

    It’s why we think Kobe is the game’s best clutch performer, when huge chunks of data suggest otherwise. We remember his makes and forget his misses. Torres has put together a solid minor league line at .272/.362/.396. And then in 740 regular season plate appearances over the last two seasons, he put up .269/.343/.492 slash line. The data do not suggest he was ever a “bad hitter,” but the fact that he was in the minors for so long make people hesitant to believe he’s this good. People then look for any sign that he’s “falling back to earth,” and jump all over it.

    I’m not trying to say that I know for sure he’s truly a 5 WAR player, a great hitter, or a poor hitter, but just reiterating Dave’s point that confirmation bias may have affected the way some people looked at Torres’ slump. And thanks to some astute fans above, we know he was recovering from surgery, and that may have played a role.

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    • .272/.362/.396 is not “solid” in the minors unless you are talking about BM. If he was doing that in the majors, he probably would never have fell into the Giants hands.

      One more bit of info, besides the appendectomy surgery, which I was going to note, but many did already, is that Torres changed his batting methodology three off-seasons ago, using essentially Ted Williams’ Science of Hitting as a guide to his hitting. It has been noted here among various posts that an online hitting “guru” guided him on what changes he needed to do, and Torres followed them and absorbed the lessons and totally changed the way he hit, plus picked up other tips along the way.

      Not everyone can change their hitting mechanics and get such great results, but it appears that the underlying skills that attracted scouts and coaches in the first place to Torres, finally had the proper instruction for Torres to utilize those skills effectively in the majors.

      Given his age, who knows how long he can keep going at this rate, but the wholesale changes he made to his mechanics is clearly THE reason for why his prior numbers can not be used to judge his current success. He still strikes out way too much, huge negative, and his walks are only average despite following Teddy’s balls lessons (Williams of course touted taking walks) but his superior speed appears to enable him to attain a higher than average BABIP in the majors, and to leg out more doubles and triples than other players, resulting in his high totals in extra-base hits, and he still hits well enough to pick up a good number of homers as well, despite playing in AT&T and batting LH much of the time.

      It appears that because of his speed, he was taught the dreaded “slap the ball” methodology of hitting, which hindered his ability to both get hits and to hit for power.

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  13. Cameron’s leaving out an essential piece of information. Torres’s crummy September was interrupted by an appendectomy, from which he returned in about two weeks. He slumped even worse, which made me (and i presume other Giants’ followers) to wonder not if “the real” torres had finally shown up, but if his first true full ML season + coming back too early from major abdominal surgery = a totally worn out ballplayer. That’s what I wrote here. And I was wrong.

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    • I had disagreed with your hypothesis before – that a full season would wear him out – but couldn’t figure out any better answer other than “I don’t think so”, so I never bothered to comment.

      But thinking about this now, one reason why a long season might not affect Torres as much as others might is that he was a former track and field athlete, and don’t they have a training regiment that required them to keep in shape all year round? If that is true, he most probably just carried his habits from track to baseball and continued to keep in shape all season long. Does that make sense?

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  14. Eli says:

    The reading comprehension and critical thinking skills of the majority of internet message board commenters truly astounds me.

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    • this guy says:

      Oh you would say that…just one of the sheeple!!

      (Did you see what I did there?!?! Combining “sheep” and “people”?!?! How awesome was that. Tolleson will appreciate it. Totally flamed that n00b. He won’t be back…OH NO! HE WON’T BE BACK!!)

      *Takes ulcer medication and finds the can of aerosol cheese*

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