The Manager’s Perspective: Craig Counsell on Probabilities and the Big Picture

Craig Counsell spent time as a special assistant to then-GM Doug Melvin before taking over as the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers in May 2015. That experience has proven to be valuable. Gifted with a deeper understanding of what goes on behind the scenes, the cerebral former infielder can better go about the job of leading a team on the field — not so much in terms of the Xs and Os, but rather the ability to see the big picture.

That doesn’t mean strategic decisions, or the statistical probabilities that go with them, don’t matter. They matter a lot, and Counsell approaches them with care. Even so, knowing that something has a slightly better than 50/50 chance to work doesn’t mean it’s an obvious choice. One can embrace analytics — which Counsell certainly does — and still let the gut play a role.

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Craig Counsell: “It was a little scary, frankly, to go into the office every day. It was something that had never been a part of my life. As a player, you felt like you were lucky that you never had to go into an office and sit behind a desk. But I’m so glad I did that, because I learned a lot about different people’s perspectives and about how everybody is trying to help create an organization that wins baseball games.

“I worked for Doug Melvin. Is he [an old-school baseball guy]? I wouldn’t say it like that. What I learned from Doug is how he put a staff together, how he created a culture, how he treated people, how he treated his team — ‘his team,’ meaning everybody that worked around him — and how he welcomed opposing views and allowed them to be heard. And his patience as far as making decisions and letting things play out, which was probably a trait of experience… It was really valuable to watch him use that to his advantage.

“That translates to [the managerial role]. It helps you to see the bigger picture. Doug was outstanding at seeing the bigger picture and at being able to separate truth from fiction, which you’re presented a lot in this game. We get emotional about wins and losses, and performance, and things like that. Doug taught me a lot about separating those two.

“I learned quickly how difficult evaluation is. Player projection, player evaluation, forecasting. It’s incredibly difficult. It’s a science everybody is trying to get better at. As far as strategies… you’re always learning. I don’t know that I specifically learned managerial strategies while working in the front office, but I definitely learned about the bigger conversation that goes around putting a team together.

“There are certainly different ways [to construct a team], and I think every different organization has a slightly different methodology and things they hold most important. That’s one thing that’s great about the game, the different teams and the different way they do things.

“For some reason I decided to major in accounting [at Notre Dame]. I was bad it, but I’ve always had interest in numbers. A funny thing I remember about ‘the shifting world’ — that was one of the first things that kind of came up — is from when I was playing for Bob Melvin. I was playing second base and would go on the other side of second base for a right-handed hitter. I was doing it on my own, and it kind of felt like I was breaking the law. Now it’s commonplace, and there’s talk that it actually would break the rules. But you’re always considering how to make things a little bit better. I think that’s all we’re trying to do.

“I was [playing on the other side of second base] based on what you could call ‘gut probabilities.’ That’s what most decisions are. All of these decisions that people are making are on probabilities. But in the end, it’s a gut decision. You’re using the numbers you have, but at the same time, there are no 100-percenters.

“The probabilities rarely get to the point of… if you’re dealing in 52-48 probabilities, you’re wrong a lot. The gut is wrong, too, but we don’t have the percentages on that. Right?

“One of the things you always… and I think most people at this level do this, is that you have to do what you believe is right. Do what you studied for. Do what you’ve trained for. When you’re dealing in probabilities, some of your decisions aren’t going to turn out to be right. That doesn’t mean the right thoughts didn’t go into them. As long as there has been thought and preparation behind your decisions, living with them is pretty easy.

“I think that all decisions, whether it’s your gut or decisions you’re really informed about… they’re still probability decisions. And if you’re dealing with decisions that are in the 50s and 40s, there are mistakes. There are wrongs. There are what are going to be perceived as poor choices. We’re just trying to get a little better and be right a little more. That’s what analytics and information is all about.”

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Shirtless George Brett
Member
Shirtless George Brett

“The probabilities rarely get to the point of… if you’re dealing in 52-48 probabilities, you’re wrong a lot.

This struck me as a weird way of thinking about it. Its not so much about being “right” or “wrong” as it is giving yourself the best possible chance of success. Which means betting on the most likely outcome. If you pick the 52% outcome and it doesnt happen it doesnt mean you were “wrong” and should therefore discount probability in favor of your “gut”. Which seems to be what Counsell is saying

But maybe that is just me being pedantic and/or reading things wrong.

Robert J. Baumann
Member

I think Counsell is just using “wrong” as a shortcut to saying “your decision didn’t lead to the desired outcome.” Counsell doesn’t mean that the decision-making process was wrong, because it’s that process that’s important—he says this explicitly: “When you’re dealing in probabilities, some of your decisions aren’t going to turn out to be right. That doesn’t mean the right thoughts didn’t go into them. As long as there has been thought and preparation behind your decisions, living with them is pretty easy.” That, to me, sounds like an argument to keep working to make the best decisions possible, which means, in part, gathering info, doing the math, being prepared with the probabilities, etc.

But, I also hear him saying that when things are close to a coin flip, you have to allow for experience (i.e. your “gut”) to be part of the information you consider. You might subconsciously perceive something in the moment that you don’t have time to quantify, and that might lead you to the other side of the coin. I don’t in any way hear Counsell saying that you should always trust your gut in a “52-48 decision,” just that it might be a useful bit of info in some of those situations.