On Baseball Prospectus yesterday, Russell Carleton (with help from Sam Miller) showed that pitchouts are rarely a smart strategy because of the improbability that a manager will correctly guess whether a runner is attempting to steal. In the piece, Russell provides some potential reasons for the prevalence of pitchouts despite this fairly damning evidence, but he concludes with this:
A manager might know that he's placing a losing bet by pitching out. (If he doesn't, please show him this article, and he will.) But let me suggest that there's a hidden prize in pitching out that might make it all worthwhile. Just like at the casino, sometimes, you come up the winner, and that feels really good. The payoff from a successful pitchout guess is not just 0.158 runs, it's the chance to say, "Ha, other manager! I can read your mind." And if you guess wrong... well, it's only a ball, and the game just rolls along. If there's a common thread that runs through a lot of the inefficiencies in baseball, it's the male pack animal tendency to try to display dominance behaviors over other males. My 14-year-old self would have appreciated that.
This is a very interesting idea, and I somewhat agree - however, I'd like to suggest an alternative, albeit similar, reason for this behavior. Instead of pride or a false belief that they can break the system, maybe managers use pitchouts because they will receive little blame for a ball, but a lot of credit for a successful caught stealing. That is, like Russell says in the article, a ball has a relatively minor immediate effect on the game. Whereas a caught stealing is an obvious and immediate advantage for the team on defense, a ball is quickly forgotten, and the praise or blame of the end result of the plate appearance will likely be given to the pitcher regardless.
The same phenomenon may hold true for other managerial decisions. Take the sacrifice bunt for instance. Say the bunt is successful, moving the runner from first to second, and the following batter drives that runner in. Even if the decision was a bad one, the manager is likely receive credit for putting the runner in a better position to score. If the runner doesn't come around, the blame can always be placed on the batter. After all, all he needed was a single! Sure, the manager should get blamed for giving away a free out, but based on the standard practices right now, he is much less likely to get blamed for the runner failing to score than praised for the runner scoring.
I understand that this is a pessimistic point of view, and also that I have no evidence for these claims. Nevertheless, it seems plausible to me that many managerial decisions are made in order to maximize praise and minimize blame for the manager. As great as it would be if all managers were like Earl Weaver, attempting to maximize runs and win expectancy with every move, they have a lot of pressure to make themselves look as good as possible so that they won't be the first to go when the team performs badly.
Questions for discussion:
1) Are there any other plausible explanations for the use of pitchouts?
2) Do you think managers are genuinely always trying to maximize win expectancy, or do they act with their own interests in mind too?