What’s Eating David Ortiz?
Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on June 26, 2007
On Sunday we witnessed one of our favorite players, David Ortiz, throw down his bat, helmet, and batting gloves in disgust. Apparently, he didn’t agree with the homeplate umpire’s called third strike. As Red Sox fans who watch many of the team’s games, we’ve noticed that Ortiz has complained about umpiring more often and more vehemently this season than in the past.
Sometimes the disagreement is expressed with mere body language: a roll of the eyes, a shake of the head, or just a longish stare in umpire’s direction. Other times Ortiz resorts to verbiage, some of it quite colorful. Ortiz has recently taken to pedantically explaining the strike zone’s size to an unreceptive and often agitated umpire. Taken together, his recent histrionics seem to be morphing Big Papi into something closer to Big Baby or, perhaps, Malcontento Grande.
Ortiz’s tantrums have come at a cost, both to him and his team. A few weeks ago, for instance, he was ejected from a game while arguing a called strike, and drew additional criticism for his ill-advised post-game comments about the quality of Major League umpiring.
We’re not the only Red Sox fans to notice what has become Ortiz’s escalating petulance. On the Sons of Sam Horn message board, for instance, a poster named AZBlue recently created a thread called “David Ortiz v. the Umpires: Time for David to Cool it?,” and wrote:
In addition to the ejection of David Ortiz Saturday, there have been quite a few occasions during the past two weeks when it was clear that David was disgusted with the size of the strike zone when he was batting. He has made post-game comments that were very critical of the strike zones of at least two umpires. . . .
Does David really think that the strike zone is going to shrink because he expresses distress about called strikes? If anything, human nature being what it is (and the attitude of the typical umpire being nasty and confrontational), the strike zone will expand even more. Does David think that other umpires on a crew will respond well to his verbal complaints and negative body language? Does he think other umpiring crews will not give him “special attention” when they work Boston games?
He can help himself and the team more by simply focusing on the next pitch (or walking to the dugout if it is strike three). If nothing else, he will be batting five times a game instead of sitting on the bench after an ejection.
The mystery is heightened by Ortiz’s teddy bear reputation, as one of the league’s most adored players. While his teammates are stretching during pre-game warm ups, Big Papi can usually be found mixing it up with his pals on both teams. And what other player ends a pickle with a bear hug of a shortstop? Little wonder that this big hearted D.H. is sometimes referred to as “Big Puppy.”
So why the sudden surliness at the dish? What has happened to the man behind the face of the Red Sox? Don’t get us wrong, Ortiz’s recent cantankerous mood is still relatively mild. His machinations at the plate pale in comparison to those of “Crazy” Carl Everett when he played for the Sox several years ago. Still, Big Papi is not the loveable player he used to be. So what gives?
We suspect several related attributional biases are at work. The first is the fundamental attribution error (FAE), the tendency to attribute to disposition that which should be attributed to situation. The second is the self-serving bias, a partial exception to the FAE, when an individual takes disproportionate credit for his or her own successes, and disproportionately blames his or her situation for his failings.
What do those biases have to do with David Ortiz’s season? To answer that, it is helpful to review what has happened to Ortiz over the last several years. Those have been (to borrow a phrase from fellow Situationist contributor Emily Pronin) magical seasons.
Four years ago, David Ortiz was released (or, for you technical types, non-tendered) by the Minnesota Twins when no other team was interested in trading for him. His career in the bigs was all but over, when the Red Sox decided to give him a chance. Fast forward to the World Series in 2004, and Ortiz’s timely slugging put an end to the Curse. In 2005, Ortiz finished 2nd in the voting for the American League Most Valuable Player in 2005 (a feat made even more impressive given that he is the designated hitter and, thus, generally plays no defensive position). Last year, Ortiz broke the Red Sox single-season home run record a year ago with 52 homers. But even that doesn’t capture the magic of his hitting–with a total of not more than 4000 major league at bats, Ortiz has hit ten “walk-off home runs” (a dinger that wins and instantaneously ends the game in the ninth inning). The most walk-off taters that any player has ever had is 12 — The Babe and Mickey managed that many each in over 8000 at bats. As if he lacked in nicknames, some fans refer to Ortiz as Senor Octubre, in recognition of his amazing clutch hitting.
Little wonder that Senor Papi attracted crowds not just at Fenway but at all the ballparks, and he was often showered with “MVP” chants. Papi’s big, warm smile validated the belief that there was something about him–about his disposition–that drove his extraordinary abilities at home plate. His off-field accomplishments, such as raising thousands of dollars through the Boston-based charity Good Sports and authoring a well-received autobiography, “Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits,” only amplified his legendary status. Just as impressive, Ortiz did what so few players do now-a-days: he took a hometown discount to remain with his team, his teammates, his city, his fans, his people, everyone in Boston and New England. The guy seemed almost superhuman. In fact, just to add to the list, a few of the Red Sox faithful refer to Papi as God.
That is the context in which this season has unfolded. David Ortiz has been immortalized as perhaps the greatest clutch hitter of all time. But this season Ortiz has seemed mortal. Sure, the numbers are still largely there–as of today, his on-base plus slugging statistic of 1.016, 3rd best in the American League, is only a hair short of last year’s 1.049, and he is also ranked 2nd or 3rd in three other major statistical categories–on-base percentage, base on balls, and slugging–and 10th in home runs. Not bad. But not God. It’s not just that his stats are a bit closer to Earth and his bat seems a bit cooler than it did, it’s also that the hits he has had seem a bit less powerful, pivotal, and dramatic.
This brings us back to the attributional biases we mentioned above, sort of. A famous study in 1985 found that over 90% of NBA fans believe in the “hot hand” – that after making two or three shots, a player is more likely to make his next shot – and that teammates should therefore “feed the hot hand.” The same study found that, despite the widespread faith in streak shooting, the evidence suggests that “streaks” occur no more than is predicted by chance and that the proportion of shots any single player makes is unrelated to how many shots that player had either hit or missed prior to that. This “hot hand” phenomenon has received considerable scholarly attention since then (indeed, there is an excellent blog devoted to it) and there is some controversy about the details, but many now agree the perception of a hot hand is largely a fallacy. Assuming that’s true, it raises the question, why does the fallacy persist? On that question, too, several printer cartridges have been depleted.
We’ll spare our readers a summary of the various causes, but we do want to emphasize one that we think is relevant to Ortiz’s recent conduct. Specifically, the hot hand fallacy is partially a reflection of the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to see disposition – in this case the temperature of the player’s hand – and to miss situation – here, random chance or luck. We suspect that a similar phenomenon likely accounts for a good deal of Big Papi’s success. We see nothing but disposition – “MVP,” “Senor Octubre,” and “God” – where we should be seeing mostly situation – luck, chance, random variation, happenstance, and perhaps, at times, some at-the-plate confidence for Ortiz or some on-the-mound jitters that is generated by Papi’s hot-bat reputation.
Now consider the situation from Papi’s perspective, in light of the attributional biases that we mentioned above. When he was breaking all the records, he had a strong self-serving motive to attribute that success to “Big Papi.” Game-winning hits: “me” or “chance”? That’s an easy one — particularly given that no one was tempted to attribute them anything else (any more than Red Sox fans were interested in attributing the loss of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series to anyone or anything other than Bill Buckner).
This season, Ortiz is similarly motivated by the self-serving causal attributions to explain his performance. But this year he’s motivated to offer a story that doesn’t compromise the hero disposition that he’s been enjoying but that does explain his cooling bat. This is no time for Papi to admit that his last few years were merely statistical fluke and that we should understand that the other side of the coin has come up — no one wants to hear that. Nor is it time to “make excuses” like a nagging hamstring injury.
So Papi is providing a different sort of situational explanation (one that he no doubt completely believes). The problem this season is not Big Papi’s disposition; rather, it’s the umpires’, who are routinely making bad calls thus undercutting David’s success at the plate. The problem is not the temperature of Ortiz’s bat; the problem is in the skewed judgment of the home plate umpires.
Of course, this is a tendency that we are all subject to — a motive to which most of us succumb much of the time. When was the last time you declined an invitation by attributing your decision to your disposition (“No, I would really prefer not to attend your party”) rather than your situation (“Oh, unfortunately, that’s the same day as my daughter’s recital.”)
Yes, Red Sox fans are beginning to murmur a bit about terrestrial performance this year. But what Ortiz may want to take consider is that this simplistic situational excuse doesn’t play well among journalists or fans. In a way, Ortiz is missing the bigger situation of his reputation: he may believe that his success is fixed and a function his clutch hitting, when in fact, it is malleable and partially dependent on how he is perceived as a person. Hot bat or not, fans will not continue to adore a player who is blaming his failure to meet expectations are the result of unfair or inept umping. It not only lacks plausibility, it is a prototypical example of “bad sportsmanship.”
Big Papi’s new “disposition” is beginning to turn fans off. By throwing his helmet and pointing at umpires, Ortiz is transforming himself from a teddy bear into a whiney brat. As Barry Bonds’ recent experience indicates, even homerun hitters can be despised.
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To read other posts describing similar attributional errors, see “The Situation Tort Reform(ers),” “Race Attribution and Georgetown University Basketball,” and “Promoting Dispositionism Through Entertainment.”
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