TLDR: On Brandon McCarthy and Vocational Expertise

Not suitable for work — or so says “society.”

I’ll begin this piece by directing the reader’s attention — if he hasn’t directed it there yet himself — to Ryan Campbell’s two-part interview with Oakland right-hander and 2011 AL FIP leader Brandon McCarthy from Friday. While there are a number of things to enjoy about the McCarthy-Campbell piece, the most notable for our purposes is McCarthy’s sense of self-awareness and his capacity both for understanding and articulating what it is that makes him successful (and, conversely, what has caused him to fail in the past).

While McCarthy’s voice is an entirely welcome one in these pages, he — and the interview in which he participates — are exceptional specifically because this sort of self-awareness and -understanding appear to be rare in baseball.

Frequently, we hear players speaking almost exclusively in emotional terms*. Platitudes like “showing heart” or “stepping up” are common among both active and retired players (the latter in either a managerial or broadcasting capacity). Former Astro and Red Joe Morgan famously spent much of his broadcasting career railing against the very qualities that made him one of the best second baseman ever. Emotionally oriented self-exhortations appear to be of greater aid to the batter/pitcher than technical understanding — especially in the moment.

*There are exceptions, of course — Brian Bannister, Zack Greinke, Brandon Morrow — but they appear to be rare.

In other cases, players actively avoid self-examination. In an interview with FanGraphs’ David Laurila, Mark Buehrle notes not only how little he scrutinizes his play during a performance (which is understandable), but also how infrequently he does so between performances. “I’ve never been a guy who studies film or goes over scouting reports,” says Buehrle, who also adds, when asked later about finger placement on the ball, “I do the same thing all the time, but I don’t think about it. It’s just the way I hold the ball.”

Buehrle is, of course, a pitcher who’s accrued roughly 46 wins above replacement in his career — this decidedly without what anyone would call “dominant stuff.” Like a lot of players, his lack of McCarthy-grade self-analysis hasn’t prevented him from performing ably — has very possibly even helped.

Writing for the New York Times last week, in a piece called “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence”, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman discusses the opposite phenomenon — that is, cases of people who make a show of their expertise, but fail to really distinguish themselves in their respective vocations.

In one case, Kahneman is given a spreadsheet summarizing the investment outcomes of some 25 anonymous wealth advisers over a span of eight years. It’s the responsibility of these advisers to pore over numbers, recognize trends, and then to act in the best interests of their investors. Running the numbers, however, Kahneman finds that — despite the fact that said outcomes are the main determinant of the wealth advisers’ respective year-end bonuses — that the year-to-year correlation in ROI is .01. “In other words,” writes Kahneman, “zero.”

Here he recounts the episode in which he shared his findings with the firm’s leadership:

What we told the directors of the firm was that, at least when it came to building portfolios, the firm was rewarding luck as if it were skill. This should have been shocking news to them, but it was not. There was no sign that they disbelieved us. How could they? After all, we had analyzed their own results, and they were certainly sophisticated enough to appreciate their implications, which we politely refrained from spelling out. We all went on calmly with our dinner, and I am quite sure that both our findings and their implications were quickly swept under the rug and that life in the firm went on just as before. The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions — and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem — are simply not absorbed.

So here we find instances (like with the baseballers) wherein the performers frequently have little interest/understanding in what is making them successful — and succeeding anyway — and other instances (as with the wealth advisers) wherein the performers are convinced that their labor is important and vital, and yet said performers are making no impact whatsoever.

In both cases, we see a gap between what the performer believes is happening and what is actually happening — and in neither case is there any sort of correlation between understanding and success.

It’s at this point that the curious reader will ask a question — namely, “What is the relationship between understanding and success in other vocations?” Kahneman gives some examples where intuitive expertise (his phrase) does exist: in spouses, for example (being able to judge each other’s moods effectively), in chess players (being able to recognize the appropriate move given a particular situation), and among physicians (in their ability to diagnose, with little information, various medical conditions).

The video I’ve embedded above serves as an interesting test case for this conversation. Here we have four of our era’s most important stand-up comics — or, I should say, three of our most important stand-up comics and also Ricky Gervais — discussing their craft. The question is: to what degree do these comics understand what it is that makes them successful?

On the one hand, the barrier of entry for stand-up comedy is rather low, requiring little more than a willingness to embarrass oneself on stage; that seems to suggest that comics wouldn’t be particularly adept at understanding what does or does not make them successful. On the other hand, it’s a vocation that generally rewards those with critical-thinking skills and a keen eye for human behavior. Both of those qualities would lend themselves particularly well to self-examination.

I have no interest in exploring the question any further here, but it’s one I don’t mind passing on to the reader — both in relation to the video here and for use in what some call “reality.”

To which I’ll add: if you have only a couple minutes, consider watching around the 26-minute mark. Ricky Gervais states that he’s afraid of getting laughs with less-than-stellar material. Louis CK (and Chris Rock, too) answers him by saying that comedians who get easy laughs might ascend more quickly in the comedy ranks, but frequently stall early on. Are Rock and CK right? Or is this merely one of those “basic assumptions” that allows them to continue their work without anxiety?

We hoped you liked reading TLDR: On Brandon McCarthy and Vocational Expertise by Carson Cistulli!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

newest oldest most voted

“…or, I should say, three of our most important stand-up comics and also Ricky Gervais…” Astuteness such as this is why you make the big bucks, Carson. Gervais deserves a ton of credit for his television programs and for giving the world Karl Pilkington, but how he tricked everyone into hosting this program as if he were a peer of these legends is beyond me.