Commentary

What innovative thinking in baseball can teach us about criminal justice reform

July 1, 2022 12:45 pm

The crowd was aghast when Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli removed Jhoan Duran, but he had his reasons. Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Warning: the article you are about to read leads off with a long baseball metaphor. Even if you don’t give a rip about baseball or find baseball metaphors trite, I hope you stay with it as it moves to public safety and politics.

Last week, the Minnesota Twins blew several leads in losing two games and first place to their rival, the Cleveland Guardians. In the third and final game of the series, the Twins led 1-0 and used their best relief pitcher, Jhoan Duran, in the 8th inning. Throughout the series, he had been the only reliable relief pitcher, and fans appreciated that he took the mound to start the 9th.

After the first out, a strikeout, the fans were revved up. Then Manager Rocco Baldelli trotted out from the dugout to remove Duran, replacing him with Caleb Thielbar, a soft tosser typically used when a game’s outcome is not at stake. 

The Minnesota-nice fans took the highly rare action of booing our own. Surely, this was a mistake. Another game about to go south. Thielbar promptly gave up a double. More boos. But somehow, he then got two outs and the game was won after all. Back to a first place tie.

Clearly, the easiest course for the manager — even without his job retention being subject to public voting, as our elected representatives are — would have been to keep Duran in. If Duran coughed up the lead, far fewer (if anyone at all) would have complained that the manager should have used Thielbar instead. 

If Thielbar had blown the game, however, the blame for the manager would have been substantial.

Baldelli is well known to rely on data analytics to support his decisions. After this game, Baldelli said he was concerned that given the fatigue from the number of pitches already thrown, Duran was at risk of becoming less effective. He also believed there was potential benefit to using a lefthanded reliever to face the particular upcoming batters, which applied to Thielbar but not Duran. 

Analysis of this sort can never guarantee a result, but only attempts to rationally consider available information to try to make the best decisions. That Thielbar would succeed was in no way obvious or necessarily likely; it was simply perceived as the better choice. We’ll never know if Duran would have also succeeded, or if this choice won a game that otherwise would have been lost.

For better or worse, the innovative use of data in baseball often runs counter to conventional thinking — such as the belief that you live or die with your best relief pitcher at the end of the game no matter what.

In our political world — which has become an intense rivalry of opposing parties centered mainly on the marketing of group loyalty within one brand (party) alongside driving antipathy against the competing brand – a  break from conventional thinking makes for an easy target. Most often this does not wait for the game to end but hits high volume at early stages when proposals are made or contested. 

We are seeing this in Minnesota, and elsewhere, with proposals for public safety. Conventional thinking is that the primary need is to have as many police as possible. Whenever crime goes up, the conventional thinking is that jail sentences must not be long enough. Such conventional thinking bears no relationship to data analysis. For instance, there has never been any evidence for the misapplied economic theory of “pricing” for crime and imprisonment, which presumes that the higher the price of crime, as measured by months in prison, the less will be purchased/committed. 

Knowing that policing and public safety are in crisis in a number of ways, there has been a pronounced impetus for new approaches, some of which are premised on successful experiments in other cities. But any public safety innovation that runs counter to conventional thinking has been attacked by Republicans. They often don’t argue the idea on the merits but accuse Democrats of not wanting to solve the problem at all! Like blaming Baldelli’s relief pitching choice because he obviously did not want to win the game!

Not all innovations are worth implementing, and conventional wisdom can sometimes be a reasonable default. The ideal may be when conventional wisdom can be challenged or broadened over a period of time through successful demonstration of alternatives, so the beginnings of a new consensus emerge. This means experiments, and all experiments have failure risks. (As does the status quo, which is not as easily recognized.)

To a great degree, the prospect of a new consensus has become viable in public safety. Ideas for using non-police professionals as police partners are no longer new or radical. Nor is the program of having trusted members of communities serve as “violence interrupters” under the paradigm of public health intervention. The value of extended incarceration versus other consequences has been successfully challenged over the past decade, particularly in regard to youth.

The problem, which actually is a more frequent risk for judges than legislators, is when we have the equivalent of a blown lead after using any new approach. The bad outcome is wrongly tagged as caused by the innovation, rather than something that could have happened anyway. And may have still reasonably been less likely to happen, even if it unfortunately did happen.

But relative to legislators, judges don’t typically face either the same election pressures or hostile marketing from a competing brand.  So there’s intense pressure on legislators — as well as governors and presidents – to be risk averse. 

The sense of paralysis that results from extreme governmental risk aversion feeds public dissatisfaction, and is cyclically then further fed by the nature of today’s political marketing. Across the political spectrum, our society seems locked into a frustrating awareness that despite greater wealth and technological advancement, far too much remains static for most of us to benefit. That longstanding problems and inequities remain persistent.

It can feel overwhelming to do anything but feel and share our anger, most of us harmlessly through personal communications or social media, though a few through more extreme manifestations: acts of terror, arson and property destruction, and insurrection.

But hey, at least the Twins won. 

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Michael Friedman
Michael Friedman

Michael Friedman is the former executive director of the Legal Rights Center. He previously served as chair of the Minneapolis Civilian Police Review Authority, serving in that capacity for three years.

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