Chad Billingsley: A Case Of Confirmation Bias

Chad Billingsley’s recent struggles have been well documented, so further addressing the issue is somewhat pointless to me. However, one criticism that hasn’t been looked at nearly enough is the charge that Billingsley is not mentally tough.

Personally, i’m a firm believer that the concern over the mental toughness of Billingsley is pure fabrication that stems largely from confirmation bias on the part of fans.

“Confirmation bias is an irrational tendency to search for, interpret or remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions or working hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning.”

What I believe is that a lot of fans have a preconceived notion of how Billingsley is supposed to act and perform, and when he doesn’t meet their exact expectations, they end up looking for any intangible excuse they can find. Those fans will buy into any reason that helps them confirm what they already believe, and the party line has ended up being that Billingsley is not mentally tough enough to be a successful pitcher.

Is It True?

I don’t know. I’m not arrogant enough to spout finalities about things that have no evidence to support them. I can’t ever assume I have an adequate enough working knowledge of an individual’s brain to pass judgment on their mental state, and I would strongly advise others against doing so as well. From my point of view, doing so makes the individual look irrational and silly.

Mentality Or Performance?

A fan’s evaluation of a player’s mental toughness seems to come and go with how well a player performs, either in his career or at the time.

If an effective player’s demeanor is calm and emotionless, he is given different sorts of “ice man” type monikers. Guys like Mariano Rivera, Ichiro Suzuki, and Derek Jeter all get credited with this.

If an effective player’s demeanor is over the top and aggressive, he is given credit for being “passionate” and “tough”. Guys like Prince Fielder, Roger Clemens, and Jonathan Papelbon are described this way.

On the other hand, if an “ice man” type personality is ineffective, he is described as “mentally weak” and “lacking passion”. If a “passionate” type personality is ineffective, he is labeled as “unstable” and “unreliable”.

Again, the fan’s need to confirm previous perceptions and assumptions outweigh the desire to remain grounded in what’s factual and realistic.

Magical Changes

Going into 2008, Cole Hamels was described by a lot of Phillies fans and media as “soft” and “mentally weak” because he wouldn’t pitch hurt and wasn’t overly emotional on the mound. Now? He’s a “true ace” and “clutch” and all these other superlatives. Did his personality change or just his performance? I know which one is more likely.

Next, let’s take a look at Billingsley. After the NLDS, he was praised as “competitive” and “aggressive”. After the NLCS, he was dismissed as a “mentally weak choker”. What changed?

The answer? Nothing. It’s just like how nobody questioned Billingsley when he was a Cy Young candidate in the first half of this year, but now that’s he’s struggling, everybody is all over him with personality questions. It’s not a coincidence.

You Don’t Know, So Get Over It

I’m not gonna sit here and say that different mentalities don’t exist or that a player’s mental state doesn’t affect his game. However, what I am going to say is that you probably don’t know any better than the next guy. You’re probably not his psychologist, you’re probably not his coach, and you’re probably not a body language expert, so stop pretending you are.

This is not so much a post about defending Billingsley as it is a post about a widely discussed topic where lots of idiotic fans spew nonsense with zero evidence behind it.

Whenever he struggles, the topic of his mental toughness comes up, but why? Do you really know if he’s mentally weak or are you just saying that because his most recent performance confirms what you want to believe? That’s the question I wish fans would ask themselves before they open their mouth or hit submit.

For the record, here’s a series of pictures after Billingsley won a start in the playoffs.

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