A Lesson in the Nonconscious from Jon Lester

Posted by: Jonathan Weiss
  • October 24, 2016

jon-lester_blog-photoChicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester was just named co-MVP of the 2016 National League Championship Series; the ace pitcher’s performance last Thursday helped propel the Cubs to the World Series for the first time since 1945. The Cubs sent Lester to the mound, sporting his 19-5 record and 2.44 ERA (for non-baseball enthusiasts, these statistics represent extremely good pitching performance.) 

Lester’s dominance comes despite many analysts predicting his undoing. You see, Lester has what baseball insiders refer to as the “Yips” – that is, an inability to throw the ball accurately during a particular play. Interestingly, while he’s one of the best at performing his primary function as a pitcher (throwing the ball from the pitcher’s mound to the catcher), for the past few years Lester absolutely has not been able to throw the ball to first base accurately. This means every time a batter reaches first base knowing Lester won’t throw the ball to first, he should be able to take an abnormally large lead off from the base, then just start running as soon as he inevitably pitches home rather throwing it to first base. But they don’t always do it. It’s strange.

In Game 5 of the Dodgers-Cubs series, the Dodgers’ runners seemed to test the limits with their lead offs against Lester. Compared to the typical 12-foot lead that is considered a “safe” distance off first base, some extended it to 15, 18, and even 20-feet! But in doing so, they looked very uncomfortable. They consistently scampered back to first base before the pitch instead of preparing to steal second.

Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs explores why runners don’t run like crazy on Lester, saying: Imagine you’re an actual runner, though. Especially a runner in an important game. Or, actually, imagine you’re just a person. You’re behind a door, and in the next room, there’s a sandwich, and there’s a grizzly bear. I’ve already told you that the grizzly bear won’t attack you. I’ve assured you the bear isn’t aggressive, and you aren’t going to be hurt, and you can just go have the sandwich. It’s a delicious hot sandwich. I’ve shown you a few videos of other people going in and getting sandwiches. Sometimes the bear roars. It certainly looks menacing. Acts like a mean bear. Hasn’t hurt anybody. How confident are you going to be about getting that sandwich? You know all about grizzly bears. You know about attacks by average grizzly bears. How much are you willing to believe that this particular bear is unusual? How much are you willing to believe this bear will remain unusual for however long it takes you to go retrieve a sandwich?”

Collette Eccleston, PhD, who leads our Pragmatic Brain Science Institute® team, explains further, “Even when our rational minds tell us one thing, our less conscious instincts still have a lot of power over us. When individuals are motivated (e.g., I haven’t eaten in days and I need that sandwich to survive) and able to think deeply about a problem (e.g., I have nothing to do but think about my best option for getting food), it becomes more likely that rational thought will override a default, nonconscious reaction. But, in our busy world, being motivated and able to go beyond the nonconscious, is hard. If you’re a base runner whose performance determines whether your team makes it to the World Series, you’re stressed, you’re under pressure, and you have to decide quickly. Not surprisingly, habitual behavior, driven by the nonconscious, is what comes out.”

What can marketers learn from Jon Lester’s yips? Disrupting long-held habits isn’t easy. Consumers, just like base runners, all have deep-rooted nonconscious attitudes. If marketers want to get consumers to deviate from their habits, to not rely on their stereotypes, they really need to understand people’s motivations in order to change their way of thinking and behavior. If the local coffee cart is my go-to for my morning coffee, what is going to motivate them to reconsider how I think of that big coffee chain. And, if they’re bleary-eyed because they haven’t yet had coffee, that’s probably not the best time to try to convince them to change their minds. Consequently, marketers should try to influence consumers when they actually have time and energy to engage in rational evaluation.

In Game 1 of the World Series, the Cleveland Indians jumped out to an early lead over Lester and the Cubs by their base runners overcoming less conscious instincts and running anyway.  As a market researcher, I’m fascinated that they seemed to have succeeded in what the rest of the league hasn’t been able to accomplish. As a Cubs fan, though, this leaves me nervous about the fate of my beloved team.

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