He keeps us wanting more

By Joy Carrico | Published Wednesday, August 2, 2017

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There’s something I’ve been wondering about regarding the Rangers. Why are we keeping Joey Gallo around? This guy has a batting average of .197. His fielding is OK. At first base he has the benefit of being very tall, but other than that he hasn’t shown any particular brilliance.

Last season he was trade bait with no bites. He consistently struck out and was summarily sent back down after the trade deadline. And now he’s back. He filled in while Beltre was out, but he has maintained his place in the lineup with more consistency than his record would indicate.

So why is he still around? Why don’t the Rangers send him back down to continue to develop?

I believe the answer lies in the psychological concept of intermittent reinforcement.

The journey begins with Pavlov’s dogs. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian neurologist who was conducting experiments on dogs. He noticed his dogs would begin to salivate as soon as they heard the wheels of the cart that brought them their food. They had connected the sound of the cart rolling to the arrival of food, and they started anticipating food. So Pavlov trained the dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, proving that he could elicit a specific response from something that has no relation to that response. Dogs don’t normally salivate to the sound of bells, I’m guessing.

Research in reinforcement began. It was discovered that an animal’s (and a person’s) behavior could be modified if the researcher reinforced a desired behavior with a reward.

For example, a rat in a box is given the choice to press two different levers. One lever does nothing, the other lever delivers a pellet of food. The rat will quickly figure out where to go for the food and will press the food-producing lever.

Scientists then wanted to know how strongly the behavior was implanted into the animal. If the lever stopped providing food, how long would it take the rat to stop pressing the lever? The answer depended on the schedule of the reward.

They looked at many different ways to give the reward. The short version is: they rewarded the rat every time he pressed the lever; they rewarded him after a specific amount of time had passed; they rewarded him after he had pressed the lever so many times; they rewarded him after a specific amount of time had passed, but not always; and they rewarded him after he had pressed the lever so many times, but not always. In the last two examples, they randomized the reinforcement, making it intermittent.

Researchers found when they rewarded the rat for every X number of presses (but not always), the rats behavior was the “most resistant to extinction.” In other words, long after they stopped rewarding the rat at all for pressing the lever, the rat kept pressing it.

So, intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful type of reinforcement. Think about a slot machine. You sit at a slot machine and feed money into it, pull the lever and hope for a jackpot. Most of the time nothing happens, but every once in a while, bells and lights go off and really exciting things happen and you’re rewarded. It happens just enough to keep you putting money into the machine. Any minute now that sucker’s gonna pay off. We are conditioned to keep going back to something if we sometimes get what we want from it, but not always.

And that is what keeps us coming back to Joey Gallo. Gallo may have a .197 batting average, but he also has 25 home runs for the season. Out of 57 total hits this season, almost half of them are home runs.

We like home runs. They are very exciting. So when Gallo hits a home run, it’s the equivalent of the commotion caused by a slot machine paying out.

Just when we’re ready to walk away in disgust, he hits a fantastic homer, and we’re rewarded for all the strikeouts we suffered through.

The slot machine analogy is not completely fair to Gallo. Slot machines don’t improve with experience and practice, and Gallo can.

I believe Gallo has the potential to be a big hitter, he’s just not there yet, and I think the reason he’s still in the big leagues and not developing plate discipline in the minors is because we really like home runs.

He produces them every X number of at bats, but not always.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist.

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