The pinch-hitter syndrome: a general principle?

A few years ago I was checking an article that was about to be published in a statistics journal and I noticed that the copy editor had made a bunch of stupid changes that I then had to go back and fix. This has also happened for two of my books.

This is a funny thing. A copy editor is a professional editor. All they do (or, at least, much of what they do) is edit, so how is it that they do such a bad job compared to a statistician, for whom writing is only a small part of the job description?

The answer certainly isn’t that I’m so wonderful. Non-copy-editor colleagues can go through anything I write and find lots of typos, grammatical errors, confusing passages, and flat-out mistakes. (And check out the long list of errata for the first printing of our first book!)

No, the problem comes with the copy editor, and I think it’s an example of the pinch-hitter syndrome. The pinch-hitter is the guy who sits on the bench and then comes up to bat, often in a key moment of a close game. When I was a kid, I always thought that pinch hitters must be the best sluggers in baseball, because all they do (well, almost all) is hit. But of course this isn’t the case–the best hitters play outfield, or first base, or third base, or whatever. If the pinch hitter were really good, he’d be a starter. So, Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series notwithstanding (I was watching that on TV–that gives me credit for being there, right?), pinch hitters are generally not the best hitters.

There must be some general social-science principle here, about generalists and specialists, roles in an organization, etc?

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  • Klug

    I’m not much of a baseball guy, but it seems to me that pinch hitters are usually substituted for players that hit poorly already (near the bottom of the order). That is to say, they’re not great hitters, but they’re statistically better in that situation than the original player.

  • Doug S.

    I thought opportunity cost explained this… there might be many people who could do a better job at copy editing than professional copy editors, but those people are doing more important things, such as writing papers instead of editing them.

    There could also be perverse incentives… copy editors make lots of changes regardless of whether or not the changes are really needed, to make it seem like they are performing a necessary service. Copy editing might be one of those things in which a highly visible “heroic effort” is a sign of limited competence. Who sings of the valor of the warrior that is so good that nobody ever dares to challenge him?

  • Klug,

    Yes, the pinch hitter is presumably better than the starter, at least in the situation where he is being used. But he’s not the best hitter on the team, which is what one might naively think based on the idea that hitting is his only job.

  • paul

    The principle of comparative advantage?

  • Just to be clear: I’m not presenting pinch-hitting as any kind of mystery. I also understand why there are copy editors: as the commenters above wrote, comparative advantage, division of labor, etc. The “bias” I was pointing out is the naive mistake of assuming that if a person does something as his only job, he must be highly qualified at it.

  • paul

    in passing, your copy editor must love you. 😉 maybe best to keep this particular example out of your next book…

  • This reminds me of college: I used to assume that university teachers must be really good, if not at teaching, at least in what they teach.
    Then I was told the teachers there were the ones no one wanted to employ in the “real world”.
    (no offense whatsoever to academics in general, but it did appear true in the specific context)

  • Stephen Chang

    Long time reader of this blog, first time adding a comment. There are several issues about the baseball metaphor I’d like to clarify.

    Firstly, the best hitters in baseball are first basemen. 1st base being the least valuable defensive position places greater importance on the players offense. The exact opposite is true of position with high defensive value, namely pitcher and catchers. While historically many of the absolute best hitters in the game such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds have been outfielders this is the exception to the rule. In a given season if I remember correctly the average OPS of first basemen is about 20 points higher than the other positions.

    Next, with a very rare few exceptions, a pinch hitter does not only primarily hit. A pinch hitter is normally the best hitter on the roster who is not currently on the field. For example, maybe an backup first baseman.

    Lastly, there is one position where the only role of the player is to hit, that is the designated hitter, a position which only exists in the AL. These players as a whole are above average hitters being the 2nd best hitters in the game behind first basemen and include current starts such as Travis Hafner and David Ortiz.

    A metaphor of baseball players who only hit would have to use the designated hitter who is a better hitter than average. Perhaps there is a bias in overextending baseball metaphors? Anyways this blog is one of my favorite on the internet. Keep up the great work.

  • Copy editors might be there to improve the low tail of quality, even if they also reduce the high quality tail. Many other social institutions seem to have a similar effect. Consider powerpoint presentations, and prelim exams for grad students.

  • hmm… if you are going to use a baseball analogies then you need to include a LOT more explanation for the non-american portion of the world.

    Is a pinch hitter anything like a lower-order batsman brought on in failing light with only half-a-dozen overs remaining, as a nightwatchman?


  • The problem with the copy editors (based on my personal experience) is that they think they know what they’re doing, but have in fact very limited (or no) knowledge of the domain you’re writing about. So when they encounter a syntactical construct they don’t like (which is what they’re qualified to do), they rearrange it as they best see fit, unaware that they might have completely changed the meaning. Happened to me with highly experienced, motivated and extremely caring editor, so it was not due to lack of (editing) competence or ignorance.

    The solution? Write simpler texts, not only the editors, but also most of your readers will appreciate it 😉

  • I must concur with Ivan Pepelnjak, looking at it from the perspective of an editor who oversees someone doing copy editing, as well as a long-time author of books and articles who has run into problems with copy editors. I see two different kinds of problems.

    One has to do with professional jargon and conventions. Thus, each field has its own jargon, which can included words whose field-specific jargon meaning may differ from their street meaning, with “capital” being a simple-minded one from economics (in the street it means “money,” in economics it means (usually and officially) “produced means of production,” unless one is a Marxist, in which case it is a social relation of exploitation, or an old-timey Austrian, in which case it is an average period of production). So, not surprisingly, copy editors not acquainted with the field in question will tend to change usages or words from their field-specific meaning or usage, or replace them with other words that falsify the meaning.

    The other problem is the one that is alluded to in this posting, simply sheer incompetence, presumably related to the pinch hitter syndrome. Some of this may be due to outsourcing, with a lot of copy editing now being done in India, along with actual printing. For what it is worth, my own rather somewhat large experience is that I see more problems with the field-specific errors than I do with the outright incompetence sort, although I have certainly seen plenty of the latter also.

  • K

    Pinch hitters should be the best hitter available from the bench. Actually that is only one idea. The problem comes from defining best hitter. Sacrifice bunter? Single producer? Long ball power? On base percentage?

    The pinch hitter replaces some player who cannot reenter the game. You might not be willing to do that early in the game. It won’t matter if you are behind in the ninth.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    “Risk Management” experts are generally not as good at risk management as those they audit (oops! manage). But they are independent, and more articulate!