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Subjective Objectivity PDF Print E-mail
Bed Goes Up, Bed Goes Down
Written by Lawr Michaels   
Saturday, 10 November 2012 00:00

Perhaps nothing that came out of the Tuesday election results tickled me as much as this Tweet from Joe Sheehan: "After tonight, starting to look like anything I achieve in life will pale next to the fact that I once got drunk with @fivethirtyeight."

By now unless you lived under that Geico rock you have to know that @fivethirtyeight is our mega baseball bud, Nate Silver.

Silver, who cut his surgical analysis skills first playing poker, then working the numbers along with Joe and Jonah Keri in the early days of "The Baseball Prospectus," is unquestionably the political prognosticator extraordinaire, having pretty much now nailed three consecutive national elections almost perfectly (this year he missed a North Dakota senate race, and that is about it, giving Nate a no-hitter if not a perfect game).

The reality is a lot of analysts from the early days of fantasy baseball have gone on to make names and careers for themselves. Certainly Matthew Berry is the most prominent with his beak broadcast all over ESPN, especially on football Sundays.

But, Jason Grey, like Berry, Keri, and Silver is also a Tout Wars alum who is now a scout with the Tampa Bay Rays. Tony Blengino, Assistant GM with the Mariners, began writing for numbers pioneer John Benson in the early 90's (which is how I met and worked with him) and then caught on as a scout with the Brewers.

Ron Shandler and Deric McKamey both reviewed stats for the St. Louis Cardinals, and now McKamey is employed as a scout with the Cards. Sheehan writes for Sports Illustrated and is a regular on the MLB.com Prime9 show, and Keri has authored a book which really tells what a smart crowd the Prospectus bunch was in their early days (not that that has denigrated since).

There are more stories and names but none of us has hit the spotlight in such a convincing and stellar way as Nate.

It is indeed wonderful, but as I watched this latest election unfold over the past couple of years I found it odd how we--as human beings--react to statisical analysis, embracing or rejecting with an almost religious fervor depending upon the player/politician and results.

If you read and/or saw Moneyball you might have an idea on how conservative the baseball organization can be at embracing new theories on breaking down player performance. And, if you followed especially the last election cycle since 2010, you might have noticed the same skepticism with respect to a large block of political analysts.

Not surprisingly those who question Silver's prognostications have similarly conservative organizational views to those in the baseball environment, but I don't really want to dwell so much upon that as why it is we can sometimes use statistics to affirm our beliefs, and at other times totally dismiss virtually the same findings?

And, before I go further, the book I got my base course in numbers from was Darrell Huffs' "How to Lie With Statistics," a text that by its very name reminds us that context is everything.

Using Silver's 2008 presidential prediction as a start, Nate first projected that Barack Obama would come away with a Democratic presidential nomination with 847 delegate votes to Hillary Clinton's 829, and in reality Obama did indeed emerge with 847 to Clinton's 834. Which is pretty close.

Silver followed in the general election that year, suggesting that Obama would beat John McCain with either 349 or 353 electoral votes, and in the end the then President-Elect finished with 365 (Nate missing only Indiana and a congressional district in Nebraska).

Moving to 2010 Silver saw the TEA Party writing on the wall, predicting a median gain of Republican seats in the House of Representatives of 54, numbers applauded by the conservative forces at the time. In the end, Silver's numbers were pointing in the right direction, although in reality the Republicans actually picked up 63 seats. Still, no one but Nate's analysis and algorithms really envisioned that landslide.

Which brings us to last Tuesday's playoff between the incumbent Obama and Mitt Romney where going into Election Day Silver suggested a 90.9% chance of Obama winning, collecting 330 Electoral votes.

Strangely, through this election cycle, those numbers were roundly rejected by the same conservatives who essentially embraced the same methodology just two years earlier.

Well, if you happened to watch Fox news at all on Tuesday--or "The Daily Show" the next night--and saw Karl Rove dispute the results in Ohio that put Obama over the 270 Electoral vote threshold to win re-election you missed one priceless piece of TV viewing. For Rove was certain that Ohio belonged to Romney, and he argued with reporter Megyn Kelly who eventually walked--cameras trailing in true Cinema Verite style--to the Fox stat brain trusts for clarification.

Since then Rove has continued to dismiss the victory noting that Obama won from such varied reasons as an act of God in Hurricane Sandy (which to me suggests maybe God is not as enamored of Rove and his ideas as Rove is himself) to Obama invoking voter suppression tactics (which is strange since all 41 voter registration laws pushed for 2012 were initiated by Republican State houses).

The numbers, it seems, just never really came into play for Rove, which made the whole Fox news Kelly incident border on surreal.

Bringing this back to baseball, where I would be hard-pressed to see anyone project numbers so finely as Nate did for the election, this reminded me of an MLB.com Prime9 show before the 2012 season began where Sheehan and Harold Reynolds were discussing range and fielding. The position was second base, and Sheehan noted that statistically--per "The Fielding Bible"-- Ben Zobrist was the best keystone defender in baseball in 2011.

Reynolds just could not get his arms--or head--around that, arguing that Brandon Phillips was better, dismissing the numbers and yielding to what he could "see."

It was an exchange nearly as funny and head scratching as the Rove denial.

However, it does make me wonder what is it in our make up or psyche that allows us to embrace the numbers on some occasions while rejecting them in other instances? Is it in our DNA and wiring? Or, is this the result of environment more pushing the conflict between reason and emotion to the dark side of our personas?

Since I am neither a therapist, nor a stat guy a la Silver, Kerri, and Blengino, I don't really know the answer to that question. But, I do know this: As long as Rove continues to deny the numbers he won't have any better election results than Reynolds will picking a fantasy team.

Irrespective, way to go Nate. You made us all proud to be statheads!

 

More Articles by Lawr Michaels

Comments  

 
# drook 2012-11-10 11:10
Great take Lawr...to see one of "us" as a guest with the likes of Bill Maher & Jon Stewart is pretty cool
 
 
# Todd Zola 2012-11-10 15:15
Don't forget, pre-BP, Nate was the Scoresheet analyst for Baseball HQ.

And for anyone on twitter, search #drunknatesilve r and get ready to laugh your ass off
 

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