Friday, October 2, 2015

Breaking the Tie for NL Cy Young

One of the lucky few with a vote for NL Cy Young? May God have mercy on your soul. In a year of several close awards races, this is the mother of them all. In their own ways, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Jake Arrieta have all reached historic heights this season. Do you prefer impeccable peripheral stats? Kershaw (and his soon-to-be 300 strikeouts) is your man. Or is straight-up run prevention your thing? Go with Greinke and his 1.68 ERA. Want a mix of both, perhaps with a flair for the dramatic mixed in? Vote for Arrieta, the author of the game's most recent no-hitter.

It all comes down to how you assign responsibility for run prevention. We know that the pitcher doesn't control who scores off him all on his own; luck and the quality of his defense play a role. But it's also foolhardy to claim that a pitcher's stuff has no effect whatsoever on the efficacy of batted balls. We know that the truth lies somewhere in the middle—but we don't know exactly where. So, unfortunately, in order to answer the question in front of us—who has been the best pitcher in the National League?—you pretty much need to answer the biggest open question that sabermetricians still have about the game.

In the past, for awards voting specifically, I've favored using actual runs allowed. Although I know that FIP is more predictive (i.e., if I were signing either Kershaw or Greinke to a free-agent contract, I'd choose Kershaw since he's more likely to be able to replicate his performance), ERA tells you what actually happened, and awards are supposed to be recognitions of what you accomplished—past tense. However, this year, I've gotten hung up on another part of that logic—the word "accomplished." Although fewer runs scored on Greinke's watch than Kershaw's or Arrieta's, how much of that can we really count that as his "accomplishment"? The Cy Young Award is supposed to isolate pitching ability, and Kershaw and Arrieta have stronger claims to legitimate personal pitching accomplishments. So I find myself in the same old dilemma.

Where is the best place along the spectrum to plant your flag? 70% pitcher, 30% fielders? 40% pitcher, 60% fielders? For now, it comes down to a personal judgment call. But the good news is that, if you've made your personal choice about how you value run prevention, your NL Cy Young vote is pretty much decided. In fact—much like those old magazine quizzes that told you how good of a lover you are based on how clean you keep your room—there's even a chart you can use.

A relatively new feature on FanGraphs is a WAR leaderboard that can toggle between FIP-based WAR, RA9-WAR, and a 50-50 mix of the two. (FIP-based WAR gives a pitcher credit for only the peripherals he clearly controls, like strikeouts and walks; RA9-WAR gives a pitcher full credit for run prevention.) Among NL pitchers, Kershaw dominates if you think fielders prevent runs; Greinke wins if you think pitchers do; and Arrieta emerges as a compromise candidate if you split the difference. (Note: stats are from before Friday's game, when each pitcher still had one game left to start this season.)

We can be even more specific; this is a spectrum, after all, not just two endpoints and a midpoint. Assuming that WAR changes linearly, we can calculate each player's WAR assuming any level of FIP-versus-RA9 split: 50-50, 70-30, 12.35-87.65, etc. Think of it as a sliding scale where each player's WAR shifts up or down as you change how you value pitchers' contribution to run prevention.

The chart above helps us visualize what this means for the Cy Young vote: that the identity of the most valuable pitcher changes depending on your starting assumption. Whoever's line tops the chart is the rightful Cy Young winner for that range of percents. We can even pinpoint the exact place on the run-prevention spectrum that one pitcher ceases to be the most valuable and another begins: by finding the intersection of their two lines.

This yields the following dictum: if you believe that the pitcher is responsible for between 0% and 51.8% of run prevention, you support Clayton Kershaw. If you believe that the pitcher is responsible for between 68.4% and 100% of run prevention, you back Zack Greinke. And if you believe that the pitcher is responsible for between 51.8% and 68.4% of run prevention, you fall into Jake Arrieta's tiny window of supremacy. Maybe this suggests that Kershaw is the best winner because he covers the most ground; I don't know. For me, it definitely limits Arrieta's potential. But your judgment on run prevention is just that—your judgment. Now, when you decide, you'll know how to vote.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Nats' Arrogance is Deliberate, and It's Rubbed off on Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon

Mark Zuckerman knows the Washington Nationals better than anybody. He covered the team from its very first game in DC for the Washington Times, and, after being laid off when the Times eliminated its sports section, kept doing so on his own blog, Nats Insider. Today he's the team's Comcast SportsNet beat writer. So you have to take it seriously when this guy says that the Nats have an organization-wide, top-to-bottom problem with arrogance:
"This organization, from top to bottom, too often acts like it has accomplished far more than it really has. The Nationals fly the largest division championship banner in baseball, high above the scoreboard in right-center field. (The 2012 NL East champions banner still resided up there throughout the 2014 season, long after they had ceded the title to the Braves.) They boast no fewer than three highly visible reminders to the world that they’ll be hosting the 2018 All-Star Game, an event that won’t take place for another 34 months. They spent the entire first half of this season playing intentionally annoying slow-jams over the PA system when the opposing team took batting practice, for no reason other than to thumb their noses at the rest of the league. They continue to show replay after replay after replay of Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS — an admittedly wonderful baseball moment — while completely ignoring what happened only 24 hours later to render that moment a mere footnote."
I think this is pretty much right. I've noted my own problems with the way the Nats conduct business, and it fits with Zuckerman's depiction of a team "out of touch with reality." But in my consideration of the Nats' actions, I came to a conclusion that Zuckerman doesn't: the Nats know full well what they're doing. The arrogance that Zuckerman describes is 100% intentional. More than that, it's their most lucrative business strategy.

The Nats face a unique challenge in being the worst-established team in baseball: they're about to complete only their 11th season of existence. The sport of baseball is built so strongly on tradition, yet the Nats have little of it—so they try to manufacture it in order to strengthen DC's attachment to the team and, ultimately, sell tickets. They trump up big franchise moments like Werth's home run because it's all they have to remind people of—yet they are forced to remind people of something. (They even meddle with the songs Nats Park sings during the seventh-inning stretch and after wins in their frantic quest to hit on something lasting.) The financial success of the Nationals—baseball is first and foremost a business, remember—requires that the club "acts like it has accomplished far more than it really has."

But, as Zuckerman notes, it's a damn shame that their desperate but possibly necessary business strategy is rubbing off on their employees. Bryce Harper has long been faulted for comporting himself as if he had already conquered the world (the "best prospect ever" epithet, his Sports Illustrated cover shoot), despite his rookie status. (This may have been true his first or second year, but he has now firmly accomplished enough, and been around long enough, to outgrow this narrative, in my opinion. Although one of his walk-up songs remains Frank Sinatra's "The Best Is Yet to Come"...) And Jonathan Papelbon, despite his declining fastball velocity, insisted that his past accomplishments entitled him to the closer's role (and the $13 million 2016 salary it guaranteed him) before he would agree to waive his no-trade clause so that the Philadelphia Phillies could trade him at the deadline (despite being vocal about wanting to get out of Philly). This led to the conditions that fostered Harper and Papelbon's now-infamous dugout brawl on Sunday. Not for the first time, a company's bottom-line-first attitude backfired on its employees.

However, it's important to draw the line at what the Nats' arrogance does and does not mean. It does lead to frightening and embarrassing incidents like Papelbon's assault of Harper. It does mean that they are often condescending to the fans and their paying customers. It does mean that they don't appropriately value their employees and a positive work environment (as Zuckerman notes, how terrible must Tanner Roark, coming off a 2.85 ERA, have felt when they signed Max Scherzer? or Drew Storen, who had 29 saves when they imported Papelbon?). But it doesn't—at least by itself—explain why their on-field performance was so lacking in 2015. Sure, Roark and Storen both took huge steps backward after they were displaced, and the psychology of those snubs can't be ignored. But plenty of teams have won big even with bad chemistry. "Bad chemistry" is too often an easy excuse for poor performance that can be identified and quantified upon more rigorous examination. Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight demonstrated that this week, when he showed how easy it was to identify the Nationals offense as the reason they didn't live up to preseason expectations. That, of course, was due to the club's rash of injuries, not an intangible attitude.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Lance Berkman, Here's What You Don't Understand

On November 3, Houston will vote on a local referendum known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance—an anti-discrimination law protecting classes such as sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, marital status, and sexual orientation. When it was introduced and eventually passed by the city council in 2014, it seemed like a pretty sensible way to enforce the protection of every Houstonian, regardless of their identity, per that whole "all men are created equal" thing and the whole "14th Amendment to the Constitution" thing. But the provisions of the law protecting LGBT (and especially T) people raised the ire of Houston's conservative community, the law went to court, and in July the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court suspended the law and ordered it to be put to a public vote.

You probably heard about the ordinance for the first time last week, when former Houston Astros great Lance Berkman recorded a 60-second radio ad urging people to vote against the ordinance. The ad received surprising but understandable levels of condemnation on Twitter and from the sports-journalism world for not only its message, but its specific language. Here's what Berkman says:
"Vote no on Proposition 1. No men in women's bathrooms. No boys in girls' showers or locker rooms. I'm Lance Berkman. I played professional baseball for 15 years, but my family is more important. My wife and I have four daughters. Proposition 1, the 'bathroom ordinance,' would allow troubled men to enter women's public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms. This would violate their privacy and put them in harm's way. That's just wrong. We must prevent this potential danger by closing women's restrooms to men rather than waiting for a crime to happen. Under Proposition 1, if restaurants, businesses, and sports facilities don't allow a man into a woman's restroom, they would be subject to penalties and fines. This proposed ordinance says that it will stop discrimination, but in reality, it discriminates against people who believe, like me, that members of the opposite sex should not be forced to share restrooms or locker rooms. Join me to stop the violation of women's privacy and discrimination against women. Vote no on Proposition 1: no men in women's bathrooms, no boys in girls' showers or locker rooms."
Berkman's critics pounced on specific statements from the ad, paid for by the Campaign for Houston PAC, and made several valid points. But it's worth dissecting this ad in its entirety, as many of the most troubling and deceptive fallacies remained un-sussed-out over the weekend.
  • "Bathroom ordinance." Prop 1 isn't an ordinance governing who can go into which bathrooms. It's a broad anti-discrimination law, protecting people on the basis of sex, race, religion, and more—not just sexual orientation and gender identity. Furthermore, even as the law affects LGBT Houstonians, it doesn't just deal with bathrooms. It protects them against all forms of discrimination—by their employer, by their landlord, by business owners, at the polling place, at restaurants—and generally allows them to enjoy the equal protections that the United States supposedly affords all its citizens. Boiling Prop 1 down to just bathrooms is ignoring the massive other components of what the bill aims to do—and essentially states that an opponent's concerns over bathroom encounters override their desire to see every class of citizen protected under the law. Even social conservatives can agree that people whose lifestyles they find repugnant deserve the same constitutional rights—indeed, conservatives are often quite keen to see that the Constitution is followed and enforced. Prop 1 would allow the 14th Amendment—the one granting equal protection—to be explicitly enforced on the local level in Houston.
  • "Troubled men." Transgender women are not troubled men. A born male coming to identify as a woman is a natural condition; it's not a mental illness or a crime. Indeed, they're not even men; many have lived as women for years, are legally women, and have no worse a claim on the women's bathroom than biological women.
  • "Harm's way"; "potential danger"; "waiting for a crime to happen." These phrases strongly imply that transgender people are more likely to be criminals or, specifically, sex offenders. This is simply false. As explained above, being transgender is a natural condition, not some sickness or a symptom of depravity. There has never been a recorded incident of a transgender person attacking a straight person in a bathroom. There are, however, thousands of same-sex sexual predators—e.g., men born as men who are attracted to young boys—who use public bathrooms and could use those same opportunities to attack children. Statistically, non-transgender people should be a much greater concern to any person or group, like Berkman, that professes to be afraid of "creeps." Finally, if a sexual predator were as lecherous and inclined to commit a crime as Prop 1 opponents fear, do they really think that these criminals would be deterred by rules governing which bathroom they can enter? Prop 1 opponents view the ordinance as giving predators "legal cover" to be in the opposite bathroom, but, of course, they would have no legal cover if they commit a crime there—they'd be charged for that crime. If they do not commit a crime—like the thousands of transgender people who just want to feel comfortable when using the bathroom—there would be no need for charges.
  • "If restaurants, businesses, and sports facilities don't allow a man into a woman's restroom..." Berkman makes it sound like any man would be granted free access to women's bathrooms. This is incorrect; men entering the women's room would still be against the rules. But, again, transgender women (former men who have come to identify as women) are not men. They are women because that is how they feel in their bodies, regardless of their biology. People like Berkman fundamentally do not understand that gender is an identity and a social construct; it is not a simple matter of plumbing equipment.
  • "In reality, it discriminates against people who believe, like me, that members of the opposite sex should not be forced to share restrooms or locker rooms"; "discrimination against women." I don't need to re-address the point that transgender people are, in fact, not of the opposite sex. Instead, as Inigo Montoya would say, Berkman keeps using that word "discriminates"; I do not think it means what he thinks it means. Discrimination means "the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things." No one, Berkman included, would be prosecuted or denied legal protections based on their anti-LGBT beliefs. But when a person's beliefs include denying other people rights and legal protections—which, by definition, is true of people who oppose an anti-discrimination law—those beliefs must be overridden in a democratic, human-rights-based society like ours. They may continue to have those beliefs, and they can't be thrown into jail or denied service for them, but other people are allowed to find them repugnant—that's the flip side of allowing everyone their opinion—and yes, they'll have to live with a society that makes them uncomfortable. But just because Berkman doesn't like it, he's not being discriminated against. And women in the bathroom next to transgender people certainly aren't; they're using the bathroom freely and voluntarily.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Downballot 2015 Race Ratings for Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi

Democracy never sleeps—even when the voters do. This year may be an off year for elections, but the pundits are still tracking the three gubernatorial races that will take place in fall 2015: in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. But those states are electing way more than just governors—that's where I come in.

As it was last year, this blog will be the only place on the internet to go for handicapping this cycle's constitutional-officer elections. Per Baseballot's handy quick-reference guide to downballot politics, the 2015 ballot will feature two (separately-elected-from-the-governor) lieutenant governors, three attorneys general, three secretaries of state, three treasurers, two auditors, three agriculture commissioners, and two insurance commissioners. A lot fewer of those will be actual competitive races, but to determine that we have to look at the ratings, now don't we?

Things don't look good for Democrats (though in fairness, these are three fairly conservative states). The party stands to lose the few seats it has, whereas Republicans' seats are relatively safe. There are no "solid Democratic" constitutional offices on the ballot this year, whereas I judge there are 11 that are safe for Republicans. It could be particularly bad for Democrats if things just go a little bit wrong in Kentucky. Here's the state-by-state breakdown:


All six races (counting the governor's race) in Kentucky are closely linked, and all six are closely contested. As we learned in 2014, the final result of the top-of-the-ticket race can carry all the downballot results along with it. As such, like KY-GOV, all Kentucky constitutional offices could go either way.
  • Attorney General: Polls agree that Democrats are in the best shape in the attorney general's race, thanks mostly to the B-word: Beshear. Relative to the other Democrats on the statewide ballot, the popular governor's son Andy consistently leads by the most over, or trails by the least to, GOP State Senator Whitney Westerfield. You can also count on him winning the money battle.
  • Secretary of State: What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes? A rising star in her prime. Poll numbers on the climb. Republican opponent Steve Knipper can't raise a dime. But she may have high negatives from running for US Senate that one time.
  • Treasurer: This is the epitome of a race that will break with the top of the ticket. Polls have indicated lots of undecideds between Democrat Rick Nelson and Republican Allison Ball.
  • Auditor: Another fairly generic contest with high undecideds in polls—but, unlike treasurer, this race has an incumbent in Democrat Adam Edelen. The party has high hopes for Edelen, who looks poised to take on Rand Paul next year for Senate.
  • Commissioner of Agriculture: For whatever reason, Republicans have historically done well for this office in not only Kentucky (winning the last three elections) but also nationally (holding 11 of the 12 elected agriculture commissionerships). In keeping with the trend, polls suggest candidate State Rep. Ryan Quarles has the strongest advantage of any statewide Republican contender over the inexperienced Democrat, Jean-Marie Lawson Spann.


Louisiana's jungle primary means that nominees for each party haven't been chosen yet—and, in fact, will never be chosen, as the top two finishers in the October 24 preliminary election advance to the November 21 runoff regardless of party affiliation. You'd think that not knowing the candidates would make these contests harder to forecast, but actually, in terms of party control (read: the inevitability of Republican wins), they're unlikely to make a difference.
  • Lieutenant Governor: The African American, Democratic mayor of Baton Rouge, Kip Holden, starts with a strong base of support—but the three Republican candidates in the race combined are likely to pull a strong majority. Whether Republican Billy Nungesser or John Young makes the runoff with Holden, they'll probably be favored, but Holden is probably the strongest Democrat on the statewide ballot this year, and that ain't nothing.
  • Attorney General: Incumbent Buddy Caldwell has only been a Republican for four years, switching parties during his first term as AG, and many "real" Republicans complain that he never stopped being a Democrat. That's earned him a strong, state-GOP-supported challenge from faithful conservative Jeff Landry (you might remember him as the former congressman ousted in 2012 in a redistricting-inspired primary). With only two minor Democrats in the running, it would be a shocker if the runoff isn't between Landry and Caldwell, who would become the de facto Democrat in November.
  • Secretary of State: This one will be decided on October 24 one way or another. Democrat Chris Tyson is Republican incumbent Tom Schedler's only competition, and barring shockingly high Democratic turnout in the preliminary, Schedler will win his second full term.
  • Treasurer: Republican John Neely Kennedy is in his fourth term as state treasurer, which should be enough to wrap up the 2015 election—but he also drew only one stray opponent, a fellow Republican, so this seat is a guaranteed hold for the party (and virtually guaranteed for Kennedy, probably a future US Senate candidate).
  • Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry: Republican Commissioner Mike Strain is the only heavyweight in this four-person field, although one of the candidates is an arborist named Jamie LaBranche, so that's cool.
  • Commissioner of Insurance: Incumbent Republican James Donelon has already reached 50% in a pre-election poll against his main Democratic opponent, Charlotte McGehee, as well as a Republican auto-body businessman. He's safe.


  • Lieutenant Governor: For LG, Democrats have nominated an Elvis impersonator who was a Republican as recently as Martin Luther King Day. Somehow, though, incumbent Republican Tate Reeves is even more popular than that guy.
  • Attorney General: Incumbent AG Jim Hood is the last statewide Democrat standing in the Deep South—and he's not even that conservative, prosecuting KKK members and declining to join the suit against Obamacare. Can he hang on for a fourth term? Early indications are yes (a Mason-Dixon poll showed him leading Republican Mike Hurst 55% to 40%), but never underestimate the power of partisanship. With a conservative outside spender already airing ads in the race, it will at least be a competitive election.
  • Secretary of State: The phenomenally named Delbert Hosemann is up for his third term, and he has a phenomenal 1,899 times as much cash on hand ($1,139,390 to $600) as Democrat Charles Graham. Barring something even more phenomenal, this will be an easy hold for the Republican.
  • Treasurer: No Democrat filed to challenge first-term Republican Lynn Fitch.
  • Auditor: The Pickerings are a mini-dynasty in Mississippi, and Stacey is the state auditor. His campaign has been under investigation for financial violations, but if he was going to lose, it would have been in the nasty primary. The Mississippi electorate and his breezy fundraising will ensure Pickering defeats Democrat Jocelyn Pepper Pritchett in November.
  • Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce: Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith—the first woman elected to statewide office in state history—is facing only a token challenge from a local Democratic activist.
  • Commissioner of Insurance: Republican Mike Chaney will be elected to his third term without any opposition.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Hall of Fame Voter Turnout Is About to Hit a Historic Low—But How Low?

Low turnout is usually a bad thing, but not when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Last year, 549 people voted in that particular election—and it was too many. Those 549 included sportswriters and retirees who hadn't covered baseball in years, decades even—people who have barely seen the great players of this century play, and people who know nothing of the gigantic strides we've made in just the last 10–15 years in how we evaluate players' value. Those people had no business voting for the Hall of Fame in 2015. Thankfully, as of 2016, they won't be eligible to—meaning turnout is about to sink even lower. Yay!

The total number of votes cast is something every Hall of Fame watcher should care about. Why? A lower turnout means a lower denominator from which to calculate how many votes (75% of the total number cast) are sufficient to open the gates to Cooperstown. Recently, with years of very level, predictable turnout (573, 569, 571, and 549 voters the last four years), it's been a pretty safe bet that a player needs well over 400 writers on his side. But the Hall of Fame's new eligibility rules have changed the game: no one knows how many voters will be left to still cast ballots. Will 384 votes (the number Mike Piazza got in 2015) be enough to clear 75%? Will 306 (Jeff Bagwell)? Will 302 (Tim Raines)?

Let's flip over the napkin and do some math. According to various reports, last year there were approximately 650 BBWAA members eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame. To use election lingo, let's call them registered voters.

Of these, about 570 regularly cast ballots (there was a slight dip to 549 voters in 2015, but so far that looks like an outlier in otherwise very steady data). In politics, they'd be called likely voters. That leaves about 80 writers who, for one reason or another, appear to always abstain from voting. We'll call them unlikely voters. Under unchanged circumstances, we'd expect 570 votes to be cast in 2016 (88% turnout), since that is the number of likely voters who usually turn out.

Then last month happened. Countless registered voters were purged from the rolls. The Chicago Tribune actually asked the secretary/treasurer of the BBWAA, who revealed that the Hall of Fame's new guidelines would exclude 20% of the previous electorate, or 130 people. So we know that the number of registered voters will be down to about 520 next year.

What we don't know is how many of those purged 130 were likely voters and how many were unlikely voters. This is where we have to resort to (educated) guesswork.

I believe it is reasonable to assume that a disproportionate number of the purged were unlikely voters. For all of the grumbling about old-timey know-nothings who ruin the Hall of Fame process by voting for Tim Raines and Alan Trammell and nobody else, I'm sure that a lot of retired baseball writers simply don't vote. Maybe they don't feel qualified to anymore; maybe they saw voting as part of their old job but now see that part of their life as behind them. Maybe they used to be proud to vote for the Hall—a combination of democracy and baseball that once made America great!—but are now boycotting it because steroids and spreadsheets have destroyed baseball forever. Maybe they just don't know they're still allowed to vote.

However, we know for a fact that some of the unlikely voters are still-active baseball writers who will continue to be eligible to vote. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution all do not allow their beat writers to vote for the Hall of Fame. Every year, you also have some writers announcing that they are purposefully abstaining from voting—usually as a protest, or because it has become too hard to decide.

Let's estimate that there are about three registered but unlikely voters at each newspaper that doesn't allow its writers to vote. The five I mentioned are the best known, but we're probably missing a couple smaller papers that also muzzle their writers. Let's round up and say 20 still-active baseball writers are unlikely for this reason.

We also know at least four writers abstained last year (Lynn Henning, Buster Olney, Tim Brown, and Bob Brookover). Presumably, a few other writers also do this every year, either on purpose or by accident. (Some people probably just forget to mail the ballot in by the deadline.) Let's say that 10 still-active baseball writers are unlikely for this reason.

So my best estimate is that 30 of the 80 unlikely voters are writers who will still retain the right to vote for the Hall in 2016. If so, that would mean 50 of the unlikely voters are retired and were just declared ineligible. That, in turn, means that 80 of the newly ineligible voters were, through 2015, regular Hall of Fame voters (130 total purged voters minus 50 purged unlikely voters equals 80 purged likely voters). Subtract them from the universe of 570 likely voters, and you're left with 490 likely voters for 2016.

2016 Universe Lower Bound Best Guess Upper Bound
Registered Voters 520520520
Likely Voters 440490510
Unlikely Voters 803010

Provisionally, I predict that 490 ballots will be cast in the 2016 Hall of Fame election—the fewest since 2002. The figure will almost certainly fall between 440 and 510. If my best guess is right, it would represent 94% turnout (490/520), significantly higher than in recent years.

The first rule of elections is that a different electorate leads to different results. With fewer old-school voters getting ballot access and the threshold for election being lowered to just 368 votes (again, if my best guess turns out to be accurate), the path to victory for a lot of sabermetric favorites becomes more clear. According to my calculations, "public" ballots (those released before the election results as a whole are announced) are far more likely to include names like Bagwell, Piazza, and especially Raines—as well as the names of more long-shot candidates like Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, and Mike Mussina. It's widely thought that older-school voters or voters who are now retired are less likely to reveal their ballots, so the voter purge could have the effect of giving less weight to private ballots, which tend to be more conservative. (However, it's impossible to draw a straight line from one to the other, as we know that some now-purged voters have publicized their ballots in the past, just as we know that a great many ballots that remain private belong to still-active writers.) Hopefully, making sure that only the most qualified baseball writers vote will ensure that the most qualified players get elected.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Don't Force Your Narratives onto Boston's Losing the Olympics

I was never a fan of my hometown of Boston hosting the Olympics. The Games have a nasty habit of bankrupting their host governments, a lot of the infrastructure outlays don't have long-term benefits, and a bid would have subjected the already-cramped city to a decade of construction. (Plus, the Olympics are kinda dumb.) Apparently many Bostonians felt the same way, as Boston 2024's low polling numbers eventually helped sink the city's bid for good this week. To anyone who lives in Boston and cares about the future of the region, it was just a question of what was good public policy—plain and simple.

How wrong we were, apparently. I had no idea that, instead of trying to spend public money responsibly, we were really fighting special interests on behalf of the common man! And I feel pretty silly now that I've been informed that my opposition to the Olympics was my small-mindedness shooting the city in the foot! That is, at least if you listen to the particularly egregious spin coming out of the anti- and pro-Olympics camps, respectively, post-bid-withdrawal.

I get that some degree of spin is necessary; winners gonna gloat, and haters gonna hate. But these two narratives have nothing to do with the actual matter of public policy before us: the Olympic Games. They've been grafted onto the real financial and infrastructural issues at hand about as gracefully as Mr. Burns was sewn onto Homer. As the Olympics became more and more contentious in Boston this year, both sides were guilty of turning the debate into a process-based one. Rather than the question of whether it was good policy for Boston to host the Olympics, it became a referendum on the bidders themselves. And now that a decision has been made to stop seeking the Games, both sides continue to embarrass themselves by missing the point.

Let's start with the victors: those who sought to kill the Boston Olympics have touted the decision as a victory for their grassroots organization. It is conclusive proof, they say, that an inspired citizenry can successfully stand up to the big-moneyed special interests; we should all rejoice, they insist, that we stopped corporate elites from lining their pockets with that sweet Olympics cash from their rich friends. (A real sentence from the Boston Magazine article linked above: "The people of Boston, armed only with shoestring budgets and broken public records laws, stood up to the IOC, an organization as contemptible and endlessly wealthy as FIFA." Das Kapital is less rabble-rousing.) Poppycock. Elites run Boston, and they always have. The Olympics failed mostly because two key elites—Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker—were not fully on board with the plan. And the cause for celebration isn't the fact alone that we defeated a "Goliath" of an enemy; it's that we avoided the headaches that places like London and Rio have suffered as they paid for and built their Olympic infrastructure.

The sore losers, meanwhile, have fallen back on an old chestnut: Boston is a provincial backwater that will never become the worldly city it deserves without the validation that the Olympic Games provide—and our snobbish, insular tendencies have now kept our city from real progress onto the world stage. It's a shameful logical fallacy that exploits one of Boston's deepest-held insecurities about itself: its inferiority complex. "Move in my direction, or else stay a small-time small town. WWNYD?" (What would New York do?) It's a false choice, and both halves are equally specious. First, of course, not all movement is progress. Boston 2024 proponents would have you believe the only path to improving the city—the only path to globalizing Boston—lies in hosting an extraordinarily expensive sporting event. But instead of investing in something frivolous like sports, we could design a master plan that spends sensibly on transportation, infrastructure, housing, education, and more. There are lots of ways we can reshape the city that aren't the Olympic way, and, in my opinion, it may well be smarter to do it differently. (This is why we need to have a conversation about the actual policy issues rather than get into this shouting match.) But instead the pro-Olympics crowd frames it so that they can yell "Provincialism!" if you don't go along with their plan.

Which takes me to the second specious half: accepting the premise that Boston is indeed an unworldly, small-time backwater. Boston of today may not be New York, but it has thrived as a center of the new knowledge-based economy, with world-class medical, educational, and technological institutions. We should always strive to improve our city, but at this rate, only a few course corrections are needed, not a massive reimagination of Boston's entire essence. The city should be proud of where it is. One particularly ignorant tweet complained about "NOlympics" in the same breath as Boston's supposed other stubborn refusals to modernize: "CasiNO" (Massachusetts will make millions of dollars in revenue after passing a 2011 law that will soon open three casinos and a slot parlor throughout the state), "Late night public transportatioNO" (responding to a longtime rider complaint, the MBTA began offering late-night bus and subway service over a year ago), and "Modern liquor/vice legislatioNO" (marijuana is decriminalized in Massachusetts, and there's a decent chance it gets fully legalized via a 2016 ballot measure). The region is not, by any definition of the word, "stagnant," as the New York Times suggested was a possibility.

So Boston 2024's argument ended up resting on the idea that Boston is a parochial hamlet, and pulling us away from that fate was the real issue, no matter the cost. And to No Boston Olympics, the real issue became stopping private interests from turning a profit on the backs of unwilling constituents. For each side, that was probably the easiest way to justify what they wanted. But it got to the point where these arguments were offered basically to the exclusion of the real real issues that made people support or oppose the Olympics in the first place: the best ways to build new infrastructure, the best ways to spend money, the best ways to market the city. As in so many other instances, the facts and informed debate took a backseat to building a neat little narrative that's less complicated for emotional minds to understand. In the end, Boston 2024 and No Boston Olympics were more alike than either would care to admit; they both tried to make this debate something it never should have been. Sadly, they succeeded.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Different Way to Poll on Baseball

Shortly after I wrote last week's post—in which I used polls to calculate how popular each MLB team is—the annual Harris Poll on baseball was released—in which Harris polled the nation on how popular each MLB team is. Although our methodologies are different, Harris provides a great way to double-check my project.

According to the Harris Poll:
"...the New York Yankees continue the more-than-decade-long winning streak they’ve been on since 2003, coming in once again as 'America’s Favorite.' Another repeat – in this case one we’ve been seeing since 2009 – is longtime Yankees rival the Boston Red Sox coming in at no. 2 once again. Moving up one spot to no. 3 are the Chicago Cubs."
That's in pretty good agreement with my calculations, with one notable exception. My method (aggregating Public Policy Polling surveys of baseball fandom in 35 states) found that the Atlanta Braves were comfortably the most popular team in the US, with 22,573,607 fans, followed by the Red Sox at 17,749,160, Cubs at 17,504,648, and Yankees at 14,793,886. However, my analysis suffers greatly from the fact that New York is not one of the 35 states we have data for, so Harris is very probably right that the Yankees have more fans than the Red Sox and Cubs.

But what about the Braves? That's the truly glaring discrepancy between our counts. In the Harris Poll, the Braves are all the way down in sixth place—although until last year they had never performed worse than third in the annual poll. I'll blame both Harris and myself for this disagreement. I think Harris probably ought to smooth their data a bit more over years, since historically the Braves are clearly closer to America's favorite team than they are to fifth runner-up. But I may also be giving too much credit to the huge bloc of potential fans that is the American South. In the South, less of the population are baseball fans than in other regions; we know this anecdotally (merely whisper the words "college football" and the region will throw a spontaneous pep rally) and from the Harris Poll itself, to which 25% of Southerners responded that they follow MLB, compared to 34% of the East, 36% of the Midwest, and 38% of the West. The Braves, of course, derive much of their numeric advantage in my calculations from the sizable population of this large region that they have all to themselves (as far as MLB is concerned). I could believe fourth place nationally for the Braves.

This year, Harris has the Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers in fourth and fifth place. My fan counts agree that those teams have large fan bases, but not that large. One thing that could be holding them back in my calculations is if they have bigger national followings than they receive credit for. Because of the Yankees', Red Sox', Cubs', and Braves' reputations for having fans all across the country, PPP usually asks about them in every state it polls. However, there's a limit to the number of teams it can poll on before the poll gets unwieldy—usually eight teams per state is the limit. It's tempting to think that the Dodgers, Tigers, or other teams like the Cardinals could pick up a few million if PPP were able to ask about them nationally.

That's the advantage of the Harris Poll: it conducts a single survey, at one snapshot in time, across the whole country—to be exact, 2,200 adults nationwide (including 700 who follow MLB) surveyed online between June 17 and 22, 2015—so it avoids that problem. But I also have a few gripes with it. Principally, it falls short for me because it doesn't provide actual percentages, like most polls do, for each team; instead, it just ranks the teams from most to least popular. The original goal of my project—what drove me to do my own calculations using PPP—was not just to know teams' relative popularity, but specifically to get hard numbers for how many millions of people each team has in its corner. I've emailed Harris to see if it has specific percentages and is willing to share them, and I'll update this post if I hear back.

A second gripe is that, despite an initial sample of 2,200 adults, the Harris Poll still has far too small a sample for a national poll for which there are 30 possible answers. (Between the 35 state polls that my analysis uses, PPP surveyed 28,101 voters about their baseball preferences.) Simple math tells us that the average fandom percentage in baseball must be 3.33%—which also means that, for teams like the Yankees and Red Sox that we know exceed that number, there are also teams even smaller. Among Harris's sample of 700 baseball fans, a 1% haul would be seven respondents. That makes the numbers pretty sensitive to year-to-year variation and also likely puts a lot of less popular teams within the margin of error. This year, I would single out the Tampa Bay Rays as a likely victim of small sample size. Harris ranked them at #16 this year, up from a tie at #24 last year. That's a huge bump for no clear exogenous reason, and 16th is dubiously high for a team that has struggled so much to attract fans. Here I have more faith in my own calculations, which found that the Rays are probably the least popular team in baseball.

I don't mean to be harsh against Harris—I'm in favor of any pollster that asks about baseball! Any data added to the pool of consideration is valuable; I just mean to point out limitations in how we should interpret it. One place where I do value Harris's data, quite highly, is in the other questions it asks about baseball—and how those questions break down in the crosstabs among specific demographic groups. For instance, I was glad to see that a whopping 80% of fans approve of the new instant replay rules. That really puts a hole in the argument that instant replay takes away from the history and integrity of the game—especially when you look at the crosstabs. Instant replay is actually more popular among older demographics, with 75% support among Millennials, but 83% with Baby Boomers and 87% (!) with fans over 70 years old.

Then there's the big question for the folks over at 245 Park Avenue: what percentage of the adult population follows Major League Baseball? This year, that number dipped to 32%—the lowest Harris has ever found. Just last year, that number was 37%, and it was 41% as recently as 2009. I'm generally not a believer in the idea that baseball is dying, but the sport does face demographic challenges that the poll's crosstabs point to. Among age groups, baseball fandom was lowest among Millennials (29%); among income brackets, fandom was lowest among those making less than $35,000 a year (27%); by level of education, it's least popular with those who didn't go to college (26%). Baseball is a sport for the wealthy, and MLB would do well to lower economic barriers to both attending games and playing them—especially for young people. Because this is a political blog, I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that baseball fandom is largely party-blind: 35% of Republicans follow MLB, 34% of independents, and 32% of Democrats.

It's worth noting that Harris's wording to that question—"do you follow Major League Baseball or not?" is presented in "opt-in" format, whereas PPP asks about fandom in more of an "opt out" way. The result is that twice as many PPP respondents (78% in total) claim to be baseball fans—or at least have a favorite baseball team, which is the technical wording of the question. Simply put, we know that's too high. That's certainly a major limitation of my exact fan counts—they include millions of fair-weather or bandwagon fans who don't know a curveball from a changeup but who simply have pride in the hometown colors.

But then again, who are we to decide what it means to be a fan? Someone who follows MLB every night with an MLB TV subscription and three spreadsheets doesn't necessarily love the team any more than a guy who cherishes his annual tradition of hitting the ballpark bar with his three best friends from college. There are many different expressions of fandom, to be sure, but they're all equally valid. It's possible that Harris and PPP are just counting different things. And just like you can freely choose how you root for your favorite team, you, dear reader, are free to choose which poll's definition of fan fits your worldview.