Monday, July 28, 2014

One Hall of a Bad Idea

This weekend, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced some election-law changes. Effective immediately, players will only have 10 years on the ballot to make their case before dropping out of consideration—not 15 years as it has been for most of the Hall's history.

Let's get the editorializing out of the way: I think this was the coward's way out for the Hall of Fame. The calls for the Hall to reform its voting process have gotten ever louder in recent years, and it didn't seem like they were listening. Now they've finally made a change, but it was a passive-aggressive one—the exact opposite of confronting the very real issues facing the election process. It was a change that allowed them to dodge the issues even more.

By cutting off one-third of the eligibility period, the Hall of Fame is essentially targeting individual players to make it harder for them to get elected. Most of these players are those tainted with PED use. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, who will be on the ballot this winter for the third time each, now have much less time to earn forgiveness from voters. Although I would have disagreed, the Hall could have come out and simply issued an election advisory—one that several voters have publicly said they wished for—that said steroid users were cheaters and should be ineligible for the Hall of Fame. Instead they invented a new rule that does the same thing, except it lets them pretend their hands are still clean, and it creates a permanent fix for a temporary problem.

I want to harp on that last point. In the Hall's obsession with appearing above the steroid fray, they've created a mechanism that will affect generations of players to come, as well as take out collateral victims in the present. Tim Raines, who will be on the ballot for the eighth time, has never been associated with steroids and will now probably fall off the ballot without being elected. They could have avoided this by making the change effective starting for candidates who are new to the ballot this year. But this wouldn't have spared them the embarrassment of the Bonds/Clemens/McGwire/Sosa debates for five more years. They valued their supposed decorum enough that they were willing to sacrifice a ballot full of players.

More than that: the Hall of Fame's actions implicitly said to some of its members, "We don't think you belong." Bert Blyleven, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Duke Snider, Bob Lemon, Ralph Kiner, Dazzy Vance, Gabby Hartnett, Rabbit Maranville, Bill Terry, and Harry Heilmann were all elected in between their 10th and 15th years of eligibility. Under the new rules, they would have dropped off the ballot instead. One of the reasons the Hall made the change was to de-clog the coming logjam of candidates on the ballot. They could have instead decreed that a voter can vote for as many candidates as he or she wants, not just a maximum of 10, as the current rules state. Instead they decided to go more exclusive and solve the logjam by kicking more people off, not letting more in. This is not only an admission that Blyleven, Rice, Sutter, and their kin were mistakes, but also a denial of the size of Hall they already have. (This despite the fact that post-1990 baseball is dramatically underrepresented in the Hall of Fame already.) Like it or not, players elected from now on must meet a different, higher standard, making them somehow "purer" choices for the Hall than those guys. The Hall of Fame has succeeded in creating "tiers" of Hall of Famers.

There is one way—and one way only—that these election changes could actually be a good thing. There is one way that I could owe the Hall of Fame a massive apology.

That would be if the Hall of Fame is outsmarting all of us right now. If they've done their research and dug into the data and know for a fact the ripple effect that this change will have.

This change could redeem itself if it forces Hall voters (the BBWAA, in case you forgot) to change their behavior. As a close watcher of elections of any form, I've spent some time breaking down the trends of past Hall of Fame votes, and I'd say I know them pretty well. What I don't know is how those trends will hold up under different election laws. The new rules put us in new territory for predicting results. Will voters panic, knowing there is suddenly less time to elect players, and suddenly become more generous in allocating their votes? If so, will this be a one-time spike in this year's election, or will voters become permanently more open-minded?

A basic fact of Hall of Fame voting trends is that it often takes the full 15 years for players to build up to the 75% needed for election. Many eventual inductees started on the ballot at levels of support around 20% and added five or ten points each year to gradually climb. Take Blyleven, who attracted just 17.5% of the vote his first year on the ballot in 1998. He was finally elected in his 14th year of eligibility with 79.7% of the vote.

If the new rules had been in place while Blyleven was on the ballot, he'd have fallen off after 2007, when he got 47.7% of the vote.

Or would he? Maybe his timetable would have been accelerated as voters felt more rushed to consider his record. Could the Hall of Fame's new election rules cause steeper climbs than we're accustomed to seeing from candidates? Something like this?

I am honestly not sure. On one hand, I can't not believe that Tim Raines being two years away instead of seven from falling off the ballot will jolt more writers into taking his Hall case seriously. At the very least, more voters will sit down this winter and do some research into Raines's career where before they might have passed over his name, based perhaps on outdated memories or long-obsolete first impressions. And the accelerated timetable will surely force some voters to see that, now more than ever, a non-vote or a blank ballot are as affirmative an action as a "yes" vote. If the rule change makes it so that writers are comfortable with a 10-man ballot being the norm, rather than the conservative six votes per ballot that is the average today, then it will have been worth it.

On the other hand, many of the candidates on the ballot today are so polarizing that no degree of extra consideration will convince 75% of writers to vote for them. There is also little evidence that players currently get an abnormally large bump in support in their 15th year on the ballot, so why should they get one on their 10th now? Unfortunately, it doesn't look like writers consciously withhold their vote, but rather that the full 15 years are sometimes needed for a critical mass to "evolve" their thinking.

Maybe the Hall of Fame knows something we don't, and voters will change their behavior.

But given both the Hall's and the BBWAA's maddening track records, I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How Many Fans Does Each MLB Team Have?

This week, Harris Interactive came out with its annual baseball poll. Among many interesting findings (thoughts on instant replay, the racial and gender breakdown of MLB fans, etc.), the poll ranks franchises in order of their popularity with the public. (Some team from New York is number one.) What it doesn't do, much to my disappointment, is give us hard numbers on how popular each team is. Even with a sample size of 2,241 adults, it's impossible to get a large enough data set to be meaningful when there are 30 possible answers. Still, it would be nice to know—how far ahead are the Yankees, at number one, from the Red Sox at number two? Are we talking 25% support nationwide for the third-place Giants, or closer to 6%? Are there actual real live Miami Marlins fans out there? These are the burning questions.

These ponderings become relevant every year around this time when America votes on whom to send to the All-Star Game. Especially for the Final Vote, a strong regional base of support is as important to winning an All-Star berth as a GOP primary. MLB's county-by-county results maps confirm that geography is destiny; the candidates with the ties to the nation's most populous areas always seem to win. Is it really any wonder that this year's Final Vote winners both hail from Chicagoland, or that last year's had the Deep South and an entire country to themselves?

This got me wondering—what are most powerful voting blocs in baseball? Which teams own the most turf, or hold sway over the most people? We know this generally, of course, thanks to measures like the Harris poll. But to my knowledge, no one has ever undertaken the ambitious project to quantify how many millions of fans each team has. What team has the largest fan base—and how large is it?

Ultimately, the question is unanswerable—at least until the U.S. Census starts asking about baseball fandom. But we can approximate using two data sets that I know are out there: Facebook data and polling data.

Facebook data simply means people who have "liked" a given Major League team on Facebook. Facebook provided this data to the New York Times, where the Upshot created a amazing tool showing fandom by geography. Their map includes the top three teams, by percentage of MLB team "likes," by county and even down to zipcode. It's a beautiful and rich data set, but it's not perfect for our purposes.
  • The public-facing data posted on the Times website, at least, only provides the top three teams for each geography, leaving potentially hundreds of thousands of fans uncounted.
  • The map doesn't tell us how many baseball fans live in each county or zipcode—just the percentage of total baseball fans there that swear allegiance to X team and Y team.
  • An easy solution would be to multiply these percentages by each county or zipcode's population. That would assume everyone in the country is a baseball fan, however. As much as this should be true, it sadly isn't.
  • We could always scale the population figures down to 37% (a.k.a. the percentage of adults who told Harris that they are baseball fans). However, not all counties are created equal. Suffolk County in Massachusetts is about the same size as Oklahoma County in Oklahoma, but there are almost certainly more baseball fans in Suffolk. In short, deriving absolute numbers from the Upshot map requires a healthy dose of speculation.
  • In addition, Facebook data can be unreliable. Not everyone is on Facebook—it might skew to a younger demographic. People also don't always "like" the things they like, and many people will "like" a zillion things that they don't even like all that much.
  • Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, it would just be too damn hard to apply the data to this project. There are 3,141 counties in the United States, and it would take forever to manually multiply each county's Facebook data from the Upshot map by its population. I've contacted the Times to see if they have the data in exportable form but have yet to hear back.
That leaves us with polling data. While Harris was unable to provide result breakdowns by team nationally, there is a pollster that publishes them state by state: the good sports-obsessed folks at Public Policy Polling (PPP). Over the past few years, PPP has asked voters in 32 states about their baseball allegiances. I collected the data in this Google spreadsheet and multiplied PPP's percentage findings by the greater population that the poll's sample represents. In most cases, this was registered voters, except for Mississippi, Virginia, and West Virginia, where the polls surveyed likely voters. This yielded good estimates of the fan breakdown among the 131,204,273 Americans who are described by the 32 polls we have.

Team Fans
Chicago Cubs 9,960,809
Boston Red Sox 9,694,711
Atlanta Braves 9,496,603
New York Yankees 8,062,618
Detroit Tigers 6,086,696
Texas Rangers 5,158,274
St. Louis Cardinals 5,023,469
San Francisco Giants 4,836,995
Cincinnati Reds 3,912,900
Houston Astros 3,362,355
Los Angeles Dodgers 3,334,120
Philadelphia Phillies 3,080,515
Los Angeles Angels 2,828,442
Colorado Rockies 2,791,248
Pittsburgh Pirates 2,699,190
Milwaukee Brewers 2,597,501
Minnesota Twins 2,553,951
Cleveland Indians 2,283,969
Kansas City Royals 2,204,291
Arizona Diamondbacks 2,189,763
Chicago White Sox 2,088,561
Miami Marlins 1,701,702
Oakland Athletics 1,641,087
San Diego Padres 1,459,699
Baltimore Orioles 1,191,765
Tampa Bay Rays 1,173,900
Seattle Mariners 910,586
Washington Nationals 837,904
New York Mets 643,554
Toronto Blue Jays 0

Take these numbers for what they are—an incomplete answer to an unanswerable question, and a project that will always be a work in progress. Obviously, 18 states remain unpolled as to their MLB preferences, including rather important ones like Georgia and New York. They will seriously alter the numbers above, such as boosting the Mets' abysmal total and, most likely, launching the Yankees and Braves past the Red Sox and Cubs into a battle for America's most electorally powerful fan base. The 32 states we have polling data for are shaded in black:

As you can see, the Mariners, Orioles, Yankees, Mets, and Braves are going to be underrepresented in the current numbers. The Red Sox and Nationals probably are too, given the absence of several New England states and two-thirds of the DMV. The Phillies are similarly probably feeling the non-inclusion of New Jersey and Delaware. However, it's bad news for teams like the Rays, Marlins, Brewers, A's, Padres, and others—there are not a lot of places left for them to accumulate more fans.

Some other flaws with the polling approach:
  • Polls look only at people who are registered to vote (and, in this case, at only people who DID vote in Mississippi, Virginia, and West Virginia—even smaller universes). This is a majority of people in the country but by no means all of them. Millions of people not registered to vote are likely baseball fans, and their preferences not only aren't included, but we also wouldn't know how to extrapolate them. It's very possible that, because of the kind of person who registers to vote vs. doesn't, their tastes are materially different from those polled.
  • These polls only survey voters in the United States. This means foreign fans go uncounted, including—crucially—Canadian fans of the Toronto Blue Jays. (This is also a problem with the Upshot's baseball map—which limits itself to the US—although not necessarily with Facebook data inherently.)
  • A poll can only provide eight or so possible choices to the question, "What is your favorite MLB team?" before the question becomes too long and loses people. That means some fans' preferences won't be counted, although it's not as bad as the three-team limit in the Facebook data. Using the necessary discretion in choosing which teams to ask about also runs the risk of missing, say, a hidden pocket of Orioles fans in Minnesota.
  • Conversely, PPP almost always asks about the four teams with major national fan bases: the Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees, and Braves. This explains why they are so far ahead; if we were able to ask about all 30 teams, each one would gain a sprinkling of a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of fans in each state—enough to add up. Put another way, we really don't know what to do with the "Unknown/Non-Fan" group.
  • One advantage to polling vs. Facebook is that it lets people say they don't have a favorite baseball team, presumably because they are not fans of the sport. However, very few people actually take this option in the survey—certainly less than the 63% we would expect to. Therefore, these polls are probably counting people as fans who are only casual partisans or don't even care about baseball. A Bostonian may consider themselves pro-Red Sox even if he doesn't really care for the sport because, hey, why shouldn't I want them to do well? There's thus a concern that these numbers are higher across the board than the real number of "true" fans.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Separating 2016 Narrative from 2016 Fact

I've made no secret of my apparently controversial theory that Hillary Clinton is not going to run for president. The theory rests on the fact that Clinton herself hasn't signaled a desire to run or done any of the things that candidates in the invisible primary tend to do. Instead, this widespread assumption that she's running stems from a snowballing groupthink in the DC bubble—especially in major media outlets, which have ignored her many denials of her candidacy.

Two recent articles, I think, are especially egregious examples of this. The first is from the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza:
Hillary Clinton is running for president.

That simple sentence is one that the political-media complex seems incapable of uttering though evidence is sprinkled absolutely everywhere — including in comments from Clinton herself — that she will be a candidate in 2016.
I pick on this piece in particular (I could have chosen many others) for the irony: the political-media complex has done nothing but perpetrate the notion that Clinton is running for president. Cillizza is more typical of the genre when he goes on to cite the evidence he refers to—the existence of Ready for Hillary, public endorsements, etc. The problem is that none of it is evidence that Hillary Rodham Clinton has herself made plans to run for president. All of it is actually just evidence that other people believe she'll run. This, of course, is not in doubt—and citing other Washington insiders as evidence of what's inside the brain of a third party is the very definition of what I'm talking about.

But the fixation on speculation doesn't end with Hillary—and, say what you will about Cillizza's column, he doesn't contradict any known facts (just misinterprets them, in my opinion). That's not the case with the second article, this one on Elizabeth Warren. Warren announced several months ago that she was flattered, but she is absolutely, positively not running for president. So why did we see an article by Byron York in April speculating about a Warren candidacy? In the article, York addresses head-on, even quotes, Warren’s Sherman statement—but still launches into an exploration of how she could be lying and planning to run!

The whole article reveals a staggering blindness to fact and a slavish devotion to narrative, at all costs—even accuracy. Unlike Clinton's still up-in-the-air status,** Warren has categorically ruled herself out as a candidate. But it’s still fun to speculate about a populist candidate carrying the banner of the Democratic Party’s left wing… Or better yet, about an insurgent who would dare to take on the juggernaut Clinton for the nomination.

The sexy image of what the 2016 campaign could look like has been built up by total speculation for years, even though it was only based on the flimsiest of facts. In Warren's case, now we have facts that directly contradict it—and so that image has gone from speculative to definitively false. But York and others continue to erroneously write reports that Warren could be a candidate. They put so much time and care into building the narrative that they can't bring themselves to tear it down when they have to.

This is a shtick well worn in baseball, where it causes enough trouble in the form of new- vs. old-school culture wars. But baseball is, by and large, an endeavor of entertainment only; politics is important and affects the lives of everyone living in this country, whether they vote or not. Whereas narrative-building is ridiculous in baseball, it's seriously troubling and misleading in political journalism.

(**A note on Clinton: I acknowledge that statements she has made recently have opened the door to her candidacy. In her book being released this week, she writes, “Will I run for president in 2016? I haven’t decided yet.” That’s the clearest indicator yet that she may indeed run. Since writing that Clinton post last year, I’ve become OK with the media narrative of her potential 2016 dominance. It’s a solid fact now that she’s considering a run, and she would indeed be the strongest candidate if she did so. What I take issue with is speculation that becomes reported as fact. In that sense, any journalism about “presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton” continues to be intellectually dishonest. And even though I now recognize that there’s a very real chance that I’m way wrong about this, I’m still predicting Clinton surprises us all and takes a pass in the end.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How the Tea Party Became Our Best Hope Against Public Financing of Stadiums

Since the dawn of time, the baseball blogosphere has complained about the public financing of ballparks. For just as long, it has also expressed variations on the same theme: if only taxpayers would hold elected officials accountable for wasting their money on millionaires' playgrounds. Instead, it seems, voters either buy into their claims or don't care, letting incumbents skate to easy victories, as incumbents tend to do.

But could today be different? Today brings something we haven't seen for a long, long time: an election fought on the issue of public financing for stadiums. In Georgia, you see, not everyone has reacted well to the Atlanta Braves' planned move to Cobb County in 2017. County commissioners' hastily approved package to lure the Braves—$400 million in public money—fed right into the political discontent that has been festering nationwide, especially in red states. And so it was that the Braves' new publicly funded stadium became a flashpoint for the Cobb County Tea Party.

Georgia's primary elections this May 20 are, of course, more broadly speaking, approximately the 1,505,739th faceoff between establishment Republicans and the Tea Party since the latter's birthing in 2009. But in a certain corner of the state, that happens to mean the 2014 primary will judge voter anger over Cobb County's sweetheart deal with the Braves. That means anyone who ever blogged, tweeted, or complained about the folly of public financing—no matter if they give a lick about politics or even expressed a preference for Obama or Romney as leader of the free world a few years back—should train their eyes to tiny Georgia House District 34 on Tuesday night as results trickle in. This swatch of suburbia along US 41 between Kennesaw and Marietta—six miles northwest of where the stadium will actually be built—is the unlikely site of the public-financing electoral battle so many have waited so long for.

In the 2012 primary, Charles Gregory defeated a longtime Republican legislator to become the first representative of the new House District 34. Gregory pulled off the upset under the banner of libertarian hero Ron Paul, railing against both parties as part of the problem and demanding a return to strict constructionism. The message clearly resonated, and Gregory has spent the two years since trying to tear down what he sees as a corrupt system: a swollen government bureaucracy that exists primarily as a feeding trough for special interests.

One of those interests—and the one that happened to plant its flag right in Gregory's backyard—is the Atlanta Braves. Gregory hasn't minced words about what he thinks of the public-financing deal: "theft." Fitting the Braves neatly into a favorite Tea Party narrative, Gregory continued, "A large corporation and some public officials have conspired to forcibly take money without consent from the electorate and then spend it on a private business venture." He later described it much like a Craig Calcaterra or Maury Brown would:
"So what I would say to the Atlanta Braves is, 'We would love to have you. You, just like any other business, you take out your loan. You build your stadium. You buy your land. You make your investment. You take the risk, and you keep all the profits,'" Gregory said. "We don’t need to be putting or socializing the risk on the backs of taxpayers. It really is legal plunder, corporate welfare, corporatism, whatever you want to call it. The taxpayers don’t need to fund private business."

Gregory said he would love to have a water park in his backyard, but understands the government is not going to give him the money to build one.
Music to many an ear—but a siren to plenty others. Gregory's anti-business crusade in the state house didn't take long to draw the attention of the Chamber of Commerce wing of the Georgia Republican Party, which has targeted him and his Tea Party brethren for defeat in 2014. In only the past month and change, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and large Atlanta corporations from Coca Cola to Delta have poured over $350,000 into an independent committee called the Georgia Coalition for Job Creation. Its goal? To support business-friendly Republicans and sling mud at "extremists" like Gregory, one of the incumbents it has targeted for defeat. The group has sent foreboding anti-Gregory mailpieces to district voters and set up a microsite,, to let voters "get the facts for yourself."

In House District 34, the coalition has enlisted Marietta attorney Bert Reeves to primary Gregory, and it has been a heated race all the way to the finish line. At the same forum where Gregory expressed his opposition to a Cobb-Braves partnership, Reeves had this to say—a succinct defense of moderate Republicans' cozy relationship with big business:
"One of the key differences between Mr. Gregory and myself is his absolute point of view about the complete exclusion of government involved in private enterprise," Reeves said. "He and I disagree, and I believe there are certain partnerships that certainly provide economic growth and jobs, and that’s what I’m all about."
With views like that, Reeves has received ample financial backing from the Georgia corporate community. In addition to the $350,000 being spent by the Georgia Coalition for Job Creation, Reeves had raised $50,585.14 as of March 31, 2014; Gregory had raised $35,343.95. Add it all up, and the numbers aren't encouraging for Gregory, who doesn't have much room for error in his 56%-to-44% primary win from 2012. There's a good chance this year will be even tougher, with the weight of the establishment behind his opponent and the element of surprise gone from his bag of tricks. As one lobbyist put it to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on background, "We’re not going to let liberty Republicans throw business out of the Republican Party."

So, if/when Gregory loses, can we take it as conclusive evidence on how voters feel about publicly financed stadiums? Well, not so fast. There are a few caveats about tonight's results:
  • Although the race is really and truly a proxy war over the role of big business, many voters won't see it that way. The money from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce is going into anti-Obamacare messaging, anti-tax messaging, and a host of other issues that voters probably feel is more relevant to them than the next home of the Braves.
  • While important, state representatives were not the ones to actually vote for the Braves deal and have little to no actual power to do anything about it. The Gregory-Reeves race is entirely symbolic in that regard. One of the actual Cobb County commissioners who voted for the public financing is also facing a primary (JoAnn Birrell, County Commission District 3), but that has been a quieter race, and Birrell is expected to win without difficulty.
  • The House District 34 dynamic is unusual among Tea Party elections because, in this case, the Tea Partier is the incumbent and the establishment candidate is doing the primarying. It's therefore not the best example of an angry electorate choosing to punish sitting elected officials for their backroom, tax-spending deals. Instead, it's best viewed, again, as a simple proxy battle.
Finally, even if he does win, Gregory is an unlikely hero for the baseball-blog intelligentsia, whose politics tend to be as progressive as their statistics. Gregory is one of the leading supporters of Georgia's new "guns everywhere" law, which allows licensed gun owners to carry firearms in bars, churches, and unsecured government buildings. It's also legislators like Gregory who have been responsible for this year's few "religious liberty" bills designed to legalize anti-gay discrimination—whereas Reeves's big-business backers have opposed these laws, because why shrink your pool of possible customers?

So no, Gregory's views aren't likely to sit well with those who oppose public financing from the left—but the reality is, in House District 34, it's the best they're going to do. The district is so conservative that Democrats aren't even bothering to run a candidate there; they likewise let Gregory go unopposed in 2012. It's led to the odd arrangement whereby progressive activists who oppose Cobb County's subsidization of the new Braves stadium have joined up with Tea Party protests of the deal. "The labels here don't really matter," says progressive Tea Party ally Rich Pellegrino of Cobb County. "Whether it's Republicans, Democrats, whatever, what's going on here is that the chamber of commerce types run the county, and the politicians are doing their bidding."

You can see from Pellegrino's comment how the alliance makes sense, in a weird way. The particular strain of Tea Party-ism on display in House District 34 is remarkably populist and anti-corporate—traditionally a complaint of the activist left. In truth, though, pure conservatives don't want government to prop up big business any more than liberals do; they don't believe government has any role interfering with the market. In the aftermath of a Bush administration that many saw as an extension of the Goldman Sachs boardroom, that's as deserving a target for libertarians as socialized medicine is.

Progressives can claim the mantle of public-financing opponent, and Democrats can be the party opposed to big business. But protest movements can take many forms. Opposition to the same thing can take root in very different places. With the failure of Occupy Wall Street, like it or not, the Tea Party is now the most effective voice for small-l liberalism. (Watch Republican Senator Mike Lee's Tea Party response to the State of the Union address this year. You'll be surprised at how some of Lee's ideas sound, well, liberal.)

And the Tea Party's realizing it. In Cobb County, after the county's only Democratic commissioner was the only one to vote against the Braves deal, the local chapter saw that its primary enemy was its fellow Republicans, and it welcomed progressive activists to its cause. "It’s big business trying to buy government...They’re propping up their business interests over everybody else’s." That's Charles Gregory's rallying cry, but it could be Elizabeth Warren's. In a place like Georgia, if that's your message, you can't be picky about the messenger.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

2016's Clintonless Invisible Primary Continues, Full Speed Ahead

A year ago, I wrote a preview of the 2016 campaign narrative on the Democratic side: the primary that no one did—or does—think will happen. Twelve months later, I'm compelled to write an update—not because circumstances have changed, but because I'm struck by how steady the situation has held. Two governors who I still believe will anchor the presidential primary field have updated their résumés in recent months, and they did so in ways wholly consistent with their existing good cop/bad cop identities.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is, in my opinion, the Democratic frontrunner in 2016 because he knows how to wield power as a weapon. He's been arguably the nation's most effective governor through a combination of shameless horse-trading, almost conviction-less pragmatism, and keeping a tight lid on the entire process. Here in 2014, he showed that his methods were still effective when he negotiated New York's fourth straight on-time budget. He got his way in a high-profile battle with new mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio on universal pre-kindergarten. But the fight also made him an enemy in the mayor, and especially in the mayor's people. It was almost a clean continuation of Cuomo's turbulent relationship with Mayor Michael Bloomberg—showing he isn't afraid to ruffle feathers to get his way.

Cuomo has made enemies elsewhere. Cuomo also betrayed his career-long distaste for transparency and oversight in 2014 when he dissolved the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. He knew that his preference to work without the public breathing down his neck would earn the enmity of transparency groups; he just didn't care. And his past embrace of conservative fiscal policies—and his literal embrace of local Republican politicians—has alienated him from New York's left. He's currently in negotiations with the state's Working Families Party over whether it will even endorse him this year. But, with 57% favorability ratings, everyone—most of all Cuomo—knows he doesn't need them to survive, even thrive, politically.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley doesn't have the same problems. His motto all along has been "slow and steady wins the race" (though if that applies to the 2016 race is still an open question). In 2014, O'Malley chalked up a few more wins in a game he's been playing since 2007: coaxing the Maryland legislature's large Democratic majorities a little bit farther left every year. After an outrageously productive 2013 session, Maryland in 2014 achieved one of O'Malley's longtime priorities: raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. For good measure, this new liberal haven also decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.

O'Malley met his goals with the same respectful tactics I highlighted in 2013. He used all the time on the clock (the bills passed at the very end of the 90-day session) and allowed copious input on the bills while still shielding them from major change. Along the way, he used the time to win over skeptics—using honey where Cuomo often prefers vinegar. When O'Malley signed these and other bills just a few weeks ago, it only served to confirm his image as a liberal crusader who also manages to bring a positive attitude to governing. He continues to use his friendly relationships with legislators to enact serious, impactful progressive change.

What I still don't know any better than a year ago is which one of these political personae will win over more voters. I suspect, of course, it has more to do with the personal calculations of Hillary Rodham Clinton than anything else. But both Cuomo and O'Malley have stories to tell in 2016—and they're sticking to them.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Don't Blame Rick Weiland. Blame a Hyberbole Culture Run Amok

This week, Democratic candidate for US Senate Rick Weiland earned widespread ridicule when he made the following statement about the McCutcheon v. FEC campaign-finance case:
"Today's decision of the United States Supreme Court to strike down any real limit on the purchase of our democracy by big money may be the worst decision made by any Supreme Court since the Dred Scott case reaffirmed slavery in 1857."
Taken at face value, this is of course a laughable claim. Decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. US are appalling pretty much without any partisan debate. But Weiland doesn't deserve all the flak he's getting, either. The reason for this is simple: this statement clearly was not intended to be taken at face value.

Instead, Weiland—who has based his entire campaign on being the anti-big-money candidate—was trying to make a point, and he knew how to get a megaphone with which to announce it: exaggerate. Sure enough, it worked, as a candidate to whom pundits were giving virtually no media attention—nor any chance of winning—suddenly had his name plastered across the internet. In a world which Weiland had discovered was not going to pay any attention to a nonserious message candidate in a prairie state, he realized that he would have to be outlandish to cut through.

Weiland's not the only one who's realized this. Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson called Citizens United "the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case" in 2010. Now-Senator Ed Markey once said, "The Dred Scott decision had to be repealed; we have to repeal Citizens United." And at least one conservative columnist wrote that 2012's "Obamacare decision represented the greatest single judicial limitation on American liberty since Dred Scott v. Sandford."

It's an unfortunate byproduct of our extremely noisy era that people feel they must resort to extreme hyperbole to get fairly standard points across. There's a language cold war going on—one that has already ruined the word "literally"—whereby everyone competes to out-emphasize each other. Words and phrases that used to be saved for special occasions are now seen as feeble thanks to overuse—and thanks to being overtaken by even more extreme words and phrases. "X is the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott" has simply evolved into the fashionable way to say, "I think X Supreme Court decision was pretty bad."

It's unfortunate. But it's the reality we've created for ourselves, so we shouldn't be surprised. And, ironically, that probably means we should stop remarking upon it every time someone says a decision is the worst since Dred Scott. But, grimly, that will just mean soldiers in this cold war will have to move on to the next, even more outrageous statement to express their dissatisfaction with the high court.

Weiland isn't stupid. I sincerely doubt he believes McCutcheon is the worst Supreme Court decision since 1857. (For one thing, it's hard to believe he doesn't find Citizens United even worse.) But he believed it "may be" (his exact words in the statement, by the way), and he believed everyone should know it was really, really bad. In today's world, that calls for rhetoric dialed up to 11—and I think Weiland knew exactly what he was doing when he borrowed this well-worn, attenton-getting figure of speech. The worst Weiland is really guilty of here is resorting to cliché.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Predicting the 2014 Season—American League

What one thing is absolutely certain in the AL this year? That no one knows what's going to happen. By my reckoning, only four of the Junior Circuit's 15 teams do not expect to contend this year. Many would call it a fool's errand to try to pick the five that will make the postseason this year—myself included. But that doesn't stop me from having some fun with it every spring.

Here are my projected finishes and win-loss records for American League teams. (My NL projections can be found here.) For each team, I make a few "fearless predictions" (read: statements that have a 50/50 chance of being completely false in six months) that attempt to justify my rankings. At the end of the season, I'll revisit these assertions to see how I did. (Hint: this is all just an exercise in fun.)

To the line!

AL East

1. Tampa Bay Rays (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • The American League's best rotation will be a buzzsaw come October. Full seasons out of Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, at ERAs even better than their 2013s, will help lift the Rays to the AL pennant.
  • To everyone's surprise—including, quite possibly, the Rays'—James Loney will not regress. His 2012 was the aberration, as long as you don't expect him to hit home runs like every other first baseman.
  • Jeremy Hellickson is neither as bad as he was last year nor as good as he was every year before that. His career 4.39 FIP sounds about right for an ERA projection for 2014.

2. Boston Red Sox (92–70, 1st Wild Card)
  • Every year, defending champions falter because World Series championships usually happen when lots of guys have career years all at once. Though this will happen to the Red Sox, that 100–62 Pythagorean record from last year can withstand a substantial hit and keep them in the playoffs.
  • I hope I'm wrong, but I predict Grady Sizemore will reinjure himself in April. He'll be out for the rest of the season.
  • Exhibit A for regression in 2014: Shane Victorino. Jackie Bradley Jr. and AJ Pierzynski will also fail to make up for the losses of Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, respectively—nor will they even crack an above-average OPS.
  • John Lackey will spend half the season on the DL, giving Chris Capuano—once again—the chance to show people what his excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio can do.
  • Rookie of the Year Xander Bogaerts will hit for a .342 OBP, 30 home runs, and 98 RBI—eerily matching the last Red Sox shortstop to win Rookie of the Year.

3. New York Yankees (88–74, 2nd Wild Card)
  • Following a pattern set by Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka, newcomer Masahiro Tanaka will register a 4.30 ERA this year—before lowering it at least a full run for his next few seasons.
  • The Derek Jeter farewell tour will be a painful and impotent one for the future Hall of Famer. However, Kelly Johnson will impress filling in for Alex Rodríguez.
  • The Yankees will lead the American League in DL trips in 2014. DL all-stars will include Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian Roberts.
  • Michael Pineda will win AL Comeback Player of the Year. He'll have a 110 ERA+ and be in the top 10 in the AL for strikeouts. A slighter, yet equally important, comeback will be staged by CC Sabathia.
  • New York's most valuable infielder? Brendan Ryan.

4. Baltimore Orioles (84–78)
  • Ubaldo Jiménez is for real. His slider will be the key to his second-act career resurgence.
  • As a team, the O's will slug at the second-highest rate in the AL—but get on base at the second-lowest rate.
  • Baltimore has some talented rookies who will play key roles, including Jonathan Schoop and Henry Urrutia. But they'd prefer to see that talent out of Kevin Gausman, who like Brian Matusz will be a permanent victim of Oriole mishandling.
  • Although he'll retain tremendous value thanks to his defense, Manny Machado will have an unlucky year at the plate. A low BABIP will expose his poor isolated on-base ability, leading to many a disappointed fantasy owner.

5. Toronto Blue Jays (79–83)
  • The Blue Jays were clearly overrated going into last season—but that probably means a largely similar team is underrated going into this season.
  • Dioner Navarro will do the impossible: make Jays fans pine for JP Arencibia.
  • Toronto will finally wise up and stop leaking defensive runs by playing Edwin Encarnación in the field. Freed from this burden, he will threaten to win the Triple Crown.
  • When José Reyes plays, Toronto will have a winning record. An anemic bench will kill them when he doesn't—which, unfortunately for them, will be often.
  • Relying on Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchison will prove most unwise. At least RA Dickey will regain his old form.

AL Central

1. Detroit Tigers (94–68, 1st playoff seed)
  • Especially without José Iglesias, the Tigers defense will be no better this year than last. The hole at third base has been patched up, but first base, right field, and catcher will all be worse than a season ago. And just like in 2006, the Tigers' undoing in the playoffs will be poor defense from their pitchers—actually the team's leakiest position in 2013.
  • Miguel Cabrera will feel no ill effects from his lack of "protection" in the lineup with Prince Fielder gone. The Tigers may hit fewer home runs than in 2013, but Cabrera will hit more.
  • Nick Castellanos and Drew Smyly will both take the steps forward that this team needs to succeed.
  • Brad Ausmus will win Manager of the Year, and it's safest to say Cabrera will keep winning MVPs until he doesn't anymore.

2. Kansas City Royals (86–76)

3. Cleveland Indians (78–84)
  • The Indians will find it hard to contend once their best player becomes a liability. Carlos Santana will struggle with his transition to third, and it'll show up in his numbers at the plate. Meanwhile, Cleveland pitchers will not appreciate the gaping hole on the left side of the infield—caused by Santana's poor defense as well as Asdrúbal Cabrera's.
  • David Murphy is in for a big rebound. Last year's .227 BABIP will return to his career .302 average, and he will turn in a .340 wOBA.
  • Jason Kipnis is in for a big fall to earth. Look for him to return to his pedestrian 2012 stats.
  • The loss of Ubaldo Jiménez to free agency will hurt, but the real drag on the team ERA will be the Cleveland bullpen. It will be the AL's worst. Although the Indians will score more runs than their opponents, they'll finish below .500 thanks to an abysmal record in one-run games.

4. Chicago White Sox (75–87)
  • José Abreu will immediately become the new face of the franchise and bring a new tone to South Side baseball. That may not win ballgames, but Abreu's 30 home runs certainly will. Although he'll start his American career with a low average (.235), an MVP award is in his future.
  • For a team with the worst farm system in the game, a surprising number of youngsters will be significant positive contributors, including Adam Eaton, Avisail García, Erik Johnson, and Matt Davidson.
  • The White Sox defense will be much improved, plugging huge holes at first base and center field with above-average glovework by Abreu and Eaton. The result will be lowered ERAs across the board.

5. Minnesota Twins (64–98)
  • Phil Hughes has been a league-average pitcher in even years and a terrible one in odd years. Expect the move to Minnesota to help him have his best even year ever: a 3.99 ERA. Unfortunately for the Twins, that will make him their best starter.
  • Of the Twins reunions in 2014, Jason Kubel will be at least 80% of his former self; Jason Bartlett will be lucky to be 20%.
  • I'm not so sure Josmil Pinto is the answer at catcher. His power will struggle to translate to Target Field.

AL West

1. Texas Rangers (90–72, 3rd playoff seed)
  • Sure, all the injuries will hurt—but no worse than last year. (This is the team that gave 17 starts each to Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm in 2013.) Texas will start off with a poor April... Then have a passable May once Matt Harrison returns... Then have a good June when Colby Lewis joins the team and pitches as though he never left.
  • Of all people, Geovany Soto will be the Rangers' catalyst. When he returns from injury in June, that's when Texas will find its rhythm. Soto will slash .280/.370/.490 and be among the league leaders in catcher ERA. Evan Grant will give him an MVP vote.
  • Shin-Soo Choo will contend for the MVP award with a 30-30 season. Prince Fielder will hit 40 home runs in his only good season as a Ranger. And adjusting for the time he'll lose to injury, Jurickson Profar will out-WAR Ian Kinsler.

2. Oakland Athletics (87–75)
  • A team from Oakland isn't going to lead the AL West in runs scored every year, like they did in 2013. Josh Reddick will settle for 22 home runs (the average of his past two seasons), and Coco Crisp and Brandon Moss will also hit fewer.
  • Injuries to starting pitchers, like Jarrod Parker, will thrust young pitchers (e.g., Jesse Chávez, who has just two career starts) into leading roles they won't be able to handle. A mediocre Pythagorean record will result, but Bob Melvin's tinkering and, especially, a lights-out bullpen will help them overachieve it.
  • Billy Beane will wish he'd signed Bartolo Colón (two years, $20 million) instead of Scott Kazmir (two years, $22 million).

3. Los Angeles Angels (81–81)
  • Say what you want about the Angels' allocation of resources; they still have Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton in a lineup together. Pujols and Hamilton will both look much closer to what we're used to seeing out of them. Together, expect them to be worth 10 wins above replacement.
  • Kole Calhoun will be worth more to the Angels than the man he's replacing, Mark Trumbo, will to the Diamondbacks.
  • CJ Wilson will supplant Jered Weaver as LA's de facto ace, and when LA is still in the playoff picture at the trading deadline, they will add a third quality starter (Jeff Samardzija?). No one else will stick around for more than 20 starts.

4. Seattle Mariners (69–93)
  • New manager Lloyd McClendon will fail to keep the meddling front office out of affairs on the field, and his inconsistent managing will lead the M's to the majors' worst record in either one-run or extra-inning games.
  • A perfect example: continued struggles by Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders will lead to lots of Logan Morrison and Corey Hart in the outfield, and that will lead to the worst defensive outfield in the majors.
  • None of the promising young trio of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Erasmo Ramírez will show anything special this year, exposing Seattle's soft underbelly: pitching depth.
  • If the Indians don't have the league's worst bullpen, the Mariners will.

5. Houston Astros (58–104)
  • The top third of the Astros' lineup will actually be—gasp—good. That, and the fact that they will not lose 15 games in a row to end the season, should be enough for a marginal improvement on their 2013 record.
  • If you're looking for an under-the-radar Rookie of the Year candidate, you could do a lot worse than George Springer, who will be this year's king of the "on-pace-for" game. He'll be a 10/10 guy in 200 plate appearances.
  • Phenom Jarred Cosart will post an ERA much closer to his 2013 xFIP (4.68) than his 2013 ERA (1.95). Houston will finish last in the majors in starters' ERA. (Sorry, Scott Feldman.)