Ken Arneson's blog has moved to http://ken.arneson.name

The new blog is at http://ken.arneson.name/

My blog is moving

I have moved my blog from wordpress over to ken.arneson.name. Update your blogrolls and RSS feeds accordingly.

Many reasons, but to sum it up in one word: simplicity.

To sum it up in a few more words: I have grown more and more dissatisfied with each of the available social media, each for its own quirky reasons. Moving stuff back to my own server will give me a more flexible canvas to paint things as I see fit.

I still don’t anticipate blogging regularly in the near term. But when I look out a little bit farther into the distance, when I clear more stuff off my plate, regular blogging seems more possible, if not more likely.

Some Baseball Notes

I have written a guest column for Baseball Prospectus today. It’s about the Far West League, a new summer collegiate wood bat league in Northern California.

Mark Ellis got traded to the Rockies today. He definitely will be missed by us A’s fans. He was the longest tenured A’s player by five years. Ellis was not a great hitter, but he held his own at the plate. He was a phenomenal second baseman, and the fact that he has never won a gold glove is a complete misjustice. The remarkable thing about Ellis is something that is very hard to appreciate unless you watch him a lot: he never, ever makes a mental mistake. He always seem to make the right decision, which would make him likely coaching material when his playing days are done. But before that happens, I’ll be tuning into as many Rockies games as I can find. Pairing Ellis with Troy Tulowitzki in Colorado should make for some up-the-middle defense quite worth watching.

Meanwhile, over at Beaneball, Jason Wojciechowski has listed his top 25 favorite A’s position players of all time. Since his list is so different from what mine would be (both because we have different tastes, and because I’m much older), I thought I should figure out what my own top 25 would be. So here goes:

1. Rickey Henderson
2. Mark Ellis
3. Dave Henderson
4. Reggie Jackson
5. Mike Gallego
6. Dwayne Murphy
7. Eric Chavez
8. Gene Tenace
9. Stan Javier
10. Bert Campaneris
11. Marco Scutaro
12. Terry Steinbach
13. Sal Bando
14. Joe Rudi
15. Dave Parker
16. Matt Stairs
17. Miguel Tejada
18. Mark McGwire
19. Frank Thomas
20. John Jaha
21. Mark Kotsay
22. Mike Bordick
23. Milton Bradley
24. Mike Heath
25. Jemile Weeks

Honorable mention: Cliff Johnson, Tony Phillips, Carney Lansford, Bruce Bochte, Geronimo Berroa, Ramon Hernandez, Olmedo Saenz, Adam Melhuse, Kurt Suzuki.

The Doorway to Hell

 

I had a very vivid dream the other night. I dreamed that the entrance to Hell was an ordinary doorway located along a long white corridor on 25th floor of Facebook headquarters.

 


Photo credit: fractalgfx on Flickr via Creative Commons License

 

The door had a very unusual property. If you looked at it, if you acknowledged its presence, it would look and act like any other ordinary door. But if you ignored it, if you didn’t pay attention to it, the door would transform from its ordinary solid state and become a vortex that would suck you down into the fires of Hell.

Business was good for Hell in this location. Many, many people would pass this doorway, staring at their cell phones, absorbed into their own little worlds, texting and emailing and tweeting and updating their Facebook statuses, failing to observe the beauty of the doorways all around them. And into Hell they would go.

 


Photo credit: kamshots on Flickr via Creative Commons License

 

This is the nature of Hell. Hell is worse than forgetting, or being forgotten. Hell is not even having a chance to remember. Hell is not noticing.

 

 

My New Job

A generation ago, nearly every General Manager in Major League Baseball was a former major league player. Today, there are only three. What happened? Sabermetrics.

Popularized by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, sabermetrics involves the use sophisticated statistical analysis to help teams gain that little extra edge it takes to win. Gone are the days when being a backslapping good-old-boy was the key to landing a GM job. In these days of information overload and super-fast computers, success means knowing how to squeeze The Extra 2%, as Jonah Keri puts it, out of every transaction.

And now these sabermetric concepts are spreading. Nate Silver, one of the pioneers of baseball statistical analysis, has moved on from baseball into politics. His FiveThirtyEight blog is a must-read for all political junkies.

This is a tremendously exciting change for some. But for political professionals, it’s a scary development, as evidenced just this morning when the popular political blog Frum Forum posted an article entitled “Why Moneyball Doesn’t Work.” Politicos are now going into attack mode on baseball.

The job description for politicians, like old baseball GMs, still mostly involves being a backslapping good-old-boy. But what if the migration of Nate Silvers into politics changes the job description for them, as it did for baseball GMs? What if they need to understand basic mathematics and rational reasoning in order to perform and keep their jobs, instead of just blowing hot air in whatever direction feels right? What if the Moneyball revolution spreads as quickly in politics as it did in baseball? What if efficiency in government actually suddenly becomes important, and the formerly-valuable skill of spewing vapid rhetoric turns formerly respected professionals into pitifully sad ignorant has-beens like Murray Chass? Like the old-school scouts who could not adjust to the new era, all these people could all be out of a job within a decade!

That’s where I come in.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog entry on How to Defeat a Sabermetrician in an Argument. This article remains to this day, if I must say so myself, the definitive explanation on how to oppose sabermetrics. The bonus is, that I also happened to throw a little political analysis into the article, just on a lark. So as Nate-Silverism started spreading in the political industry, frightened political professionals turned to Google for help, and found my article. It has spread like wildfire inside the Beltway.

Sunset by the PotomacAs a result, last week I went to Washington DC. I spent over eight days in our nations capital. I met all sorts of fascinating people, of both parties. I even had dinners with lobbyists, while watching a beautiful sunset over the Potomac.

I visited the White House, and went inside the US Capitol and the various office buildings nearby, and had all sorts of interesting conversations. It became clear to me that the Moneyball problem for the political industry is a fully bipartisan issue. Both parties can agree: the sabermetric way of thinking is a threat to the traditional way American politics has worked for two centuries now. It’s a threat to the livelihood of many good people, on both sides of the political aisle.

After much discussion, an agreement was reached. I will be heading the newly formed National Bipartisan Commission for Intuitive Statecraft. Our mission will be to preserve, protect and defend the time-tested methods of political reasoning against the cold, deductive arts that are coming into vogue. We shall provide counterintelligence against the likes of Nate Silver and Jonah Keri and Billy Beane, to slow and even turn back the spread of their ruthlessly efficiencies and deductive philosophies into the political landscape.

Office View, Washington DCNeedless to say, I am extremely proud, honored, and excited about this opportunity. I get a nice corner office just a few blocks from the White House. I get to take my words, and put them into action. And to take arms against terrible scourge that most of our fellow citizens are not yet even aware of, but could soon overtake America’s very way of life.

And so I dedicate myself to this great task before me, that the men and women who dedicated their intuitions for political success shall not have pontificated in vain, and that the political profession and the media that covers it shall have a new birth of profitability, and that bullshit by the people, of the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.

 

Mascots in the Wild

It’s been two years since Baseball Toaster shut down. On the first anniversary, that final day felt like it was only yesterday. Now, it feels like a lifetime ago. Not sure why, but maybe it’s because I’ve completed all the things I quit the blogging scene to accomplish.

Now as that checklist is finally done, and I’m trying to figure out what next to do with my life, I find myself drifting back to my old scene. Today, for example, Toaster alumnus Josh Wilker has a blog entry that compels me to respond with a little story.

* * *

After Toaster, I decided to take a sabbatical from baseball. Stopped watching it on TV, stopped going to games, stopped playing fantasy baseball, and only read about it minimally. I wanted to stop doing so many things half-assed, and give full concentration to my other priorities in life. Plus, my four years of running the Toaster had burned me out on baseball for a while. I needed a break.

That summer, I took a trip with my family to Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. Some good friends of ours in the Coast Guard had been stationed there. It’s a long trip. It took us longer to get there, door-to-door, than it takes me to get to my brother’s home in Sweden. There aren’t any direct flights to Detroit from Oakland, so we took a roundabout flight that stopped in Ontario (the California one) and Phoenix before arriving in Detroit. We then rented a car and drove an additional six hours to get there. Our friends’ home was literally off the last exit in the United States. Miss that offramp, and you end up in Ontario (the Canadian one).

When you’re a six-hour drive from the nearest major airport, you feel like you’re in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. All your cares back home might as well be on the moon, you’re so far from anything you’re familiar with.

One day, we take a trip to nearby Fort_Michilimackinac. While touring the fort, we come across this Native American gentleman giving a demonstration on how the local tribes worked deer hides:

At one point during the demo, he says, “When you get home, you should google my name. Levi Walker, Jr. You’ll be surprised.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. So when we got home, we googled it. Levi Walker, Jr. is the man who was once the Atlanta Braves mascot Chief Noc-a-homa.

He was right. I was indeed surprised. Because I had gone to a place on earth and a time on earth that felt as far away from my recent life as a baseball-obsessed blogger as possible. And baseball still followed me there.

At that point, I felt like if I ever went on an African safari, I’d run smack dab into Stomper. I could go snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and find Billy the Marlin swimming around. And if I took a rocket to Mars, I would be greeted upon landing by a Furry Green Monster.

You can try to let go of baseball, but it doesn’t matter. Baseball still has a grip on you. You can try to run away, but if you do, don’t bother turning around. Baseball will be gaining on you.

Addo Elephant Park, South Africaphoto © 1999 Brian Snelson | more info (via: Wylio)

 

I don’t know what this coming year has in store for me. I am free now, like a zoo animal released back into the wild. I have no predictions for what will happen next. I can only say this: Look out! Here come the elephants.

Brainyball: The Sequel to Statistics

Our old friend Moneyball will be making a comeback this year, when the film starring Brad Pitt gets released this September. Let me declare seven months ahead of time that I am sick of hearing about how the movie hype is distracting the 2011 A’s during their pennant run. I am also preemptively tired of the rehashing of old arguments, such as how the A’s philosophy failed because the Moneyball generation never won a ring. Finally, I am, in advance, savoring the irony of the A’s winning the 2011 World Series, in the very year that this antique anti-Moneyball argument reaches its crescendo.

I love me a good irony. I took my daughters Monday to see Sally Ride give a speech for the UC Berkeley Physics Department. I looked around the auditorium and noticed that darn near everyone in the room was skinny. Maybe these people burn all their fat off just by thinking so hard about the universe. Whatever the cause, I found myself tickled by this ironic idea: Physicists have very little gravitational pull.

The irony that lies at the core of the Moneyball book is that A’s GM Billy Beane was trying to find a way to weed out players who were essentially just like himself. Beane is a very intelligent guy with an chiseled athletic body whose intelligence got in the way of his performance. You look at him, and you think he was born to be a star athlete. But he never became one. He’d get so worked up about every little failure that his swing and approach got all screwed up. He couldn’t handle the mental part of the game.

So Beane became a scout, then a GM, and tried to come up with a reliable way to weed out players like himself who can’t handle the mental part of the game, and discover the players who can. They tried to accomplish this by using a deeper understanding of statistics.

Which is odd, if you think about it. It isn’t the players’ statistics that are causing players like Beane to fail. It’s their brains. If you really want to be able to recognize players like Beane in advance, shouldn’t you try to do this with a deeper understanding of brains?

* * *

We are living at the very dawn of neuroscience. In the last ten years or so, our understanding of our own brains has exploded, and we’ve still only scratched the surface. Consider this TED talk by Charles Limb:

Limb explains what happens in the brain when jazz musicians improvise. When improvising, jazz musicians shut off a part of the brain called the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-monitoring. They literally turn off the inhibitions in their brains, so they aren’t afraid to make mistakes, and are free to be creative.

Now it would be a big leap to say that Billy Beane’s mental failures were caused by an inability to turn off his lateral prefrontal cortex while batting. But it’s not a big leap to think that this sort of understanding of the brain isn’t just possible for musicians, but for athletes, as well.

Someday, perhaps, draft preparations will include brain scans, so teams can see that a Billy Beane’s brain isn’t focusing properly when batting. They’ll know how often you can take a player with Beane’s brain profile, and train him to overcome those brain issues. They’ll discount or increase his value because of this information.

* * *

In Sports Illustrated this past weekend, Joe Posnanski looked into the question of how drafting teams can predict which quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL, and which will fail. In particular, he wonders what set Aaron Rodgers apart from other first round QBs who flopped. He makes a guess:

What you get from these quotes and just about everything Rodgers says — in addition to steady and pleasant boredom — is a sense of someone who thinks about things constantly, even little things that few others think about. He seems to be someone who simply cannot imagine staying the same, simply cannot imagine that he’s already good enough. There are so many potential distractions at the NFL level, some of them off the field (money, fame, fan fickleness …), some on the field (dealing with pain — Rodgers has a history of concussions — standing up to a heavy rush, the inner workings of a team …). And the most successful quarterbacks, bar none, are the ones who deal with those distractions and never believe the hype and continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement.

To which I ask: how does this separate him from Billy Beane the baseball player? Beane thought about things constantly. He obsessed over every failure, trying to fix every mistake. And this sent him into a downward spiral that made him worse and worse, not better.

* * *

Another player who Posnanski’s paragraph applies to is Barry Zito. I’ve written a lot of words defending Barry Zito from his detractors over the years.

I like Zito. If not for the early Cy Young Award and that ridiculous contract, he’d be the kind of underdog people like to root for. Posnanski’s phrase “continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement”: that’s Zito. He’s a smart guy. Curious. He likes to tinker. To experiment. To find a new way to get better. He tries new pitches. He tries new pitch sequences. He tries new release points. And maybe that constant search for improvement has kept him healthy and pitching in the major leagues for a decade with the mediocre-est of fastballs.

But I’d argue that perhaps as often as it’s helped him, that personality trait has gotten him into trouble. Zito has had three pitching coaches in the majors: Rick Peterson, Curt Young, and Dave Righetti. Pitching coaches tend to live by a sort of Hippocratic Oath: if it ain’t broke, dont’ fix it. Zito doesn’t seem to believe in that. Each time there was a transition between coaches, Zito decided to take advantage of his temporary lack of parental supervision to completely change his pitching motion.

In 2004, Zito decided to try a new motion out of the stretch. He’d always wanted to do this, but Rick Peterson wouldn’t let him. When Curt Young came in as the new pitching coach, he didn’t have the relationship with Zito to say no. Zito had a 4.48 ERA for the year, his worst in an Oakland uniform. The next year, he was back to his old delivery, and his usual sub-4.00 ERAs.

In 2007, he signed a huge contract with the Giants, and showed up at spring training with a radically new delivery. Pitching coach Dave Righetti was horrified, and they settled on a compromise semi-radical new delivery. The results were just as bad as the other time he tried to overhaul his delivery: Zito’s worst year in the majors, a 4.53 ERA. (Followed the next year by an even worse 5.15 ERA.) Two years into his Giants tenure, Zito finally tinkered himself back into some decent success, with two consecutive years now of ERAs around 4.10.

* * *

Recently on Fangraphs, Jonah Keri suggested that the Yankees try to trade for Zito.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong the arguments he gives, but it is, like the Moneyball story, missing the psychological element.

Psychology clearly matters in the outcome of sports careers. The question is, understand enough about sports psychology that such data points are useful in evaluating players, or is the information we have so primitive that we should discount such information altogether?

The Yankees are unique in that they also deal with the theory that there are some types of personalities who “can’t handle New York“. This theory may or may not be valid, but I’m willing to consider that it is possible.

I’m not going to come out and say that Barry Zito is another Ed Whitson. But New York media pressure or not, we do have these data points: each time Barry Zito has had a change of scenery, he used the opportunity to make a royal mess of his delivery.

I think if you’re Brian Cashman, and you’re thinking of trading for Barry Zito, you should know these data points. There is a non-zero risk that Barry Zito’s brain is going to get in the way of his performance, because it seems to have happened to him before. And there’s a non-zero risk that the New York media pressure will trigger this effect, because it seems to have happened to other players before. And to the extent you’re willing to believe those risks exist, you have to discount Barry Zito’s value.

* * *

In Billy Beane’s case, the constant striving for improvement was nothing but counterproductive. In Zito’s case, we see some mixed results. So even though it’s a different sport and a different position, I have a hard time believing that the key to Aaron Rodgers’ success is simply a matter of willpower, that same constant striving for improvement.

If I had to guess, a quarterback’s success involves spacial pattern recognition, the ability to quickly recognize types of player movement, to filter out inessential patterns and recognize significant ones, and act on them. Maybe some players filter out too much information, and others not enough. Maybe there are places in the brain that Aaron Rodgers turns on or off in better ways than the quarterbacks who failed. Those places are mostly a mystery to us now.

But they won’t be a mystery forever. A new era is dawning.

Birth of a new age.

Thoughts on Tucson

I just posted a series of tweets about the Tucson thing, which probably would have read better as a blog entry. So I’ll cross-post them here.

* * *

Sweden has little violent rhetoric in its political discourse. Yet, two Swedish politicians have been assassinated in past 25 years. Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot in 1986; Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was stabbed in a dept store in 2003, both in Stockholm. This sort of thing happens even absent of violent speech, or a violent culture.

That said, even if violent speech does not lead to violence itself, it is not harmless to society. IMO, violent rhetoric is a form of corruption. It’s not as bad as violence itself, or bribes, but it’s on the spectrum. Violent rhetoric makes people hesitate to participate, to speak their minds, to present ideas.

Suppressing truth is corrupt. America became #1 because we’ve been best in the world at letting ideas have an opportunity to compete in the marketplace of ideas. When ideas are afraid to test themselves, or they find it’s more trouble than it’s worth to try, that’s a loss for society.

* * *

Couple of non-tweeted points:

  • My sister-in-law and brother-in-law live very near to the site of this shooting in Tucson. That made the emotional impact of this a bit more personal.
  • If you want to see what the extreme end of the corruption spectrum looks like, watch ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary The Two Escobars, about soccer in Colombia in the 1990s. Chilling stuff.

What Does a Viable Third Party Look Like?

I want to run a thought experiment. It’s regarding the discussion going on in the blogosphere about third parties, started by a recent New York Times column from Tom Friedman:

There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center. I know of at least two serious groups, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing “third parties” to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.

Soon after Friedman’s column came out, former George W. Bush political advisor Mark McKinnon confirmed that there were indeed such third-party machinations going on behind the scenes. He published his centrist manifesto as a bit of a preview.

This being the blogosphere, there were also plenty of debunkings of the third party concept, led by Brendan Nyhan. And David Frum makes this point:

But to create a credible alternative, alienated Democrats and Republicans will have to rally around reforms that can make a positive difference to the great American majority – beginning with realistic ideas to accelerate economic growth, generate jobs, and raise incomes. That’s the abandoned ground of American politics, the true No Man’s Land. But there’s no need to wait for a third party to claim that ground. It’s there, waiting, for a Republican party that can liberate itself from the screamers and the haters, and rediscover its tradition of affirmative governance.

All of which is fine. I’m not going to quibble about any particular policy ideas here, or whether there are structural obstacles to a viable third party. But there’s one point that I feel is missing from the debate, which is basically the same point I made in my last blog entry about marketing a statistical approach to baseball. So again, I’ll leave it to Steve Jobs, talking back in 1996 about marketing Apple, to explain:

The dairy industry tried for 20 years to convince you that milk was good for you…and the sales were going like this (downwards). Then they tried “Got Milk” and the sales have gone like this (upwards). “Got Milk” doesn’t even talk about the product. In fact, it focuses on the absence of the product.

Steve Jobs’ point is this: explaining how MacOS is better than Windows won’t sell Macs. Explaining how milk is healthier than soda won’t sell milk. That’s not how effective marketing works.

Similarly, your Third Party can have all the right policies, they can have the best manifesto ever written, explaining how its policies are clearly better than those of the Democrats and Republicans, but if it doesn’t form a deep emotional connection between the Third Party’s core values and the core values of basic, ordinary Americans, it will fall flat.

In fact, this is probably why the Tea Party movement has resonance. There are no coherent policies. It’s all about the emotional connection.

But to be truly great and successful brand in the long run, you have to have both: great products AND that emotional connection to a clear set of values.

* * *

I’m an engineer, so when I get curious about an idea, I like to start with the question, “What does it look like?” Then once we have a general idea of what we want, we build a prototype. So let’s do that.

What does a viable Third Party look like? Following Jobs’ advice, we have to approach that question by asking, what are its core emotional values? Being “radically centrist” or “restoring sanity” doesn’t really resonate emotionally with me at all. To compare, let’s look at the core values we already know work, from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This to me is the biggest problem of the viability of a third party in America. This frickin’ brilliant sentence is THE statement of American values. The sentence is divided into two basic halves: the first declaring equality as a core value, the second declaring liberty as a core value. And probably as a natural result, we have two main political parties in America, one which at its core defends and promotes equality (Democrats), and another which at its core defends and promotes liberty (Republicans). The reason a third party like the Libertarians can’t take hold is that they’re competing for a very similar core value with a much bigger competitor.

A viable third party needs to somehow promote and defend a different core value, one that’s not represented in that sentence. But what?

* * *

I’m sure there are probably several candidates for such an alternative value, but I can really only think of decent one. It is represented by this speech by General George Patton:

When you, here, every one of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players.

Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.

The weakness here is that this values statement isn’t explicitly spelled out in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. We can argue that our competitive character is implicit in the Constitution: the First Amendment basically sets up a structure where every idea–whether political, economic or religious–is forced to constantly compete in a free marketplace of ideas, without end. It is that very competitive nature which has driven America to triumph in the past, and can again.

Since we’re just prototyping, we don’t have to get it exactly right, so let’s go with it. This is something that we Americans do feel in their guts. We love to compete. We hate to lose. We want to kick ass.

OK, so we have our prototype’s core value: we’re emotionally committed to focusing on figuring out how to help our communities, our states and our country WIN in a competitive world. We believe in the virtues of fair competition. And we want the BEST everything: economy, military, schools, security, health, roads, space program, air, water, marble players — anything we can compete in we want to compete hard, and compete to win.

* * *

Now, let’s make up some sort of rationalization for this. Why do we need a party like this, and why now?

Americans don’t feel like they’re kicking ass anymore. Why not? Well, partly because we kicked ass in the past. Before, we took our free-market democracy and smashed those Fascists and Nazis in World War II, and then we wore down and wiped out those Communists and Socialists during the Cold War. And we turned all those countries we defeated into countries like us: free-market democracies.

The question for the 20th century was whether free markets and democracies are better than planned economies and totalitarian governments. That’s settled, we won, it’s no longer the issue. But our current politics, with its focus on the left-right axis, still acts like those old issues are still the new ones.

Instead, the real questions for the 21st century are ones like, what is the most effective form of democracy? What is the best way to manage a free market? And how do we set up a system which gets us to the optimal solutions faster than our competition? If we want to compete and win the 21st century like we did the 20th, then we need to be focusing on these questions. And the current two parties, by naturally focusing so much energy on their own core values of freedom and equality, often take their eyes off the ball that’s currently in play. And when we lose our focus, we let our competition catch up to us.

* * *

All right, now that we’ve got some fake reason for its fake existence, what do we call this prototype party? The old Raiders fan in me suggests the “Just Win Baby Party”, but that’s a bit presumptuous. Especially for a third party which, at the start, is more likely to lose than win. So I’m going to suggest the “Competitive Party”.

* * *

Finally, we need to figure out what an actual Competitive Party product looks like. How do we approach coming up with solutions when we begin our thought process from this core value? What kind of policies emerge when we think this way? Does the end product look different from either of the other two parties? Maybe we can debate those questions in the comments here, and then I’ll draft up some sort of prototype platform in my next post.

First Rule of Sabermetric Marketing…

…is don’t talk about sabermetrics. So I’m going to talk about being kicked in the balls, instead. Then I’m going to explain how my being kicked in the balls is totally relevant to marketing sabermetrics. OK? Let’s go:

I once wrote a blog entry on my old Catfish Stew blog about being kicked in the balls during an indoor soccer game. It went a little something like this:

Somebody forgot to give the goalie the message. Instead of easing up when we got close to contact, he came at me like some freakish combination of Ronnie Lott and Scott Stevens. He ran full speed for the ball, jumped as high as he could to knock it away from me, and in the process, sent his knee full force straight into my groin, and slammed the rest of me right into the hockey-style boards.

The follow-up to that story is that earlier this year I ended up playing on the same team as the goalie who had crushed my testicles a few years before. So I had to forgive, if not forget. Now, you may suspect that the moral relevant to sabermetrics is that those who seem like an enemy could may turn out to be your greatest ally later. Perhaps thats true, but..I wouldn’t temporarily pull myself out of my blogging retirement to make so simple a point.

No, I want to add a more complex point to the conversation going around about the marketing of sabermetrics. The conversation was initiated by Will Carroll, picked up by Tango Tiger, and finally reached Carson Cistulli’s keyboard yesterday.

Reading Cistulli’s message reminded me of an old YouTube video of Steve Jobs introducing Apple’s Think Different and Screw the Grammar ad campaign back in 1996.

If you’re interested in the problems of marketing sabermetrics, you should watch this whole video. But here’s the quote that is particularly burned onto my brain:

The dairy industry tried for 20 years to convince you that milk was good for you…and the sales were going like this (downwards). Then they tried “Got Milk” and the sales have gone like this (upwards). “Got Milk” doesn’t even talk about the product. In fact, it focuses on the absence of the product. –Steve Jobs

Now there’s a reason that quote comes to mind so easily for me. The insight — that listing a bunch of facts about your product is not very effective; the best marketing campaigns make an emotional connection between your core values and those of your customers — is brilliant, but that’s not why I remember it so well. The insight itself is just one in a list of facts about marketing, and probably wouldn’t stick with me very long without an emotional connection.

The reason is this: when I became teammates with the goalie who had earlier impaled me, I found out that in his day job, he was the milk industry executive who had spearheaded the whole original “Got Milk” marketing campaign.

Ever since I learned that, I can’t help but pay extra attention any time I hear any variation of the phrase “Got Milk”. There are very few emotional connections as effective as a solid kick in the nuts. Thus, when Carson Cistulli writes something with similar themes to the Steve Jobs speech, and the quote about “Got Milk” pops right up in my mind.

Now, to turn Steve Jobs’ point into a lesson for sabermetrics: Creating a list of facts explaining how sabermetrics is better than old-school analysis is not the best way to market sabermetrics, just as explaining how MacOS is better than Windows is not the best way to market Apple.

What makes it particularly difficult in this case is that sabermetrics is essentially about removing emotions from the equation. That makes an effective marketing campaign for sabermetrics somewhat of a paradox.

Nonetheless, the questions remain. What are the core emotional values of sabermetrics? What are sabermetricians committed to in their souls? Once you’ve answered those questions, then you start formulating a way to make sabermetrics more mainstream and popular.

So, baseball fans: Got Facts?

Ben Grieve in the Year 2000!

Rany Jazayerli tweeted that Billy Butler is close to a record pace for grounding into double plays this year. Dave Studeman responded by looking at the rising trend of double plays, which brought back to my mind the worst non-Jim Rice season of GIDPs ever: Ben Grieve In the Year 2000.

I always thought growing up that at the Turn of the Millenium I’d be rocketing to Mars and driving a flying car. Wow, were my expectations off. Actually, I spent the year 2000 watching Ben Grieve ground into 4-6-3 double play after 4-6-3 double play. Well, that’s not exactly true. Occasionally, it would be 6-4-3. But mostly 4-6-3. Man, that dude rolled over and hit weak grounders to second base a lot.

At the time, watching all those double plays made me wonder this: when would you want to bat a player like that leadoff?

If a slow guy like Grieve makes X% of his outs by grounding weakly to 2B, but still has a decent OBP, you could remove 20% or so of his double plays by simply batting him first. And with the worst hitters on the team ahead of him the next time through the lineup, he’ll hit with men on base a minimum amount of time.

Of course, that may mean removing a better OBP from the leadoff spot. And it may also mean scoring fewer runs if he hits a home run. And usually, the slow guys are powerful, so tradeoff probably isn’t worth it. But if you morphed the 2000 Ben Grieve (32 GIDP) with the 2001 Ben Grieve (.264/.372/.387), you might have such a strange high OBP/low SLG slothlike mutant where you’re better off batting him leadoff just to avoid the negative consequences of the double play.

BTW, I wonder if Grieve didn’t blow his whole career changing his approach to avoid those double plays. He never got anywhere near 32 GIDPs again, hitting into only 13 the following season after being traded to Tampa Bay, but he also immediately lost about 100 points in slugging percentage, and never really ever got them back again.

Don’t Yet Bid Kid Adieu

No! Ken has not really retired!
He’s not stiff, ceased to be, or expired!
His beautiful plume
Hasn’t gone to the tomb;
His voice ain’t invisible choired!

No, his squawk isn’t really declining.
He’s not nailed to his perch for enshrining.
I assure you his Voom!
Will shortly resume
As soon as he’s done with his pining.

The Least Important Batting Order Ever?

MLB.com’s new A’s beat writer Jane Lee tweeted her suggested A’s lineup today. I found it hard to argue for or against her suggested order. It seems like every player in the lineup is roughly a .280/.335/.410 player, so it didn’t seem to matter much to me what order you put them in.

To test my hypothesis, I ran the 2010 Marcel Projections through David Pinto’s Lineup Analysis Tool. I don’t think the tool produces particularly realistic or accurate results, even though I had a little hand in developing it. But if it’s useful for something, it’s getting an estimate on the theoretical size difference between the best and worst possible lineups.

When I’ve run this before on potential A’s lineups, the difference between the best and worst lineups has been about 45 runs per year. For the projected 2010 lineup, the difference is 29 runs. And since no one is going to bat Coco Crisp cleanup with Jack Cust and Kevin Kouzmanoff eighth and ninth, you can probably say that any reasonable batting order Bob Geren decides to run out there this year will be about as good as any other.

I’m too lazy/busy to run the numbers, but it makes you wonder, how many teams in baseball history have had a lineup where the batting order mattered less than the 2010 A’s?

That Was Burgundy, This is Teal

You know that dramatic cliché where the main character is trying to solve a problem, and some other character says something completely unrelated to the problem, and the main character goes, “Aha!” and solves the problem?  I’m beginning to think that’s not just some artificial plot device abused to death by the writers of House.  As I’m working on trying to spell out my own personal philosophy, I’m starting to find solutions to the questions I’m wrestling with in completely unrelated places.

So along those lines, I finally got around to watching Battlestar Galactica: The Plan yesterday.  I wasn’t watching it as an exercise in philosophy, I watched it to enjoy one final dose of BSG, and to clear out my DVR before the Olympics start.  But as a half-flashback, half Star Trek-ish morality play, the story for me ended up being more philosophically thought-provoking than dramatically satisfying.  So I won’t dwell on the drama too much, but let’s provoke those thoughts.

I don’t think I’d be spoiling much to say the only thing you really learn about The Plan is that it doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy.  Like the US in Iraq, the Cylons thought that they’d just win quickly and be done with it, mission accomplished.  When instead it dragged on and on, they had to start improvising, and that’s when things get complicated.

Every philosophy begins as grand design, and then ends up bogged down in details.  In BSG: The Plan, nothing less than the survival of the whole human race is at stake, yet the plan eventually devolves into a debate about clothing styles.  Cylon model #1 (Cavil) complains that cylon model #5 (Doral) is dressing too similarly to another Doral clone.  Doral disagrees. “His jacket was burgundy. This is teal!” replies Doral, in all seriousness.

BSG: The Plan is essentially A Tale of Two Cavils, two cylon agents, both posing as priests, one copy on the Galactica, one back on Caprica.  Each Cavil ends up with a moral dilemma:  whether to remain loyal to The Plan, or to follow the path of compassion.  Compassion for the enemy can have fatal consequences for the plan.  But the brutality of a plan that lacks compassion can be utterly appalling.

This is the risk we take when we devote ourselves to a philosophy.  We can become so attached to a philosophy, to a plan, to a cause, that we detach ourselves from our humanity.  This is the very definition of evil: a lack of compassion.

If there is one thing in the Bible that I take to be true above others, it is this: compassion is mankind’s most important quality.  When Jesus was asked what we should do when our values conflict with each other, Jesus said, choose compassion:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?  Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22:36-40

Above all, show compassion for the entirety of creation, and compassion for individual fellow humans.  It seems so simple in theory, but in practice, it’s not.  There’s a reason that the oldest human institutions, our religions, are designed in their ideal forms to promote human compassion. It’s that important, and yet also that prone to failure.  The procedural memory cells in our brains that dominate our normal behavior live or die on repetition.  We need to be reminded of compassion, to practice it, to make it a habit, or else it will too easily be drowned in the other details of our lives.

We saw this play out this very week with the earthquake in Haiti.  Where BSG is the mere fictional destruction of a civilization, the earthquake in Haiti is real.  That country has been destroyed by that earthquake.  For all practical purposes, there is nothing left there.  They have to start over from scratch.  They need help.

I can think of no event in my lifetime that more obviously calls for human compassion than the earthquake in Haiti.  The suffering is immense.  And yet, there were still people so devoted to their own plans that they could not see beyond their plans to focus on the compassion necessary.  Rush Limbaugh wasted no time turning the issue into a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama.  Meanwhile, Pat Robertson blamed the Haitians themselves for the earthquake.  Willpower bias, anyone?

Of course, perhaps I am guilty of the very same thing in the last few paragraphs, using the events in Haiti to further my own cause, too focused on my own details to see the whole picture in its entirety.  Is this sort of behavior inescapable, inevitable?  I don’t think so.  My philosophy will be different.  My philosophy will take our flaws into account.  My philosophy will acknowledge our competing and contradictory ideals. My philosophy will keep the big picture in focus.  My philosophy will not get so self-absorbed and self-indulgent that it forgets to be compassionate.  That was burgundy.  This is teal.

Slight Preference, Extreme Results

You have to look at philosophy from two levels: the individual, and the group. A slight preference at the individual level can result in extreme results when those slight preferences add up at the group level. Here’s an example of that mechanism in action:

In sports, you see this effect in amateur drafts all the time, particularly in baseball where draft picks can’t be traded. Let’s say a baseball team like the Oakland A’s values college players a mere 1% more than other teams do. The A’s may say and believe that they don’t reject high school players, but the effect of their slight preference is that they end up taking almost exclusively college players, simply because the high school players they prefer are all chosen ahead of them, and invariably when their turn to choose comes up, their highest ranked player just happens to be a college player.

In the NFL, where draft picks can be traded, you could create extra value for yourself if you know that you value players differently than others. The Oakland Raiders have a unique valuation on amateur talent, and nearly every year their selections are a complete surprise to those following conventional wisdom. Because their valuation system is so unique, they could probably create extra value for themselves by always trading down. The player they want will often still be available lower in the draft. Sadly for Raiders fans, the Raiders almost never do this.

In crafting a philosophy, we should be aware of this feature of group dynamics. Groups, moreso than individuals, tend to move either towards the middle, or to the extremes. In America, we see this in our politics. Most Americans are rather centrist, but the system of primaries to choose nominees attracts the more loyal partisans at either end of the political spectrum. So instead of a runoff between Candidate 40th-percentile vs Candidate 60th-percentile, our choices in the general election often ends up as Candidate 10th vs. Candidate 90th. The result is a legislature that is far more partisan than the general population, and is far more despised than it would seem necessary.

How do we keep a set of 60/40 preferences from unintentionally turning into 100/0 behavior, or for that matter, turning 80/20 preferences 50/50 behavior? It’s easy to blame the people involved for behaving badly (see my last article on Willpower Bias) and to argue “don’t do that, you bad people”. But it’s hard to change individual preferences, and especially hard when individual preferences are being affected by group dynamics. More often, the solution is to structurally reduce the amplification. In sports, enabling trades of draft picks at least makes it possible for teams to find more accurate values for their picks. In politics, open primaries or ranked voting systems would probably make the distribution of elected officials look more like the general population than the extremes.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t possible benefits to 0-50-100 group behavior over the messier alternatives. But it’s hard to believe that this tendency will always yield optimal result. If the optimal solution lies at 33 or 67, we want the quickest, most effective way to hit that optimal result. Ping-ponging between the extremes may get us there in the end, but you have to think it would be better to move their directly if we can. Being fully aware of the differences between individual and group dynamics can help us find optimal solutions in an optimal manner.

Willpower Bias

This past weekend, I pulled out some crates so we could put away our Christmas ornaments.  My two-year-old daughter decided she wanted to pretend she was a Christmas present, and climbed into one of the crates.

“Close the lid,” she said.

I tried, but she didn’t fit.  “I can’t close it,” I said, “you’re too big.”

“Please?” she asked.

“You don’t fit,” I explained.  “Your head sticks out.  I can’t make you fit if you’re too big.”

“Please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

Two-year-olds see the world as entirely a function of their parents’ willpower. Anything that happens, or doesn’t happen, is because mommy and daddy want it that way—even whether or not a particular girl can fit into a particular box.

Of course, we get older and learn that the world is more complex than that, but that bias towards assuming the universe runs on willpower doesn’t completely go away. It’s built into our psychology, because of the very nature of human childhood.

And because it’s part of our psychology, this willpower bias also gets built into the very structures of our societies. Many of our religions believe a larger-scale version of the two-year-old’s assumption: that anything that happens is because God wants it that way. We see it in sports. We thank God if we win a sporting event, then say, “we didn’t want it enough” if we lose. We elect Presidents and Governors hoping for them to be parent-like and fix things through the force of their will. Every election cycle, we make them tell us over and over how they’re going to fix the economy, when in reality, they have very minimal influence on the economy. “Create jobs, please please PLEEEEEEASE?”

And even more insidiously, willpower bias is built into our languages. Consider these two sentences, one of the few examples where you can avoid willpower bias in the English language:

My arm was raised.

versus

My arm rose.

Raise, like many other verbs in the English language, assumes some sort of willpower behind it, causing the action. The implicit full sentence is “My arm was raised by somebody.”

Rise, on the other hand, differs from raise in one key way: it does not assume an agent behind the action. There may have been willpower causing the arm rise, or there may not have been. But by choosing the world rise over the word raise, we are deliberately excluding any information on whether an agent caused the action. In some other languages, you can take any transitive verb and render it agentless with a grammatical marker, but this isn’t possible in English.

If you think, “so what?” then imagine how we’d think of the world if the word “rise” did not exist in English. You could not say, “The sun rises every day”. You’d have to say, “The sun is raised every day.” Which naturally leads you to wonder, by whom? Copernicus? Carl Sagan? Apollo? God?

If we are choosing a philosophy, it would be good if that philosophy possessed the equivalent of that grammatical marker which the English language is missing. We want our philosophy to be able to distinguish between the forces that can and should be influenced by willpower, those which operate independently, and the various shades in between. We want to choose a philosophy that is as effective as possible, and doesn’t leave us crying “Please please PLEEEEEEASE” in vain.

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