Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts: … and that’s how I diced up Alfonso Soriano’s contract, bundled it with other toxic assets, and sold it to public employee pension funds.
I love how that line so concisely skewers both the left and right side of the political aisles for their roles in the current screwed up state of our economy.
…and it’s not even a full sentence!
* * *
I’m beginning to think that the future of politics will be like the future of warfare where people won’t fight people anymore; one side’s robots fights the other side’s robots, and whoever’s robot wins, wins.
In politics, each side hires sabermetricians, and the sabermetricians argue each other to the death before they proceed further. People in politics will have to know how to defeat a sabermetrician in an argument, otherwise they’ll suffer the fate of (oxymoron alert) poor Warren Buffett, running into a uppercut from Phil Birnbaum.
* * *
And speaking of baseball and pension funds, Moneyball author Michael Lewis has a new piece in Vanity Fair called “California and Bust.” In it, he interviews San Jose mayor Chuck Reed. I assume when Lewis met Reed they discussed San Jose’s attempt to woo the A’s, but nothing on that topic appeared in the article. The whole article made me pessimistic that any city anywhere in the country could afford to actually get a stadium built for the A’s, but heck, what do I know? Maybe that’s what’s taking Bud Selig so long to decide the A’s fate; it takes time to find a city that can dice up the stadium costs, bundle them with some toxic assets, and sell them back to Wall Street to complete the circle.
In the marshlands of the planet Unbraikea in the
a mantisoid species called "Allien" becomes the first sentient life form in the universe.
An Allien named Jaramu Briwn trips into a bed of hexreeds. His oversized snout
gets caught in one of the reed flowers. His embarrassment turns to joy when he discovers a
beautiful symbiosis between the two species. 600 million years of co-evolved stability
and peace follow.
An Allien named Bell Jymas begins to question the behavior of his society.
"We've done things this way for 600 million years. Why? If nothing ever changes,
what's the point?" he asks. Jymas is mostly ignored by his fellow Alliens.
When we feel crowded, we seek to create holes. When we feel empty, we seek fulfillment.
We yearn for an easy, soothing uniformity in our lives.
It's a rare and remarkable event when an intelligent being wants to pokes holes in a
65,000,000 years ago
Back on Earth, a 6-mile wide asteroid crashes into the Yucatan Peninsula. The resulting
impact hole sends so much debris into the atmosphere that
all the dinosaurs died.
The large hole in the ecosystem left by the death of the dinosaurs creates an opportunity
for some small, mammalian survivors to move in and fill it.
An Allien named Bellu Bayna decides to test out Jymas' theories. He leaves
the safety and comfort of his grassy reed nest, and ascends Mount Nervyny.
For 40 days and 40 nights, he meditates, resisting the temptation to return to his old, easy
life. Following his example, Alliens enter the most dynamic and creative era in their history.
The leader of a movement usually accomplishes little but to point out the center of a hole. It's the
follower who is key, for this is the one who brings the shovel and starts digging.
Nearly every ecosystem on Earth is colonized by mammals. But one group of mammalian monkeys
discovers a remaining unexploited hole in their ecosystem. They leave the safety of the trees,
and begin to regularly forage for food on the ground.
This group of monkeys, called "Hominoids" or "Apes", lose their tails, and eventually evolve into
several distinct genera: gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans.
Kan Yrnasin, a follower of Bellu Bayna's movement, composes an artwork expanding on Bayna's ideas,
entitled "On Sockets". Of the work, fellow follower Mahmyttske says, "Well, the reednet is over,
this work won. Thanks for playing everybody."
"On Sockets" becomes generally regarded as the pinnacle of Allien civilization. Allien society
soon thereafter begins a long descent into disunity, selfishness and ignorance, the combination
of which makes them fail to understand the gravity of their impending disaster until it was
too late to stop it.
A white dwarf star 20 light years from Unbraikea goes supernova. The resulting shock wave
blows a hole in
the atmosphere of Unbraikea, and all the Alliens perish.
When Alliens realize they are doomed, their culture descends into a violent, nihilistic, destructive rage.
A brave few try to overcome the desperately long and unfair odds.
They broadcast their consciousness out into the
expanse of the universe, hoping that someday, somewhere, it will find a recipient who can make
their their existence matter.
Two large scars in the face of an otherwise flat, dry Arizona desert. One is considered among the
most beautiful, defining features of the planet Earth; the other is thought of more as an
What is the difference between a hole that is beautiful and one that is ugly?
Roman authorities kill Jesus Christ by nailing holes into a wooden cross through his hands and feet.
Some holes go beyond mere ugliness. Some holes make us recoil in horror or disgust.
The idea that God, from whose breath this holey universe originated,
would Himself come and willingly participate in both the joys
and the suffering of human life, is a great comfort to many.
1,000 years ago
In order to avoid religious persecution for his scientific work, Ibn al-Haytham, a/k/a Alhazen, a
Persian scientist working in Egypt, feigns madness. He is placed under house arrest for 10 years.
During this time he begins writing his influential
Book of Optics.
Many, if not most, of the technologies which involve manipulating light passing through a hole
were built atop the principles spelled out in Alhazen's work.
A madman may not seem to be of any consequence. But telescopes, cameras, and eyeglasses
One century ago, H. T. Hallowell, Sr., founder of Standard Pressed Steel Company, invents the hex key.
Hallowell suffers the usual fate of pioneers, seeing someone else get famous for his work.
During World War II, the hex key becomes more commonly known as the "Allen Wrench",
a trademark of the Allen Manufacturing Company, a competitor of Standard Pressed Steel.
Ten years and ten days after Ken Arneson wed, he wakes up to a giant hole in his living room wall.
Contractors had removed a chimney as part of a small remodeling project.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, terrorists use airplanes to make holes in the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Ken Arneson's hole is trivial, easily and quickly repaired.
The friends and loved ones of 3,000 people who died that day suffered a hole in their lives
that cannot be refilled.
May 10, 2003
Oily sebum clogs a hair follicle on Ken Arneson's head. A hole exposes the sebum to the air,
oxidizing the oil and turning it into an unsightly
Meanwhile, Michael Lewis publishes "Moneyball", a book about Billy Beane, who discovers an
unexploited hole in the Major League Baseball ecosystem.
"Billy, in a single motion, erupted from his chair, grabbed it, and hurled it right through the wall.
When the chair hit the wall it didn't bang and clang, it exploded. Until they saw the hole Billy
had made in it, the scouts had assumed that the wall was, like their futures, solid."
August 27, 2007
Ken Arneson publishes a blog entry entitled
Commenter Mehmattski says, "Well, the Internet is over, this post won. Thanks for playing everybody."
"I despair: I don't want to be a robot, programmed to do what I do, oblivious to the world
burning beneath my feet. I want to know what my feet are doing. I want to know where
the holes in my life are, and why I keep trying to fill them, over and over.
I want to accomplish great feats. I want to see and create beautiful things.
I want to have amazing experiences."
Ken Arneson visits the Chabot Observatory on the roof of the Oakland Hills.
He waits in line for over two hours to get a glance at the supernova in a large telescope.
Peering in the viewhole, Ken sees a single white dot.
In this context, a galactic-scale catastrophe looks to be
roughly the size of a pimple on a man's face.
Driving home in a somewhat disappointed mood, Ken hears a faint sound coming from somewhere in his car.
"Flub flub flub," it whispers. "Flub flub flub."
September 11, 2011
Ten years to the day after Ken Arneson woke up to a hole in his wall, he wakes up to a hole in
the left rear tire of his car.
Ken jacks up the car and removes the flat tire. Embedded into the tire, he finds an allen wrench.
"Hissssssssssssss," the tire boos, as Ken removes the allen wrench. "Hissssssssssssss."
Ken stops and ponders for a moment how an allen wrench, of all things, could maneuver itself into exactly the proper angle to puncture his tire. The odds against it seem desperately long.
Ken walks over to the garbage can, lifts the lid, and tosses the allen wrench into the hole.
image credit: Ken Arneson
September 25, 2011
Ken Arneson goes to see the film version of Moneyball. While watching the film,
his blackhead begins to swell up, painfully infected. Later that night, it bursts open, and the
pus flushes the blackhead away.
"That's a metaphor."
September 28, 2011
Billy Beane's team plays its final game in a forgettable season. Meanwhile,
two teams that copied the philosophy he pioneered, battle each other for a playoff spot
on one of the most
on the timeline of baseball history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
We have guests arriving at our house tomorrow for Christmas, plus we’re going to start a big remodeling project right after New Year’s Day. So I’ve been clearing out a lot closets lately. Here’s something I dug out this afternoon:
The bats were acquired at various Bat Days at the Oakland Coliseum over the years. The top one is from 1999 or 2000 and “autographed” by John Jaha. The middle one is from 1976 and has Don Baylor‘s signature. Not sure when I got the third one without a signature, but it was either late 70s or early 80s.
Missing is my childhood favorite bat, which was from 1975 and autographed by Bert Campaneris. I played with that bat out on the asphalt of the cul-de-sac I grew up on every day, to the point where nearly all the green paint had been chipped off. Somehow that bat got lost in dozen or so times I’ve moved since then. I don’t have much sentimental attachment to these three bats, but I miss my Campy bat.
I remember when I got the bat. Back in those days, the A’s didn’t just hand the same bat to everybody. There were bats from nearly every starting player in the lineup, and every kid was randomly handed one when you went through the turnstiles. I went with two of my best friends.
I’ve found that culture has generally been missing in the discussion about Oakland vs. San Jose for the A’s. In a conversation on BaseballThinkFactory on this topic, I commented as follows:
Look, here’s the thing: San Jose is the world capital of the computer industry. San Jose and its suburbs are the home to nearly every major company on the whole friggin’ Internet. It’s the engine that is driving the entire economy of the planet, the whole thrust of globalization. OK? I’ve worked there, met with these people, I can tell you: every President, every Vice President, every Director, every Manager, every CEO, CTO, CFO and VC knows that they are all the most important people doing the most important work in the history of the planet Earth.
These people will all buy tickets to this stadium in San Jose. They will not care what it costs, because they are too important to have such concerns. It will not matter to them if they ever use the tickets themselves. What matters is that they deserve these tickets, because they are such important people. And when they can’t use these tickets (which is most of the time, because they are so very very busy doing very very important things), they will give these tickets to their little people, partly as thanks for helping them do such important things, but also to display what kind and generous people they truly are.
This is how Silicon Valley works. And this is why the San Francisco Giants would much rather have the A’s five miles away in Oakland than 45 miles away in San Jose.
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.
— Herman Melville
This blog entry is my white whale. It has been my nemesis since the genesis of this blog. I have never been able to tame it or capture it. My goal in starting the Catfish Stew blog was not, like so many other baseball blogs, to second-guess The Management, but to express what it feels like to be an Oakland A’s fan. If I have failed as a blogger, it is because I lacked the willpower to bring myself to tell this story, to confront the core pain of my mission. Would Herman Melville have succeeded if he had tried to write his masterpiece without ever once mentioning Ahab’s peg leg, the scar that drives his obsession? If you face the Truth, it hurts you; but if you look away, it punishes you.
Load the harpoons, gentlemen, it is showdown time. Today, my adventure as a baseball blogger ends. I’m going down, and I’m taking Moby Dick with me.
I greatly enjoyed the recent smackdown between Rich Lederer of Baseball Analysts and Buster Olney of ESPN regarding the Hall of Fame merits of Jim Rice. If I had to score the fight, I’d say Rich won the argument in a blowout. But I say this not because I think Lederer is necessarily right, but because Olney played the game poorly. Olney was like a fast-break basketball team that let itself get caught in a half-court battle. Lederer was able to dictate the terms, and Olney fell right into his trap.
When one competitor prefers a particular style of play, you can beat them in one of two ways: (1) you can play their style of play better than they do, or (2) you can change the game you play. *
*Permit me a brief Posnanskian aside here, on the eve of Super Tuesday: the current Democratic primary is an interesting contrast of these two choices. Remember back in the 80s how the Republicans changed the meaning of the word "liberal" so that it became a bad thing? How Carter, Mondale and Dukakis got labeled as wimpy and economically incompetent "tax-and-spenders", and just got their butts kicked? And then along came Bill Clinton, who figured out how to play the Republicans’ game better than the Republicans? Look, it’s a Democrat who can manipulate the meaning of words better than a Republican! A Democrat who blames the Republican for being economically incompetent! A Democrat with a mean streak! It’s like the Red Sox and the Yankees: neither one would ever admit it to themselves, but the reason they hate each other so much is that they’re so damn similar. So here’s Hillary Clinton now, playing that same old game, and like her husband, she’s really good at it. But along comes Barack Obama, who says, we’re tired of all this boring, low-post, half-court crap, we’re tired of Red Sox vs. Yankees all the time, we’re tired of the Bush vs. Clinton dynasties, there’s more to this game than just the two dominant teams, we’re playing a completely different game with a completely different point of view and we’re going to take the ball and just run and run and run up and down the court. And of course, Bill Clinton goes out and spouts off and tries to drag Obama into the half-court game of parsing words and defending the low post, and Obama tries his best to avoid it, but he can’t, completely, because if the other team is posting you up you still have to defend it. And so last week, after all this time trying to avoid the dynasty game, goes and makes a mid-season trade for a dynasty-type player (Ted Kennedy), to help him defend the low post. Anyway, this is all a big mixed metaphor that’s about to jump the shark off the deep end, but like the recent Super Bowl, I find the game to be surprisingly fascinating, and probably should be until the end.
Anyway, back to Lederer vs. Olney. The trap that Olney fell into was to let Lederer dictate that the argument must be based on statistical evidence. So Olney tries to say that OPS+ is misleading, RBIs were important at the time, blah blah blah, and deliberately avoided using "fear" in his argument. To all that, I say, phooey. If you’re not immersed and invested in statistical analysis, you’re not going to win a statistical argument against someone who is. You’re like that guy in that movie who pulls out a sword and proudly swishes it around, and Indiana Jones pulls out a gun and blows you away.
If you want to avoid falling into that trap, if you want to avoid becoming fodder for BTF and FJM mockery, you need to learn how to avoid the Sabermetrician’s weapons, and where to hit him where he is weakest. Welcome to your first lesson in Defense Against Deductive Arts.
To begin your study, consider this: what is the most important element of the following photograph: Elijah Dukes’ home run, or the beer?
With Barry Bonds bearing on a bout behind bars, and Alex Rodriguez resurrecting his Bronx-based business cards, the Anaheim Angels are once again going to struggle to supplement their Guerrero-only offense.
With those two players now likely to remain out of the AL West next year, there are basically no acquisitions the Angels could make that would make me feel like they were locks to win the division next year. The rumor mill has Miguel Cabrera and Dan Uggla possibly heading to Anaheim in exchange for Howie Kendrick and Nick Adenhart, but that idea does not scare me. Cabrera and Uggla would give the Angels some sorely missing power, but they would also turn a good infield defense into a badone.
All of which is to say, the price of Dan Haren and Joe Blanton just went up a little higher. There’s more incentive now to stay the course, to see if the A’s can stay healthy for once, and if they can, to find out if what they have is good enough to beat the Angels. Unless we hear some bad news about the rehabs of Eric Chavez or Travis Buck or Justin Duchscherer, I think Billy Beane is now more likely to tinker with the team than to blow it up.
Life is a pleasant illusion, a hidden gift decorated in agreeable geometries. Love. Joy. Hope. You only see the surface. You notice only what you want to notice.
Piece by piece, Death unwraps the package. Death does not tolerate delusion. Death demands the truth.
The truth makes you queasy. The truth is unsettling. The truth is sickening.
The truth is this: you cannot stop the truth. You cannot disguise the truth with shiny distractions. Any victory is temporary. The truth will out.
Whack its shin, and Death will put on a shin guard. Death will have its day.
Behold, therefore I will deliver thee to the men of the east for a possession, and they shall set their palaces in thee, and make their dwellings in thee: they shall eat thy fruit, and they shall drink thy milk.
And you scream, “No f@#%ing way! Get a new f@#%ing scouting report on this guy! Nobody else has a problem getting him out! This ain’t f@#%ing happening!”
But the truth is this: Death means business.
Behold, therefore I will stretch out mine hand upon thee, and will deliver thee for a spoil to the heathen; and I will cut thee off from the people, and I will cause thee to perish out of the countries: I will destroy thee; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD.
You turn to the past, asking questions, looking for an answer that maybe, maybe can get you out of this mess.
What went wrong?
Each question opens up a wound.
Whose fault is this?
To ask the question, you must relive the pain, over and over again.
What should have been done differently? What should we do now?
The questions are fruitless, and the answers don’t satisfy.
Why? Why now? Why us?
Death provides no answers, only the next bullet point.
Agenda Item #4: Death beats the throw home. Scores standing up.
I ache now without any explanation. My pain is so deep, that it never had a cause nor does it lack a cause now. What could have been its cause? Where is that thing so important, that it might stop being its cause? Its cause is nothing; nothing could have stopped being its cause. For what has this pain been born, for itself? My pain comes from the north wind and from the south wind, like those neuter eggs certain rare birds lay in the wind. If my bride were dead, my pain would be the same. If they had slashed my throat all the way through, my pain would be the same. If life were, in short, different, my pain would be the same. Today I suffer from further above. Today I am simply in pain.
You’re on the edge of life now. The Light is fading, the Darkness getting stronger. This game, this season…the odds of staying alive are dwindling each second.
The only tool left in your kit is a prayer. Your only hope now is a miracle. You don’t really believe in miracles.
You begin to accept that there is little left to do now but to pour salt on your wounds. It’s OK. This is Life. A six-run deficit. A three-game deficit. Let’s play the last plays. Let’s get it done.
Agenda Item #5: Another standup double, another RBI.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
My family vacation to San Diego coincided with a Padres road trip, so we missed Petco Park. But no matter. We went out Saturday evening and checked out some Surf Dawgs, instead.
The San Diego Surf Dawgs are one of eight teams in the Golden Baseball League, a brand new independent league centered on the west coast. The league began play on Thursday, so the game we attended on Saturday was the third game ever for the Surf Dawgs and their opponents, the Long Beach Armada. The Surf Dawgs and their main attraction, Rickey Henderson (more about him later), play at Tony Gwynn Stadium on the campus of San Diego State University.
Home of the Surf Dawgs
The ballpark seats about 3,000 people, all on the infield. It was about half-full on Saturday evening, and from listening to the people in the crowd, it seemed like half of the people in the stands were related to somebody on the field. “The pitcher is my cousin.” “My dad’s the bullpen catcher.” “C’mon son!”
Inside Tony Gwynn Stadium
I doubt catering to the relatives of ballplayers is a sustainable business model, but if the league fails, it won’t be for a lack of marketing. In fact, I think they pulled out the table of contents in the Baseball Marketing 101 textbook and used it as a checklist.
Checklist item #1: give something away as people enter the stadium. We each got a T-shirt commemorating the inaugural weekend of Golden League play. The gift was a good way to get on our good side right away.
Checklist item #2: give some more things away after that. Just minutes after we settled down in our seats, a Surf Dawg employee came by and told us that our row had been selected for an upgrade to a luxury box. Free catered food!
In an interview with Christian Ruzich, Dave Kaval, a founder of the Golden League, explained their marketing strategy:
We’re targeting families. We’re very, very focused on the typical four-person family: wife, husband, the two kids. We’re going to cater to families with the types of promotions we do from having the kids run the bases between innings to having a kid zone in all of our parks, with everything from speed pitch to one of those big Scooby-Doo blow up things for the kids to jump around in. Just making sure that the lowest common denominator is entertaining the children.
He wasn’t kidding about the kids. They had a kid zone with all sorts of games. They had both a Surf Dawg mascot (named Southpaw) and a clown who made beaut animals. My kids got their faces painted. And between every half-inning, there was some entertainment happening on the field, from a frisbee-catching dog to a burrito-catching contest.
The marketing plan worked to perfection on my wife and kids. Everyone on the staff was friendly and approachable. They seemed to genuinely care to make sure we were having fun. My kids had a great time, and were never bored at all. My wife absolutely loved it. We have a trip planned to L.A. later this year, and as soon as we got home, she checked out the schedules online to see if we could make another Golden League game. In fact, I’d bet if there were a Golden League team in the Bay Area next year, she’d want to dump our A’s season tickets and go there instead. (Memo to the marketing departments of MLB and the Oakland A’s: we’re people, not ATMs.)
I, on the other hand, am more of a hard-core baseball fan, and I’m not going to fall for any marketing magic unless the product on the field is worth watching. The defense was not crisp, and none of the pitchers I saw had great stuff, but at least they threw a lot of strikes and made the batters put the ball in play, which made for an entertaining home team victory, if not an impressive one.
And yet, even for me, the night was magical.
When the game was over, I felt like I had stepped out of a scene in Field of Dreams. Ray Kinsella had come into my office and asked me if I could have one wish, what it would be? And I responded, “Just once, I’d like to see Rickey Henderson young again, driving the opposing team absolutely insane, working the count, taking walks, hitting homers, and running wild on the bases. That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella. That’s my wish.”
And so he says to me, you want to blog? and I says, Yeah baby! I want to be a blogger! I says play ball, bunt monkeys! I’m making hot dogs without mustard! Ah ha ha ha haaaa!
He says to me, he says to me, ‘Baby I’m tired of watchin’ this lousy team!’ I says, I says, why don’t you blow it to bits?
And he says to me, he says to me, you got style, baby! But if you’re gonna to be a real blogger you gotta get a gimmick…and so I go I says Yeah Baby! A gimmick, that’s it! Team Explosives! Aaaah-hahahahaaaa!
So he says to me, you gotta do something smart, baby, something big! He says you want to be a superblogger, right, and I go yeah baby, yeah yeah! What do I gotta do? He says, you got bombs, blow up the team; it’s packed with powder. You’ll go down in superblogger history, and I go yeah baby, cuz I’m the Evil Midnight Blogger What Blogs at Midnight! Ah ha ha ha ha ha!
Eat my smoke, Zito baby! I’m trading you! Kaboom!
Dotel, baby, this could happen to you, too. This could happen to anybody! He says he hung that slider, and I go, I says, it’s the only hung you got. Ha!
And then next thing you know: milkshake! Whoosh!
And so I says to Byrnes, uh, Byrnes baby Byrnes, I says, you got legs baby, you’re everywhere, you’re all over the place, but you’re not here anymore, baby! You’re outta here!!!
Durazo, I says, I don’t like the price of your jib, and I go, you’re going, baby, your jib’s going straight Outta Town!
Excuse me…excuse me…and then I says tell me I’m wrong, and he says I can’t baby ’cause you’re not!
And Hatteberg, Hatteberg, sixty seconds to nowhere, baby! You’re becoming the next victim of the Evil Midnight Blogger What Blogs…hey pay attention!
Yeah Baby! Now you’ve only got twenty seconds until you all Eat My Stew!!!
You’ll never prove a thing; I’m just a part-time programmer. Down with patience! Blogging is good, baby!
Clutch hitters don’t exist? Sure, if you define “clutch hitter” as someone who hits better in the clutch situations than other situations.
I have a slightly different definition. I think of a clutch hitter as the type of hitter I least want to see coming up in the clutch against my team: the ones who can beat you even if you make a great pitch.
Now before anyone spouts statistics at me: I’m not talking about numbers. I’m talking about my emotions. We get signal.
There are guys who live on mistake pitches, like ARod and Giambi. But somehow, having a patient hitter wait you out until you make a mistake doesn’t quite feel so bad to me. Having someone beat you on a good pitch feels much worse.
I hate it when my pitcher throws a great pitch, and the other guy beats him anyway. And I really hate hate hate the guys who do it over and over again. Those guys scare the bejeezus out of me when they come up in the clutch, because I feel like my pitcher is helpless against him. Getting him out seems like nothing but luck. How do you pitch to those guys?
Secret collect: there are only a handful of guys who scare me like that. Ichiro is one. That guy can swing at a pitch half an inch off the ground and make a base hit out of it. God, that’s annoying.
Garret Anderson is another. I hate it when Anderson is up with men on base. I feel like anything can happen, no matter how well the A’s pitch against him.
The NL poster child for this type of hitter has been Vladimir Guerrero. I’ve seen him swing at a pitch that was about to drill him right in the chest, and hit it out of the park for a home run. Yikes! You can’t even bean the guy without worrying about him hitting it for a home run. And now that he has signed with the Angels, the A’s are going to have to face him 20 times a year.
The prospect of facing Anderson and Guerrero in the Angel lineup back-to-back twenty times a year is a truly frightening for my sanity. Those two guys are going to drive me bananas. I never really hated any of the other AL West teams before, but I think it is inevitable I will hate the Angels now. Eau, my sanity! Perhaps I shouldn’t watch. Obvious exit: HALLWAY, WINDOW, SAUCEPAN. What to deux?
> SQUEEZE THE SPONGE AND LET THE CAT OUT.
In A.D. 2004, war is beginning. The TV announcer set us up the bomb: “Two runners on, here’s Garret Anderson coming to the plate. Vladimir Guerrero is on deck. You are on the way to destruction. You have no chance to survive make your time…YOUR HEAD A SPLODE! HA HA HA HA…”
Oh. My. Head. After their turn ends, main screen turn on. My head sounds like that. Green and yellow easter eggs crack open, spilling their mess. Stomper wipes. It’s no cleaner. A voice in my head begins to talk to me in a British accent. It says, “You must trust in the Force of Statistics! Let go of your messy emotions! Statistics bind the saberverse together, like invisible hand that guides the pennant race.”
Holy Toledo! Another secret collect! BACK OFF, BABY! The A’s can zig. Victory shall be ours, for great justice… :P
Tuesday, I went camping with my family at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. My three-year old daughter took one look at the giant redwoods and proclaimed them so tall that even her big sister, age six, could not climb them.
The world is like that for three-year-olds. Everything is huge. You look up to people who, like big sisters, can conquer big things.
60,000 years ago, my ancestors probably sat as I did just then, huddled around a campfire, looking up at the stars. Perhaps they saw Mars, brighter than ever, and consider it a god: O, great god of war, grant us victory in our battles against our enemies.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, modern men don’t have to wait long to hear whether their prayers are answered. I got my radio out, put my headphones on, and tuned in to the A’s game. Bill King was telling a story:
Back when he was announcing the Warriors, they had a game in Boston snowed out. They had to get to Muncie, Indiana, to play their next game against the Cincinnati Royals. They couldn’t fly out of Boston, so they took a train instead to New York. They had to wait several hours at JFK Airport for a flight to Chicago, and then they’d take a bus to Muncie.
At the airport, Nate Thurmond ran into a famous midget actor, and struck up a conversation. Bill King came upon them, and the mere sight of a man hardly four feet tall talking to a man nearly seven feet tall was something he’d never forget.
Back to the game: the A’s won a long, twelve inning battle, 2-1. Praise Mars!
And so the universe is like this: sometimes, you’ve got your buses and airplanes , your radios and TVs and computers, your ERAs and OBPs and EQAs and UZRs, and you think you’re big enough to climb every tree Mother Nature puts in front of you. But sometimes, you’re just a small man at a campfire, dwarfed by the redwoods, subject to the whims of the stars.