Tuesday, May 10, 2011


"Nice tie, Derek..."
"Thanks, Nate. No, you can't borrow it.
Do those glasses help you pick up
It's official. Nate Silver is the Derek Jeter of pundits. The linkage was established once and for all just the other day, waiting only for the Wheaties box where the two of them, with their equally calibrated grins, can both be giving it to the rest of us from somewhere within that slightly unfocused glaze. A new word comes to into being as a result of this unlikely but (let's face it) inevitable union--"chumpions": n., the rest of us who aspire to a carefully-manicured excellence exemplified by a fortunate few whose output is less than the sum of its parts.

Nate's life and career has spiked while riding a wave of euphoria following the election of Barack Obama due to his refashioning of the ever-dubious, ever-proprietary PECOTA projection system into a "meta-polling" engine that sifted through the chaos of competing information massagers in 2008 and delivered a soothing message to that portion of the electorate scared sh*tless by the prospect of Sarah Palin (full disclosure: even I was so relieved by the 2008 election results that I sent Nate a fan note, as if he were somehow responsible for the outcome).

"Proof" of the midwestern conspiracy in 
sabermetrics: Bill Pecota propped up by a mysterious, 
never-identified go-between known only by the
secret handle "Error Bars"....
So Nate leapfrogged from baseball to politics, following roughly in the footsteps of Keith Olbermann (a man noted for taking one or two data points that actually pan out into an isolated outcome and proclaiming it as a "great and grand design") and he's ensconced in the tight little world of carefully calibrated punditry. It appears that he wants to be some combination of Walter Lippmann, Tony Schwartz, George Gallup, and Ronald Faucheux. (For those not steeped in any/all of these individuals, that would be an above-it-all political pundit with vague progressive tendencies merged with an erstwhile media visionary, crossed with a numbers-wonk who writes an ever-changing how-to manual in his spare time.)

Oddly, that is virtually the perfect analogue for a slick, curiously charismatic, self-involved, good-hitting shortstop whose Hall-of-Fame career is inordinately boosted by his association with the Most Storied Franchise in Baseball History™ and whose deficiencies (mostly defensive in nature) have created a groundswell amongst a segment of the population who, like their political brethren, have seized upon the instruments of polarizing rhetoric and now regularly spew hateful invective at all turns.

Never so easy to think small as when you 
start thinkin' big...or is that verse-vica??

Nate, like Derek, has zoomed up to a level of acclaim that is more than a bit inordinate, and the level of intricate inwardness that both men are now conjuring up in their respective situations has got to be a good bit more than roughly analogous. That phrase, by the way--"roughly analogous"--is the jumping off point for all of Nate's work, beginning with PECOTA and moving onward into the ooze of his uniquely recursive, self-insulating projections, just as Jeter's symbolism as the Latest In The Line of Iconic Yankee Superstars™ has become its own lightning rod for the world as defined in the famous New Yorker cartoon and the rest of us.

So it was a momentous bit of anti-climax when Nate decided to step out of the political portal and feed the Baseball Beast, given that the anti-Jeter crowd, buoyed by the Yankees' inability to part company with an aging superstar, has been especially vigilant given Derek's dominoing performance levels since last July.

But apparently Nate didn't want to spend too much time on it (after all, he's above it all now), so he tossed together a piece that, when you remove the rather silly numerical projection and the factual error, reads an awful lot like one of his meta-polling, neo-objective pieces of pale-hosed punditry.

Presumably the pre-2008 Nate would have known that Jeter could not score so few as 59 runs in 131 games without being moved down in the Yankees' batting order (leadoff men score the most, even though they are usually the fourth-best overall hitter on their team), but the 2011 Nate didn't see fit to reference this wrinkle. Clearly the pre-2008 Nate would have taken the time to determine that Derek did not, in fact, have a slow start in 2010 (he hit .330 in April last year). The 2011 Nate probably thought he remembered that fact, and found it congenial to his "throw a bone in each direction" strategic approach to framing an argument that has become so ingrained into his writing that one suspects he has concocted a "meta-template" for how his essays are constructed. Indeed, it's possible that Nate has actually managed to automate the process and isn't actually "writing" them himself anymore!

"Hey Nate! This one's for you. The next one's for me. (Oh, by the
way, the first one was for me too. Sorry.) Love, Derek."
Naturally enough, on the very next day, Jeter found a way to remind us that all of our projections--whether they are based on post-modern algorithms or simply on the time-old hunches and back-of-the-envelope scratchings by folks with barely a working knowledge of a spreadsheet--can be reduced to dust in the twinkle of an eye (or in two swings of a bat). Derek, who'd been showing a faint pulse in the preceding few games, suddenly discovered a power stroke that had been hibernating since the summer of 2010 and slammed two homers en route to a 4-for-6 day as the Yankees knocked off the Texas Rangers (the team that knocked them out of the playoffs in 2010), 12-5.

Projection systems are fun--they're the part of the "sabermetric" enterprise that captures the largest segment of the mainstream audience because everyone wants to speculate about the future. (That's why political pundits are so popular.) The problem, of course, is that the "neo-sabe" movement, in their careerist agendas, decided to upscale and proprietarize (always wanted to coin that word!!) their tools. It seems a bit unfair that they get to have their cake and eat it, since the tools aren't really all that good and they have taken care to insulate themselves against the distance between prediction and reality. In short, they've become just another facet of the "expert class," a parasitic coterie of modern culture that, like the .500 pitcher, always seems better at what they do than they really are, because once in awhile, like Nate Silver in 2008, they seem to be right at just the right time.

But as my dear old departed Dad was so fond of saying: "Who said anything about being fair?" Nate (and some of you) might not think that I'm being fair, but in this instance I feel compelled to insist:

--You first!!

And don't forget to eat your Wheaties (whilst so many others are eating the evidence)...