When Michael Lewis’s baseball book Moneyball was published in 2003, ex-player-turned-commentator Joe Morgan angrily trashed it. When the movie adaptation came out in 2011, manager Tony La Russa claimed to have been “offended” by it. The old-guard recoil from sabermetrics ultimately boils down to sentiment: You can’t quantify intangibles like hustle and pluck — the “human element.” You can’t account for sheer luck.
Sabermetricians, of course, do not disagree. The “search for objective knowledge about baseball,” as Bill James put it, does not downplay or discount the human element. On the contrary, it tries to isolate with ever-more precision the things we can know about players so that we can recognize luck when we see it— and then make meaningful, though hardly infallible, predictions about future performance.
In the last week or so, sabermetrician-turned-polling-analyst Nate Silver has had to endure the political universe’s equivalent of the Joe Morgan/Tony La Russa beatdown.
The Washington Examiner Examiner.com’s Dean Chambers got personal and downright nasty: “Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the ‘Mr. New Castrati’ voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound.”
Politico’s Dylan Byers wonders whether Silver, who is unusually bullish about President Obama’s chances of winning reelection, will be a “one-term celebrity.” (In the 2008 presidential race, Silver correctly predicted the outcome in 49 of 50 states — he thought McCain would win Indiana — as well as all 35 Senate races. He subsequently landed at gig at the New York Times.) Byers quotes MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough: “Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president is going to win? Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 percent chance — they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it’s the same thing.”
Silver replies thusly: “If the Giants lead the Redskins 24-21 in the fourth quarter, it’s a close game that either team could win. But it’s also not a ‘toss-up’: the Giants are favored. It’s the same principle here: Obama is ahead in the polling averages in states like Ohio that would suffice for him to win the Electoral College. Hence, he’s the favorite.”
I’m not a trained numbers guy. But I’m a hungry consumer of data-driven analysis about both politics and baseball. Occasionally it crosses the line of self-satisfaction, as if to lament that the world is full of innumerate mouth-breathers. But far more often, the “quants” are humble about their claims and even overemphatic about the complex interplay of variables and “unknown unknowns,” as a former secretary of defense famously put it. I’ll take Silver’s transparent model over Scarborough’s hunch-level insider bluster any day of the week.
If it’s Silver’s open preference for Obama that rankles, try Dan McLaughlin’s smart analysis from the right. “Shut up, nerd” is not an argument. It is oh-so-Morganesque in its prideful ignorance.