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"Moneyball" vs. "Trouble with the Curve": The limits of baseball's data-driven obsession


WASHINGTON---First there was “Moneyball,” the Brad Pitt homage to empirical analysis of sports. Then came Clint Eastwood’s “Trouble with the Curve,” the recent homage to old-fashioned scouting and human intuition in assessing baseball talent.

To which should the sports fan pay the greater heed?

Well, the folks at Bloomberg News (actually a new operation called Bloomberg Sports) convened a private gathering the other evening, starring Dan Duquette, the executive vice president of baseball operations of the Baltimore Orioles, and Bryan Minniti, the assistant general manager of the Washington Nationals.

Both teams had fabulous seasons last year and while Minniti is a comparative newbie compared to his older counterpart, they were both interesting in mulling the state of the sport with Al Hunt, the prominent Bloomberg reporter-editor and a capital media mainstay.

The session began with a rather fascinating example of the sort of analytics Bloomberg is hawking to sports teams, initially in baseball and also in soccer worldwide. It was a breakdown of every single pitch thrown last season by Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants.

There is probably no angle they haven’t pursued. Want to see what pitches he threw when the count was 2-1 against left-handed batters? And video of each one? Every possible pattern is dissected, along with where a ball was hit if it was hit. What appeared to be dozens, potentially hundreds, of criteria in breaking down his performance could be quickly highlighted by a click of a computer key.

For sure, “Moneyball,” both the original Michael Lewis book and the subsequent movie, has been dissected ad nauseam and it’s clear that virtually every team relies pretty heavily on numbers crunching assessments (with a few relative exceptions, said Duquette, notably the Atlanta Braves).

 As for the Eastwood movie, and its protagonist’s belief that one has to “just go with the sound” when bat hits ball, he conceded that there are a few old codgers who may still go that route. Duquette, who is one of a curious number of baseball executives who are alumni of elite Amherst College, recalled his being a young scout, watching games in the Cape Cod League, and sitting near an old hand who said, “I go by the sound and buy the paper in the morning” to see how the game actually wound up.

 And lest one think today’s data obsession is all that new, Duquette reminded that Earl Weaver, the Orioles famous manager who died recently, was way ahead of the sport in using analytics, in particular on-base percentage and a radar gun to track when a pitcher’s speed was decreasing.

 For sure, analytics are particularly helpful, said Duquette, in assessing the impact of trades and positioning one’s players defensively (knowing the hitting tendencies of the other team). And, yes, they are a boon to fantasy league participants.

 But there remain many weaknesses, especially in assessing young talent.

 The subject of initial talent evaluation was the most interesting part of the session. Shortcomings were conceded by Minniti, a young statistics and math major from the University of Pittsburgh and thus a prototype of the sort of young gun now infiltrating the sport

 Why do the National Football League and National Basketball Association have better luck in drafting players?

 As Minniti said, amateur statistics are simply far more ambiguous, given dramatically different levels of competition. There, you do have to rely heavily on scouting.

 And, said Duquette, there is the overarching reality that hitting a baseball demands a significantly high skills level, while pitching is just an unnatural act. “Combine the two and it’s hard to predict performance.”

 Comparing a kid who’s played in the back woods of Pennsylvania with one who has played in bigtime Atlantic Coast Conference games is just inherently difficult.

 No surprise, and knock on wood, whatever the resulting sound, there still still seems a whole lot of art to go with all the new-fangled science.






Before a grand victory, a final game among the Obama posse

By James Warren

The Last Election had to include the Final Game.

In a gym on an austere stretch of Chicago’s West Side, President Obama reprised a sweat- and elbow-filled tradition Tuesday afternoon as he beckoned members of a personal sports posse to complete a ritual unique in the annals of the American presidency.

 It was hours before a satisfying victory tinged for days with anxiety and ambiguity. But the scene was just like when the core cadre had commenced an unforeseen act of superstition amid the winter snows of Iowa in 2008. Back then the protagonist was a U.S. senator and longshot candidate for the Democratic nomination for president and the assembled were a bunch of male buddies recapturing their youth by playing a game, basketball, they love in a decidedly competitive manner.

 As true many times before, they played Tuesday with the same weekend-warrior intensity found in hundreds of YMCA gyms by men long past their athletic prime but still deeply competitive. And, on this day, they didn’t have to daydream about trying to fake out a Michael Jordan, LeBron James or, say, a Scottie Pippen since one of them was right there to fake out or shoot over.

 “It was tremendous fun, tiring and, at the same time, bittersweet, “ said Alexi Giannoulias, one of the original group and now a Chicago banker after a failed attempt to win his friend’s old Senate seat. “The mood was good but, obviously, it was different.”

As a high school senior in Hawaii, Obama was a substitute on a state championship team. He’s kept up his love of the game and, on the morning of the Iowa caucuses in 2008, beckoned buddies to play ball as a final and needed bit of fun and relaxation. They included Reggie Love, a former Duke University player who served as his “body man” on the campaign trail and later in the White House: Marty Nesbitt, a Chicago businessman; Eric Whittaker, a Chicago doctor; and Giannoulias.

Obama won a surprise victory in Iowa but then lost to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, where he did not play the morning of the primary. Superstitious, he reprised the game every election morning thereafter, including the day he completed an improbable personal journey and vanquished Sen. John McCain in 2008.

By Tuesday, there were nearly 20 invited to partake in the five-on-five game, including another mainstay, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who, like Giannoulias, once played professionally overseas, and Pippen, the Hall of Famer who was Jordan’s top aide de camp as the Chicago Bulls won six National Basketball Association championships in the 1990s.

 Nesbitt and Love generally decide on the sides and, on this day, the star of the show clearly was the beneficiary as the extremely competitive Obama both coached his team and played with Pippen. The game lasted nearly 90 minutes and, according to Giannoulias, who played with the president and Pippen ("the best player and athlete I've ever played with"), the commander-in-chief’s team won by 20 points with Obama scoring several baskets. 

“He played well,” said Giannoulias, 36, who was the nation’s youngest state treasurer when elected in 2006, before his failed 2010 Senate candidacy.

When it was over, there was clearly a need to memorialize the occasion. Everybody high-fived the man who’d brought them together in the first place, took a group photo and wished him luck that night.

“It was being a part of history,” said Giannoulias, playing with him on what proved to be two historic Election Days in a row. “Then, again, it was just a bunch of friends playing ball.”



China keeps its censors busy and history books pristine: An item that might not make the internet over there

The corrupt and lily-livered Chinese government will likely block access to this item as it assures work for tens of thousands of government-paid monitors.

 Dear Censors: It really is remarkable how much the Chinese strive to keep from you and your fellow citizens. Recent days have given you guys some quite revealing work to hide.

 First the New York Times ran a wonderful piece on the billions of dollars amassed by the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during his tenure as the Big Cheese.

The next day the Wall Street Journal’s superb Saturday “Review” section (perhaps the best and most creative weekly newspaper section around) reviewed two books on the Great Famine of roughly 1958-1962 that killed 45 million Chinese and was a function of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward,” the manic and crazed great leap backward into huge collective farms and administrative units. 

 The Times reported how the Chinese quickly blocked access to both the English and Chinese versions of its investigation. It’s safe to assume that quickly did same with the reviews of the two books, “Tombstone,” by Yang Jisheng, and “The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962,” edited by Zhou Xun.

 We can thank the nation’s two best newspapers---whose daily handiwork tends to sadly lap their deteriorating counterparts in much of the newspaper industry---for such stellar work that raises this question: Why do the Chinese do what they do when it comes to rampant censorship?

 And it’s not just embarrassing breaking news stories. It’s their very history, as Michael Fathers’ review of the two books made clear:

"There is no memorial anywhere in China to the victims of the famine, no public monument, no remembrance day,” he wrote in the Journal.  “Graves are not marked and mass burial grounds have disappeared into the landscape. The famine's very existence has been denied. The communist party will only admit to 'food shortages' and 'some difficulties' during the great leap forward. They claim that these setbacks were a result of natural disasters."

 Why, oh why?

 There’s no smarter person to ask than Evan Osnos, Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker. He worked previously for the Chicago Tribune before a change in ownership prompted a free fall in editorial ambitions and dismantling of foreign and national reporting staffs by an undistinguished newsroom hierarchy likely able to find either Beijing or Pekin, Illinois on a map (but it might somehow know that latter's school teams were actually known as The Chinks until enlightenment overcame the school board in 1980).

“The strategy is, essentially, like that of climate-change skeptics: If you can't beat the facts, then muddy, obfuscate, create barriers to discovery,” Osnos explained in an email.

 “The Chinese government knows that some people will use technical workarounds to get access to blocked websites, but most people won't bother,” he wrote. “So if they hear there is a big story at the NYT, they might go to the site and if they find it blocked, they will go back to getting their kids ready for school or playing online games or whatever.”

 “Some will persist, but they are a minority, and China is large.”

 When it comes to the famine, he explained that the approach is related but somewhat different.

 “For years the Party succeeded in diluting the horror of the famine by submerging it into what was, by any measure, a miserable century or two to be Chinese. As bad as the famine was, life was already so bleak - - - life expectancy in the 30s or low 40s, high infant mortality, absence of education - - that people were willing to accept much of the Party's argument that the famine was a ‘natural disaster,’ like locusts or droughts, etc.”

 “That is still taught in schools; so people might know that their grandparents starved to death but not why. The fact that it was, in fact, the direct result of an irrational and ruinous economy fantasy cooked up by Chairman Mao is known by a tiny minority.”

That reality, he suspects, will change, “but more slowly than we might imagine.”



Chicago students and teachers, listen up: rare truth-telling about the system's future

 Wednesday's Chicago Public Schools monthly board meeting began with various rituals: the Pledge of Alliegiance, introducing a new student board observer, praising two high-achieving high schools and formally welcoming a new superintendent, the latest to make it through the beleaguered system's quickly-rotating executive revolving door.

After the Superintendent de Jour, Barbara Byrd Bennet, a New Yorker, made a few benign comments and announced two top appointments of her own---via Cincinnati and Cleveland, as if the nation's third-largest city lacks a sufficient talent pool to serve her interests---it was time for Tim Cawley, the chief administrative officer to enlighten the assembled with his Cliff's Notes version of an amended budget in light of a rather expensive new contract with the teachers union.

It was here that one was grateful for some adult supervision in the system, on this day in the presence of Henry Bienen, a former longtime president of Northwestern University, and Penny Pritzker, the wealthy and well-connected businesswoman.

In particular, there were several items of interest in Cawley's presentation that intrigued them due to the distinctly low-key manner in which they'd been offered.

First, there was a slide on "How will we cover the new costs?" of a contract that adds $103 million in compensation to a system hundreds of millions of dollars in the hole already and without any reserve funds.

The biggest element, Cawley said, was what he termed a "$70 million increase in operating revenue," which includes capitalizing interest on $13 million in bonds, selling surplus buildings and refinancing bonds maturing in 2013 and 2014.

 Then there was a slide whose header declared, "FY 14 Budget Still Poses Significant Challenges," including a stunning $1 billion projected deficit.

 Bienen asked to speak and briefly noted that to call the FY 14 budget one posing "significant challenges" was "the understatement of the week." He then pointed out that refinancing bonds wasn't a savings, it was just putting off certain (growing) payments for a bit.

Unless Cawley had Manna from Heaven, in the form of magical revenues, the budget was simply postponing for a year or so the real reckoning, Bienen declared. "We haven't come to grips with the structural problem," he said, while diplomatically, even decorously, dispelling any possible inferences that he was suggesting Cawley was trying to "pull the wool" over the eyes of anybody.

Pritzker later noted that she likes to look at budget numbers in a more far-reaching manner, such as three or so years out. Obviously, she said, the projected $1 billion deficit is not a onetime predicament. If you look at it all, as she is inclined to look at it, in terms of three years out, then one could argue you're staring at a $3 billion deficit.

She also indicated, as had Bienen, that you can't view as recurring revenues the capitalizing of interest when refinancing bond deals.

Cawley then offered up what he could easily have underscored in the first place. He "couldn't agree more. We clearly understand that capitalizing interest doesn't lead to recurring revenues." Better said late than never.

 The bottom line was crystal clear: the system is headed toward huge shutdowns of schools. There was talk by Cawley and Bennet of looking at every "nook and cranny" for more savings and efficiencies. There are not that many nooks and crannies in any institution in America outside, say, the Pentagon or the New York Yankees payroll.

So one must thank Bienen and Pritzker---each pilloried gratuitously by the teachers union president in an outrageous, stream of consciousness speech to a Seattle group last year--- for understatedly stating the grotesquely obvious reality facing  Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school system.

Karen Lewis, the failed stand-up comic who negotiated a surprisingly strong, and thus unaffordable contract, for her members, sent a surrogate to begin the public portion of the meeting.

Michael Brunson praised the new teachers agreement, by and large, and then lambasted "the constant rumors of school closings." He beseached the board to go forward in a "participatory and transparent manner," otherwise, he said with an air of combative melodrama,"There will be reprecussions."

On Wednesday, if anybody, including Brunson, was listening, the reprecussions were entirely transparent.









The future of work: Do we forget the folks picking up our garbage and cleaning our sewers?

There was a terrific gathering on the future of work during last week's Chicago Ideas Festival, with the main stage at Goodman Theatre nearly packed with perhaps 750 or so folks in the audience. There was engaging talk from some really smart people about trends in white-collar workplaces, notably away from hierarchical structures and endless meetings and communications that just get in the way of actual work.

There was talk, too, from a top Microsoft executive of holograms actually supplanting the actual presence of a worker. Several speakers were quite good on how workplaces can stifle creativity. And while there was disquieting mention of a new study in which it's clear that both employers and employers envision a world of far less mutual loyalty, there wasn't a whole lot of mention of  blue-collar workers.

The only reference came from Pittsburgh-based writer Jeanne Marie Laskas, author of "Hidden America," a look at a lot of the folks who play a significant role in making the country work each and every day. Coal miners, landfill workers, truckers and cattle ranchers, among others.

"When I hear us all get excited about holograms and about moving inexorably to a life like George Jetson has, I think about the burden on infrastructure we never factor into dreams like that," she told me several days later.

"All the plumbing and sewer systems and trash trucks and landfills and water treatment plants. On and on. We've already forgotten about that stuff, and the people who make it work. We will never not need this stuff, or the people who get their hands dirty. We have to be willing to pay them. These jobs can't get outsourced."

"These are the people who will continue to make America work. I wish we would take better care of them. That sounds preachy and I don't mean to be. More like: we're kidding ourselves if we don't remember this piece of investment in the future of the workplace. I hate to be a downer! I certainly think holograms are as cool as the next person does!"

When we spoke backstage at the gathering (I moderated a small slice), I mentioned that, long ago, I was part of what was even back then an endangered species, namely labor writer. I covered the world of work. It was a fabulous job, with no shortage of drama, especially as industries like auto and steel met convulsive challenges from foreign competition starting in the late 1970s and thereafter.

As the influence of the organized labor sector declined, most editors lost interest. To them, "labor" meant unions. It was myopic. These days, coverage of labor is catastrophic. Laskas clearly agreed.

"It's just wrong that we don't cover this stuff anymore," she said. "And ironic in the ugliest sense: we hold these workers up as political props, knowing nothing about them or the actual issues they face. We used to know, and we didn't need to use them as props."