Projecting politics & baseball with Nate Silver
Until last year, Nate Silver was a minor celebrity among the sorts of baseball fans who value VORP far more than say, RBIs (shady characters such as myself, in other words.) Then, Nate started a little Web site called fivethirtyeight.com. Barack Obama's campaign had already brought a new level of technological savvy to national politics. But Nate's site armed the election follower with the kind of statistical authority that had previously seemed reserved for insiders. He caught on faster than most to John McCain's fading chances and ultimately nailed 49 of 50 states on the electoral map. Rolling Stone recently ranked him among the world's 100 leading agents of change (perhaps the first time he's been linked with Bono, LeBron James and Will Ferrell.) Fortunately for us, Nate is still messing around with baseball and agreed to a phone chat about the 2009 season (and his wild rise to political stardom.)
TD: In the baseball world, you're probably best known as the father of the PECOTA projection system, so for the uninitiated, can you give a brief overview of the logic behind creating it?
NS: The whole intuition behind PECOTA is to use historical comparables, because baseball obviously has a very rich history. If you take any given player, you can find dozens or hundreds of players from the past who were similar to him up to a given point in time. For David Wright, for example, you might find examples like Mike Schmidt, who turned into Hall of Famers and you might also find guys like Bob Horner, who were good when they were young and then kind of fell off a cliff after age 30 or so. So the idea is instead of having one estimate of how well a guy will do, you have a range of forecasts, because we realize baseball players are human beings and you can't predict any kind of human behavior perfectly. That's the whole idea really, using historical comparables to inform our knowledge of current players.
TD: Were there some projections that you found particularly interesting this year?
NS: It was pretty tame for the most part though we had Matt Wieters ... that's probably the projection where we're sticking our necks out this year [PECOTA sees Wieters playing at an MVP level from the start]. We have the Nationals being not good but somewhat competitive, within a couple of games of .500. Those were maybe the two and I guess they're both relevant to your beat. But nothing as dramatic as last year, when we had the Rays winning 90 games or something.
TD: I did want to ask you about Wieters, because PECOTA seems to have an almost unprecedented crush on him. I was wondering what you made of that?
NS: Yeah, in the six years I've been doing this, I've never seen a projection for a rookie that was that strong. Part of it is that PECOTA has two steps. One is what I do but one is what Clay Davenport does, the minor league translations. The Double-A team Wieters was playing for, when you look at park effects and league difficulty, it was a really tough year for hitters in Double-A. And so that gets ratcheted up quite a bit. The Eastern League was very competitive. He did about as well as any player can do down at that level. He's a big guy. That translates pretty well. And we look at the size of a guy's signing bonus because that has some predictive value. The fact that he has a very big pedigree in college and that more often than not, guys who are drafted that high tend to pan out. That combination of things led to a really aggressive forecast where, if he played for a whole year at that level, he could be an MVP contender.
TD: One of the other projections that got some attention here among the more stat-oriented fans was the Markakis projection. I think people found it conservative. It seems like, for some reason, PECOTA never sees Markakis as a perennial superstar to be. And I'm wondering what you make of that?
NS: For an outfielder to be a superstar, it's hard to do it unless you're a 30-home-run-a-year guy, 30 or 35. He's kind of in the Dwight Evans mold, a very good player who drew walks, hit for average, excellent defensive player, stays in the lineup. I mean, everything is there for Markakis except he's not going to hit a huge number of home runs. And so, this is where you might have an All-Star kind of player but not necessarily a superstar kind of player. I like him a lot personally. He's been on a lot of my fantasy teams over the years. Let's remember too, any players with the Orioles, we're adjusting for strength of schedule at least in part. If you're facing Red Sox pitching and Yankees pitching and Rays pitching and even Blue Jays pitching, that really hurts a guy. If that's half your schedule, that really depresses a guy's numbers. If you put him on the Cubs, in the NL Central, in the easier league, then yeah, that's a different story. For him to put up the numbers he has given the opponents is pretty significant. It's been awhile in baseball since we've had such a significant split in power. I think the Orioles could be, the whole team could be a plus .500 club in certain divisions in the National League. It's just a brutal league and a brutal division right now.
TD: I was going to ask you if the Orioles are a more interesting team than they were, say, four or five years ago?
NS: Oh for sure. Yeah, of course. I think they'd be getting a lot of buzz if it weren't for the fact that one, people are going to be a bit skeptical after the last couple of years and two, the bar is going to be set so high in that division. But there is more reason to be optimistic about the Orioles now than there has been in at least five years, I think.
TD: Have you found that there are certain types of players that are particularly hard to project using PECOTA?
NS: Guys that are really kind of one of a kind. The classic example we give is Ichiro Suzuki where, there are players that are like him, but you almost have to go back to the dead ball era, like Ty Cobb and players like that. So it keeps thinking that Ichiro is like a Lance Johnson, slap-hitter type who keeps getting lucky. It doesn't know that if you actually watch him, his whole approach at the plate is very different than any American we've seen in a long time. Then, you run into problems with guys like Julio Franco and Jamie Moyer, guys who are just so old that literally, you run out of players to compare them to. But for the most part, it's pretty smart.
TD: Your political work probably forces you to pick your spots a little more with the baseball work, so what sorts of questions are you still interested in answering in the baseball world?
NS: Good question. I have had to pick my spots. I thought the political stuff would calm down more than it has after the election. You know, just like baseball, it has become more of a 24/7/365 news cycle. I'm interested in the economic side of the game still, how teams are spending money, how they're spending money wisely or not. It seems to me that teams are responding to the recession in ways that are pretty smart. One of the things we talked about for years was how, well, it's fine to pay your superstars a lot of money, but you shouldn't pay these middle-tier, Jay Payton kind of players, very much money, because you can get players out of your farm system for free basically. It's kind of what we've seen, where the average salary in the free-agent market has gone down by 30 or 40 percent over the last two years, but the top of the market hasn't declined at all. It's that kind of middle tier, where teams were getting the worst bargains in the first place, where they've made the fix.
I think the cutting edge, as far as sabermetrics goes, is something like taking the shape of a guy's curveball ... MLB is collecting all of this pitch FX data, where you can actually see what a guy's curveball looks like in three dimensions, and you have a merging, really, of what we used to think of as scouting and statistical analysis. I haven't done as much of that as I would like but the fuel for any of this stuff is information. We've been through the time where we've had a lot of smart people look at the basic stats you have in the box scores and they've manipulated those in very clever ways. But all those kind of new technologies, the new information we get about actually modeling performance, is going to be really interesting.
TD: I'll shift to the political arena now. Just roughly speaking, how much more sought after are you now than in say, April 2008?
NS: It's a lot yeah. I really need a vacation. If you're doing the blog and there are lots of technology and media angles with politics, and I'm still interested in baseball, yeah, it's keeping me pretty busy.
TD: Describe the impetus for creating fivethirtyeight. Did you sense a particular void that needed to be filled?
NS: It was the same void, really, that Baseball Prospectus detected, and not only Baseball Prospectus but Bill James and his whole kind of legacy, where we love baseball but the whole mainstream media coverage of it was about clutch hitting and clubhouse chemistry and this whole kind of mythology that turned out, in most cases, not to really be true. It's kind of the same way in politics, where people would take information from a poll way too seriously and not be analytical about it. During the primaries, you had all the states go in a particular order. And some of those states were better for Hillary -- Kentucky and New York, and some were better for Obama -- your Wisconsins and Hawaiis. And people read momentum into a lot of things when really, it was more about which order states happened to vote in. Really, in February, you happened to have a number of states that happened to be favorable to Obama, where it was predictable, pretty far in advance, that he was going to do well. Similarly, later on, with Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, you could predict pretty early on that those would be good states for Hillary. They were, but people said, 'Oh, it's momentum now. She's doing everything right and Obama is doing everything wrong.' But really, it was just the luck of the draw. You know, it's like if the Orioles put together a winning streak against the worst teams in the league, that's different than if you beat the Yankees and the Red Sox five out of six. So it was that kind of thing, where people just weren't being very analytical about evaluating politics.
TD: As a nation of commentators, what do we do well and what are we worst at when it comes to covering elections?
NS: I think the coverage is getting quite a bit better. People like Chuck Todd at NBC are pretty good. But I don't think the election coverage is all that strong necessarily, in part because people have very short memories. A lot of people were shocked on election night when Obama won by seven points. And yes, compared to the past two elections, that's a pretty big number. But in all of history, it's pretty average, really. You didn't have that sense of context. The whole thing about elections is that you only have one presidential election every four years so people kind of lose reference points. In baseball, you're playing every year. Baseball is great for that. They play so many games every year and there are so many statistics and so much history that I think the analysis, even though it isn't perfect, is more historically informed. People have a sense of context and when something is really special as opposed to being just kind of normal. In politics, I think people get much too excited about things way too easily.
TD: What was most interesting or most amusing about your rise into the nation's political awareness?
NS: In some ways, I was surprised that people were so friendly for the most part. In a lot of ways, political coverage was really behind baseball coverage in becoming more modern. There was a little bit less apprehension about doing this sort of thing. I got reached out to by people in the media, whether pollsters or people from the mainstream media or people from blogs. People were very friendly in a way that took a little bit longer in our baseball experience.
TD: Do you have a sense of why that would be?
NS: I have an intuition which is maybe that I think the average beat writer that covers baseball, they're difficult jobs to get and maybe you only have a couple in any one city at any one time. I think it might just be a generational thing. You have a lot of people up in the press box who might be sixtysomething years old and they've been covering the same team for years and years and there's a little bit of a sense that their jobs are threatened. The person who has probably done the most to advance the cause of Baseball Prospectus and Bill James is Peter Gammons, and he used to be a very traditional guy. You know, he's certainly an older writer, so there are lots of exceptions. But I think there's a little bit of fear of competition. It could be the whole nerd vs. jock culture. In baseball, we kind of moved from the outside in. It started with people like Bill James or BP doing things and then it penetrated into front offices in the game. In politics, it's almost been the reverse where campaigns have always been very sophisticated about data. Certainly, Karl Rove, whatever else you may think about him, really knew his congressional districts, really knew how to target voters at a very fine level. So they had a tremendous facility with data, and this year, the Obama campaign had the same thing. I think they had something like 20- to 25-percent of their staff devoted to some kind of data work. So it has always taken place in campaigns. It just didn't necessarily penetrate the media narrative as much. So in some ways, we gave people an informed perspective that's closer to the campaign's point of view.
In politics, you may have Capitol Hill correspondents who are thrown on the election trail every four years and maybe don't have expertise in that area. It's kind of like Olympic coverage. Where do you find a good curling analyst, you know? You have a demand for coverage and a shortage of experts in this field, so that kind of led to a greater demand for the stuff I was doing.
TD: What was the general reaction when people found out that your background was in baseball analysis? Any condescension?
NS: No, it was pretty sympathetic. There's some tradition of people being into politics and also being into baseball. You look at George Will, you look at Keith Olbermann. People all over the political spectrum have this interest. Ari Fleischer, the former Bush press secretary, is a huge baseball fan. I think it takes a lot more patience to be a baseball fan than it does in other sports, especially if you're an Orioles fan. You have a long season and it takes things a long time to develop and you have the same thing, I think, with politics. This campaign, if you count the primaries, lasted for two years. So the people who were reading the blog back in April and May of last year were pretty hardcore political folks who liked the nuance and the detail. And it's kind of the same personality type you see in hardcore baseball fans.
TD: Was it important to you to get so close on the final electoral number? Does it just sound better to say I nailed 49 out of 50 states?
NS: Yeah, it's good for marketing. I think people can overrate it. The fact is, we had our system and Real Clear Politics and Pollster.com, they were all only a point or so apart. So you're not going to learn that much from one election. So I think maybe people put too much emphasis on that. But certainly, from a marketing point of view, it's good. And if, you know, McCain had won, I probably wouldn't be doing as well right now. I think the best insight the model gave us was not on November 4. It was more when the financial crisis crested and you had Lehman Brothers collapsing and in the debates, McCain didn't do as well as people were hoping. We detected right away that maybe this election isn't over, but McCain is in a lot of trouble, and his odds of winning are much lower than the conventional wisdom would have us believe. So it was really then that we had the most interesting things to say. The last three weeks of this election were anti-climactic. It was like, OK, all the undecideds have decided. Most of them decided for Obama and McCain's going to hope for the best, but it doesn't look good. That's where I thought we really gave more insight.
TD: What are the most intriguing stories in this interim period, when we're really not even close to mid-terms?
NS: The basic tension here is the fact that Obama is still quite popular, not incredibly popular but very good numbers, and meanwhile, the right-track, wrong-track numbers show that people still think we're in a heap of trouble. There's tension between those two things because usually, the two go together. Obviously, he's new and he's getting a grace period, as I think he should. But eventually, do those two numbers come together? Already, you're seeing the right-track number, over the last month or so, people have become more optimistic about the economy. They're still relatively pessimistic, but not as bad. And meanwhile, Obama's approval rating has fallen a little bit. So slowly, those numbers are converging. And the key question is how much patience will the public have? People seem to have a grace period with Obama now but will that be true over the summer? What if there's another crash in the stock market, which there often is? You can have a bear market rally and then another slump. People pay way too much attention to the stock market as an indicator of economic health. But at the same time, part of the reason people are more optimistic now is that the Dow has rebounded a little bit. If it goes in reverse, then I don't know. That's the key dynamic. Who gets blamed at what point in time for the economy? And how does that translate to congressional and gubernatorial elections in 2010?
TD: People like to do 100-days stories, but is it ridiculous to ask how Obama is doing at this point?
NS: I think it's a little ridiculous. I mean Reagan had an unpopular first couple of years and in the end, he was a very popular president. Clinton's whole first year and a half, two years were a disaster and he turned out to be pretty popular. So yeah, I think there is a learning curve to this job. I don't know that it has that much to do with how much experience you had beforehand. There are some lessons that they're learning. With the selling of the stimulus package, I think they learned that the reason Democrats are popular is because of Obama, not because of Nancy Pelosi. So you have to have the administration be very hands on. One of the smarter things they're doing is being in campaign mode. He has this thing where, when he goes on TV, his approval ratings go up. People like seeing him on TV. He's pretty charismatic, and he's smart to take advantage of that. But there are things they've screwed up. I don't know that anyone is particularly happy with the way they've pitched the bank rescue plan. Certainly, with some of the cabinet nominations where there are always problems, they seemed to have a higher number than average. They've certainly made mistakes. The other perspective is that given the economy is where it is, it's remarkable he's so popular. I'd give him a B, B- if I were giving him a grade. But given everything that's out there, I think you have to give him a kind of curve on everything.
TD: I know you're either moving or just moved to New York, so I wanted to ask your opinion of the new ballparks?
NS: I forget how much those stadiums are paid for with public vs. private money. I think that in general, ballparks are a bad deal for the public. If you build a ballpark and revitalize a neighborhood, that just means that bars and restaurants in some other parts of the city, people aren't going to as much. It's questionable whether you're increasing the net wealth of a city. I think in general, the public has paid too much to help a private industry -- and I love baseball -- for too long. I'll be interested to see the new parks. I loved Yankee Stadium. It was intimidating and old, kind of like the old Roman Coliseum with so many fans bearing right down on you. It's kind of like the old Tigers Stadium, which is my favorite park of all time. We'll see. They generally had a larger homefield advantage than most teams, so we'll see if that holds up at the new place. Or have they designed the character out of it?