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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Who's Laughing Now? Francona and Epstein Back Are in the World Series

Remember when the Boston Red Sox slumped at the end of the 2011 season, finishing third in the AL East when they appeared poised to make a run at another World Series title? You may recall that Red Sox fans and ownership blamed manager Terry Francona ("The Scapegoating of Terry Francona") and General Manager Theo Epstein ("The (Continued) Unraveling of the Red Sox") for the woes, banishing them from Boston although together they helped break the curse of the "Bambino." But you have to wonder. Who's laughing now? The Cleveland Indians, who are coached by Francona, and the Chicago Cubs, whose general manager is Epstein, are in the World Series. I may be going out on a limb here, but I think it's obvious that neither Francona nor Epstein were the problem back in 2011. So you have to ask yourself: Who's laughing now? It surely aint the Red Sox.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

How Can Anyone Not Root For the Cubs (Except Dodgers' Fans)?

San Francisco Giants fans, at least those who watched them after the All-Star break, had a sense that at some point during the playoffs, the Giants' bullpen would cough up the lead and blow another save. For a variety of reasons, primarily the aging of three key relievers who helped the Giants win three World Series (namely, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, and Javier L√≥pez), the Giants' bullpen simply wasn't that good this year. In fact, FiveThirtyEight called it "atrocious" ("Major League Baseball Is About To Get Random"). Although I never root against the Giants, I have to admit that if their bullpen was going to blow a save in the playoffs, I'd much rather have them do it against the Cubs than against the Nationals, Dodgers, Blue Jays, or Cleveland as long as (and this is important) the Cubs win it all.

Which brings me to the primary point of this post. Except for Dodger fans (and maybe Mets fans), how can anyone not root for the Cubs? It's been over 100 years since they've won the World Series, and it's time. They have a great manager, a great group of ballplayers, and a great set of fans. So, why not? Let 2016 be the year of the Cubs -- although it would've been really cool if they'd won it last year with the prediction in one of the Back to the Future movies ("Back to the Future? Will the Cubbies Win the World Series in 2015?"). Who knows, it could be another 108 years before they get another shot (let's hope not).

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Modest Proposal: Teach Basic Statistics in High School

Here's a modest proposal: teach basic statistics in high school. To be sure, many of us fear statistics. This, however, is ironic since most of us use them every day, whether we are discussing sports (e.g., batting averages, passer ratings), the economy (e.g., inflation, gross national product), how we or our children are performing in school (e.g., grade point averages, SAT scores), or the weather (e.g., temperature, wind chill factor). As the economist Charles Wheelan notes:
Students will complain that statistics is confusing and irrelevant. Then the same students will leave the classroom and happily talk over lunch about batting averages (during the summer) or the windchill factor (during the winter) or grade point average (always)… the same people who are perfectly comfortable discussing statistics in the context of sports or the weather or grades will seize up with anxiety when a researcher starts to explain something like the Gini index, which is a standard tool in economics for measuring income inequality.
However, we don't have to seize up with anxiety when learning statistics. Most are relatively easy to understand once they're explained, and while no measure is perfect, statistics allow us to capture a lot of information in a simplified form. More importantly, when they are applied to complex phenomena, they can help us separate the wheat from the chaff, genuine associations from spurious correlations, and actual evidence from selective anecdotes. And in a world where much of what passes for informed debate tends to rely more on the cherry picking of data than the dispassionate analysis of it, statistics can help.

So, let's teach our high school students basic statistics. It doesn't have to be a complete class. It can be a 6-week module of a mathematics course. But doing would help us avoid much of the nonsense we read in the papers, hear in the media, and so on, something that has been especially true during this election season.

Take, for instance, the reaction to polls taken after the first presidential debate. Polls by Morning Consult, YouGov, CNN, and Public Policy Polling (PPP) all found that viewers believed Hillary had won the debate. Trump supporters quickly fired back pointing at polls from TIME, the Drudge Report, and others that showed that Trump had won. The difference? The Morning Consult, YouGov, CNN, and PPP polls are scientific polls, while the TIME and Drudge Report polls are not. For example, the latter allow individuals to vote more than once and don't even try to survey a random sample of voters, a condition that is necessary in order for a survey to be reliable. It is instructive that surveys taken later in the week which showed that Hillary enjoyed a 2-3 bounce after the first debate all but confirmed the results of the scientific polls ("Election Update: Early Polls Suggest A Post-Debate Bounce For Clinton").

The idea behind random sampling is fairly straightforward (although it is hard to pull off). If done correctly, everyone has an equal chance of being surveyed. It is similar to stirring a pot of vegetable soup before tasting it. If we stir it adequately, then a spoonful should give us a pretty good idea how the rest of soup tastes. If we don't and all of the vegetables still lie at the bottom of the pot, then a spoonful won't tell us much at all.

Of course, even random samples seldom get it exactly right. However, statisticians have shown through what is known as the central limit theorem that repeated random samples tend to cluster around the correct answer (also known as the population mean), which is why averaging polls can tell us quite a bit about how people are thinking. It also should make us cautious about cherry picking the results of a single survey. Unfortunately, that's what we often do.

All of which brings us back to why we all should teach statistics in high school. Doing so won't entirely cure the human tendency highlight results that confirm our biases. But it may help us be a little more aware of them. And it may help us engage in more meaningful discussions about the world around us.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Let Starters Finish

I've ranted about this on so many occasions that I'm beginning to lose count ("Not to Beat a Dead Horse" "The Closer Temptation is Hard to Resist" "MLB's Ridiculous Obsession with Closers" "Not Everyone Can Throw Like Mariano Rivera"), but why do some major league managers insist on pulling their starting pitchers when they're pitching well? Two years ago, the San Francisco Giants were playing the St. Louis Cardinals for a berth in the World Series, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny pulled Adam Wainwright after 7 innings even though he'd only thrown 97 pitches, hadn't given up a hit since the 4th inning, and didn't come up to bat in the top of the 8th, so the Cards didn't have to pitch hit for him. Nevertheless, Matheny brought in Pat Neshek, who promptly gave up a game tying homer to Michael Morse, and then the Giants won the NL pennant with Travis Ishikawa's walk off HR in the bottom of the 9th.

Tonight's Giants game against the New York Mets was eerily similar. Met's manager Terry Collins removed the Mets starting pitcher, Noah Syndergaard, after 7th innings although he hadn't allowed a run, given up only two hits, had struck out 10, and issued three walks. He had thrown 108 pitches, but he has the entire offseason to rest. And what happened? The Giants loaded the bases in the 8th, but failed to score a run. But in the top of the 9th, Giants third baseman Conor Gillaspie hit a three run HR off Mets closer, Jeurys Familia, to win the game, assuming that the Giants pitcher, Madison Bumgarner would close it out in the 9th, but I doubt there were too many folks watching the game who didn't think he would. Don't believe me? Look at what Gillaspie said after the game regarding his game winning home run:
First of all, in the at-bat I was pretty excited that Syndergaard wasn’t in there. Let’s get that out there first. He had some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen. And as far as the home run, you know what? I’ll be honest with you, I couldn’t tell you where the pitch was at. Right now, I have no idea where it was. I just know it was up enough to swing at.
The bottom line? This is the time of year when managers should let their aces throw complete games. That's what Giants' manger Bruce Bochy did. And that's why the Giants are still in the playoffs and the Mets are not. Not that I'm complaining...

Friday, September 30, 2016

Hillary Had a Good Week (We'll See if it Continues)

Although the polls had been tightening for a couple of weeks, the weekend when Hillary Clinton made her remarks about Trump's "basket of deplorables" and then nearly passed out at a 9/11 memorial service was the start of a series of bad news cycles for Clinton that negatively effected her poll numbers for a couple of weeks (actually, her numbers didn't move too much; Trump's improved). And by this past Monday afternoon, Trump had almost pulled even according to an average of national and state surveys.

But then Monday night's debate happened. Over the course of the debate bettors (prediction) markets climbed approximately 5 percentage points from about 68% to 74% (i.e., they went from predicting that Hillary had a 68% chance to a 74% chance of winning the election). This rise was confirmed by post-debate polls, at least those that sought to interview a random sample of respondents, which found that Hillary had won the debate, some as high as by a 2-1 margin. And most pundits from both sides of the political aisle agreed. Hillary debate-night win led to an improvement in her standing among state and national polls. An average of polls released later in the week showed that Hillary's lead has increased from approximately a 1-2 percent prior to the debate to a 3-4 percent lead afterward. Heck, even Fox News has Hillary ahead by 3 points. The Times-Picayune/Lucid poll, which was taken completely after the debate, had Clinton with a 10 point lead. That seems a bit high to me but the trend -- the day before the poll had Clinton with a 5 point lead -- is probably a reasonably accurate reflection of the movement in national sentiment, as well as in important swing states ("Election Update: Clinton’s Debate Performance Is Helping Her In Swing States").

Can her good luck continue? Possibly. There are still two more debates, and in this election season it seems that just about anything could happen. So, you never know. But at least for now, things are looking up for Hillary. Negative stories either directly or indirectly linked to Trump have been in the news lately. Trump's surrogate, New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, is getting hammered by former associates in the Bridgegate trial ("Chris Christie's Numbers Have Officially Reached 'Nixon Terriorty'"). And Trump's charitable foundation is repeatedly coming under scrutiny for engaging in activities that charities are not allowed by law to do ("Trump Foundation lacks the certification required for charities that solicit money"). And in the last few days, a report came out that provided evidence that in 1998 one of Trump's companies secretly conducted business with Cuba, violating U.S. laws in the process. And finally, Trump has spent the last couple of days insulting, via Twitter, Alicia Machado, the 1996 Miss Universe winner, whom Trump once referred to as "Miss Piggy" and "Miss Housekeeping" after she gained weight after the 1996 event, once again calling into question his temperament and judgment ("Trump's Overnight Twitter Tirade Sums Up His Weaknesses"). If stories like this continue to pour in, Hillary's road to the White House will get a lot easier.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Can the Giants Get Back on the Road to the Playoffs?

Have you noticed that once people pull into a parking lot, many of them forget how to drive? Skills such as stopping at appropriate places, signaling when turning, awareness of other drivers and pedestrians, and so on, seem to go out the window in their quest for that parking spot that is 20 feet closer to the store than the one they just passed up (never mind that the extra time and money spent on gas isn't worth it).

For whatever reason, I thought of parking lot drivers while lamenting the latest blown save by the San Francisco Giants' bullpen. The 9th inning appears to be their parking lot. Through the first 8 innings of a game, they're as good or better than most teams, but when the 9th inning arrives, all they know about pitching seems to go out the window. They lead the majors with 29 blown saves. No other team contending for a playoff spot has more than 20. Santiago Casilla is the team's poster child for blown saves, but he's not the only guilty party. Plenty of Giant relievers have had a 9th inning meltdowns. Like all Giants' fans, I hope they find their way out of the parking lot and back on to the road to the playoffs. I'm becoming increasingly skeptical, however.

Note: If the Giants don't make it this year, wouldn't a Cubs-Red Sox World Series be great?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Slow Vehicles Must Turn Out

The sign to the right appears quite often on the road to South Shore Lake Tahoe. Apparently, however, most people think that it doesn't apply to them. It doesn't matter whether there's a line of cars stretching back a mile or more, most drivers will not pull over. This is somewhat akin to those drivers who plod along in the left lane of a freeway (aka, "road boulders"), forcing those driving faster to change lanes in order to pass.

The most common excuse is, "I'm going the speed limit" (although there a plenty of drivers who aren't). The problem is that if people want to pass, they will, regardless of how safe or dangerous it is. And there's already plenty of evidence to suggest that most automobile accidents occur when people are changing lanes. So, we need to ask ourselves whether it is more important "being right" (i.e., going the speed limit) or protecting the lives of those around us. I vote for the latter.

Note: In some states, you can get a ticket for not pulling over to let someone pass even if you are going over the speed limit but slower than the flow of traffic ("Left-Lane Passing Laws").