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November 21, 2013

BP Unfiltered

Rereading Nate Silver: 10. On The Future

by Sam Miller

We skip over Projected American League Dollar Values for 2003 and Projected National League Dollar Values for 2003 and How PECOTA Fared At Tout Wars, but do stop to spend a little time with Nate's final PECOTA piece of the spring.

PECOTA Five-Year Forecasts
April 2, 2003

Abstract: Nate makes the case for running five-year projections--he was, he wrote, the only one projecting multiple years out at the time--and ranks the players and teams with the best outlooks over the next half decade. As with all of the PECOTA articles at the time, there are musings about the nature of projection and the assumptions that go into early PECOTA, which give such articles a bit more relevance today than the projections themselves have. Something he says in his intro (see below) gets to one of the fundamental shifts in fandom that Moneyball/BP/Nate himself brought about. The projections themselves, of course, are dramatic irony candy: “It's a testament to PECOTA's distrust of pitching prospects that the Giants place as low as they do. With apologies to Mr. Foppert, Mr. Ainsworth, and Mr. Williams, the Giants' situation somewhat resembles that of the early 90s Athletics, who relied on a pitching-first draft strategy--including the infamous four aces--to cover up for an aging, declining core. An elbow twinge here, a torn labrum there, and the Giants will be ill-equipped to compete once Barry takes up golf.”

Key Quote: “I knew it was bad when, on opening night, I found myself rooting not for my favorite team, or my favorite players, or even the talent on my fantasy rosters, but for the PECOTA forecasts. David Eckstein can't get a hit! He's a collapse candidate! That little tow-headed twerp! Michael Young? Michael Young?!? You're killing me, man, killing me.

Fundamental Shift In Fandom That Moneyball/BP/Nate Himself Brought About: Baseball writers often talk about how their rooting changes after they start covering a team. They still root, they say, but they root for stories, rather than for a team or a player. My experience was different: After I started writing, and getting into arguments, I began to root for the things I predicted to come true. I think most writers do.

I can’t prove that this is because of PECOTA, but something changed in me when I began to self-identify as a stathead, back when we were still self-identifying. Rather than arguing about who was better, Mays or Mantle, the arguments became who would be better, Mohr or Tucker. The data we had, and the new awareness we had, felt wasted merely recording the past; we had to use it to predict the future better. After all, who cares which player had been better? There was no value to recognizing something that had already happened and was floating downstream, irretrievably away from us. The value was in being able to capture the next win.

Shifting to a future-focused debate changed all of our conversations. Mays or Mantle could never be resolved, and nobody but a crank would ever think it could. But when we started arguing about which things would happen, we started to have something on the line. We would be proven right, or wrong. If we were right, it would somehow validate our world views. You see this when beat writers tweet needling I-told-you-so’s when an internet favorite doesn’t turn out to be an undervalued breakout candidate after all, or when an overrated clubhouse veteran actually comes through with the big hit. You see it when controversial players like Mike Napoli or Russell Branyan live up to forecasts, and we feel actually satisfied that their managers were wrong (and we were right!) all along. We’ve actually invested something in our beliefs now. I’d hypothesize that this shift led to a lot more hostility--the more personally invested we are in our opinions, the more defensive we get when attacked--but also to a lot more intellectual honesty.

Occasionally, there will be a put-up-or-shut-up challenge issued publicly. Here’s the first one I found in a quick Google search:

Piers Morgan offered $1 million to survive 1,000 vaccine shots; Alex Jones and Health Ranger announce vaccine challenge on national radio

There was the time Donald Trump offered Barack Obama $5 million to prove...something about himself. The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. These things are almost always dumb, gimmicky, almost cheap shots. But they all follow a basic idea that anybody can say anything, or even believe anything, but when there are actual stakes involved the real truth comes out. (Call it the No Atheists In Foxholes principle.) In a way, we used to be fans (and writers) who could say any dumb thing we wanted about baseball. Then somebody decided, hey, let’s change the conversation to something we could test. Let’s predict the future. It’s our own self-imposed million-dollar challenge.

Tables: 11 or so
Graphs: 0
Equations: 0

On the Nate Silver Must-Read Scale: 2

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Nate Silver

4 comments have been left for this article.

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The Lineup Card: 10 Fr... (11/20)
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BP Unfiltered: Rereadi... (11/20)
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