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December 2, 2013

BP Unfiltered

Rereading Nate Silver: 13. Pitch Counts

by Sam Miller

In which Nate Silver does not write about the oppressive nature of life.

Estimating Pitch Counts
April 23, 2003

Abstract: Nate creates a simple way of calculating pitch counts when pitch counts aren’t counted. It works pretty well. It slightly overestimates Greg Maddux pitch counts and underestimates Tom Glavine pitch counts, and fly ballers throw slightly more pitches for some reason that isn’t concluded.

Key Quote: “Not that this is rocket science--the point is that pitch counts aren't any great mystery. The more batters you face, the more pitches you throw; the heavier you are on strikeouts and (especially) walks, the more pitches you throw per batter.”

The Darkest Movie Ever Made: This weekend, I watched a movie called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? You can watch the first 55 minutes of it here, or you can watch the theatrical trailer here,

or you can just read my description of it, here: It’s about a Depression-era dance marathon in Los Angeles. Bunch of couples go into a ballroom, dance continuously (with 10 minute breaks every two hours), people come sit in the crowd to watch them, and the last couple standing wins $1,500. More than 22 hours of dancing a day. How long you figure the winner lasted? Four days? Six days? Twelve days?

Seven months. At least, that’s how long a real couple named Mike Ritof and Edith Boudreaux lasted, at a dance marathon in Chicago. Seven months of sleeping maybe a couple hours a day, in 10-minute increments or standing up on your partner’s shoulders, and spending the entire rest of the time dancing. There’s another report of a woman named Kay Wise who survived nine months (as well as a fire that ripped through a marathon hall and killed three dancers). There was a couple named Al Astro and Edna Gowacke that lasted more than six months in a contest that included physical challeges and sprint contests. The rules were different from place to place--some states wouldn’t allow dancing on Sundays, for instance. But you watch these people dance and slowly lose touch with reality while simultaneously getting welded ever tighter to the hope that they can win, and it turns into the most macabre and depressing ritualistic torture.

These were a big deal at the time. “It seems unbelievable now but there were once fifteen thousand people – promoters, emcees, floor judges, trainers, nurses, cooks, janitors, cashiers, ticket-takers, publicity agents, promotion men, musicians, contestants and even a lawyer – whose main source of income over a number of years came from endurance shows,” wrote Anita O’Day. Over time, many of the dancers were professionalized, raising the bar for victory considerably. “The mood of the marathon was very similar to the aimless, endless movement of superfluous people around and around the country,” writes Frank Calabria in Dance of the Sleepwalkers. “The dance marathon contests, like the Great Depression itself, emphasized the need to endure.” In fact, though, they represented something totally different: The despicable illusion of hope. Of hundreds of couples that put themselves through this torture, all but one get nothing. Mike Ritof and Edith Boudreaux, the couple that kept dancing for seven months? They were the winners. Another couple danced alongside them for seven months and won nothing. And, you know, it makes you think. Who are we competing against? For whose benefit are we really doing? And when is it too late to realize that most of us don’t get to win?

This isn’t a metaphor for anything in this Nate Silver article. I just had nothing to say about a pitch-count estimator.

Tables: 3
Graphs: 0
Equations: 1

On the Nate Silver Must-Read Scale: 1

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

6 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


The bit on dance marathons was amazing. I'm going to cut and paste it and use it in the class I teach, somehow. It's too beautiful not to get at least a bit of an accidental audience.

Dec 02, 2013 14:27 PM
rating: 4

May have been unrelated, but I quite enjoyed the random tangent.

Dec 02, 2013 15:27 PM
rating: 5
John Carter

It was an unforgettable movie. Between that and The Graduate, no wonder I never had much career ambition (but still ended up with a richly well rounded life).

They still have a few eating contests these days. They don't compare to dance marathons by scale, but they are also gross, unhealthy, and a bad bet for the contestants.

At least reality show contestants are better remunerated, but I would hate to be so intimately exposed or pressed into contrived situations in which I would have to act deceitfully, etc.

Dec 02, 2013 21:18 PM
rating: 0
Nathan Aderhold

What a fascinating and depressing bit of American history. I had no idea the origin of dance marathons was so incredibly tragic.

Dec 02, 2013 23:12 PM
rating: 1
BP staff member Jason Wojciechowski
BP staff

Bruce Dern, who at the time was doing a lot of TV work, including a lot of Westerns, has a story in his recent Fresh Air interview that ends "Mom! They Shoot Horses, Don't They is NOT a western!"

Dec 04, 2013 09:42 AM

Thanks for shining a light on an incredible film--one that is largely unknown to the general public, but which has remained secure in my personal top 10 since I first saw it many years ago. Despite being filled with a cast of some very talented actors and an admired director in Sydney Pollack, not one of them did anything close to this good before or afterward.

In an unbelievably coincidental real-life postscript to the movie, actor Gig Young who won an Oscar as the cynical emcee (and who starred in an equally memorable and grim early Twilight Zone episode "Walking Distance") later shot and killed his young wife and then himself less than 10 years after They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was released.

Dec 05, 2013 19:27 PM
rating: 1
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