Apr 302003

It requires a certain type of mind to excite itself over “fragments of fragments,” but the normally sober baseball analyst Rob Neyer exults giddily over them in his column the other day.

The question at issue is how lucky the 2002 Detroit Tigers were. On the one hand, they lost 106 games. On the other, if you apply Pythagorean analysis to their run margin, they “should” have lost 112 games. So they were lucky. But on the third hand, as one of Neyer’s correspondents points out, they scored fewer runs than one would expect from their offensive components, and allowed more than would expect from the offensive components of their opponents, and they really should have lost 98 games. So they were unlucky.

But why stop there?

All hits, for example, are not created equal. If two players hit 120 singles, we consider those accomplishments the same. But what if one of the players hit 80 line drives and 40 ground balls with eyes, and the other hit 120 line drives? Would we expect them to match performances the next season?

No, we wouldn’t. We’d expect the guy with 120 line drives to outperform the guy who got lucky with the grounders.

That is just one tiny example, of hundreds we could come up with. And for the people who care about such things, finding the fragments of the fragments of the fragments is the next great frontier.

Ah, fragments of fragments of fragments. Perennial employment for baseball analysts! More work for Rob Neyer!

Neyer analogizes this process to pricing financial derivatives, which I happen to know something about, having worked as a programmer for several years for a software company that did exactly that. On slow afternoons the analytics boys would quarrel over whether to construct the yield curve using a two- or three-factor Heath-Jarrow-Morton model. Sure, with a two-factor model you might be able to price the bond to four decimal points, but with a three-factor model you can price it to seven! Eventually someone, usually me, would have to rain on their parade by pointing out that bonds are priced in sixteenths (of a dollar), and that the bid/offer spread dwarfs anything beyond the first decimal point.

In baseball granularity is not measured in sixteenths, but in wins. Since it takes about eight to ten additional runs for each additional win, any variance below five runs or so is a big, fat engineering zero. And I can assure Rob Neyer without even firing up a spreadsheet that a team’s line drive/ground ball ratio when hitting singles won’t get you anywhere near five runs. It’s barely conceivable that it could help you draft a fantasy team. Knock yourself out.

Hitting has been well understood since John Thorn and Pete Palmer published The Hidden Game of Baseball twenty years ago. All work since has been on the margins. The new frontiers in baseball analysis lie elsewhere. Pitching is still imperfectly understood, because its results are mixed with fielding, which, until Bill James’s new book on Win Shares, was not understood at all. Voros McCracken (where do you sign up for a name like that?) recently demonstrated that a pitcher’s hits allowed, relative to balls in play, is almost entirely random. That’s serious work. Fragments of fragments is masturbation.

The lesson here, which applies more broadly to the social sciences, is not to seek more precision than is proper to your subject. Fortunately Professors Mises and Hayek have already given this lecture, and I don’t have to.

(Update: Craig Henry comments.)

Apr 292003

I’ve added a new Hall of Reciprocity on the upper left, reserved for all you generous souls who keep me in your permanent links. It’s the least I can do. Most of these sites are very good indeed, they all show exemplary taste, and I read every one of them, at least occasionally.

Apr 292003

Eugene Volokh dispenses some advice, worth, as he says, at least what you paid for it, on how to promote one’s blog. It’s sound and well-considered, like nearly everything he writes, but to my mind (and God knows I’m not exactly an authority on this topic) he omits one important thing, maybe the most important thing. Comment on other people’s blogs. Leave comments on their blogs and write responses on your own. Some say you ought to notify bloggers when you reply to them, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Like every other blogger I comb through my reefer logs, and if you write something about me rest assured that I will find it. This is Dale Carnegie 101. People will show interest in what you say if you show interest in what they say.

When the chips are really down, do what I do: comment on Steven Den Beste. He is immensely fair-minded, everybody reads him, and if you say something reasonably intelligent about one of his posts he will find it and link it. It’s the one sure solution when you’re hurting for traffic.

(Update: Floyd McWilliams says pretty much the same thing, but nearly an hour later. You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to stay ahead of me, like before noon.)

(Another: Marduk comments. So does Dr. Weevil. And brmic too. Clearly I left out the best advice of all: write posts about getting linked.)

Apr 272003

In all the fuss over Rick Santorum’s foolish remarks, the major interference of the government in the bedroom has gone largely unremarked: It marries people.

Marriage used to bring certain responsibilities, notably the obligation to support one’s dependents and not to divorce absent extraordinary circumstances. But the first has nothing to do with legal marriage, and the second is obsolescent. With the divorce rate in this country in excess of 50%, “till death do us part” has become an absurd fiction.

The privileges, however, remain. Married couples enjoy evidentiary immunity, special immigration rights, and various insurance and tax advantages. Some of these are conferred by the State, but most are not. Such matters as inheritance, adoption, joint leases, and child custody are agreements between private parties that could be easily arranged without State interference. Other outside private parties, like insurance companies, voluntarily confer benefits on married couples, which again is no matter for the State. Insurance companies could easily ask you if you live in a monogamous relationship and give you a rate break on that basis, the same way they now ask you if you smoke.

As for the State privileges of marriage, why should they exist at all? Why should husbands and wives not be permitted to testify against each other in court, except possibly to provide a plot point in Witness for the Prosecution? The key tax advantage to marriage lies in being able to pass an estate to one’s spouse without estate tax; surely it would be more rational simply to repeal the estate tax. The marriage exception to immigration law employs a lot of INS bureaucrats; is this a virtue?

Homosexuals who promote laws protecting single-sex unions are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. If you want to kick the State out of the bedroom, the answer cannot be to take a special privilege and make it more inclusive. Many people object to homosexuality on moral grounds, and there is force to the argument that the State ought not to grant special privileges to an arrangement that many, or even the majority, of its citizens consider immoral. The proper question is, why should the State grant special privileges to any particular living arrangement?

I don’t object to the conventional nuclear family. On the contrary, raising children under one roof with a mother and father has proved to be enormously popular, for excellent reasons. This very fact, however, makes it absurd for the State to privilege Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis over Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. It’s as if the State were to subsidize the deodorant industry on the grounds that the vast majority of Americans use deodorant. If anything requires special protection, surely it’s the minority arrangements, not the majority ones.

If the State did not marry people, they would doubtless marry on their own, for religious and other reasons, again without objection from me. Even today, people often describe themselves as married when they lack the certificate; my girlfriend of seventeen years and I often do so ourselves, because it’s too much trouble to explain. I’m all for marriage. Just keep it out of City Hall.

Now I grant that for homosexuals, politically, a campaign against legal marriage is not a winning argument. What it is is a logical argument.

(Update: Jeff Bryant argues that the State’s principal interest lies not in marriage, but divorce.)

Apr 272003

The hit counter passed 100,000 this week. A poor week’s work for some, but not bad for ten months, considering my sometimes esoteric content, and certainly more than I expected when I began. Thanks to everyone who came.

Apr 242003

Sent to The New York Times today. OK, it’s barrel-fishing. I had some free time.

To the Editors:

Bob Herbert’s mendacious column of April 24th on the near-execution of Delma Banks Jr. in Texas omits every piece of evidence that convicted him. Banks was the last man seen with the murder victim, Wayne Whitehead. He unwittingly led the police to the home of Charles Cook, where a gun was found that was matched to the murder on unrebutted ballistics evidence. Cook testified that Banks showed up at his house the morning after the murder with the gun and Whitehead’s car. None of this was disputed at the time or to this day. It is true that the prosecution witnesses perjured themselves and later recanted on minor matters, that the prosecution committed various acts of misconduct, and that on this basis Banks probably deserves another trial. But “a complete reading of the record, including facts uncovered during his appeals, shows that he is most likely innocent”? Come on. If Banks didn’t commit the murder himself, he must know a good deal about who did. So why isn’t he talking?

Herbert is no better with logic. He hauls out the tired argument that the death penalty should be abolished because executions occur far more frequently when whites are the murder victims than when blacks are. Assume this is true. How does it prove that the executions that do take place are unjust? Justice is an individual, not a social matter. One could as easily conclude that more murderers of blacks should be executed.

Sincerely yours,

Apr 222003

It’s been a while since I’ve thrown a sop to my baseball-oriented readers and the season is under way, so I’m gonna make it up to you with a new statistic, because the one thing baseball suffers from is not enough statistics.

I was trying to explain the game to an Icelandic friend of mine the other day. What’s with guys charging the mound? he wanted to know. (This from a hockey fan.) Well, they get upset when pitchers throw at them, I said. So why do the pitchers throw at them? he asked. To instill fear, I said. It’s a lot harder to hit when you’re worrying that the next pitch might come at your head. Don’t pitchers get thrown out for doing that? he asked. Yes and no, I explained. It’s complicated. He asks, can’t they at least keep track of the pitchers who do it all the time and punish them later? Why yes, I mused. Yes they can. And then and there I conceived the VI, or Viciousness Index.

VI relies on the premise that a pitcher’s true wildness can be roughly judged by the number of walks he allows. The fewer he allows, the better idea he has of where the ball is going most of the time. So if he allows very few walks and still hits a lot of batters, the way Pedro Martinez does, one can assume that it’s not entirely or even mostly by accident. Therefore VI = HBP/BB. I submit this will prove an excellent index to pitcher viciousness.

I’d like to oblige you with some actual numbers, but HBP pitcher data turns out to be scarce. It’s not in the Lahman database, Baseball Reference doesn’t have it, and that means I don’t have it either. In lieu of numbers, I offer two hypotheses. First, pitchers with headhunting reputations, like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, will have high VIs. Second, the VI leaders, seasonally and career, will be a better set of pitchers than the VI trailers. (This is of course largely because the trailers walk more hitters. A stronger version is that if you match pitchers with similar walk/inning ratios, the ones with the higher VIs will tend to be better.) If somebody out there has HBP data for pitchers and wants to share it with me so I can confirm or deny, I pledge that I will not only publish the lifetime and 2002 leaders for the Viciousness Index, but I will add the data to my pitching search engine. Now is that a deal or what?

(Update: I’ve mentioned before how impressed I am with my commenters — it’s a regular little salon around here — but Greg Padgett has outdone himself. He actually grabbed the HB numbers from the Yahoo MLB database and posted the VI leaders and trailers, both raw and adjusted, for 2002 in the comments. He also extracted a few VI comparisons for pitchers with similar walk rates. I’ll have more to say about this later, but on casual inspection the results are inconclusive. There are some excellent pitchers at the top, like Pedro Martinez, Brad Radke, Derek Lowe, and Mark Mulder, but there are some pretty good pitchers at the bottom too, like Bartolo Colon and Jason Schmidt. Each end of the list has its share of washouts too. I suspect career results will be more conclusive, since we’re dealing with a relatively rare occurrence. Adjusted VI doesn’t range much beyond plus or minus 5 in a single season. But go read Greg’s comment.)

Apr 212003

A larval town, Arcata, CA, pop. 16,000, puffs itself up like a banded newt, seeking not a mate but media attention, and lo! it succeeds. Arcata already has a foreign policy, like all self-respecting municipalities these days, including my dear old Manhattan, bless its grimy heart. Arcata is against the war. It is against global warming. And now it is against the Patriot Act.

When Arcata is against stuff it passes resolutions, and so Arcata “has become the first in the nation to pass an ordinance that outlaws voluntary compliance with the Patriot Act.” Outlaws voluntary compliance, mind you. “I call this a nonviolent, preemptive attack,” says David Meserve, the Arcata freshman City Council member and latter-day Jefferson Davis who drafted the ordinance, bravely sounding the call to nonviolent arms.

Arcata objects, in particular, to noxious provisions of the Patriot Act that allow the FBI to commandeer information from libraries and bookstores about the reading habits of their patrons. Earth to Meserve: law requires force, and in a showdown between the United States Army and the Arcata Municipal Police and Affiliated Busybodies Association, I know where I’m putting my money. You want to condemn the Patriot Act, fine; I’ll be there right beside you. You want to try to force people to refuse to comply with the Feds, on pain of…on pain of…on pain of, let’s see, a serious talking-to and being sent to bed without supper? Think it over, OK? I would call the whole affair sophomoric, but for the fact that Meserve is not yet a sophomore.

(Update: Floyd McWilliams has another little California town that could, and a bonus fun fact about Arcata and the VodkaPundit, Stephen Green. Sorry no, you’ll just have to follow the link.)

(Another: Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Juan Non-Volokh notes that in Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the state and local officials could not be compelled to enforce a federal regulatory program — in that case, the Brady Act. So Meserve may actually have a legal case after all.)

Apr 192003

I note, belatedly, my loss in the Briffa/Grauniad contest to Cinderella. Here’s his link, as promised. Briffa fell on April 7th. Cindy had April 5th. I had April 1st. Let the gloating begin. While you’re there, check out his latest commentary on Pascal Bruckner.

Ian Hamet has an appreciation of the anime director Miyazaki Hayao, whose movies I’ve never seen but now want to see, and you can’t ask much more from an appreciation than that.

The Blowhards have been en fuego, as they say on ESPN, with Friedrich on scale-free networks and Michael on Econ for Poets, and really, the whole damn site has been great since the two of them finally finished their taxes.

Airline employees, as usual, aren’t any too happy with their executives, but this time Megan McArdle is passing out the pitchforks.

Sasha and Andrew need rear-door handles for their 1991 Peugeot — I kid you not — and they’re willing to make a deal.

Finally, Julian Sanchez’s economic analysis of regime change, responding to Henry Farrell’s, should keep you off the streets for a while.