Buck Dancer’s Choice

Buck Dancer’s Choice: “a tune that goes back to Saturday-night dances, when the Buck, or male partner, got to choose who his partner would be.”
—Taj Mahal. Oooh So Good ‘n’ Blues. (1973).

 

“Goddamn it,” Scott said, as I was driving down the Kennedy Expressway towards Medinah Country Club. Scott is another caddie I sometimes give rides to; he’s living in the suburbs now and has to take the train into the city every morning to get his methadone pill, where I pick him up and take him to work. On this morning, Scott was distracting himself, as he often does, from the traffic outside by playing, on his phone, the card game known as spades—a game in which, somewhat like contract bridge, two players team up against an opposing partnership. On this morning, he was matched with a bad partner—a player who had, it came to light later, not trumped a ten of spades with the king the other player had in possession, and instead had played a three of spades. (In so doing, Scott’s incompetent partner thereby negated the value of the latter while receiving nothing in return.) Since, as I agree, that sounds relentlessly boring, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the whole complaint—until I realized that not only did Scott’s grumble about his partner essentially describe the chief event of the previous night’s baseball game, but also why so many potential Democratic voters will likely sit out this election. After all, arguably the best Democratic candidate for the presidency this year will not be on the ballot in November.

What had happened the previous night was described on ESPN’s website as “one of the worst managerial decisions in postseason history”: in a one-game, extra-innings, playoff between the Baltimore Orioles and and the Toronto Blue Jays, Orioles manager Buck Showalter used six relief pitchers after starter Chris Tillman got pulled in the fifth inning. But he did not order his best reliever, Zach Britton, into the game at all. During the regular season, Britton had been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball; as ESPN observed, Britton had allowed precisely one earned run since April, and as Jonah Keri wrote for CBS Sports, over the course of the year Britton posted an Earned Run Average (.53) that was “the lowest by any pitcher in major league history with that many innings [67] pitched.” (And as Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky remarked the next day, Britton had “the best ground ball rate in baseball”—which, given that Orioles ultimately lost on a huge, moon-shot walk-off home run by Edwin Encarnacion, seems especially pertinent.) Despite the fact that the game went 11 innings, Showalter did not put Britton on the mound even once—which is to say that the Orioles ended their season with one of their best weapons sitting on the bench.

Showalter had the king of spades in his hand—but neglected to play him when it mattered. He defended himself later by saying, essentially, that he is the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, and that everyone else was lost in hypotheticals. “That’s the way it went,” the veteran manager said in the post-game press conference—as if the “way it went” had nothing to do with Showalter’s own choices. Some journalists speculated, in turn, that Showalter’s choices were motivated by what Deadspin called “the long-held, slightly-less-long-derided philosophy that teams shouldn’t use their closers in tied road games, because if they’re going to win, they’re going to need to protect a lead anyway.” In this possible view, Showalter could not have known how long the game would last, and could only know that, until his team scored some runs, the game would continue. If so, then it might be possible to lose by using your ace of spades too early.

Yet, not only did Showalter deny that such was a factor in his thinking—“It [had] nothing to do with ‘philosophical,’” he said afterwards—but such a view takes things precisely backward: it’s the position that imagines the Orioles scoring some runs first that’s lost in hypothetical thinking. Indisputably, the Orioles needed to shut down the Jays in order to continue the game; the non-hypothetical problem presented to the Orioles manager was that the O’s needed outs. Showalter had the best instrument available to him to make those outs … but didn’t use him. And that is to say that it was Showalter who got lost in his imagination, not the critics. By not using his best pitcher Showalter was effectively reacting to an imaginative hypothetical scenario, instead of responding to the actual facts playing out before him.

What Showalter was flouting, in other words, was a manner of thinking that is arguably the reason for what successes there are in the present world: probability, the first principle of which is known as the Law of Large Numbers. First conceived by a couple of Italians—Gerolamo Cardano, the first man known to have devised the idea, during the sixteenth century, and Jacob Bernoulli, who publicized it during the eighteenth—the Law of Large Numbers holds that, as Bernoulli put it in his Ars Conjectandi from 1713, “the more observations … are taken into account, the less is the danger of straying.” Or, that the more observations, the less the danger of reaching wrong conclusions. What Bernoulli is saying, in other words, is that in order to demonstrate the truth of something, the investigator should look at as many instances as possible: a rule that is, largely, the basis for science itself.

What the Law of Large Numbers says then is that, in order to determine a course of action, it should first be asked, “what is more likely to happen, over the long run?” In the case of the one-game playoff, for instance, it’s arguable that Britton, who has one of the best statistical records in baseball, would have been less likely to give up the Encarnacion home run than the pitcher who did (Ubaldo Jimenez, 2016 ERA 5.44) was. Although Jimenez, for example, was not a bad ground ball pitcher in 2015—he had a 1.85 ground ball to fly ball ratio that season, putting him 27th out of 78 pitchers, according to SportingCharts.com—his ratio was dwarfed by Britton’s: as J.J. Cooper observed just this past month for Baseball America, Britton is “quite simply the greatest ground ball pitcher we’ve seen in the modern, stat-heavy era.” (Britton faced 254 batters in 2016; only nine of them got an extra-base hit.) Who would you rather have on the mound in a situation where a home run (which is obviously a fly ball) can end not only the game, but the season?

What Bernoulli (and Cardano’s) Law of Large Numbers does is define what we mean by the concept, “the odds”: that is, the outcome that is most likely to happen. Bucking the odds is, in short, precisely the crime Buck Showalter committed during the game with the Blue Jays: as Deadspin’s Petchesky wrote, “the concept that you maximize value and win expectancy by using your best pitcher in the highest-leverage situations is not ‘wisdom’—it is fact.” As Petchesky goes on to say “the odds are the odds”—and Showalter, by putting all those other pitchers on the mound instead of Britton, ignored those odds.

As it happens, “bucking the odds” is just what the Democratic Party may be doing by adopting Hillary Clinton as their nominee instead of Bernie Sanders. As a number of articles this past spring noted, at that time many polls were saying that Sanders had better odds of beating Donald Trump than Clinton did. In May, Linda Qiu and Louis Jacobson noted in The Daily Beast Sanders was making the argument that “he’s a better nominee for November because he polls better than Clinton in head-to-head matches against” Trump. (“Right now,” Sanders said then on the television show, Meet the Press, “in every major poll … we are defeating Trump, often by big numbers, and always at a larger margin than Secretary Clinton is.”) Then, the evidence suggested Sanders was right: “Out of eight polls,” Qiu and Jacobson wrote, “Sanders beat Trump eight times, and Clinton beat Trump seven out of eight times,” and “in each case, Sanders’s lead against Trump was larger.” (In fact, usually by double digits.) But, as everyone now knows, that argument did not help to secure the nomination for Sanders: in August, Clinton became the Democratic nominee.

To some, that ought to be the end of the story: Sanders tried, and (as Showalter said after his game), “it didn’t work out.” Many—including Sanders himself—have urged fellow Democrats to put the past behind them and work towards Clinton’s election. Yet, that’s an odd position to take regarding a campaign that, above everything, was about the importance of principle over personality. Sanders’ campaign was, if anything, about the same point enunciated by William Jennings Bryan at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, in the famous “Cross of Gold” speech: the notion that the “Democratic idea … has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.” Bryan’s idea, as ought to clear, has certain links to Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers—among them, the notion that it’s what happens most often (or to the most people) that matters.

That’s why, after all, Bryan insisted that the Democratic Party “cannot serve plutocracy and at the same time defend the rights of the masses.” Similarly—as Michael Kazin of Georgetown University described the point in May for The Daily Beast—Sanders’ campaign fought for a party “that would benefit working families.” (A point that suggests, it might be noted, that the election of Sanders’ opponent, Clinton, would benefit others.) Over the course of the twentieth century, in other words, the Democratic Party stood for the majority against the depredations of the minority—or, to put it another way, for the principle that you play the odds, not hunches.

“No past candidate comes close to Clinton,” wrote FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten last May, “in terms of engendering strong dislike a little more than six months before the election.” It’s a reality that suggests, in the first place, that the Democratic Party is hardly attempting to maximize their win expectancy. But more than simply those pragmatic concerns regarding her electability, however, Clinton’s candidacy represents—from the particulars of her policy positions, her statements to Wall Street financial types, and the existence of electoral irregularities in Iowa and elsewhere—a repudiation, not simply of Bernie Sanders the person, but of the very idea about the importance of the majority the Democratic Party once proposed and defended. What that means is that, even were Hillary Clinton to be elected in November, the Democratic Party—and those it supposedly represents—will have lost the election.

But then, you probably don’t need any statistics to know that.

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