The Oldest Mistake

Monte Ward traded [Willie] Keeler away for almost nothing because … he made the oldest mistake in management: he focused on what the player couldn’t do, rather than on what he could.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract



What does an American “leftist” look like? According to academics and the inhabitants of Brooklyn and its spiritual suburbs, there are means of tribal recognition: unusual hair or jewelry; a mode of dress either strikingly old-fashioned or futuristic; peculiar eyeglasses, shoes, or other accessories. There’s a deep concern about food, particularly that such food be the product of as small, and preferably foreign, an operation as possible—despite a concomitant enmity of global warming. Their subject of study at college was at minimum one of the humanities, and possibly self-designed. If they are fans of sports at all, it is either extremely obscure, obscenely technical, and does not involve a ball—think bicycle racing—or it is soccer. And so on. Yet, while each of us has exactly a picture of such a person in mind—probably you know at least a few, or are one yourself—that is not what a real American leftist looks like at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In reality, a person of the actual left today drinks macro-, not micro-, brews, studied computer science or some other such discipline at university, and—above all—is a fan of either baseball or football. And why is that? Because such a person understands statistics intuitively—and the great American political battle of the twenty-first century will be led by the followers of Strabo, not Pyrrho.

Each of those two men were Greeks: the one, a geographer, the other a philosopher—the latter often credited with being one of the first “Westerners” to visit India. “Nothing really exists,” Pyrrho reportedly held, “but human life is governed by convention”—a philosophy very like that of the current American “cultural left,” governed as it is by the notion, as put by American literary critic Stanley Fish, that “norms and standards and rules … are in every instance a function or extension of history, convention, and local practice.” Arguably, most of the “political” work of the American academy over the past several generations has been done under that rubric: as Fish and others have admitted in recent years, it’s only by acceding to some version of that doctrine that anyone can work as an American academic in the humanities these days.

Yet while “official” leftism has prospered in the academy under a Pyrrhonian rose, in the meantime enterprises like fantasy football and above all, sabermetrics, have expanded as a matter of “entertainment.” But what an odd form of relaxation! It’s an bizarre kind of escapism that requires a familiarity with both acronyms and the formulas used to compute them: WAR, OPS, DIPS, and above all (with a nod to Greek antecedents), the “Pythagorean expectation.” Yet the work on these matters has, mainly, been undertaken as a purely amateur endeavor—Bill James spent decades putting out his baseball work without any remuneration, until finally being hired latterly by the Boston Red Sox in 2003 (the same year that Michael Lewis published Moneyball, a book about how the Oakland A’s were using methods pioneered by James and his disciples). Still, all of these various methods of computing the value of both a player and a team have a perhaps-unintended effect: that of training the mind in the principle of Greek geographer, Strabo.

“It is proper to derive our explanations from things which are obvious,” Strabo wrote two thousand years ago, in a line that would later be adopted by the Englishman who constructed geology, Charles Lyell. In Lyell’s Principles of Geology (which largely founded the field) Lyell held—in contrast to the mysteriousness of Pyrrho—that the causes of things are likely to those already around us, and not due to unique, unrepeatable events. Similarly, sabermetricians—as opposed to the old-school scouts depicted in the film version of Moneyball—judge players based on their performance on the field, not on their nebulous “promise” or “intangibles.” (In Moneyball scouts were said to judge players on such qualities as the relative attractiveness of their girlfriends, which was said to signify the player’s own confidence in his ability.) Sabermetricians disregard such “methods” of analysis in favor of examination of the acts performed by the player as recorded by statistics.

Why, however, would that methodological commitment lead sabermetricians to be politically “liberal”—or for that matter, why would it lead in a political direction at all? The answer to the latter question is, I suspect, inevitable: sabermetrics, after all, is a discipline well-suited for the purpose of discovering how to run a professional sports team—and in its broadest sense, managing organizations simply is what “politics” is. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for that reason, defined politics as a “practical science”—as the discipline of organizing human beings for particular purposes. It seems inevitable then that at least some people who have spent time wondering about, say, how to organize a baseball team most effectively might turn their imaginations towards some other end.

Still, even were that so, why “liberalism,” however that is defined, as opposed to some other kind political philosophy? Going by anecdotal evidence, after all, the most popular such doctrine among sports fans might be libertarianism. Yet, beside the fact that libertarianism is the philosophy of twelve-year-old boys (not necessarily a knockdown argument against its success), it seems to me that anyone following the methods of sabermetrics will be led towards positions usually called “liberal” in today’s America because from that sabermetrical, Strabonian perspective, certain key features of the American system will nearly instantly jump out.

The first of those features will be that, as it now stands, the American system is designed in a fashion contrary to the first principle of sabermetrical analysis: the Pythagorean expectation. As Charles Hofacker described it in a 1983 article for Baseball Analyst, the “Pythagorean equation was devised by Bill James to predict winning percentage from … the critical difference between runs that [a team] scores and runs that it allows.” By comparing these numbers—the ratio of a team’s runs scored and runs allowed versus the team’s actual winning percentage—James found that a rough approximation of a team’s real value could be determined: generally, a large difference between those two sets of numbers means that something fluky is happening.

If a team scores a lot of runs while also preventing its opponents from scoring, in other words, and yet somehow isn’t winning as many games as those numbers would suggest, then that suggests that that team is either tremendously unlucky or there is some hidden factor preventing success. Maybe, for instance, that team is scoring most of its runs at home because its home field is particularly friendly to the type of hitters the team has … and so forth. A disparity between runs scored/runs allowed and actual winning percentage, in short, compels further investigation.

Weirdly however the American system regularly produces similar disparities—and yet while, in the case of a baseball team, that would set off alerts for a sabermetrician, no such alarms are set off in the case of the so-called “official” American left, which apparently has resigned itself to the seemingly inevitable. In fact, instead of being the subject of curiosity and even alarm, many of the features of the U.S. constitution, like the Senate and the Electoral College—not to speak of the Supreme Court itself—are expressly designed to thwart what Chief Justice Earl Warren said was “the clear and strong command of our Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause”: the idea that “Legislators represent people … [and] are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.” Whereas a professional baseball team, in the post-James era, would be remiss if it were to ignore a difference between its ratio of runs scored and allowed and its games won and lost, under the American political system the difference between the will of the electorate as expressed by votes cast and the actual results of that system as expressed by legislation passed is not only ignored, but actively encouraged.

“The existence of the United States Senate”—for example wrote Justice Harlan in his dissent to the 1962 case of Baker v. Carr—“is proof enough” that “those who have the responsibility for devising a system of representation may permissibly consider that factors other than bare numbers should be taken into account.” That is, the existence of the U.S. Senate, which sends two senators from each state regardless of each state’s population, is support enough for those who believe—as the American “cultural left” does—in the importance of factors like “history” or the like in political decisions, as opposed to, say, the will of the American voters as expressed by the tally of all American votes.

As Jonathan Cohn remarked in The New Republic not long ago, in the Senate “predominantly rural, thinly populated states like Arkansas and North Dakota have the exact same representation as more urban, densely populated states like California and New York”—meaning that voters in those rural states have more effective political power than voters in the urban ones do. In sum, the Senate is, as Cohn says, one of Constitution’s “levers for thwarting the majority.” Or to put it in sabermetrical terms, it is a means of hiding a severe disconnect in America’s Pythagorean expectation.

Some will defend that disconnect, as Justice Harlan did over fifty years ago, on the grounds of terms familiar to the “cultural left”: that of “history” and “local practice” and so forth. In other words, that is how the Constitution originally constructed the American state. Yet, attempting (in Cohn’s words) to “prevent majorities from having the power to determine election outcomes” is a dangerous undertaking; as the Atlantic’s Ta Nehisi-Coates wrote recently about certain actions taken by the Republican party designed to discourage voting, to “see the only other major political party in the country effectively giving up on convincing voters, and instead embarking on a strategy of disenfranchisement, is a bad sign for American democracy.” In baseball, the sabermetricians know, a team with a high difference between its “Pythagorean expectation” and its win-loss record will usually “snap back” to the mean. In politics, as everyone since before Aristotle has known, such a “snap back” is usually a bit more costly than, say, the price of a new pitcher—which is to say that, if you see any American revolutionaries around you right now, he or she is likely wearing, not a poncho or a black turtleneck, but an Oakland A’s hat.        


Several And A Single Place


What’s the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate?


The explanation, says labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, possesses amazing properties: he can, the one-time congressional candidate says, “use it to explain everything … because it seems to work on any issue.” But before trotting out what that explanation is, let me select an issue that might appear difficult to explain: gun control, and more specifically just why, as Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post wrote in July, “it’s never the right time to discuss gun control.” “In recent years,” as Ingraham says, “politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum have responded to mass shootings with an invocation of the phrase ‘now is not the time,’ or a close variant.” That inability even to discuss gun control is a tremendously depressing fact, at least insofar as you have sympathy for the needless waste of lives gun deaths are—until you realize that we Americans have been here before. And that demonstrates, just maybe, that Thomas Geoghegan has a point.

Over a century and a half ago, Americans were facing another issue that, in the words of one commentator, “must not be discussed at all.” It was so grave an issue, in fact, that very many Americans found “fault with those who denounce it”—a position that this commenter found odd: “You say that you think [it] is wrong,” he observed, “but you denounce all attempts to restrain it.” That’s a pretty strange position, because who thinks something is wrong, but yet is “not willing to deal with [it] as a wrong?” What other subject could be called a wrong, but should not be called “wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics,” and conversely should not be called “wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion.” To sum up, this commenter said, “there is no single place, according to you, where this wrong thing can properly be called wrong!”

The place where this was said was New Haven, Connecticut; the time, March of 1860; the speaker, a failed senatorial candidate now running for president for a brand-new political party. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

He was talking about slavery.

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To many historians these days, much about American history can be explained by the fact that, as historian Leonard Richards of the University of Massachusetts put it in his 2000 book, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860, so “long as there was an equal number of slave and free states”—which was more or less official American policy until the Civil War—“the South needed just one Northern vote to be an effective majority in the Senate.” That meant that controlling “the Senate, therefore, was child’s play for southern leaders,” and so “time and again a bill threatening the South [i.e., slavery above all else] made its way through the House only to be blocked in the Senate.” It’s a stunningly obvious point, at least in retrospect—at least for this reader—but I’d wager that few, if any, Americans have really thought through the consequences of this fact.

Geoghegan for example has noted that—as he put it in 1998’s The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life—even today the Senate makes it exceedingly difficult to pass legislation: as he wrote, at present only “two-fifths of the Senate, or forty-one senators, can block any bill.” That is, it takes at least sixty senatorial votes to overcome the threat known as the “filibuster,” the invocation of which requires a supermajority to overcome. The filibuster however is not the only anti-majoritarian feature of the Senate, which is also equipped with such quaint customs as the “secret hold” and the quorum call and so forth, each of which can be used to delay a bill’s hearing—and so buy time to squelch potential legislation. Yet, these radically disproportionate senatorial powers merely mask the basic proportionate inequality at the heart of the Senate as an institution itself.

As political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer point out in their Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, the Senate is, because it makes small states the equal of large ones, “the most malapportioned legislature in the democratic world.” As Geoghegan has put the point, “the Senate depart[s] too much from one person, one vote,” because (as of the late 1990s) “90 percent of the population base as represented in the Senate could vote yes, and the bill would still lose.” Although Geoghegan wrote that nearly two decades ago, that is still largely true today: in 2013, Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post observed that while the “smallest 20 states amount to 11.27 percent of the U.S. population,” their senators “can successfully filibuster [i.e., block] legislation.” Thus, although the Senate is merely one antidemocratic feature of the U.S. Constitution, it’s an especially egregious one that, by itself, largely prevented a serious discussion of slavery in the years before the Civil War—and today prevents the serious discussion of gun control.

The headline of John Bresnahan’s 2013 article in Politico about the response to the Sandy Hook massacre, for example, was “Gun control hits brick wall in Senate.” Bresnahan quoted Nevadan Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader at the time, as saying that “the overwhelming number of Senate Republicans—and that is a gross understatement—are ignoring the voices of 90 percent of the American people.” The final vote was 54-46: in other words, the majority of the Senate was in favor of controls, but because the pro-control senators did not have a supermajority, the measure failed. In short, the measure was a near-perfect illustration of how the Senate can kill a measure that 90 percent of Americans favor.

And you know? Whatever you think about gun control, as an issue, if 90 percent of Americans want something, and what prevents them is not just a silly rule—but the same rule that protected slavery—well then, as Abraham Lincoln might tell us, that’s a problem.

It’s a problem because far from the Senate being—as George Washington supposedly said to Thomas Jefferson—the saucer that cools off politics, it’s actually a pressure cooker that exacerbates issues, rather than working them out. Imagine, say, had the South not had the Senate to protect its “peculiar institution” in the years leading to the Civil War: gradually, immigration to the North would have slowly turned the tide in Congress, which may have led to a series of small pieces of legislation that, eventually, would have abolished slavery.

Perhaps that may not have been a good thing: Ta Nehisi Coates, of The Atlantic, has written that every time he thinks of the 600,000-plus deaths that occurred as a result of the Civil War, he feels “positively fucking giddy.” That may sound horrible to some, of course, but there is something to the notion of “redemptive violence” when it comes to that war; Coates for instance cites the contemporary remarks of Private Thomas Strother, United States Colored Troops, in the Christian Recorder, the 19th century paper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church:

To suppose that slavery, the accursed thing, could be abolished peacefully and laid aside innocently, after having plundered cradles, separated husbands and wives, parents and children; and after having starved to death, worked to death, whipped to death, run to death, burned to death, lied to death, kicked and cuffed to death, and grieved to death; and worst of all, after having made prostitutes of a majority of the best women of a whole nation of people … would be the greatest ignorance under the sun.

“Were I not the descendant of slaves, if I did not owe the invention of my modern self to a bloody war,” Coates continues, “perhaps I’d write differently.” Maybe in some cosmic sense Coates is wrong, and violence is always wrong—but I don’t think I’m in a position to judge, particularly since I, as in part the descendant of Irish men and women in America, am aware that the Irish themselves may have codified that sort of “blood sacrifice theory” in the General Post Office of Dublin during Easter Week of 1916.

Whatever you think of that, there is certainly something to the idea that, because slaves were the single biggest asset in the entire United States in 1860, there was little chance the South would have agreed to end slavery without a fight. As historian Steven Deyle has noted in his Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life, the value of American slaves in 1860 was “equal to about seven times the total value of all currency in circulation in the country, three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop and forty-eight times the total expenditure of the federal government”—certainly a value much more than it takes to start a war. But then had slavery not had, in effect, government protection during those antebellum years, it’s questionable whether slaves ever might have become such valuable commodities in the first place.

Far from “cooling” things off, in other words, it’s entirely likely that the U.S. Senate, and other anti-majoritarian features of the U.S. Constitution, actually act to enflame controversy. By ensuring that one side does not need to come to the bargaining table, in fact, all such oddities merely postpone—they do not prevent—the day of reckoning. They  build up fuel, ensuring that when the day finally arrives, it is all the more terrible. Or, to put it in the words of an old American song: these American constitutional idiosyncrasies merely trample “out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

That truth, it seems, marches on.