Friday, May 29, 2015

Baseball Success: Skill, Luck, and Howard Cosell

I can't remember which World Series it was, but Howard Cosell was calling play-by-play and Hall of Fame pitcher, Jim Palmer, was color. At some point in the game, the team at bat loaded the bases on three bloop hits. Cowell, who didn't know a lot about baseball, remarked, "Do you think they'll pull the pitcher? He's been taking quite a pounding." To which Palmer responded, "Well, it's not as if they've been hitting the ball really hard, Howard."

Palmer's point, of course, is that there is a lot of luck in baseball. A pitcher can make a perfect pitch, fool the batter completely, but still with a bit of bad luck, wind up with a runner on base. Or, this case, runners on all three bases. It goes both ways, of course. A hitter can hit the ball on the nose every time up but end up with no hits in a game. I heard that once Joe DiMaggio hit four balls to the monuments at old Yankee Stadium and all were caught. All four would've been home runs in any other park baseball (except maybe the Polo Grounds), but if you only looked at the box score, you would might thin DiMaggio had a bad day at the plate.

Anyone who has played a lot of baseball knows this. Hitters often have to suffer through 10-20 game "slumps" when nothing falls in for a hit even though they're hitting the ball well. And pitchers will often see their ERA balloon even though the opposing hitters never hit a ball hard.

Until recently there wasn't a way to capture this difference between luck and skill, but a new technology employed by major league baseball can. In particular, new camera tracking technology can track a ball’s speed as it leaves the bat, which allows analysts to see whether hitters are hitting the ball well. Initial analyses indicates that there is a strong and positive correlation between how hard a player hits a ball and his production at the plate. And as a recent article at FiveThirtyEight points out, it can identify those batters who are experiencing higher than average amounts of bad (and good) luck ("Chase Utley is the Unluckiest Man in Baseball"). As the authors note, Chase Utley has been hitting the ball reasonably well, but so far this season, he hasn't had a whole lot of luck. In fact, he may be the unluckiest hitter in baseball:
Meet Chase Utley, the unluckiest man in baseball. The Phillies second baseman is cursed with a .115 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), meaning that about a tenth of the balls he puts on the field get him safely to base. An average BABIP mark is about .300, and while there is some variation between players, it’s usually on the order of a few dozen points, not 200. 
Some have argued that Utley ought to be benched. Given his age (36) and the wear and tear second basemen face, Utley could be in a steep decline. Statcast’s batted ball statistics say otherwise. Utley’s batted ball velocity is a little below average, not elite — but below average would be an incredible improvement from Utley’s .389 OPS (on base plus slugging average).
Although the statistic isn't perfect (e.g., it doesn't take into account how fast players run, which affects on base percentage), it is surely better than the old stand-by: batting average. Too bad it wasn't around when Howard Cosell was calling baseball games.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Will Machines Take Our Jobs?

I've written before on what economists refer to as creative destruction ("The Internet and Creative Destruction"). The term was first coined by the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, in order to refer to how new technologies replace old ones and in the process create new jobs while eliminating others. It's destructive in the sense that jobs are lost and industries fade away, but it's creative in that it ultimately creates more jobs than before and is therefore better for the overall health of the economy in the long run.

NPR's Planet Money has been running a series of podcasts that questions whether this process will continue to hold true in the future. The first podcast examines the Luddites ("When Luddites Attack"), who were English textile workers who protested against newly developed labour-economizing technologies in the early 19th-century. This is followed by podcasts that (1) pit humans against machines in a series of different tasks ("Humans vs. Robots"), (2) examine when machines and people work together ("The Machine Comes to Town") and (3) tells how robots are (possibly) reinventing the restaurant business ("I, Waiter"). The next podcast is a fictional story explores what happens when all the jobs go away ("The Last Job"), while the last examines whether it really is different this time ("This is the End").

All of these podcasts can be listened to or downloaded from the "Planet Money" website (or iTunes). There is also a great series of graphs that capture how machines create and destroy jobs ("How Machines Destroy (And Create!) Jobs, In 4 Graphs").

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reality Can Be Way Overrated

An acquaintance who went to Disneyland all the time was fond of remarking, "Reality is way overrated." I don't know if I'd go that far, but after spending the weekend at Disneyland and California Adventure, there's a lot to say for getting away from it all. It's like a palette cleanser for the soul.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Just My Imagination?

It might be just my imagination, but sometimes when I'm driving my BMW, the drivers of 4 cylinder cars often seem to try to "prove" that their cars are faster than my 328i. The other day when turning left, I heard the roar of a car and kept looking around, expecting a sports car or motorcycle go flying by me, but nothing happened. Eventually, a sporty-looking car, with its engine wound up as high as possible, passed me to the right. The driver could've just been in a hurry. I could've just been imagining it. But it sure seems to happen a lot.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Compliment Anyone?

So, here's something new (at least new to me). Most of us are familiar when people post a sheet to a bulletin board, telephone poll, wall, etc. that advertises some service or good (e.g., babysitters, housecleaners, gardeners, used car or computer, and so on) and usually allows passersby to tear off a stub that includes a phone number or email.

Well, this morning the "advertisement" to the right appeared on the walls at the Naval Postgraduate School -- "Free Compliment: Who Doesn't Need One." And this time when you tore off the stub, that is exactly what you got: a compliment. Mine? "What You Do Matters." Others included:
  • Nice job today!
  • You would look good in glasses or contacts.
  • How great it is for you that I'm not intimidated by your brilliance.
  • I would hold open the elevator doors open for you if they were closing.
  • Your creativity knows no bounds.
  • Have you lost weight?
  • With your wit, I'm sure you could come up with better compliments than me.
  • You deserve a promotion.
  • Your opinions and contributions are valued.
What a great idea. Wish I had thought of it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The End of Religion?

Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) recently hosted a symposium that challenged the so-called decline in religion. It featured sociologists Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson, historians Philip Jenkins and J. Gordon Melton, and epidemiologist Jeff Levin. Not only were the presenters diverse in terms of academic specialities but also in terms of faith. Stark considers himself to be an "independent Christian," while Johnson is an evangelical, Jenkins is an Episcopalian, Melton is a United Methodist (in fact, he is an ordained Methodist minister), and Levin is a Conservative Jew (the same denomination as Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People").

The symposium was kicked off by Rodney Stark, who has published hundreds of articles and dozens of books, including "The Rise of Christianity" and "The Churching of America" (with Roger Finke). Stark focused on the health of religion around the world. He argued that not only is the world not less religious, but in many ways it is much more intensely religious than it ever has been before. This, in fact, is the topic of his forthcoming book, "The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious than Ever," which will be published in November). His 38 minute talk appears below:

Stark was followed by Philip Jenkins, a prolific writer whose books include "The Next Christendom," "God's Continent," and "The Lost History of Christianity." He discussed the current state of religion in Europe, which is often held up as the "poster-child" of secularization. He noted that while Europe is anything but devout, he believes that secularization is self-limiting (a point made by Rod Stark several years ago with his co-author Bill Bainbridge in "The Future of Religion") and that religion continues to thrive in some areas. His talk (31 minutes) appears below:

Jeff Levin followed Jenkins. As noted above, Levin is an epidemiologist. He studies the interaction of religion and health and has published several articles and books on this topic, such as "God, Faith, and Health." That is also the topic of his address, which appears below.

Next, came Byron Johnson, a sociologist who specializes in the religion, crime, and deviance. He is probably best known for his book, "More God, Less Crime." That is not what he focused on here, though. Instead, he explored the current state of religion in America:

J. Gordon Melton was the symposium's final speaker. As Johnson's introduction of him suggests, Melton possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of religion in America and the world. In fact, one of his best known works is his, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions." In this talk, he explores the growth of atheism around the world and in the United States.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Boozin' Our Religion?

Bill Clinton was once asked what was the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist (he is a Baptist; Hillary is a Methodist). He replied, "A Methodist will say hi to you in a liquor store." However, it's not only Baptists who have a reputation for being tea-totalers. Theologically conservative Christians, at least those living in the United States, have a similar reputation. I remember hearing a story about one who, when reminded that Jesus "came eating and drinking," which led his detractors to call him a "glutton and a drunkard" (Matt 11:19), replied, "Yes. That's the thing that embarrasses me the most about him."

Partially in response to such an attitude comes a new book by the Roman Catholic theologian, Michael Foley: Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner's Guide to a Holy Happy Hour. (Ironically, Foley teaches at Baylor University, which is both a Baptist school and a dry campus.) To be clear, Foley isn't advocating on behalf of excessive drinking. Rather, he believes that alcohol, when consumed in moderation, can be a very pleasing experience and is often associated with great fellowship. (Thus, he probably wouldn't approve of Toby Keith's new song, "Just Drunk Americans"). Foley's book is the subject of the most recent Research on Religion podcast ("Michael Foley on Religion and Booze"). Here's a brief description:
What relationship is there between Christianity and alcohol? We discuss this question with Prof. Michael P. Foley (Baylor University) as he leads us through his book “Drinking with the Saints,” which is one part bartender’s guide and one part spiritual manual” (according to Regnery Press). This fun conversation reveals interesting historical tidbits on everything from beer to whiskey to wine, and Prof. Foley even reveals a couple of his own cocktail recipes created in honor of the saints.
This enjoyable podcast can be streamed or downloaded from the Research on Religion website or downloaded from iTunes.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bruce, We Hardly Know You

I suspect that most people's impression of Bruce Jenner derives from his participation in the "reality" series, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Which is too bad because after he won a gold medal for the decathlon in the 1976 Olympic Games, Jenner was as popular an athlete then as Lebron James is today. After the Olympics, Tony Kornheiser of The New York Times wrote, "Jenner is twirling the nation like a baton. He and wife, Chrystie, are so high up on the pedestal of American heroism, it would take a crane to get them down." In 1976 Jenner was selected as the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States and the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. He has been inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame, United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Connecticut Sports Hall of Fame, the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, and the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame.

I had the pleasure of hearing him speak in the Fall of 1975. He trained for the 1976 Olympics in the Bay Area where he sold insurance at night and worked out during the day at San Jose City College. He also spoke at local high schools about his quest for the gold medal, which is how I got to hear him. He was, by far, the best motivational speaker I've ever heard, and my family and I became some of his biggest fans that night.

That's the Bruce Jenner I wish people knew today. Unfortunately, I don't think that's the case.