You would think that it would be easier to predict a statistically oriented sport like baseball than politics. New York Times blogger Nate Silver has carved out a spot on the newspaper’s website as a writer of stat-driven political commentary that is liberal-leaning but always interesting. But he started out life as a writer as someone who wrote intelligently about baseball statistics. One of the second generation of sabermetricians (a term that is derived from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research) who followed the trail-blazing Bill James, Silver returned to his original calling yesterday with a column about baseball for the Times’s Week in Review section.
Silver’s topic was the decline of New York Yankees shortstop and captain Derek Jeter. At the age of 36, Jeter had his first-ever substandard season in 2010, and this year has got off to another bad start. Silver compared Jeter’s predicament to that of other aging shortstops in baseball history and concluded, not unreasonably, that he was likely to be just as mediocre the rest of 2011 as he descended into the normal decline that attends the career of every player. His power, he wrote, is “almost certainly not coming back.”
But, like political predictions, even analysis as firmly grounded in history and irrefutable numbers as Silver’s can still be proven dead wrong. On the same day that Silver’s piece was published, Jeter followed up on a successful run of games by hitting two home runs—his first two of the season—and banging out four base hits in a 12-to-5 win over the Texas Rangers. While such a day might prove to be a statistical anomaly over the course of an unforgiving 162-game schedule, Jeter’s current hot streak may be the prelude to a far better season than the writer, and most others like him, predicted. Jeter may not return to the stellar play that characterized his 2009 season at age 35, but you never know if, despite history and logic, the unlikely can become reality. As the player said when asked to explain what he had just done yesterday, “That’s why you play the games.”
And so, in a silly political season in which we have months of time to idly speculate about the outcome of races a year or more away, it is worthwhile to ponder just how wrong-headed predictions or even widely accepted conventional wisdom can be. Barack Obama may be unbeatable and outlier Tea Party candidates or more mainstream Republicans may not have a whisper of a chance. But you never know. That’s why they play the games.