The Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies are out. Was Billy Beane right about small-market teams?
At first glance, baseball's post-season this year would seem to dovetail nicely with the theme of the recently released Brad Pitt movie Moneyball, based on the Michael Lewis bestseller of the same name. The big money teams--the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies--are out, and the networks are left to contemplate a World Series in Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, or Dallas--a field of decidedly less-lucrative baseball television markets.
But just because the big dollar teams are out doesn't necessarily mean that the success of those smaller-market teams is due to the kind of statistical maneuvering Lewis stressed in Moneyball. Not that managers don't look at statistics. Or that smaller-market teams don't have to get more creative in how they compete against teams with payrolls almost twice their size. It's just that writers, looking for a hook that will sell a book, sometimes focus overmuch on "the thing" or "the answer," when the reality is more complex than that.
Yes, the Oakland A's, the team Lewis profiled in Moneyball, made the playoffs five times in the early 00's--a record Lewis attributed to their rogue statistical approach to baseball. But as a couple of recent articles have pointed out, they never won a championship, and they haven't even made the playoffs since 2006. So--despite the fact that the philosophy highlighted in Moneyball has achieved guru-status fame in the business world--how powerful was that approach, really?
I found an interesting take on that question from--appropriately enough--a former MLB ballplayer who now coaches in the Rangers' farm team system. Casey Candaele might not be a household name, although he played nine years in the majors (Montreal Expos, Houston Astros, and Cleveland Indians) before joining the Rangers' coaching staff. But Candaele comes from memorable baseball stock. His mom was Helen Callaghan--the woman portrayed by Geena Davis in the hit movie A League of Their Own. After leading the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in batting average, homers, hits, doubles, and total bases in 1945, Callaghan got married and had five sons. All five played baseball, growing up, but Casey was the only one who went pro.
In an interview with his brother (writer and filmmaker Kelly Candaele) last week, Casey weighed in on the Moneyball philosophy. An excerpt here:
Question: Billy Beane and the people who agreed with his philosophy operated under the assumption that the old way of analyzing ball-players was mostly about a lot of talking and guessing and that they had a more scientific way of going about this. What was your sense of this?
CC: "I retired in 2000, so the Moneyball approach started a bit later. The thing that struck me about the movie is that the A's were actually pretty good. They had Eric Chavez, a young third baseman who had been playing for a number of years. Miguel Tejada had over 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs that year, I think. Jemaine Dye was on that team and had a great year. They also had Terrance Long, who was in the running for Rookie of the Year the year before.
But most importantly, and this is the film's major problem, I think--the A's had a great pitching staff. They had Tim Hudson, who led the league in ERA and wins a number of years in a row. They had Mark Mulder, who won 19 games, and Barry Zito, who won 23 and was on the top of his game. The pitching was outstanding, but the movie doesn't even mention those guys. So this team was not like the Bad News Bears.
In terms of the Moneyball philosophy, I guess it makes sense to combine people on the team who can get on base consistently with guys who can drive them in. And as it said at the end of the movie, the Red Sox used this philosophy and went on to win the World Series. The Sox had many great players at the time and they are not a small market team, so they spend money. So I don't think it is a matter of assembling a team of all players that have a high On Base Percentage, which is what the movie portrayed. You have to have some people who can drive those guys in quickly."
Question: What was realistic about the film?
CC: "What was realistic was that Beane made a decision about how to re-create the process of how to win in a small baseball market. In that respect, it was unique, as they were trying to find a way to compete, and they had a good year. But, as I said, they had a really good team those years."
other words, the simple, win-by-numbers revolutionary secret that made Moneyball
such a phenomenon ("You, too, can beat the Yankees (or any other
competition) at just half the cost!") appears, on closer inspection, to be
not quite so simple. That's true of most easy, secret formulas for success, of
course. But in baseball, as opposed to business, happiness, health, or other
fields where sure-fire strategies for success abound, I think we're actually
half glad to discover that truth.
On the one hand, we don't want to think that money decides everything. So the idea of an outsider like Beane being able to beat the monetary odds and win appeals to us. On the other hand, we don't really want Beane's underdog success to be the result of some impersonal and predictable accountant's formula.
One of the reasons baseball retains such national appeal is its unspoken parallels to life and human attempts at achievement, in general. It is not only a product of our heartland sandlots, but also a metaphor--a microcosm of human striving, individual and collective effort and achievement, disappointment, defeat, comeback, redemption and ... sometimes ... unexpected victory.
If the game's outcome could be reduced to predictable, formulaic numbers, it would cease to resonate as a metaphor and salve for our own sometimes-frustrating and often unpredictable lives. It would also lose all its poetry. For poetry comes from those moments of perfection, discovery, alchemy and victory that catch our hearts and attention--and are so achingly and unforgettably sweet and magical--precisely because they defy expectation. Poetry is perfection stumbled upon, not perfection engineered.
One of the most perfect moments of baseball poetry I ever witnessed, in fact, occurred not in a traditional baseball stadium, but in the streets of lower Manhattan. And it involved a Candaele. Not Casey, but his brother Kelly.
Kelly had often said that he'd wished he'd inherited his mother's baseball swing. It was, he said, a thing of beauty; a seamless movement of power and grace that led to her success at the plate. He didn't, of course. Casey was the one who got the swing. Kelly went on to other pursuits of writing and film production. But the longing and legacy were still there, underneath it all.
One fall day a number of years ago, as baseball moved, once again, into its post-season games, I met Kelly for a late lunch in New York. After the meal, we wandered the streets of the East Village, taking the long route back the subway to enjoy the fall afternoon. A couple of blocks north of Houston Street, we came across a group of tough-looking teenagers playing stickball in the street. And with bravado I'd never have attempted, Kelly walked up to the guy at bat and asked if he might have a turn.
The response from the group was half-ridiculing, half-menacing. But it was clear they had no interest in the proposal. Tough street kids in New York do not let 40-ish, academic-looking old guys in on their stickball games. But Kelly persisted. He pulled out a $20 bill and offered it to the group in exchange for a single swing. The group laughed. Not only was this guy old, he was a sucker, too. But, hey. If he wanted to throw away his money, well, that was okay with them. They exchanged glances, nodded, and the batter took the money and handed Kelly the stick.
Kelly got in his stance, and the pitcher wound up and delivered the ball across the "plate." Kelly tensed his muscles, swung--and connected with nothing but thin air. The teenagers laughed, guffawed, and swaggered their ridicule all the way down the block. Watching from the sidewalk, I cringed in vicarious embarrassment. But Kelly was undeterred. He asked for another swing. The stickball players scoffed, reminding him that he'd paid for a single swing. I thought, for a moment, that it might turn ugly. But Kelly persisted, cajoling and friendly, until they agreed to give him one more try.
I shook my head, wishing he'd just quit and get us the hell out of there. But there he was, instead, calmly loosening up his shoulders, pulling the stick through a couple of practice swings, then poising it just above his shoulder, waiting for the pitch. The pitcher wound up, released the ball, and I braced for the humiliation that was surely going to follow.
But then, something magical happened. Kelly set the stick in motion, and there it was, out of the past--a swing that resonated with power, grace, and athletic perfection. His mother's swing. And it aligned perfectly with the fast ball delivered down the alley. There was a loud crack as stick and ball connected, and then all heads turned to follow the ball as it arced high and straight above the pavement ... right out of the ballpark. It cleared the blocks north of Houston, cleared the wide, multiple lanes of Houston Street itself, and finally descended back to Earth, bouncing off the pavement halfway down the block on the other side.
The stickball players stood, motionless, suddenly bereft of all taunts, menace, or cockiness, arms limp at their sides and jaws hanging open in stunned, wordless awe. Kelly himself was dazed for a moment, then just smiled, handed the stick back to the batter he'd supplanted, called out a cheerful thanks to the other players, and walked away.
No rational formula would have predicted that outcome. But that's what made it so poetic. And the possibility of victories like that, defying all the numbers, is a big part of what gives baseball its appeal. It might be harder to market that appeal to business audiences looking for a sure-fire edge, of course. But the truth is, what gives us hope, in the long history of human struggle, is that sometimes, we are more than the numerical sum of our parts. Yes, strategy matters. But so do intangibles like heart, will, and the magic that is created, sometimes, when the parts of a person, or the parts of a team, somehow click in ways stat sheets can't predict.
Whether it's the magic of the 1973 Mets, who went from the bottom of their division to the World Series in a matter of weeks on the strength of a relief pitcher's cry of "You Gotta Believe!" or the magic of a middle-aged man finding a perfect swing on a New York City street ... it's those moments in which we find not only only poetry, but a measure of hope, redemption and belief in possibility that helps us get through all the rest. And the fact that that kind of alchemy and magic is impossible to quantify, package and sell is precisely what makes it not only so powerful, but so valuable, as well.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
A new study finds an algorithmic word analysis is flawless at determining whether a person will have a psychotic episode.
Although the language of thinking is deliberate—let me think, I have to do some thinking—the actual experience of having thoughts is often passive. Ideas pop up like dandelions; thoughts occur suddenly and escape without warning. People swim in and out of pools of thought in a way that can feel, paradoxically, mindless.
Most of the time, people don’t actively track the way one thought flows into the next. But in psychiatry, much attention is paid to such intricacies of thinking. For instance, disorganized thought, evidenced by disjointed patterns in speech, is considered a hallmark characteristic of schizophrenia. Several studies of at-risk youths have found that doctors are able to guess with impressive accuracy—the best predictive models hover around 79 percent—whether a person will develop psychosis based on tracking that person’s speech patterns in interviews.
A new study shows that the field suffers from a reproducibility problem, but the extent of the issue is still hard to nail down.
No one is entirely clear on how Brian Nosek pulled it off, including Nosek himself. Over the last three years, the psychologist from the University of Virginia persuaded some 270 of his peers to channel their free time into repeating 100 published psychological experiments to see if they could get the same results a second time around. There would be no glory, no empirical eurekas, no breaking of fresh ground. Instead, this initiative—the Reproducibility Project—would be the first big systematic attempt to answer questions that have been vexing psychologists for years, if not decades. What proportion of results in their field are reliable?
Every time you shrug, you don’t need to Google, then copy, then paste.
Updated, 2:20 p.m.
All hail ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
In its 11 strokes, the symbol encapsulates what it’s like to be an individual on the Internet. With raised arms and a half-turned smile, it exudes the melancholia, the malaise, the acceptance, and (finally) the embrace of knowing that something’s wrong on the Internet and you can’t do anything about it.
As Kyle Chayka writes in a new history of the symbol at The Awl, the meaning of the “the shruggie” is always two, if not three- or four-, fold. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ represents nihilism, “bemused resignation,” and “a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe.” It is Sisyphus in unicode. I use it at least 10 times a day.
For a long time, however, I used it with some difficulty. Unlike better-known emoticons like :) or ;), ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ borrows characters from the Japanese syllabary called katakana. That makes it a kaomoji, a Japanese emoticon; it also makes it, on Western alphabetical keyboards at least, very hard to type. But then I found a solution, and it saves me having to google “smiley sideways shrug” every time I want to quickly rail at the world’s inherent lack of meaning.