Tag Archives: Bill James

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 11/9/2018: Twitter Revelations

Good Morning!

I know I’ve been belly-aching about the decline in views on Ethics Alarms this year. There are a lot of theories, but one certainty: I’ve written fewer posts.  Beginning in July, I’ve had an unavoidable two-hour commitment during the work week that has compressed my schedule, and removed crucial time that would normally be used, in part, to create one or two additional blog commentaries. The task also left me fatigued and frequently caused time crunches with other projects. That commitment finally ends after today. I would celebrate, but I don’t have the energy.

1. Twitter bites Bill James. James, the free-thinking, courageous baseball iconoclast often credited with creating the discipline of sabermetrics, has been an inspiration to me for decades in his relentless commitment to banishing bias, majority beliefs and conventional wisdom from his analysis. (“Signature significance,” often mentioned here, is Bill’s term.) Yesterday, I learned that Bill was once again the target of fury within the baseball establishment (it doesn’t “get” Bill, and never will), this time because of a series of tweets he issued in discussing baseball with some followers.  Inspired by Washington Nationals free-agent outfielder Bryce Harper’s rejection of a 300 million dollar offer from his club, Bill was musing about the conventional wisdom that players. especially stars, are the reason people watch baseball. Among other tweets, he wrote,

“If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are…The entire GAME is the product…We’re all replaceable, the players as much as the beer vendors. If they’re unhappy about that, talk to God about it; I don’t make these rules.”

This attracted the ire of the Players Association, which deliberately or  foolishly misconstrued what James was trying to convey. As a long-time reader of James’ work, I have seen this theme before. It’s a simple (but too complex for most players and broadcasters, essentially) proposition: even if the over-all quality of the players was reduced, the game being played would look and feel the same, its thrills, strange bounces and dramatic turns would be unchanged, the new, lesser players would yield new stars, and the popularity of the sport would not be significantly diminished. James makes such observations to jolt people out of comfortable assumptions, and force them to think. Too many people in baseball don’t want to think, or don’t know how. James also suggested that for a baseball player who was paid $3,000,000 a year to feel underpaid was ridiculous in some respects. Of course the Players Association and the players themselves couldn’t let that go without objection.

James is a consultant to the Boston Red Sox, and the team felt it had to reject James’ theories in this matter…mustn’t make the union mad, after all. The team wrote:

“Bill James is a consultant to the Red Sox. He is not an employee, nor does he speak for the club. His comments on Twitter were inappropriate and do not reflect the opinions of the Red Sox front office or its ownership group. Our Championships (sic) would not have been possible without our incredibly talented players — they are the backbone of our franchise and our industry. To insinuate otherwise is absurd.”

Of course, James never said that the game could be played without players.

To his credit, and typical of him, James took full responsibility for the mess. “I understand that the Red Sox are not in business to offend people, and certainly regret that I gave offense to anyone,” he wrote. That was clearly not an apology, nor was it intended as one. James has not retracted his statements. He has said that he should have been clearer. Speaking of his rebuke from the Red Sox, he said,

“I’m not offended. None of us in the organization — or, like me, sort of attached to the organization although not exactly in the organization — none of us should give offense unnecessarily. If I did that — and obviously I must have — it isn’t their fault; it’s mine. I do think that my remarks, taken in context, could not be misunderstood in the way that they have been. But it is pathetic for a writer to say ‘I’ve been misunderstood.’ Our job is to make ourselves understood.”

Yesterday, I heard one of the Sirius-XM Major League Baseball hosts ridicule the idea that a millionaire player shouldn’t feel underpaid, citing the salaries move and TV stars get. But James point, if anything, is more valid in reference to that industry. In my tiny corner of professional theater, I have encountered literally dozens of actors, actresses and artists who are as talented and accomplished as many, indeed most, of the stars who get paid multiple millions for their performances. If every film actor alive decided to emigrate to Denmark, it would take less than three years to replenish the talent pool. It would not even take one.  For the most part, he public goes to see good movies, not stars. Movies, not actors, are the product.

2. Just so you know that I’m a nice guy...A lawyer representing someone I criticized in a post from several years ago contacted me and asked if I would take the post down. His client, he told me, has been periodically contacted on social media by individuals who have read my post, and she is embarrassed by the episode I was writing about. The lawyer did not demand that I remove the post. He did not claim that I had defamed anyone; he conceded that I had published an opinion within my range of expertise, and that he had no grounds to force me to do anything. He just said that his client would be very grateful if I took down the post.

I checked the statistics. I rather liked the essay, but it had attracted few comments, no more than a hundred or so people had read it, and the topic was now moot. I took it down.

3. The Bad Guys (cont.) Matt Yglesias is an infamous left-wing pundit, and not a very bright one, in my experience. Naturally, he writes for Vox. In the wake of another leftist mob setting out to intimidate those with whom they disagree (Note: I will NOT take down a post if a mob outside my house demands it) Yglesias tweeted,

I think the idea behind terrorizing his family, like it or not as a strategy, is to make them feel some of the fear that the victims of MAGA-inspired violence feel thanks to the non-stop racial incitement coming from Tucker, Trump, etc….I agree that this is probably not tactically sound but if your instinct is to empathize with the fear of the Carlson family rather than with the fear of his victims then you should take a moment to reflect on why that is….I met a woman who didn’t leave the house for months because she was afraid of being picked up by ICE and never seeing her US citizen kids and husband again. What sense was there in terrorizing her family?…I honestly cannot empathize with Tucker Carlson’s wife at all — I agree that protesting at her house was tactically unwise and shouldn’t be done — but I am utterly unable to identify with her plight on any level.

The entire series is signature significance for someone with no ethical comprehension or bearings whatsoever. There is nothing here but bias and rationalizations, and no news  organization who employs such an ethically-handicapped writer can be trusted or taken seriously. Because an illegal immigrant is frightened of the fair and legal consequences of her own actions and choices, it is legitimate for a mob to terrify the family of conservative news commentator. Allow me to add intellectual bankruptcy to Yglesias’s undeniable maladies.

Now he’s deleted all of his tweets. Too late! We know you’re a vicious, biased idiot, Matt.

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Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Arts & Entertainment, Business & Commercial, Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Popular Culture, Social Media

Jason Werth, The Shift, And How Baseball Imitates Life, Not In A Good Way

Today’s example from baseball of why the world will never get less stupid:  Jayson Werth, the former firebrand outfielder for the Phillies and Nationals who retired from  professional baseball in June (about a year too late, based on his miserable 2017 performance), blathered on in a podcast interview espousing ignorance over knowledge.

“They’ve got all these super nerds, as I call them, in the front office that know nothing about baseball but they like to project numbers and project players… I think it’s killing the game. It’s to the point where just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We don’t even need to go out there anymore. It’s a joke….When they come down, these kids from MIT or Stanford or Harvard, wherever they’re from, they’ve never played baseball in their life…When they come down to talk about stuff like [shifts] … should I just bunt it over there? They’re like, ‘No, don’t do that. We don’t want you to do that. We want you to hit a homer.’ It’s just not baseball to me. We’re creating something that’s not fun to watch. It’s boring. You’re turning players into robots. They’ve taken the human element out of the game.”

Back in the late 1970’s, a man named Bill James, blessed with an amazing ability to look at problems without the pollution of conventional wisdom began writing a little publication in his spare time down in his basement that examined how baseball was played, what practices statistics supported, and which they did not. He revealed, to take just one example, that managers were habitually batting as lead-off players who were speedy runners but who didn’t get on base very often because they never walked. This almost universal practice cost teams runs and victories. He showed that a player with a .300 average who seldom took a base on balls was a less effective offensive weapon than a player with a much  lower batting average but a higher on-base-percentage, the result of being more selective at the plate.  Somehow this obvious observation had never occurred to anyone whose actual profession was managing baseball teams.

Every year, and in articles in between for journals and statistical publications, James proved over and over again that baseball was being played astoundingly ignorantly. A “great” base stealer who only was successful 70% of the time was costing his team runs, because the statistics show that  the the risk of an out is usually a far greater cost than the extra base is a benefit. The sacrifice bunt is almost always a bad percentage play, increasing the odds of scoring one run slightly, but greatly reducing the chances of scoring more than one. A player’s statistics were vastly influenced by the quirks and dimensions of his home park, creating illusions of abilities and flaws that were mirages.Virtually all baseball players reach their peak value at the ages of 27-29, and decline rapidly thereafter: James wrote that paying big salaries for 30-years-old-plus stars was a losing gamble, comparing it to buying a watermelon at a premium price after the previous owner has eaten the fruit’s heart out and pronounced it delicious.

I began reading James books in the 80’s, and found him to be a truly original and courageous thinker. (The concept and term “signature significance,” an Ethics Alarms staple, comes from James.)  From the beginning, however, his research was ridiculed by front office executives, managers and player, many of whom were challenging his research on the basis of a limited intellect, a high school degree and statistical knowledge that consisted of reading box scores. They appealed to authority—their own—to refuse to acknowledge indisputable, mathematical, logical realities. Eventually one or two young turks did pay attention, like Oakland’s Billy Beane. He hired  his own numbers-cruncher and used the principles of the fledgling discipline James helped launch, sabermetrics, the statistical analysis of baseball, to win championships with a minimal budget. It also got him a book written about his success, “Moneyball,” and a movie based on the book where Beane was played by Brad Pitt.

Sweet! Continue reading

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Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Ethics Dunces, Science & Technology, U.S. Society

The Other Alleged Collusion Scandal: Baseball’s Unemployed Free Agents

Major management-labor troubles are brewing below the surface in Major League Baseball. With the 2018 Spring Training camps opening in a few days, over a hundred free agents remain unsigned, including many of the best players on the market. The Players Association is preparing to open a special training camp just for all the unsigned players, and shouting foul. They are alleging illegal collusion among the team owners to keep salaries down.

A lack of signings on this scale has never happened before, and agents and their player clients are increasingly hinting that dark forces are afoot. Fanning the flames are sportswriters and commentators, whose left-wing sympathies are only slightly less dominant than in the rest of the journalism field. The content on MLB’s own radio station on satellite radio has become an almost unbroken rant about how unfair it is that the players aren’t getting “what they have worked so hard for.” The theory appears to be that employees decide how much they are worth, and their self-serving assessments shouldn’t be challenged.

It is not that many of the free agents haven’t offers for their services on the table. It’s not that they don’t have multiple year contracts that will pay them millions of dollars on the table. They do, and thus  many of the unsigned players can substantially fix the bitter impasse by saying “yes.” Oddly, they are finding that public opinion is not substantially in their corner as they choose to bitch instead.

The poster boy for this controversy is, as luck would have it, a player who is sought by my very own Boston Red Sox. He is J.D. Martinez, a slugging outfielder just entering his thirties who had the best year of his life in 2017. Naturally, he wants a large, multi-year contract that will leave him set for life; this is his big and probably only shot. He also has the most aggressive, successful and, in my view, unethical of sports agents,  Scott Boras, who began the free agent auction season by announcing that J.D. would be seeking a contract worth 250 million dollars or more.

The problem is that not a lot of teams can afford such a contract, and those that can are, finally, wising up. Multiple year contracts have a way of blowing up in a team’s face. Analytics are now widely used to allow teams to make intelligent projections regarding just how much a player will add in value and wins. This year, most of the richest clubs are not hurting for home run hitters or outfielders, which leaves the Red Sox, who despite winning their division last year for the second year in a row didn’t hit as many homers in doing so as the spoiled Boston fans are used to, as the most obvious landing place for Martinez. Sure enough,  the team offered Martinez a five year deal reputed to be worth 125 million bucks. No other team has offered anything close, and it is unlikely that any team will. Boras and J.D. still say it’s not enough. They want a sixth year, and more cash. The Red Sox see no reason to bid against themselves, and have said, in essence., ‘There’s our offer. Take it or leave it.’  Somehow the baseball writers and the player see Boston as the villain in all this.

As George Will likes to say, “Well.” Continue reading

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Filed under Business & Commercial, Ethics Dunces, Journalism & Media, Sports, Workplace

The Last Word—Words, Really—On The Ridiculous Rachel Dolezal: “Signature Significance”

Rahcel-Dolezal-plagiarized-painting

From the Ethics Alarms “Concepts and Special Terms” page:

Signature Significance: The concept is the creation of baseball statistics genius Bill James, who applied it to baseball performance. Signature significance posits that a single act can be so remarkable that it has predictive and analytical value, and should not be dismissed as statistically insignificant. Thus, in James’ example, certain outstanding pitching performances can prove that the pitcher involved is an outstanding one, because average pitchers literally never reach such levels of excellence, even as a one-time fluke.  Ethics Alarms employs the term to describe an extreme ethical or unethical act that similarly reveals the true character of the individual responsible for the conduct, and that can be reliably and fairly used to predict future conduct and trustworthiness.

My immediate assumption about now-ex NAACP executive Rachel Dolezal’s charade as a black woman her conduct was signature significance, that anyone who would construct and benefit from such an audacious deception was unreliable, untrustworthy, and a likely sociopath. My posts never got into this issue, in part because I was waiting for a unanimous consensus that the woman was lying–sadly, a lot of stubborn progressives, civil rights advocates, celebrities and culture warriors either ducked the issue or, to their eternal discredit, denied that she couldn’t be black is she said she was. I was waiting for the “she just made a mistake” arguments, and the “anyone can get confused about what race they are” rationalization by playing the signature significance card, and never got to play it.

Fortunately, the Dolezal saga has become its own signature significance card. William Salatan at Slate amassed an impressive list of Dolezals many fictions, scams, fudges, deceptions, false statements and deceits here, but the best is this: Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Race

The Sterling Backlash: Signature Significance, Racism, Hypocrisy, and Double Standards

Bennie Thompson

“No big deal, he’s  just a Congressman…”

I often use the term “signature significance” in posts, and since it is a term that is not often applied to ethics, I thought today would be a perfect time to illustrate it in its original context, while clarifying the ethical murk around the Donald Sterling Ethics Train Wreck.

The original context of the phenomenon of signature significance is baseball, and I just watched an example of it. Today Red Sox left-hander John Lester beat the Oakland A’s, a very good team, by hurling eight innings in which he gave up no runs, only one hit, two bases on balls, while striking out 15 batters. If you don’t know anything about the game, let me tell you: this is extraordinarily good. Pitching performances can be measured and compared by using the “game score” method, developed by sabermetrics (that is, baseball statistics) pioneer Bill James. The best game score ever achieved was 105; the highest score in major league history for a pitcher who did not pitch all nine innings (as with Lester today) is 95, and has only been done once. (Theoretically, a game score could be as high as 145)

James also devised the term “signature significance” in the context of such games. His research showed that pitchers who were not outstanding talents never pitched a game with such a high game score even once—it simply didn’t happen. Thus, he reasoned, pitching a single game like Lester’s (the actual game he used was a similar performance by a young Roger Clemens before anyone knew what Clemens would become) was sufficient proof, all by itself, to conclude fairly and scientifically that the game was meaningful, without any other data. In cases of signature significance, he explained, the usual statistical rule that small sample sizes are not reliable indicators do not apply. Sometimes one incident, performance or episode is sufficient to make a confident verdict.

Signature significance is very useful, I have found, to rebut unethical rationalizations for unethical conduct that are used to excuse the agent of the ethical breach. “It’s only one mistake” and “Anyone can make a mistake” are the main ones. In the case of some serious kinds of bad conduct, this reasoning is misleading and false. Donald Sterling’s comments recorded and publicized by his whatever-you-call-her V. Stiviano have signature significance: they prove he’s a racist. Can you imagine any non-racist individual saying, in public or private, that he didn’t want his girlfriend being seen at his team’s games in the company of blacks?  How could this possibly occur? It wouldn’t, of course. Only those who hold racist attitudes and beliefs think and say such things. Sterling is a racist.

Stiviano, for her part, despite being the one who brought the media, the sports world and the public down on Sterling’s 80-year-old head, now says she doesn’t believe he’s a racist. Of course, she also says she’s his “silly rabbit” and that she is going to be President some day. She is an idiot. But I digress.

Other figures have made statements in the media that also have signature significance of the same sort as Sterling’s, yet the very same groups and journalists who have been whipped into a self-righteous froth over Sterling are strangely silent: Continue reading

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Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Citizenship, Ethics Train Wrecks, Government & Politics, Leadership, Race, Research and Scholarship, The Internet, U.S. Society

The Bill James Effect, Or How Nature Conspires To Make Us Irresponsible

Quiz: What do Gen.Lee and Bill James have in common?

You see, our strengths do us in, sooner or later. The greater the strength, the more successful it has made us, the more dangerous it is.

In the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee was the smartest general on the field…so smart that he broke iron-clad rules of battle strategy again and again, and prevailed every time. When everyone told him how it was usually done, always done, Lee knew that he could get an edge by doing something else. You never divide your forces, his aides, subordinates and the military books told him. So Lee did, at Chancellorsville, and won an incredible victory.

Then came July 3, 1863: the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and Pickett’s Charge. Everyone told Lee that a massed Napoleonic assault, over an open field, into enemy artillery and a fortified line, was suicidal. But when conventional wisdom dictated a course of action, that was when Lee had always succeeded by ignoring it. So he ordered Pickett’s Charge. This time, conventional wisdom was right. The same qualities of creativity, courage, certitude, and willingness to resist the power of convention that had caused Lee’s men to trust him unconditionally had resulted in the massacre of thousands. Pickett’s Charge wasn’t bold or ingenious. It was irresponsible. Lee, because of a lifetime of success challenging what others thought was obvious, was no longer able to tell the difference. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, History, Sports

The Ethics of Ignorance and Apathy: Gore’s Million Degree Gaffe

I didn’t watch Al Gore when he appeared on the Tonight Show a couple weeks ago. What he said then while hobnobbing with Conan should be old news, but in fact it was no news at all, because virtually no news media gave it more than a passing mention. Then, by purest accident, I heard a talk-radio host ranting about a shocking statement Gore had made on the show, and I checked to see if he could possibly be quoting the former Vice-President correctly.

He was. Here is the exchange: Continue reading

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