Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Clinton Team's Shit Didn't Work in the General Election

Yes! It's another MBB sports-politics analogy post!

When questioned about his Oakland A's lack of postseason success, Billy Beane famously remarked, "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs,"

There's a couple messages one could take from this statement:

  1. The baseball playoffs are essentially a crapshoot, and it's silly to draw any grand conclusions from a team's performance in a 5 or 7 game series. The 162 game regular schedule is a much truer test of a team's makeup. Beane's job was to get the team in position to be in the playoffs, and he did that.
  2. The A's were constructed for the long grind of the regular season, not the radically different postseason. The things that helped the A's be successful in the regular season worked against them in the playoffs.
  3. The way the A's were constructed was missing a critical element that was exposed in the pressure of postseason play.
Beane's defenders tended toward the first explanation, his critics tended to the third. I'm probably closer to the second.

I think one thing working against the A's is that the data Beane was working from was not fully mature, and only captured things that were easy to measure, such as the three true outcomes. There weren't good statistics for baserunning and defense, so they were put into the pile of things that don't matter as much as traditionalists think, like clutch hitting and clubhouse chemistry.

Now, of course, we have better data about these things, and analytics-strong teams include great defensive players and aggressively shift to leverage them. But Beane was still working with the 1.0 version of analytics, which was missing this, resulting in distortions. The Moneyball A's were built around hulking sluggers who walked a lot but weren't so great at running of fielding. This left some gaps which their postseason opponents took advantage of.

This popped (back) into my mind reading Sonny Bunch's comparison of the Trump campaign to the Moneyball A's. Bunch thinks that Trump was the "Moneyball" candidate, embracing unorthodox strategies that gave him an advantage over the more conventional Clinton campaign.

I think the opposite -- I think the Clinton campaign was more of "Moneyball" team, and fell short for similar reasons to why the Moneyball A's never won a World Series.

The Clinton campaign's decisions were very driven by the polls, and by the analysis thereof. Decisions like not campaigning in states like Wisconsin and Michigan which unexpectedly turned the election to Clinton were driven by data-savvy people in Brooklyn over the objections of the people on the ground.

This resulted in a distorted campaign, and an anomalous result.

And I think the lesson in not necessarily to abandon the analytic approach, but to get better at it, and until you are better, complement it with some old-fashioned ground work.

Working the Refs....

I don't recall exactly when the term "working the refs" entered the lexicon of sports, but the first coach I recall employing the tactic beyond simple complaining about close calls that didn't go his way was Phil Jackson.

Again, this may be a little hazy, but my memory is that in his post-game press conference, Jackson would drop tidbits such as that the Bulls' opponents had twice as many free throw attempts as the Bulls. Or note a tendency of an opposing player that could be outside of the rules. He wouldn't embarrass the official; he wouldn't take his or his team's focus off their own performance onto the officials, but he would make his point.

Then there's the approach of someone like Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers. They seems to respond to every call that doesn't go their way as if it is the greatest injustice in human history. So Chris Paul picks up a technical for screaming at an official 3 minutes into a game where the Clippers got blown out by the Warriors.

There may be some advantages to this approach. It may be that, in the short term, the officials will be aware that they will pay the price for any call that goes against the Clippers. So they may be a bit more reluctant to make such a call.

But over time, this grates on people. Their complaints start being dismissed as them always complaining. The official may develop a hostility to a team that is constantly showing them up.

And it can take the team's focus off of what they need to do to get better. The team starts to see itself as a victim of unjust decisions rather than a unit with agency. Maybe a couple calls didn't go your way. You can still play better.

It doesn't seem absurd that this attitude may be one reason the Clippers have yet to enjoy a deep playoff run.

--

When I look at the commentary from many left of center sources about the media, what I see reminds me more of Doc Rivers than Phil Jackson.

A prime example is the notion of "false equivalence." Any time an article mentions the sins of the left in any proximity to some sin of the right, you can count on a series of concerns about "false equivalence" -- that by mentioning these two problems in proximity to each other, the writer is promoting the notion that they are equivalent when they are not even close.

If I can be indulged another sports analogy, this strikes me as akin to criticizing sportswriters for reporting the score from both teams out of fear that some readers would see that both teams scored points, and thus the game ended in a tie.

Yes, some people take mental shortcuts, and some may jump to the "both sides are guilty" conclusion, but I retain hope that people are capable of making value judgments based on the facts presented. And if they're not, I don't think the problem will be solved by declining to report the sins of the side seemed to be better.

I think that false equivalence is best confronted by:

  • being better
  • teaching people to recognize distinctions
  • modeling that themselves.