Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)

This article originally appeared in E-Jewish Philanthropy here.

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I’ll start with a story: in the 1970s, while working as a night shift security guard, Bill James developed an alternative set of stats for baseball called Sabermetrics – an unorthodox analytical model worthy of Nate Silver. For many years, James’ ideas were only known to a tiny group of extreme baseball junkies. The story of how Sabermetrics was finally embraced by a major league team’s general manager, Billy Beane, is wonderfully told in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and the 2011 movie it inspired.

Beane’s dilemma was that the team he was responsible for building, the Oakland A’s, didn’t have the money to compete for the free agents who were the best players. Beane was a Bill James fan with a small budget and nothing to lose. He concluded that if James’ stats were actually better at predicting success than the traditionally used stats, then maybe he could build a winning team by acquiring overlooked players that traditional scouts would miss – players whose Sabermetric stats were cream of the crop. He did, and the A’s went on to become the winningest team in baseball for a good stretch of years.

Finally, there’s Theo Epstein, who’s in the sports headlines these days. He’s the Sabermetrics whiz kid who applied James’ model to the Boston Red Sox, finally ending their long championship drought. He’s spent the last five years doing the same with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.

So what’s spiritual about all this? I promise, we’ll get there, but stay with me a bit longer.

Continue reading “Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)”

Gut Feelings as Probabilities

From Sabermetrics to Nate Silver, the past decade has become the decade of probabilities as headlines. Serious baseball fans don’t just study the box scores in the paper anymore – they turn to Fangraphs and other websites to see how their analysts have projected probabilities of everything from a team making the post-season to winning the World Series. Each baseball site has its own proprietary analytical formula, which gets tweaked after each season to try to adjust for whatever the difference turned out to be between their projections and the final actual results.

And of course, Nate Silver, who got his start doing probabilities and projections on sports stats, applied the concepts to political polls and created a model that provided probabilities projections for the ’08 and ’12 national elections. Silver’s model’s projections the night before both elections was stunningly close to the actual results.

I follow national politics more closely than does me good (I get super anxious and neurotic about things in a way that isn’t really helping anyone or anything). I am someone who tends to form strong gut feelings about political trends, but I don’t think I have an accurate sense of how often my gut turns out to be right. Regardless of whether I have a very intuitive gut or whether I’m just proven right some of the time and tend to remember those times but not the others, I am, in the end, stuck with my gut feelings.

But something I’ve never done before is express my gut feelings in terms of probabilities. Previously, I’ve just said, “I think so-and-so’s going to win,” and then say why. But I’ve never said, “I think right now so-and-so has a 75% likelihood of winning,” so I thought I’d take a shot at doing that now. I’ll quantify my gut feeling probabilities as UGPs – unscientific gut-feeling probability.

Here goes nothing! Continue reading “Gut Feelings as Probabilities”