Theo Epstein and the Election

On Wednesday, I thought it would be interesting to write something comparing the World Series to the election. I was not alone. What I thought to be high-level cleverness turned out to be quite pedestrian, but I was left with a few observations unobserved and these unobserved observations rankled. Fortunately for me, nobody else seems to have considered Theo Epstein and the election.

Baseball and elections are drama. One uses real drama: the Cubs came back from a three games to one deficit and lost a lead in the bottom of the eighth inning only to get it back in the top of the tenth after a rain delay. The other uses fake drama: life as you know it comes to an end if the opponent wins. Both kinds work. An audience stays and pays.

I watch very little baseball: all of game seven; most of game six; some of the preceding five; and none at all before that. Advances in technology are more surprising to me than they are to real fans.

This year it was the replay. The umpires might not see every ball or strike precisely but, thanks to the replays, the fans sure do. And those close calls are easy in comparison to the closeness of plays on the bases. Did foot touch bag a few hundredths of a second before or after ball met glove? It amazed me how well the umpires did on these impossible decisions but the replays made the facts indisputable.

Facts are not permitted in politics. I believe it is actually against the law. If facts were permitted, the game would often be over before it began and there would be no fans left to pay the people putting on the show.

The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, the Indians in 1948. Since then baseball has grown from 16 to 30 teams. Some have disappeared and been replaced by others. Maybe there is something to be said for having more than two competitors? The Ds and Rs might have to try a little harder if there was a chance they could be shut out of power for that long.

The American and National Leagues are far better pickers of winners than the Republican and Democratic parties.

The playoff process that sent the Cubs to the World Series delivered the team that finished first in the National League with 103 wins and 58 losses. The next best Washington Nationals won eight fewer games and failed in its first playoff elimination round.

In the American League, the Cleveland Indians finished with the second best record (94 wins 67 losses) after the Texas Rangers, a team that won one more game but lost in its first round of the post season.

Each league has a process that serves up its best five teams (out of 15) after a 162 game season. I am pretty confident that the Chicago Cubs were at least one of the best teams this year.

By contrast, if the Republican and Democratic parties were given responsibility for baseball, we would have ended up with something like the Minnesota Twins (59 wins and 103 losses) playing the Cincinnati Reds (68 wins and 94 losses) for the title. These were two of the worst teams in 2016 with win-loss records virtually inverse to the Cubs and Indians.

Horrible as it might be for political insiders to consider, merit just might matter – perhaps not in getting elected but in doing the job after you win.

In baseball, skill is judged by how well the players actually play baseball. That is all they do. In politics, the skills of governing and policymaking are judged by a candidate’s skill at getting elected, which is entirely unrelated to the skills that will eventually be needed. What would you think of having baseball players selected based on their ability at capture the flag?

Then there is Theo Epstein, the President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs.

Epstein is part of a new young group of baseball managers who have led the effort to revolutionize the selection of players. Even casual baseball fans will have heard of Moneyball, the Michael Lewis best seller about the transition to computer analysis of player skills from gut reactions by scouts. The book and the movie that followed were not about Theo Epstein. They were about Billy Beane. Theo Epstein didn’t like the idea of the book because he didn’t want to give away his secrets.

This year, those must have been pretty good secrets because the Chicago Cubs won 5% more games in the regular season than the second best team. That might not sound like much but it is more than enough to distance a team from the pack.

Is that being done with elections? Anyone interested in a system that might deliver 5% more votes?

To be fair, baseball and politics have different problems.

Decades ago, baseball recognized that richer teams playing in bigger markets would dominate poorer teams playing in smaller markets simply by paying more for the best players. The league instituted revenue sharing and salary caps to make it more competitive.

That is the genius of Theo Epstein. His system tries to find players whose contributions to winning baseball games exceed their cost. When the problem became harder after the league set out to increase the competitiveness of all the teams, executives like Theo Epstein and Billy Beane devised systems that outperformed the traditional reliance on the gut instincts of scouts.

This year’s election will cost more than $5 billion. That buys a lot of mediocrity. Those who run the process are like the fat old tobacco-spitting scouts who love to limit the competition as much as they love the limitless cash because they sure would hate to be replaced by Theo Epstein.



4 Responses to “Theo Epstein and the Election”

David Irons, November 06, 2016 at 8:10 am said:

Despite Nate Silver’s polling numbers, I believe the margin in this year’s presidential race will be about 5%, perhaps more. The Clinton campaign’s effort to ensure that their voters vote is entirely data-driven. They have been calmly using all that was learned in 2008 and 2012, and adding to that knowledge. Call it Obamaball. She’s got this.

Another piece of this lies in the difficulty in polling the Latino/a vote. But early voting analysis appears to indicate that it has been underestimated and undercounted everywhere. If there’s a Novenber surprise on the blue upside in Florida and elsewhere (Arizona?), it seems likely to be driven by another data-driven number. Lots of these votes are coming from new, largely young registrants. They aren’t going to show up in any “likely voter” survey based on past behavior. And Hispanic voter registration increases across all age groups come via precisely targeted voter registration efforts that have been going on for months.

All that said, the failure of media, all media, to understand and explain what is actually happening in the authoritarian language, instincts, and even thought behind the Trump campaign is something that people of good will need to challenge for democratic values to prevail. Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley does a far better job of starting that conversation than I can:

This is far from over on November 9. There’s enormous work for evryone to do to repair the damage created across the entire weave of American society over the past 16 months. And even a 343-195 electoral college margin and 50 or 51 D votes in the Senate over the next two years will do little to begin the needed re-weaving of our societal fabric. That’s a much longer term project.


Haven Pell, November 06, 2016 at 6:56 pm said:

Thanks for the thoughtful comment David. My real hope is that Theo might find us better candidates.


David Irons, November 07, 2016 at 4:01 pm said:

I’m thinking we can’t really rely on Theo for that… And shoot me for saying it, but I kinda think both parties (all four parties?) got the candidates they actually deserved. I’m intensely relieved to be pretty happy with one of them. I think Bill Weld may vote for her, too.


Haven Pell, November 10, 2016 at 11:07 am said:

it appears many were fooled.


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