Stick to baseball, 12/3/16.

I had a couple of Insider pieces this week, on the trade of Jaime Garcia to Atlanta, the Cespedes contract, the trade of Alex Jackson to Atlanta, and my proposal for an international draft (written before the CBA negotiations ended). I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers Grifters, a “deckbuilder without a deck” that I thought played a little too mechanically.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 7/30/16.

It’s been a busy week already and I assume the next 52 hours will be even more so; here are my three Insider posts on trades from the last seven days:

• The Aroldis Chapman trade
• The Texas/Atlanta trade and the Blue Jays’ two deals
• The Andrew Cashner and Eduardo Nunez trades

I also have a draft blog post up on last week’s Under Armour Game, and I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I’ll be on ESPN’s trade deadline show on Monday from 1 to 4 pm ET, after which I’m taking a few days off to work on my book and on some other personal projects.

And now, the links…

  • Dr. Mike Sonne, an injury prevention researcher and a baseball fan, argues that pitch clocks may increase pitcher injury risk by reducing recovery time for fatiguing muscles. So maybe pace of game isn’t such a huge problem.
  • If you missed this on Twitter you really should read Eireann Dolan’s story about her autistic brother, from how he was bullied as a kid to the nightmare they all just went through with him.
  • Iowa Republican Steve King says racist stuff on a regular basis and keeps winning re-election. The Iowa Starting line blog looks at why.
  • As always, I’m nobody’s expert on these matters, but I feel like the rejection of state “vote fraud” laws, including this week’s invalidation of North Carolina’s law as racist, is the biggest story of this election cycle. One, with African-American voters favoring Clinton in historic proportions, it seems like striking down these laws could help her in several critical states, including the swing state of North Carolina. Two, killing these laws – based on the entirely fraudulent fear of fraudulent voting – will have an effect on many elections to come, and, one might hope, will slow efforts to disenfranchise entire demographic groups.
  • BuzzFeed political editor (and longtime reader of mine) Katherine Miller wrote a great longread on how Trump “broke” the conservative movement.
  • Trump has faced multiple allegations of sexual assault from women over the last several decades, including one from his ex-wife Ivana. Everyone dismissed such claims against Bill Clinton in 1991-92, but a quarter-century later, the climate around rape and sexual assault is, or seemed to be, much changed. Perhaps Hannibal Burress needs to joke about it before it’ll go anywhere.
  • A large Swedish study on the environmental impacts of organic agriculture versus conventional found differences in each direction, with neither side clearly favored. This is especially important for consumers, in that food labeled “organic” isn’t going to be more nutritious or necessarily better for the environment. But there’s a problem within the problem here – the term “organic” has itself been watered down (pun intended) from what the term meant when Lord Northbourne coined it in 1940. So-called “natural” pesticides aren’t going to automatically better for the environment, for example, and dumping organic fertilizers into the soil won’t have the same effect as using compost and working in crops (like clover or legumes) that increase nitrogen content in the soil.
  • Those “recyclable” disposable coffee cups aren’t recyclable at all, not unless you have access to one of the very few facilities capable of doing so. This means tons of cups end up in landfills every year, so why don’t we demand better?
  • Scientific American explains a card trick that relies on a simple cipher and the cooperation of a partner.
  • A tough longread on a 20-year-old unsolved missing persons case on the Isle of Wight. The police seem to have botched the earliest stages of the investigation, which may render the case unsolvable.
  • German scientists found a bacterium living inside human noses that produces a chemical toxic to Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium that causes MRSA. Now if only it worked against gonorrhea, the bacterium behind which has evolved resistance to all known antibiotics.
  • Joe Biden has to acknowledge the LIQUID SWORDS tweet at some point, right? If I see him around here I’m going to ask him.
  • Why are police officers enforcing Trump’s ban on Washington Post reporters? They’re claiming it’s a security issue, but that’s clearly not the case.
  • I wrote about a year ago about an essay I read on the unsolved abc problem in mathematics and the abstruse proof offered by a Japanese mathematician, Shinichi Mochizuki, who created a whole new branch of math to solve it – which meant no one was sure if he actually had solved it at all. Scientific American offers an update and some new commentary, including criticism of Mochizuki’s unwillingness to travel or work with others on the proof.
  • In a new book, Innovation and its Enemies, Calestous Juma explains why people often hate new stuff, and talks about what variables affect adoption rates or drive opposition.
  • The National Post gave the fraudumentary Vaxxed zero stars and an admonition not to see it.
  • Speaking of fraud, anything that claims it can “boost your immune system” is lying and even they worked, it’s a terrible idea. If you pay for these “enhanced” water products, or for useless supplements like Airborne, you might as well flush your money down the toilet.
  • The elusive DC-area chef Peter Chang is opening what he calls the restaurant of his dreams in Bethesda. I’ve been to his place in Charlottesville, and I thought it was excellent but have very little history or knowledge of Sichuan cuisine to compare it to.
  • Congrats to Pizzeria Vetri, our favorite pizzeria in Philly and just one of our favorite restaurants there period, for winning Philly magazine’s Best Soft-Serve Ice Cream nod for 2016.
  • Seth Meyers on “Bernie or Bust” twits:

Stick to baseball, 7/9/16.

My annual top 25 MLB players under age 25 ranking went up this week for Insiders, and please read the intro while you’re there. I also wrote a non-Insider All-Star roster reaction piece, covering five glaring snubs and five guys who made it but shouldn’t have. I also held my usual Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the reissue of the Reiner Knizia game Ra.

Sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get occasional emails from me with links to my content and stray thoughts that didn’t fit anywhere else.

And now, the links…

Saturday five, 8/21/15.

My short series on the best tools in baseball continued with my ranking of the players with the best hitting tools and the best fielding tools in the majors. I also had two draft blog posts, one on the Perfect Game All-American Classic and one on the Under Armour game.

I was the guest host of the Baseball Tonight podcast on Wednesday, with guests Tim Kurkjian and Alex Speier.

Chat is still down, so I did another Periscope video chat instead.

And now, this week’s links… saturdayfive

Saturday five, 8/1/15.

So I was kind of busy this week, writing these pieces for Insiders on the major trades leading up to Friday’s trade deadline.

Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets
Mike Leake to San Francisco
Latos/Olivera/Wood three-team trade
David Price to Toronto
Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh
Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers to Houston
Brandon Moss to St. Louis
Cole Hamels to Texas
Jonathan Papelbon to Washington
Ben Zobrist to Kansas City
Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto
Tyler Clippard to the Mets
Johnny Cueto to Kansas City
Several smaller trades
The Mets/Carlos Gomez trade that didn’t happen

I also have a scouting post up on some Mets and Yankees AA prospects.

And now, the links… saturdayfive

  • Earlier this month, a fan at a Brewers game was hit in the face by a line drive, severely injuring her and missing killing her by centimeters. There’s a fundraising page for her medical bills if you’d like to donate.
  • Twitter is now hiding plagiarized jokes and other tweets if the original authors file complaints. It’s a minor issue compared to some of the abuse hurled at women and minorities on Twitter, but I’ll take any step toward greater editorial control on Twitter as a positive.
  • Molly Knight talked to Lasorda’s Lair about her book on the Dodgers and her history of anxiety disorder. If you haven’t yet, you should buy her book.
  • The Shreveport Times has a sharp opinion piece on how the Lafayette massacre won’t change anything. The piece specifically singles out Louisiana’s “weak and non-existent gun control.” It’s on us, though; you vote for candidates who take money from the NRA, this is what you get. If you don’t like it, get out there and campaign for the other side.
  • Is the song “Happy Birthday” still protected by copyright? It appears it may not be, although we’ll need the judge’s ruling to be sure. There’s a big fight coming in 2018 over expiring copyrights, one that puts me (in favor of putting many older works in the public domain) on the opposite side from my employer (Disney, which has a fair concern about Mickey Mouse falling into p.d.).
  • The Fibonacci shelf takes the mathematical sequence and turns it into stackable furniture. I want this.
  • Three “next-level” recipes for rum punch. That first one, a planter’s punch with homemade grenadine, sounds right up my alley; planter’s punch is the first strong (may I say “grown-up?”) cocktail I liked.
  • Go ahead, be sarcastic, at least with people you know well: it can boost creative thinking, according to a new study by three business school professors.
  • A fantastic profile of prodigy turned mathematician Terry Tao, considered (per the piece) “the finest mathematician of his generation,” and more broadly a piece on number theory. I share Tao’s love of the original computer game Civilization and the difficulty in putting it aside; it occupied a huge portion of the fall semester of my junior year of college, unfortunately. That said, it kills me that the article’s author felt that “prime number” required a definition. You shouldn’t be able to get to high school without knowing what that means.

Saturday five, 4/10/15.

My ranking of the top 50 prospects in this year’s draft class went up on Friday for Insiders; I also had a draft blog post specifically on Nate Kirby and Kyle Funkhouser, and I broke down the Craig Kimbrel/Melvin Upton trade. I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the excellent baseball-themed deckbuilder Baseball Highlights: 2045, which is currently $32 over at amazon. My daughter, who doesn’t have much interest in the actual baseball thing, even asked me last night if we could play it again this weekend.

Amazon is having a huge sale on strategy games today in honor of International Tabletop Day, with almost half off Splendor, 7 Wonders, Five Tribes, and King of Tokyo.

And now, the links:

  • A repost from my social media accounts this week: Why the “Food Babe” is full of shit. The shame is that she could marshal her small group of followers to make meaningful changes to our food supply, like pressuring vendors to stop buying meat from animals raised with antibiotics, but instead propagates ignorance and anti-science sentiment.
  • More on the FraudBabe: A post from September on the harm such pseudoscience quacks can cause in their followers. And followers they are, much like those of a cult leader.
  • One baseball link, from my colleague Stephania Bell: What we’ve missed about Tommy John surgery, with a focus on why some pitchers require a second transplant surgery soon after their first one.
  • Longread of the week: Vanity Fair delves into the deterioration of NBC’s news department that culminated in the Brian Williams debacle. Shorter version: This was the end of a long decline.
  • The health of our bodies is related to the health of the trillions of bacteria that live in our GI tracts; one gene in the mother may affect the composition of bacteria in a newborn’s gut.
  • Children with maple syrup urine disease, an organic acidemia similar to the one my daughter and I have (3-MCC), can only be cured via a liver transplant. Now their discarded livers can be transplanted into other patients who might not qualify for a liver from a “healthy” (meaning dead but not diseased) donor.
  • This excerpt from Masha Gessen’s The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy on the death of one of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s friends at the hands of the FBI poses some uncomfortable questions about the nature of policing in an endless war against terror.
  • Cops are much more likely to stop black drivers than white drivers for investigatory (that is, non-safety) reasons. And that’s how you get situations like the murder of Walter Scott. (Confession: When I saw #WalterScott trending, I started thinking of Waverley jokes or something I could tweet in Scott’s variety of the Scottish dialect, only to discover what the trend was about and stop myself from being horribly insensitive.)
  • Daniel Vaughn, aka @BBQSnob aka Texas Monthly‘s barbecue writer/editor, went to Phoenix’s Little Miss BBQ and loved it. I feel validated by this. I like the slaw more than he did, and I’ve had better sausage there than he got, but otherwise we’re on the same page.
  • Vice has some ominous news for almost everyone on the Internet: Your porn is watching you, or, more specifically, it would be rather easy for someone to reveal any online porn viewer’s habits if they were to compromise any major site’s server logs. There’s some skepticism, but I think the larger point about our lack of privacy online (porn or not-porn) is valid.

Saturday five, 4/4/15.

My predictions for 2015 are now up for Insiders. Earlier this week, Eric Longenhagen and I put together a lengthy post of prospect notes from spring training, covering players from Houston, Atlanta, the Yankees, San Francisco, the Cubs, and Texas. My top 50 prospects update went up earlier in the week, with very modest changes other than the addition of Yoan Moncada.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the tile-laying game NanoBot Battle Arena, a quick family-strategy game with a high interactive (read: screw your opponents) component.

saturdayfiveI’ve got fewer links than normal this week due to endless travel; at this point I’m just relieved spring training is over and I can regain some kind of control over my whereabouts.

Saturday five, 3/7/15.

I’ve had two draft blog posts in the last week, one on Kyler Murray and one on UF shortstop Richie Martin, with some other players included in each piece. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday, my last before heading off to spring training, which will make chat times irregular for the rest of the month.

The University of Chicago Press has published a new edition of the essential baseball book The Hidden Game of Baseball: A Revolutionary Approach to Baseball and Its Statistics, with a foreword by … oh, hey, that’s me. The original came out in 1984, which I know is before many of you were born, but it remains one of the great gateways into understanding the sport on a rational level. I own a copy of the original, but I’m thrilled to get and to be part of this update.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • Dr. Paul Offit, who invented the rotavirus vaccine and is one of the most ardent and erudite advocates for universal vaccination, on how the modern vaccine-denial movement is putting our children at risk.
  • Meanwhile, Representative Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, who chairs a House science subcommittee, didn’t get his kids vaccinated. There’s no justification for having him anywhere near a science policy-making body, and he just feeds right into the whole children-as-property fallacy with his comments.
  • From the New York Times: Is most of our DNA just junk? It turns out the question of whether noncoding DNA serves any useful purposes is tied up in debates over genetics research and has even drawn in the cranks who push creation “science.”
  • Speaking of creationism, the irreducible complexity fallacy gets a good slap upside the head at the National Center for Science Education’s blog in a post tearing up that misconception. Evolution doesn’t favor increasing complexity, and, as the post asks, what exactly do you mean by “complexity” in the first place?
  • Radley Balko, who keeps churning out great investigative pieces, on as bad a case of police and DA corruption as you’ll see. A process server who served papers to a police officer ended up arrested and charged with assaulting the officer, with seven corroborating witnesses, most or all cops, backing it up … but the alleged assault never happened. And as far as I can tell, none of those cops has been charged or suspended in the case.
  • The man credited with bringing farm-to-table to Dallas long before that was even a term passed away last week at 58. Tom Spicer supplied produce to many of the Metroplex’s finest restaurants.
  • What purpose is served by a law that prevents a woman whose baby is almost certainly nonviable from terminating the pregnancy? That’s the very real case of a North Carolina woman, Whitney, who had to head two states away to have an abortion because North Carolina has banned all abortions past twenty weeks. This seems to me to be a medical issue, not a right-to-life vs. reproductive rights question, and therefore one best determined by the patient and her doctor.

Think Twice

Michael Mauboussin’s short book on the psychology of bad decisions, Think Twice, features an endorsement on its cover from Billy Beane, saying he hopes his competitors don’t read the book. While it doesn’t go into anywhere near the depth on the psychology (and neurology) of decision-making as Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Mauboussin’s book covers much of the same ground and does so in a quick, superficial way that might reach more people than Kahnemann’s more thorough but often dense treatise could.

Mauboussin’s book carries the subtitle “Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition,” but I would describe it more as a guide to avoiding decisions based on easily avoidable mental traps. Think Twice has eight chapters dealing with specific traps, most of which will be familiar to readers of Kahnemann’s book: base-rate neglect, tunnel vision, irrational optimism, overreliance on experts, ignoring context, phase transitions (black and grey swans), and conflating skill and luck. Where Kahnemann went into great depth with useful examples and sometimes less-useful descriptions of fMRI test results, Mauboussin writes like he can’t get to the point fast enough – an often desirable trait in the popular business non-fiction section of the bookstore, since the assumption is that business executives don’t have time to read (even if the book might save millions of dollars).

That lightweight approach still gives Mauboussin plenty of space to hammer home the critical lessons of the book. Some of his examples don’t need a lot of explanation, such as pointing out that playing French music or German music in a wine store aisle with wines from both countries skewed consumer choices – even though those consumers explicitly denied that the music affected their choices. (Context matters.) He targets sportswriters directly when discussing their (our) difficulty (or inability) in distinguishing skill from luck – and, in my experience, fans often don’t want to hear that something is luck, even when the sample size is so small that you couldn’t prove it was skill no matter how broad the confidence test. He mentions The Boss going off in the papers when the Yankees started 4-12 in 2005, and writers buying right into the narrative (or just enjoying the free content Steinbrenner was providing). But we see it every October, and during every season; are the Giants really the best team in baseball, or is there an element of luck (or, to use the more accurate term, randomness) in their three championship runs in five seasons? Yet we see articles that proclaim players to be clutch or “big game” every year; my colleague Skip Bayless loves to talk about the “clutch gene,” yet I see no evidence to support its existence. I think Mauboussin would take my side in the debate, and he’d argue that an executive making a decision on a player needs to set aside emotional characterizations like that and focus on the hard data where the sample sizes are sufficiently large.

His chapter on the world’s overreliance on experts also directly applies to the baseball industry, both within teams and within the media. It is simply impossible for any one person to be good enough at predictions or forecasting to beat a well-designed projection system. I could spend every night from February 10th until Thanksgiving scouting players, see every prospect every year, and still wouldn’t be better on a macro level at predicting, say, team won-lost records or individual player performances than ZiPS or Steamer or any other well-tested system. The same goes for every scout in the business, and it’s why the role of scouting has already started to change. Once data trackers (like Tracman) can provide accurate data on batted ball speeds/locations or spin rate on curveballs for most levels of the minors and even some major college programs, how much value will individual scouts’ opinions on player tools matter in the context of team-level decisions on draft picks or trades? The most analytically-inclined front offices already meld scouting reports with such data, using them all as inputs to build better expert systems that can provide more accurate forecasts – which is the goal, because whether you like projection systems or not, you want your team to make the best possible decisions, and you can’t make better decisions without better data and better analysis of those data. (Mauboussin does describe situations where experts can typically beat computer models, but those are typically more static situations where feedback is clear and cause/effect relationships are simple. That’s not baseball.)

Mauboussin’s first chapter describes the three central illusions that lead to irrational optimism, one we see all the time in baseball when teams are asked to evaluate or potentially trade their own prospects: the illusions of superiority, optimism, and control. Our prospects are better than everyone else’s because we scout better, we develop better, and we control their development paths. When you hear that teams are overrating prospects, sometimes that’s just another GM griping that he can’t get what he wants for his veteran starter, but it can also be this irrational optimism that leads many teams to overrate their own kids. There’s a strong element of base-rate neglect in all of these illusions; if you have a deep farm system with a dozen future grade-50 prospects, you know, based on all of the great, deep systems we’ve seen in the last few years (the Royals, Rangers, Padres, Red Sox, Astros) that some of those players simply won’t work out, due to injuries, undiscovered weaknesses, or just youneverknows. A general manager has to be willing to take the “outside view” of his own players, viewing them through objective lenses, rather than the biased “inside view,” which also requires that he be able to take that view because he has the tools available to him and the advisers who are willing to tell him “no.”

The passage on unintended consequences is short and buried within a chapter on complex adaptive systems, but if I could send just two pages of the book to new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, I’d send these. Mauboussin gives two examples, one of incompetent wildlife management in Yellowstone Park, one of the feds’ decision to let Lehman Brothers fail and thus start the 2008 credit crisis, both of which involve single actions to a complex system that the actors didn’t fully understand (or try to). So when MLB tries to tinker with the draft, or fold in the July 2nd international free agents into the rule 4 draft or a new one, or changes free agent compensation rules … whatever they do, this is a complex system with hundreds of actors who will react to any such rules changes in ways that can’t be foreseen without a look at the entire system.

The seven-page concluding chapter is a great checklist for anyone trying to bring this kind of “counterintuitive” thinking into an organization or just into his/her own decision-making. It’s preventative: here’s how you avoid rushing into major decisions with insufficient data or while under a destructive bias. I can see why Beane doesn’t want other GMs or executives reading this; competing against people who suffer from these illusions and prejudices is a lot easier than competing against people who think twice.

Saturday five, 2/21/15.

My only new baseball post in the last week was last Saturday’s post on draft prospects Kyle Funkhouser, Kyle Tucker, and Jake Woodford; my trip this weekend didn’t happen because USAirways cancelled my outbound flight and couldn’t get me to Santa Barbara in time. I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

saturdayfiveMy latest boardgame review for Paste was on Evolution, one of the bigger Kickstarter boardgame success stories (non-Exploding Kittens division). I’ll have another piece for them next week, summarizing my afternoon at Toyfair NYC earlier this week.

I’ve also been thrilled by all of your reactions and responses to my essay on my peculiar, obsessive reading habits. I’m still wading through them all, but please know that I’ve at least seen your comments even if I haven’t replied directly.

A lot of links this week…

  • First, an actual baseball piece: My friend Alex Speier has an outstanding article on Boston’s use of “neuroscouting” tools, like a computer program to measure a player’s hand-eye coordination. I’ve heard about this tool before, and I know a few other teams that use it or tools in the same vein, and while their competitive advantage is temporary (soon everyone except the Phillies will adopt it), it’s quite significant.
  • A fantastic BBC interview with actress Jamie Brewer, now the first woman with Down Syndrome to walk the catwalk at Fashion Week. Termination rates for fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome range from an estimated 67% in the US to over 90% in Europe, and of course that issue came up in the news recently with the story of the Armenian woman who divorced her New Zealand-born husband rather than keep their baby, born with Down Syndrome, although the precise details of that are unclear.
  • A longread from the New Yorker on the Apple industrial designer who might be the most important person in the company.
  • How Parks and Recreation got Bill Murray to play Mayor Gunderson. The final season has had its misses (the Johnny Karate episode), but the way they’ve circled back to every significant side character and still added more amazing guest appearances like this one has made it more than just a cursory victory lap, but a season worth remembering. If you’re a fan of the show, or just enjoyed the #humblebrag phenomenon, you should also read Aziz Ansari’s tribute to writer/comedian Harris Wittels, who died of an apparent drug overdose this week. Wittels, who also played Animal Control Brett on P&R, was just 30 years old.
  • This week in vaccination: Jeb Lund (aka @Mobute) has a superb piece in Rolling Stone on how vaccine deniers’ bad decisions hurt others, not themselves. Meanwhile, here in Delaware, my representative in our lower house is introducing a bill to tighten the “religious exemption” loophole in vaccination requirements. I think we should repeal that exemption entirely, but this is at least a good first step. Also, Forbes ran a great three-part piece debunking myths about vaccine deniers. I disagree with one thing – these people are pretty much all delusional idiots – but her points are crucial in the fight against such ignorance. One thing we can’t forget, though: Those of us who understand the facts that vaccines are safe and effective must keep speaking up, telling our representatives in government, our school boards, our principals, everyone in a position of authority that we want our children protected.
  • Oliver Sacks wrote a difficult-to-read (and probably more so to write) piece on learning his cancer has returned and metastasized.
  • Also from the NY Times, an op ed on how added vitamins paper over the low quality of our food supply.
  • Settlers of Catan: The Film! This is going to be terrible.
  • Two good pieces from the Washington Post. The first, from earlier this month, on how it’s never too early to teach children about boundaries, which I think might help not just with preventing abuse and molestation but might also reduce the pervasiveness of rape culture among young men. On a related note, the second piece, from this Thursday, discusses the abuse that’s driving some feminist writers offline. You know who’s a major culprit in this? Twitter. Their lack of enforcement of their own harassment policies is by far the worst thing about the site. You can quite literally threaten to rape or kill someone, directly @ their account, and face no consequences even just within the confines of the site itself. Come on, Twitter. Be better.
  • I agree wholeheartedly with this message, which refers to the movie The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend):