Sox and sabermetrics

White Sox alumni event

Nate Silver, AB’00, has become somewhat of a champion for University of Chicago nerds everywhere, turning an economics degree into a career in baseball-statistics analysis and then a hugely popular political blog, But for all his success, nobody ever called him immodest.

“I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to baseball,” the stats guru and White Sox fan said early in his talk at U.S. Cellular Field Sunday. He said that because he hasn’t focused all of his energies on the game this season, but I still have to think he’d destroy me in fantasy baseball. Silver and Christina Kahrl, AB’90, were in town for part of the Alumni Association’s fourth-annual event with Baseball Prospectus (BP), the baseball stats and history think tank Kahrl cofounded. Taking place in the Cell’s Conference and Learning Center, the talk was complete with PowerPoint charts and graphs—a day at the park only the U of C could sponsor.

Silver, who worked for BP until earlier this year, and Kahrl had some guidelines on statistical analysis in general, like valuing quality over quantity in data collection and actively avoiding optimism bias. They used specific examples to explain BP’s PECOTA system, which Silver created to forecast players’ careers, going into some of BP’s successes (see the Cubs’ Milton Bradley) and failures (see the Baltimore Orioles’ Matt Wieters). They had good news for the Sox fans in the room, praising the South Siders’ minor-league system and, in Kahrl’s case, predicting a first-place finish in the American League Central Division, though that might be the optimism talking.

To demonstrate BP’s strategy for comparing past and present players, Silver broke out the MS Paint—not a very good replacement for a whiteboard to explain multidimensional vectors. Still, White Sox faithful now have at least some empirical evidence that Gordon Beckham could be a Hall of Famer.

The presentation lasted until the start of the game, which saw the Orioles beat the Sox 3–2. Sunny skies and comfortable temperatures made up for the expensive food (that churro was hardly worth $14), and even this Cubs fan did all right at the Cell. Oh, and that guy at the end of the row, the one talking all those numbers? Not quite the idiot he said he was.

Jake Grubman, ’11

Photo by Eric Allix Rogers, AB'05 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

August 25, 2009