American Pastimes

A few ways to evaluate fall classics by the numbers

Science in the Public Eye

The coming weeks will mark the exciting conclusion of an American tradition: pitting two ideals against each other in a timeless competition of endurance and will. Both sides have prepared all year with campaigns in every corner of the country in front of millions of Americans. With preliminary contests now over, the final two contenders vie once more to be crowned the leaders of the free world. One side draws much of its support from the Midwest, has recently seen a surge in success, and has a solid chance at winning for the first time in more than half a decade. Their opponents are recently victorious, enjoy a youthful base of support on the coast, and thrive off of hope and grit in the face of daunting odds. While there are significant differences between the two, when the dust settles in two weeks’ time, we will still be Americans, standing proudly with a bright future ahead, and united together in that, whether the Detroit Tigers or the San Francisco Giants win the World Series, at least it won’t be the Yankees.

A number of statistical tools have gained popularity in recent years to better understand the chances of both baseball teams and political candidates. There are few subjects in North America more prone to numerical over-analysis than are politics and baseball, and I’ll try to shed light on a few of the more useful tools. There are even those that allege a covariance between the two: Since the first World Series held in an election year in 1908, in 15 of 26 elections, a Democrat has been elected if the National League won the World Series, and a Republican has been elected if the American League won. It’s a nice superstition, but there’s a 56 percent chance that the correlation would be at least fifteen games just at random (though I suppose you could attribute the difference to Republicans lowering the top marginal tax rate on designated hitters).

Wins Above Replacement, another baseball metric, has received a considerable amount of attention this year, but what is it good for? Simply put, each player’s WAR measures the number of games their team would have won compared to a scenario in which they were replaced by an average player. There are a few different ways of computing WAR, but the theory behind them is the same. While traditional metrics like batting average, strikeouts, and homeruns are familiar and easy to calculate, WAR has the added benefit of allowing pitchers and batters to be compared on a single scale, generating more nuanced calculations of how to best win games.

Metrics like WAR were popularized by the 2003 book “Moneyball” and are playing a significant role in the debate over the American League’s 2012 Most Valuable Player. While Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera led the league in batting average, runs batted in, and home runs, recently earning him the first batting Triple Crown since 1967, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s rookie Mike Trout led the league in runs and stolen bases with a WAR of 10.7 (an all-time record for a rookie), earning his team almost four more wins than Cabrera did. While it’s difficult to say who was truly “most valuable” for their team, having a single scale on which to compare players certainly adds clarity.

And while political figures are analyzed ad nauseam, there’s one statistic in particular that demands further analysis. Lackluster voter turnout, particularly among young people, considerably skews how representative our democracy can really be. In presidential elections since 1972 (when 18-year-olds earned the right to vote), average voter turnout for people aged 18-29 has been 47.7 percent on average, while turnout for eligible voters aged 30 and over has been 68.2 percent. Midterm elections have been even starker, with 18-29-year-olds turning out merely 26.6 percent of the time compared to 54.9 percent of voters aged 30 and over.

It takes no stretch of the imagination to suspect that the vast difference in results in the 2008 and 2010 elections can largely be explained by the demographics of the voters in each election. One could easily construct a political WAR defined by the odds that a particular constituency’s support would help a politician win an election. Since the WAR in this case is chiefly determined by voter turnout, smart politicians will work harder to represent constituencies that vote.

Even if no presidential or congressional candidate suits your tastes, voting for someone (vote for Big Bird if you must; he’s had a rough year) sends the message that your demographic is engaged with the government, and your voice will matter a little more for the next two years. America was built on the principle that everyone deserves a voice in shaping his or her future. Whether it’s going to watch the Red Sox in hopes that they may one day prevail again or voting so that your voice may be heard, simply showing up is half the fight.

Jack M. Cackler is a Ph.D. candidate in biostatistics. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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