Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wave Elections and Our Attention Spans

Mitt Romney is surging.

No, sorry. I now have it on good authority that Ron Paul is surging.

OK, a couple minutes later, I can now confirm that Newt Gingrich is surging.

What has been up with this election cycle? We've all noticed the sudden surges in the polls of the not-Romney candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. The political winds have shifted from hurricane-force behind one candidate to just as strong behind another—first every month or two, but now literally every week. To recap: First, back in the spring, it was Donald Trump leading the polls. Then Michele Bachmann stormed to the top over the summer. Then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain. Then it was Gingrich's turn as the calendar turned to December. Then suddenly everyone noticed Paul.

That was when it really got interesting. In one week, it seemed like the entire Iowa GOP flocked en masse behind Rick Santorum. So decisively did he rally that support that he appeared on top of the world—until one week later, when Romney's powerful New Hampshire victory speech made him seem inevitable. Everyone, including this blogger, thought he was on his way to a win in South Carolina and the title of "presumptive nominee."

That was just one week ago. Yesterday, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina by 12 percentage points. According to Nate Silver, it's "one of the most shocking reversals of momentum ever in a presidential primary"—and it's hard to disagree.

The conventional wisdom is that this primary season has been so volatile because Republicans aren't ready to settle down with Mitt Romney, unctuous and sober, as their nominee. I'm sure that's part of it. But the election results in 2012 so far have actually been part of a broader pattern.

In 2006, 2008, and 2010, the United States experienced three consecutive "wave" elections—contests in which a new party swept magnificently and convincingly into power. In 2006, Democrats pulled the trick by adding 31 representatives and six senators; in 2008, they built on those impressive totals, gaining eight Senate seats, 21 House seats, and, of course, one White House. However, in 2010, the Tea Party struck back for the right; the GOP's gains of 63 in the House and six in the Senate crippled the Democratic gains of the previous two cycles.

These were remarkable elections considering the safety that congressional incumbents in particular have enjoyed throughout American history. In each of the five cycles before 2006, no party flipped more than nine House seats. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, changes in the partisan control of the House and Senate were relatively rare. (Even when power did change hands, it was due to extremely incremental changes, such as a party switch or tight election in a closely-divided Congress—nothing like the emphatic swings from +30 to -30 of recent years.) Lately, though, we've been on a seesaw ride, with the American public seemingly incapable of choosing which party it wants in power. Until recently, wave elections were safely a once-in-a-generation occurrence—yet here in the 2000s, we may just be getting started. With incumbents' record-low popularity, 2012 is considered a good candidate for a fourth wave election in a row.

This cannot be explained with the frequent narrative that today's America is extremely polarized. If that were so, everyone would stubbornly vote for the same party or candidate every election and the results would be the same year in and year out. Instead, I suspect it may be simpler—Americans just don't have the patience we used to have.

There is evidence to suggest that human attention spans are getting shorter. The average sound bite, for instance, lasted 43 seconds in 1968 but is now under eight seconds—seemingly tailor-made for today's rapid-fire Twitterverse and blogosphere. Other modern technologies may be hurting us, too; the preponderance of devices (raise your hand if you watched Saturday's primary with a laptop, smartphone, AND iPad) makes it far easier to multitask, which perhaps unsurprisingly has been linked to increased susceptibility to distraction. The problem appears heightened among our youth, who (stereotypically at least) rely most heavily on the internet and smartphones; one study found their attention span to average only 10 minutes. Finally, television—such as the recent phenomenon of 24-hour cable news—is thought to sap our attention spans as well. (It's been speculated that the press is especially to blame for the umpteen frontrunners we've seen in this presidential primary—the media seem to leap on and off bandwagons with remarkable alacrity.)

The actual effects of modern technology are still debatable, of course—and I'm certainly no Luddite, as I believe that Apple, Google, Twitter, and the rest of the internet have improved our richness of existence, not to mention of tracking politics. But it seems like a plausible explanation for a society that appears to have lost all patience with its politicians. Where America was once willing to sit and listen to a 43-second sound bite, it may also have been content to give a political party multiple years, and multiple chances, to solve the issues of the day.

Today, though, because every spare second is filled with tweets and punditry, the two years between elections feel like a lifetime. It's easier for voters to say "They've had enough time!" when in fact crises like a hostile world or a deflated economy require gradual, long-term solutions that can be jeopardized if the party line of the US government changes every two years. Just as we now get cranky if a website takes more than five seconds to load, we unrealistically expect instant gratification—and instant results—out of our leaders.

This is just a theory, based (admittedly) on mostly anecdotal evidence. But at the very least, the world is moving faster today than it ever has before (chew on this: five years ago, there was no such thing as a smartphone)—and so are our politics. Time will tell if this is a phase or our new reality.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

South Beach Showcase

He has been called "The Showcase." He's so mysterious that no one is quite sure how to spell his name. And he is coming to MLB.

Yoenis Céspedes is not just the latest baseball player to defect from Cuba—he is being called the best position player to emerge from the island in a generation. The American baseball community is on pins and needles about where he'll play—and how much money will be thrown at the talented outfielder. The most recent reports indicate that his services will be awarded to one of six teams: the Cubs, Indians, Marlins, Orioles, Tigers, and White Sox.

All six of these teams have needs in the outfield, which obviously explains their interest. But only one absolutely needs Céspedes. It's the Miami Marlins, and after the spending spree that that team perpetrated at last month's Winter Meetings, it will be a major disappointment if they don't land him.

You see, the Marlins are writing a new chapter in the annals of franchise history. They've rebranded themselves from "Florida Marlins" to "Miami Marlins" in conjunction with the debut of a much-hyped new ballpark in 2012. As evidenced by their free-agent binge, they're seizing the moment to transform a moribund franchise into a competitive, popular team that South Florida can be proud of. But to build a consistently strong fan base, they need more than a contending team. They need a smart business approach.

Yoenis Céspedes fits the second objective just as well as he does the first. Few places in the United States are so synonymous with a given ethnicity or immigrant community as Miami is with Cuban-Americans. As of the 2010 census, Miami-Dade County was 34.3% Cuban, outnumbering other Hispanic ethnicities (30.7%) and almost eclipsing all non-Hispanic ethnicities combined (35%). It is the unquestioned epicenter of Cuban culture in the US; in fact, Miami-Dade contains 47.9% of all Cuban-Americans nationwide. (My favorite stat: of the 101 cities with the highest Cuban-American population, 97 are in South Florida.) For the Marlins to truly become Miami's team, they need to make fans out of this community.

With Cuba's rich baseball tradition, it shouldn't be an uphill battle to do so. But the single biggest step toward capturing that market would be to sign the most exciting Cuban player in the game today. Hometown heroes have always been a valuable commodity in baseball, from Tony Gwynn to Jason Heyward. Céspedes isn't a conventional hometown hero, of course, but to Florida's million-plus Cuban-Americans, he might as well be. Already a hero among Cuban-American baseball fans, he would drive them to the seats on a regular basis if he makes New Marlins Ballpark his home. He's a natural fit for a fan favorite in Miami like nowhere else; if the team wants to sell jerseys, they'd do well to make sure his name is on one of them. And how better to build a long-term fan base than to get the children of your city on board? Kids in particular will seek out a baseball idol whom they can relate to; Céspedes is that for Miami's young Cuban-Americans.

Signing Céspedes could be an even bigger boon for the Marlins than that, though. If Céspedes becomes the superstar he is projected to be, he'll earn the admiration of Cuban-Americans nationwide, giving the Marlins the chance to be a team with national appeal. The Mariners and Red Sox cashed in on Ichiro Suzuki's and Daisuke Matsuzaka's popularity in Japan in much the same way.

Some may call this pandering, and that's understandable. Bitterness arose when it appeared that the team coveted Albert Pujols over Prince Fielder because the latter was not Latino (although those in the know dismiss such theories). But while the Marlins certainly shouldn't discriminate against any players for their ethnicity, it's perfectly all right for them to put in extra effort to woo a player who jibes with their natural constituency. Even as, yes, the team makes money from the marriage, it also does a service to the largest segment of its fan base. It gives them a player they can relate to—someone who, like them or their ancestors, escaped from communist rule to make a better life; someone who is more likely than either Fielder or Pujols to make inroads, or even a permanent home, in their community. (Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, for example, has used her success for her hometown's benefit; she's active in Miami as a businessowner, philanthropist, and activist.)

Indeed, landing in Miami is also probably a good outcome for Céspedes himself. Players making the leap from Nippon Professional Baseball often speak of a comfort level achieved by joining teams with other Japanese players; a Cuban defector would likely have a similar desire to feel at home. Granted, Céspedes would probably be "most comfortable" in whatever city offers him the most money, but if that's Miami, he could count on a community and culture that he can relate to just as much as they can relate to him.

Despite all the sense this makes, there is also the sense that Miami may be reluctant to pay Céspedes's rumored asking price ($50 million guaranteed for an MLB rookie is, to put it mildly, risky). But if there is any team for which Céspedes is worth the steep investment, it is the Marlins; indeed, it would be foolish of them not to capitalize on one of the few regional advantages that they do have. At the very least, the Marlins understand the exciting possibilities that Céspedes represents for them: team president David Samson put it best recently when he quite rightly declared, "He should not be anywhere but Miami."

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Baseball Hall of Notoriety

Later today, after weeks of columns on the topic, the results of Hall of Fame voting will be announced—and immediately afterward, everyone will undoubtedly parse and complain about them. I obviously don't have a vote for the Hall of Fame, and I'm kind of glad about that, because I truthfully have no idea how I would fill out my ballot. It seems like today's Hall of Fame elections are marked by divisive debates that didn't exist, or at least were not so flamboyantly public, even five or 10 years ago. Is Jack Morris worthy of induction because he was the best pitcher of the 1980s? Should suspicion that Jeff Bagwell took steroids mean voters should reserve judgment on him, or is he innocent until proven guilty? And, of course, the big one: Is there any place in the Hall of Fame for known PED users? [Hyperlinks omitted due to overwhelming number of articles to choose from.]

As a disciple of the written word, in times like these I look to language to help illuminate the way. While I suspect that most of the writers with actual votes are way beyond this question, if I were given a ballot I would start by asking, "What is a Hall of Fame?" and "What is it for?"

At the risk of sounding like a terrible snob, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definitions for the most common usage of the word "fame": "The character attributed to a person or thing by report or generally entertained; reputation. Usually in good sense." and "The condition of being much talked about. Chiefly in good sense: Reputation derived from great achievements; celebrity, honour, renown."

Many writers break their Hall of Fame ballots into "Hall of Fame" and, for those who just missed the cut, "Hall of the Very Good." In this way they're using "fame" as a synonym for "excellent." However, as we can see from the OED, that's a questionable connection to draw. While the connotation of the word "fame" is indeed "chiefly in a good sense," its actual denotation hinges on reputation, renown, and consequence. Put another way, a given player's "fame" can be measured by the impact they had on the game and its history. I'm sure a lot of writers would tell you that they vote on this very basis, but the reams of Hall of Fame columns say otherwise: the elaborate explanations based on statistics, the moralizing over steroid use, and other elements. Almost to a man (there are unfortunately precious few women voters), these columns either imply or outright state that election to the Hall of Fame is an honor. Maybe it shouldn't be. Maybe it should just be a time capsule.

Indeed, to segue into the second question ("What is it for?"), I think the point of the Hall of Fame (as reinforced by its tendency to eat up any history-making baseball or bat within minutes of a legendary game or event) is to memorialize baseball. In 1,000 years, when aliens excavate upstate New York, the National Baseball Hall of Fame—and Museum—should contain all that we wish to pass on about our glorious pastime. When telling the story of baseball, we tell about the giants of the game—the prodigious hitters, but also the scoundrels, the larger-than-life personalities, even the historically bad. We should immortalize all of these things in the Hall.

Put these thoughts together, and you get an interesting hypothesis: a player should be elected to the Hall of Fame based on fame, and all that that means: reputation, renown, celebrity, notoriety, name recognition. It's a Hall of Fame that would include Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron but also Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. Stan Musial would be in there, but so would Pete Rose. It would include Jackie Robinson even in an alternate universe in which he was actually a really bad player. It would include the Legend of Doc Gooden, because even though his career was much less impressive than many others, he's a name we remember today. Even Mario Mendoza—he did nothing to warrant it, but he is an important part of baseballology.

Everyone on every side of the aforementioned divisive debates would probably have a problem with these criteria. It would unquestionably mean putting some of the biggest names in steroid use in the Hall. It would also upset the statheads, because it would mean narrative-driven candidates are not only permitted, but also encouraged. And it would probably upset everyone to put players in Cooperstown just because they played for the famous Yankees and not equally legendary players who didn't get high media exposure in Colorado or Seattle—which would inevitably happen under such a system.

I'm not advocating this voting strategy; clearly it's a kooky approach to something that many people take very seriously. It's just an interesting idea, and it's probably as good a strategy as any of the other arbitrary parsings that BBWAA members have devised for muddling through the mess that is the balloting process these days. Good thing other election processes in this country make more sense. Oh, wait...

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Rick Perry is Literally a Dead Man Walking

In last night's and this morning's back-to-back GOP debates, it was apparent that Texas Governor Rick Perry is no longer a serious candidate for president, polling at only 5% in South Carolina and 1% in New Hampshire (tied with Buddy Roemer). Reflecting his increasing irrelevance in the race, Perry received only a small fraction of the speaking time, and the things he did say were not taken very seriously (despite a controversial statement about Iraq). My favorite line of his, though, was from last night's debate:
"We're going to see Iran, in my opinion, move back in [to Iraq] at literally the speed of light."
This line attracted a fair amount of ridicule on Twitter and the blogosphere for, of course, misusing the word "literally." It would be very difficult for Iran to send troops into Iraq that are traveling 300 million meters per second.

This use of "literally"—as an intensifier, much like you would use "absolutely" or "extremely"—is becoming more and more common. Vice President Joe Biden is a fan; The Fix blogger Chris Cillizza was also a recent transgressor. There's now a blog devoted to its particularly humorous misusages. Primarily, though, you'll hear it in conversation, especially (in my experience) among young people (compare to "like, totally"). The frequency of this misapplication seems like it has spiked in the past five years or so, and it gives traditionalist grammarians fits.

The problem is—as with many linguists' favorite misusages to gripe about—"literally" is not the latest example of how the internet age is deteriorating our language; it has been misused in this way for at least 200 years. In 1769, Frances Brooke wrote in The History of Emily Montague, "He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies." The famous Mark Twain was also an offender in Tom Sawyer: "And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth." Rick Perry's comment from last night was only the latest example of this fine literary tradition. Moreover, of course, Perry was merely employing a speech pattern that most of us have slipped into in the past—myself included. Considering that usage drives grammar, it's not a stretch to say that "virtually" or "utterly" has become one of "literally's" accepted definitions. Here in the year 2012, I don't think it's fair to condemn Perry for jumping on the bandwagon.

That said, I do wish "literally" were used with more care, for the sole reason that, once it is (mis)appropriated for that purpose, there will be no word left to mean "literally"! If you think about it, the words "really," "truly," and "actually" underwent similar transformations; if someone is "actually about to die laughing," that is not meant in the "actual" sense. Yet we hear this just as often as "literally," and it's probably more accepted—because we always had "literally" to fall back on when we meant that someone was literally dying from laughing too hard. Now there is no universally agreed-upon word to denote this; we will probably end up continuing to use "literally," which could create some unfortunate confusion considering its two possible (and practically opposite) meanings.

So here's your daily Baseballot public service announcement: the next time you're tempted to use the word "literally," think twice about whether you literally mean "literally." It could be the difference between life or death.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hiroyuki Nakajima and Norichika Aoki: Somebody Sign These Guys!

Quick—name a Japanese baseball import this offseason.

I think I can guess who Yu named. However, this has been a banner offseason all around for Japanese talent coming to the Major Leagues—pitchers as well as hitters. Perhaps because of all the Yu Darvish buzz, no one is really talking about two of the best hitters ever to come out of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB): Hiroyuki Nakajima and Norichika Aoki.

Nakajima, a 29-year-old shortstop for the Seibu Lions, has consistently kept his OBP in Japan near .400 while playing Gold Glove defense. He's a 20/20 threat every year and can play all around the infield. In fact, using him as a utility player is what the New York Yankees had in mind when they won exclusive negotiating rights with Nakajima last month. According to this "posting" system, the Yankees must pay Seibu $2 million as compensation if their exclusive negotiations result in a contract. (However, the negotiating window expires tomorrow, and it sounds like the parties will not arrive at a deal in time.)

Aoki, who coincidentally turns 30 today, has been called the "best pure hitter" to come out of Japan since Ichiro Suzuki. The outfielder is a leadoff-type guy with power and some eye-popping statistics, including a .944 OPS in 2010. Most sexy, perhaps, is the fact that he has had more walks than strikeouts in three of his last five seasons in NPB. The Milwaukee Brewers won his rights with a $2.5 million posting bid, and the team plans to work Aoki out before committing to anything.

Unfortunately, we lack some of the more refined statistics (OPS+, WAR) for those who play in NPB, so it's harder to tell if they are as valuable as they seem. However, it is possible to calculate how Nakajima and Aoki performed according to my own preferred offensive metric: Bill James's runs created. Runs created are measured on a scale similar to runs scored: 60 is a solid regular, 80 is a lineup stalwart, and superstars crack 100 every year.

Let's use runs created to compare Nakajima's and Aoki's production to some of their would-be peers in the US; it's much easier for us to judge what they'll be worth to any of our ballclubs if we know which MLB players they resemble the most. Here is a chart comparing Hiroyuki Nakajima's yearly runs created to those of MLB players most like him—i.e., shortstops who were 28 in the 2011 season:

And here is a chart comparing Norichika Aoki's runs created to MLB outfielders who were 29 during 2011:

Both Nakajima and Aoki have the highest average runs created in their group. In other words, if they were MLB players putting up the exact same numbers here that they did in Japan, they would be considered the best players, at their age, at their position, in the game. In other other words, if they were MLB free agents this winter, Nakajima would be looking at a Reyes-sized deal (106/6) and Aoki at a Crawford-sized deal (142/7). Yet they both were posted at modest fees, and neither would command more than a few million dollars a year.

Obviously, this is all an exercise in curiosity; there's no truly accurate way to compare stats in Japan with those in the Major Leagues. Primarily, one would assume that the competition is tougher in MLB (although the Japanese team has won both World Baseball Classics thus far); however, NPB is notoriously pitcher-friendly, especially after the introduction of a new type of baseball in 2011, when both Nakajima and Aoki performed rather well even in strange, unfavorable hitters' conditions. In my opinion, the foreignness of Japan's new baseball in 2011 is a reasonable approximation for the adjustment of moving from NPB to MLB, so their muted 2011s might be a better indication of how they'd fare stateside. Still, not bad.

It may all just be for fun, but it is very intriguing food for thought. I'm usually of the school that NPB players are overhyped when they make the leap to America (e.g., Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kazuo Matsui) and are therefore not worth the financial risk, especially when a posting fee is involved. But this duo was posted with such little fanfare, their salary demands so inexpensive, and their talent so competitive that I have to believe they would make worthy Major League signings. Yankees and Brewers fans better hope their front offices wise up to these bargains.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Six Possible Post-Iowa Hangovers

With the release of last night's PPP poll of Iowa, the results of that state's caucuses (tomorrow!) are looking more and more like a complete tossup. To recap for those of you who may just be emerging from a holiday-induced weeklong slumber: Mitt Romney and especially Ron Paul had been looking the strongest in Iowa, but Rick Santorum has picked up steam and is now nipping closely at their heels. Nate Silver's projections currently show Romney with 21.8%, Paul with 21.0%, and Santorum with 19.3%.

Such a minuscule margin raises the question of whether it even matters what order those three finish in; their vote totals will be so close, the actual winner will almost be random. We political junkies are all waiting breathlessly to see who wins on Tuesday, but is it even that suspenseful? Three candidates are going to be roughly tied, and three are going to pull up the rear.

While many people will argue that it doesn't matter (especially the campaign manager of the third-place finisher), I think it does. Sure, the top three candidates may earn identical numbers of convention delegates tomorrow (the ostensible reason that we go through this grueling primary season), but early primary elections are primarily about expectations and narrative-building. The media loves to anoint a winner, and the first-place finisher will have a much easier time arguing that they have that magic elixir of campaigns, momentum. The headlines on Wednesday, and the trajectory that the campaign narrative takes, will very much hinge on the order of finish, even if first and third are separated by one percentage point.

But we don't have to wait for Wednesday to find out what those headlines will be. Barring a shocking showing by Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, or Michele Bachmann, there are exactly six possible outcomes of the 2012 Iowa caucuses. What could we expect to result from each one?

Scenario A

1. Mitt Romney
2. Ron Paul
3. Rick Santorum

This is probably Romney's favorite scenario. Because of his dominant polling numbers in New Hampshire, it would almost certainly result in the former Massachusetts governor sweeping the first two states, shutting out his opponents and making him feel even more like the inevitable nominee.

Scenario B

1. Mitt Romney
2. Rick Santorum
3. Ron Paul

This is obviously also great for Romney, who would still look unbeatable coming off twin Iowa and New Hampshire victories. But a second-place finish for Santorum—long considered the fringest of the fringe—would thrill his campaign and perhaps position him as the default candidate for the evangelical wing of the party, which could make things interesting in South Carolina. This scenario would also be spun as a falling-back-down-to-earth for Ron Paul, whose quirky candidacy is always teetering on the edge of being considered a joke by the media.

Scenario C

1. Ron Paul
2. Mitt Romney
3. Rick Santorum

This might fairly be called the boring outcome, as it's in line with many recent polls and might have the smallest impact on the dynamics of this campaign. The Paul camp would be delighted, of course, but it doesn't change the fact that he of the libertarian views is going to have a hard time ever winning a majority of Republican votes/delegates. Meanwhile, both Romney and Santorum would chalk this up as a solid showing but—tacitly admitting that it's nothing special—would both give speeches on caucus night of the "Let's soldier on and build upon what we did tonight" variety. Outlook: unchanged. Long-term advantage: still Romney.

Scenario D

1. Ron Paul
2. Rick Santorum
3. Mitt Romney

In contrast, in this scenario, Romney would put on a brave face but would have to be privately disappointed with the outcome. After assiduously keeping expectations low in Iowa, he went all out in the last month—only to be upstaged by two stereotypical single-digit candidates. Runner-up Santorum could use the momentum to make Romney's life difficult in the South, and Paul would be in his strongest possible position to achieve his stated goal of a brokered convention.

Scenario E

1. Rick Santorum
2. Mitt Romney
3. Ron Paul

This is the Rocky scenario—the underdog comes from all the way behind to win. The media would explode with "Santorum surge" stories as the former Pennsylvania senator would be anointed the latest non-Romney frontrunner while Paul, the current non-Romney, would be relegated to the second tier. However, with Romney still placing a respectable second (behind a guy who has lived in Iowa for the past 12 months), he would easily be able to shake off the loss to outspend and out-organize Santorum in the remaining states. This is the outcome Romney has been ready for since this campaign started—whether the name at the top was Bachmann, Perry, or anyone else.

Scenario F

1. Rick Santorum
2. Ron Paul
3. Mitt Romney

In this case we'd be treated to both "Santorum surges" and "Romney reels" headlines. This is the worst scenario for Romney, who would continue to face questions about why Republican voters keep refusing to get behind him. Even worse, while he coasts to an easy win in New Hampshire, the media may choose to ignore that increasingly unsuspenseful contest and give more coverage to Santorum in South Carolina or Florida. If Santorum manages the response right, he could translate Iowa into a series of wins in the Bible Belt and knock out the other evangelical candidates—whose vote totals combined would easily defeat Romney (and Paul) one on one. Hmmm...