Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A First Glance at February's Big Election

Every year around this time I take a brief respite from politics and baseball, where it's slow season, and dip my toe into the deep, deep pool of Oscar-watching. Keep checking this space and my Twitter feed for occasional commentary, including my final predictions right before the Academy Awards ceremony on February 22.

For now, though, just a few observations of interest on the initial state of play. Always of interest to me is which nominees are the most "due" for an award; last year, I wrote about some of the most long-suffering Oscar bridesmaids in history. This year, as I updated my comprehensive list of everyone in history with five or more Oscar nominations, I identified plenty of people who have been to the dance before—many times—but come away empty-handed. The following 2015 nominees are still looking for their first Oscar:

Person Occupation Nominations
Roger Deakins Cinematographer 12
Alexandre Desplat Composer 8
Diane Warren Songwriter 7
Daniel Sudick Visual Effects Artist 7
Frank Montaño Sound Mixer 7
Paul Thomas Anderson Director/Writer/Producer 6
Wes Anderson Director/Writer/Producer 6

Unfortunately, as I found in my study last year, the idea that the Academy notices when you are "due" and throws you a sympathy Oscar is largely a myth. And lo and behold, none of the above people is favored to win this year; the reality is, except in the acting categories where nominees are truly brand names, voters go for the movie or the body of work, not the person.

Another angle that catches my attention more than you'd think is the politics of the Oscar race. Yes, even (especially?) Hollywood can't rid itself of politics completely. This year, two films have been appropriated by the left and the right and used as weapons in bringing their war to a new theater (no pun intended)—Selma and American Sniper. Selma, one of the best-reviewed films of the year, looked to be an Oscar frontrunner—but that made it an easy target for negative campaigning, as much a staple of Oscar season as of electoral politics. One of the oldest negative campaign tricks in the Oscar playbook is to make an issue of a film's historical accuracy. What had been done before, successfully, to Zero Dark Thirty (that film managed to win just one Oscar, a tie for Best Sound Editing), happened to Selma when various corners accused its director of making President Lyndon B. Johnson out to be a villain. "The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season," Johnson loyalist Joseph A. Califano Jr. wrote in the Washington Post. Despite the movie's liberal alignment, this perceived criticism of a white Democratic president ("white Democrats" basically are Hollywood) stopped the movie's awards campaign in its tracks. When Oscar nominations were announced, Selma received just two: Best Picture and Best Original Song.

A lot of Selma's late momentum instead went to another Christmas release: Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, which appeals to a very different (read: conservative) demographic. Despite mixed reviews, criticisms that it glorified war, and questions about its own historical accuracy, Sniper was nominated for six Oscars, including one that probably came at Selma's expense (Best Actor for Bradley Cooper). The combination of Selma's snubs and Sniper's success on nominations day inspired a new wave of frustration with the Academy's demographics: 94% white, 77% male, a median age of 62. None of the 20 nominees for acting were minorities, and none of the 15 nominees for directing and writing this year were women.

These stats, and the fact that American Sniper is clearly more liked among Academy voters than we previously thought, have caused many to see it as a serious threat to win Best Picture. Sasha Stone, the prominent Oscarologist behind the blog Awards Daily, is a noted preponderant of this theory. But in my opinion, Stone (a vocal critic of the Oscars' white- and male-centric tendencies) is letting her cynicism cloud her predictions. As we sit here on January 20, Sniper is at the peak of its power—coming off the high of six Oscar nominations and a box-office-busting $108.7 million opening weekend. Sniper benefited in the nominations stage from flying under the radar and thus not attracting a loud negative campaign, but now that it has asserted strength in the race it appears that the backlash is beginning. "A week is a long time in politics," the saying goes, and it's no different in an Oscar campaign. There are three of those weeks left until Oscar voters even start voting, and five weeks until the awards ceremony. I'll be surprised if Sniper still looks this strong after taking Selma-level criticism and, probably more importantly, seeing other films take their turns in the sun as films like Boyhood (my Best Picture pick) win important precursor awards like the Producer Guild Awards.

It's also mathematically very difficult for a film as polarizing as American Sniper to win Best Picture. For their top award, the Oscars use instant-runoff voting, which allows voters to rank their preferences; if a voter's top choice is eliminated, their vote gets redistributed down to their second or third choice. This rewards films that are broadly liked, which I doubt American Sniper is; as Grantland's Mark Harris pointed out, the film's association with conservative values (a narrative that has been everywhere this weekend) probably won't do it any favors. For every Jacksonian voter who ranks American Sniper first on their ballot, there is almost certainly a Democrat who will rank it last. At the end of the day, I predict Sniper will win the two awards usually won by war/action movies: Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. The result will be what everyone might have expected six months ago, and when we look back at this Oscar season, it will seem like an unremarkable achievement, hardly driven by a hidden conservative agenda.

However, that doesn't mean we should go on ignoring Hollywood's diversity issue. I'll bring it full circle here with a shared suggestion for both the Academy and the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), the slow-to-evolve body that elects players to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Both the Academy and BBWAA are showing why lifetime membership and lifetime voting rights may not be the best idea anymore in a rapidly changing world. In the film industry (as in every industry), demographics are changing and bringing more women and minorities into prominent roles, yet the older generation of filmmakers are still voting strong in retirement. In the BBWAA, retired baseball writers still vote for the Hall of Fame without even considering new approaches, like sabermetrics, that have fundamentally changed how we assess baseball in the 21st century. Both organizations are also too slow to accept new members and give them a vote in their high-profile elections. If either organization would like to get with the times and avoid all this bad press—and they should—it's time to make their voting pool reflective of the new age we live in.

Friday, January 9, 2015

2015's Predictable But Elusive Hall of Fame Results

On Tuesday, the Hall of Fame did something unusual: it actually did us proud. It was the first time since 1955 that as many as four players had been elected to the Hall, and Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, John Smoltz, and Craig Biggio were all eminently worthy—that's something we should appreciate. Would I have liked to see even more make the grade? Of course. But we knew entering the 2pm announcement that this was likely the best we could hope for.

We knew that thanks to pre–Hall of Fame election "polling" done by Darren Viola and Ryan Thibs, who do a great public service by collecting and recording ballots made public before the announcement. Public ballots don't tell the whole story, though, since they're biased toward types of candidates, so for the past several years I've "unskewed" them to predict the final outcome. With some adjustments to my model this year—and, surely, more than a few strokes of luck—I'm humbled to say they did better than ever in 2015:

The exit polls, as taken from Viola's HOF Ballot Collecting Gizmo, ended 2015 with a larger-than-usual average error of 4.7 percentage points (the median error was four points). My projections carried a mean deviation of 2.6 points and a median of 2.5 points. According to tweep Ben Dilday, the root mean square of my projections was the second-lowest among Hall of Fame projection systems this year, behind only Dilday's himself (I'm self-taught at this stuff so I'll admit to a lot of his methodology going over my head, but his uncanny projections are here). One of the systems I beat out was father-of-sabermetrics Tom Tango's, which is kind of like beating Meryl Streep at the Oscars—a huge honor that I'll enjoy for the brief time it will last.

Some of my more notable calls included not being fooled by the polls' over- and underrating, respectively, of Tim Raines and Lee Smith. However, in my mind, these calls aren't that impressive; Raines and Smith have become very very predictable over the years in how much they underperform and overperform their polls. Others I called within a percentage point included John Smoltz (that one I am proud of, considering he had no over- or underperformance history to go off), Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds (those two's middling showings have become as foreseeable as the sunrise), Jeff Kent, and Larry Walker.

While I am quite gratified, there are always things I could have called better. This year, my biggest misses were overestimating Curt Schilling by 7.8 points, overestimating Jeff Bagwell by 5.4 points, and underestimating Gary Sheffield by 5.2 points. Schilling is perhaps forgivable, as he suffered an almost unprecedented 19.2-point gap between his public- and private-ballot performance. Meanwhile, I'm still baffled by Sheffield—a surly steroid user who is actually more popular with the sport's crusty traditionalists?!

However, Sheffield shared his good fortune with most of the other players who made up the bottom of the ballot, including Nomar Garciaparra and Carlos Delgado, which I did not expect. However, I'm now wised up to it for next year. Nomar does seem to be a perfect intellectual heir to the newly departed (from the ballot) Don Mattingly, who always gained ground relative to his pre-election polling numbers. Like Mattingly, Garciaparra was an elite player with an awesome peak, but injuries cut short out both their careers. Narrative-driven voters may dwell more on their mythology-buoyed memories of Mattingly's and Garciaparra's primes—and it certainly doesn't hurt that they had those primes on the biggest stages, in New York and in Boston.

Finally, one small but important prediction that I slightly muffed was voter turnout, which I use to predict the proportion of public-to-private ballots. Instead of my predicted 570, turnout dropped slightly from past years to 549 voters. If I had nailed the turnout, could my projections have been even better? As it turns out, they would have been worse—a mean error of 2.8 points and a median error of 3.1. This is what I mean when I say I got lucky!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

State of the State Schedule 2015

For fans of political oratory, it's a very happy new year indeed. We're coming off an election year when 36 governors were either elected or re-elected, and new legislatures will sit in most states. It's a clean slate for a lot of these pols, and they're gearing up to unveil their agendas in speeches to kick off the 2015 legislative sessions. From redistricting to labor issues to taxes to human rights, the policies that really affect you get made in your state capitol, not Congress—especially in this era of gridlock. Every year, I urge everyone to watch or read the State of the State address—and, this year, inaugural speech—for your state to bone up on what conservative or liberal dream policy is (or isn't) coming down the pike. Here's Baseballot's annual list of speeches to catch this winter (updated as new speeches are given or announced):

Alabama: January 19 at 9am CT (inaugural); March 3 at 6:30pm CT (State of the State)
Alaska: December 1 at 11:30am AKT (inaugural); January 21 at 7pm AKT (State of the State); January 22 at 7pm AKT (budget address)
Arizona: January 5 at noon MT (inaugural); January 12 at 2pm MT (State of the State)
Arkansas: January 13 at noon CT (inaugural); January 22 at 10am CT (health-care speech)
California: January 5 at 10am PT
Colorado: January 13 at 11am MT (inaugural); January 15 at 11am MT (State of the State)
Connecticut: January 7 at 1:30pm ET (inaugural); January 7 at 4pm ET (State of the State); February 18 at noon ET (budget address)
Delaware: January 22 at 2pm ET (State of the State); January 29 at 1pm ET (budget address)
Florida: January 6 at 11:20am ET (inaugural); March 3 at 11am ET (State of the State)
Georgia: January 12 at 2pm ET (inaugural); January 14 at 11am ET (State of the State)
Hawaii: December 1 at noon HAT (inaugural); January 26 at 10am HAT (State of the State)
Idaho: January 9 at noon MT (inaugural); January 12 at 1pm MT (State of the State)
Illinois: January 12 at 11am CT (inaugural); February 4 at noon CT (State of the State); February 18 at noon CT (budget address)
Indiana: January 13 at 7pm ET
Iowa: January 13 at 10am CT (Condition of the State); January 16 at 9am CT (inaugural)
Kansas: January 12 at 11am CT (inaugural); January 15 at 6:30pm CT (State of the State)
Kentucky: January 7 at 7pm ET
Louisiana: April 13 at 1pm CT
Maine: January 7 at 11:30am ET (inaugural); February 3 at 7pm ET (State of the State)
Maryland: January 21 at noon ET (inaugural); February 4 at noon ET (State of the State)
Massachusetts: January 8 at noon ET
Michigan: January 1 at 11:30am ET (inaugural); January 20 at 7pm ET (State of the State)
Minnesota: January 5 at noon CT (inaugural); April 9 at 7pm CT (State of the State)
Mississippi: January 21 at 5pm CT
Missouri: January 21 at 7pm CT
Montana: January 28 at 7pm MT
Nebraska: January 8 at 2pm CT (inaugural); January 22 at 10am CT (State of the State)
Nevada: January 5 at noon PT (inaugural); January 15 at 6pm PT (State of the State)
New Hampshire: January 8 at noon ET (inaugural); February 12 at 1pm ET (budget address)
New Jersey: January 13 at 2pm ET (State of the State); February 24 at 2pm ET (budget address)
New Mexico: January 1 at 9am MT (inaugural); January 20 at noon MT (State of the State)
New York: January 1 at noon ET (New York City inaugural); January 1 at 4:15pm ET (Buffalo inaugural); January 21 at 1:30pm ET (State of the State)
North Carolina: February 4 at 7pm ET
North Dakota: January 6 at 1pm CT
Ohio: January 12 at 11:30am ET (inaugural); February 24 at 7pm ET (State of the State)
Oklahoma: January 12 at noon CT (inaugural); February 2 at 12:30pm CT (State of the State)
Oregon: January 12 at 10:30am PT (Kitzhaber inaugural); February 18 at 10am PT (Brown inaugural); April 17 at noon PT (State of the State)
Pennsylvania: January 20 at noon ET (inaugural); March 3 at 11:30am ET (budget address)
Rhode Island: January 6 at noon ET (inaugural); March 12 at 7pm ET (budget address)
South Carolina: January 14 at 11am ET (inaugural); January 21 at 7pm ET (State of the State)
South Dakota: December 2 at 1pm CT (budget address); January 10 at noon CT (inaugural); January 13 at 1pm CT (State of the State)
Tennessee: January 17 at 11am CT (inaugural); February 9 at 6pm CT (State of the State)
Texas: January 20 at 11am CT (inaugural); February 17 at 11am CT (State of the State)
Utah: January 28 at 6:30pm MT
Vermont: January 8 at 1:30pm ET (inaugural); January 15 at 2pm ET (budget address)
Virginia: January 14 at 7pm ET
Washington: January 13 at noon PT
West Virginia: January 14 at 7pm ET
Wisconsin: January 5 at 11am CT (inaugural); January 13 at 7pm CT (State of the State); February 3 at 7pm CT (budget address)
Wyoming: January 5 at 10am MT (inaugural); January 14 at 10am MT (State of the State)

National: January 20 at 9pm ET