Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Previewing Florida SD-40: Three Questions That Will Tell Us the Most About 2018

There's a special legislative election almost every week, but today we have a special special. Ever since Florida State Senator Frank Artiles called a fellow state senator a "fucking asshole" and a "bitch," called the Senate President a "pussy" who was only elected with the help of "six niggas," hired a Hooters calendar girl and a Playboy model as "campaign consultants," and resigned from office in disgrace, the race to replace him has been circled on my calendar—not for any reason related to the Florida-man antics on display from its former occupant, but rather due to the district itself.


Florida Senate District 40 covers Kendall and other dense suburbs southwest of Miami, stretching from South Dixie Highway (U.S. 1) near Dadeland Mall in the east to Krome Avenue in the west. According to Florida data consultant Matthew Isbell, it voted 57.1% for Hillary Clinton and 39.5% for Donald Trump in 2016 yet preferred Republican Marco Rubio to Democrat Patrick Murphy in that year's U.S. Senate race, 50% to 47%. At the same time, Artiles, a Republican, defeated Democrat Dwight Bullard 50.6% to 40.7% for what was (like it is today) an open State Senate seat.

Why the wide variation in results? A plurality of Florida SD-40's voters belong to the difficult-to-pin-down community of Cuban Americans. This historically Republican bloc has edged into competitiveness as young Cuban Americans (who are more liberal) come of age, the national parties have become more racially polarized, and/or President Trump has alienated the Hispanic community writ large. That explains why SD-40 largely rejected Trump in the 2016 presidential election while still supporting Rubio and Artiles (who are both Cuban American themselves). According to Isbell, an estimated 38% of the district's population is Cuban American. Overall, as of the 2010 Census (and, fair warning, South Florida is a rapidly changing area), the district was 74.6% Hispanic, 14.5% non-Hispanic white, and 8.0% non-Hispanic black.



Today, Democrat Annette Taddeo (who is half Italian American, half Colombian American) faces off against Republican José Felix Díaz (who is Cuban American). It's been an expensive campaign (political committees have spent $4.1 million on the race on top of the $1.8 million spent by the campaigns), and the outcome is legitimately in question (the only poll of the race, a three-month-old Democratic internal, gave Taddeo a 42–38% lead). The final results, which will trickle in starting at 7pm ET tonight, will be a particularly useful data point in our never-ending quest to figure out what's going to happen in 2018. There are three crucial questions that we need answered in order to understand how and whether Democrats can take back a U.S. House majority in next year's midterms, and, more than most special elections this year, Florida SD-40 will hold a clue to each of them.

1. Will the election be nationalized, or will voters consider it locally?


This is pretty simple. Unlike more uniform legislative and congressional districts, Republicans have recently done much better here downballot than at the top of the ticket. If voters cast their ballots based on their feelings toward Donald Trump and what is happening in Washington, it's good for Democrats. If they consider the two candidates in a vacuum, it's good for Republicans. Knowing this, Taddeo has tried to tie Díaz (who is a former contestant on The Apprentice!) to Trump with a contrastive TV ad, while Díaz has attempted to play up Taddeo's weaknesses, such as her support for the Colombian peace accord with the FARC and her alleged tolerance of the communist regimes in Cuba and China.

The final result will tell us which candidate was successful. If Taddeo approaches or even exceeds Clinton's 57% here, it could be a sign that this election was decided along national battle lines. That could bode well for Democrats in 2018 if everyone goes to the polls with the unpopular Trump in mind, not their local congressman. If Díaz wins, it's pretty solid evidence that local considerations can still win out in the age of Trump.

2. Will the electorate be more Democratic than usual?


The conventional wisdom about midterm elections is that the electorate is older, whiter, and more Republican than in presidential elections. But most of that conventional wisdom is rooted in the Obama midterms of 2010 and 2014, and the longer-term trend is that the president's party tends to suffer in midterm elections. Indeed, an enthusiasm gap in favor of the Democrats has been apparent lately in measures from the generic ballot to demonstrations. Democratic overperformance has also been a crystal-clear pattern in special-election results so far in 2017, but it'll be important to see whether it holds in SD-40 in particular. Because SD-40 is so heavily Hispanic, there is greater danger than usual of midterm dropoff voting harming Democratic chances. If Taddeo tonight follows in the footsteps of other Democratic special-election candidates across the nation and exceeds the typical Democratic performance in her district, it's a good sign for the party that the typical demographic forces of midterm elections can be overcome. If Díaz does better than expected, it'll suggest that Democrats still have a turnout problem among minority voters. (Note: the best basis for comparison here is not the district's presidential lean, for reasons explained above; instead, keep an eye on how Taddeo and Díaz perform relative to Bullard and Artiles in the last open State Senate race in this district just ten and a half months ago.)

3. Was 2016 a political realignment, or will election results revert to their pre-2016 norms?


Most special elections this year have taken place in districts that shifted toward Republicans in 2016 with Trump on the ticket—enough that we can be pretty sure that "Trump Democrats" aren't lost to Democrats forever. But we know a lot less about the opposite case: historically Republican Clinton voters. Will Democrats be able to hold onto them in future elections? Many of their best paths to a U.S. House majority go through districts, including several in heavily Hispanic California and Florida, that shifted toward Democrats in 2016.

Florida SD-40 is one of those districts. According to Isbell, voters within its lines went for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney 54.5% to 44.9% in 2012. In a scenario where Democrats succeed in nationalizing this special election, a smaller Taddeo win might suggest that voters are sticking with their 2012 preferences; a Taddeo blowout might suggest that the 2016 baseline is more accurate. However, because of this district's unusual ticket-splitting tendencies, it may not be easy (or appropriate) to directly compare the 2017 State Senate results with the 2016 and 2012 presidential results, as explained above. So while the district's (new or old, 2016 or 2012) partisan baseline will certainly factor into tonight's results, it will probably be the trickiest thing to tease out. Simply put, the race is expected to be far closer than either Obama's 9.6-point win or Clinton's 17.6-point win, so a nail-biter wouldn't necessarily mean that the more Republican-favorable (i.e., 2012) baseline is the correct one.

* * *


Indeed, all three of these factors are going to affect the final verdict in Florida SD-40 tonight—and yet we're only going to see one set of topline results. Admittedly, that may make it difficult to tease apart exactly what to take away from the election; for instance, the variables listed above could pull in multiple directions, muddling the analysis and leaving the door open to more than one explanation. There's another major confounder: the cleanup after Hurricane Irma. Many areas of the district, which was hit hard earlier this month, are still without power, and voting may simply not be many people's top priority. (Governor Rick Scott rejected the Democratic Party's request to postpone the election until life in South Florida returned to normal.)

So even though the answers to all three questions will lie hidden in tonight's two simple results—Taddeo X, Díaz Y—they may not be obvious. But the election will still be able to tell us something. Certain results could eliminate certain 2018 theories, and a select few results would offer unambiguous lessons. If Taddeo wins by 17 points or better (i.e., she does better than Clinton), all three questions will have been answered in Democrats' favor. If Díaz outperforms Artiles's 10-point win from 2016, Republicans will be dancing a jig of glee.

If you're looking for a more definitive lesson to take away from tonight's results, though, you're in luck. If nothing else, this election is likely to foreshadow the open race for Florida's 27th Congressional District, which is being vacated by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in 2018. Both FL-27 and SD-40 voted similarly in the 2016 and 2012 presidential races (both moving toward Democrats), both are three-quarters Hispanic, and both are open seats. In fact, they share many of the exact same voters: 24.1% of voters in FL-27 live in SD-40, and 34.7% of voters in SD-40 live in FL-27. Whichever party prevails tonight has to be considered the favorite in FL-27 next November—and that's one-twenty-fourth of Democrats' way to a majority.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thanks to a Constitutional Quirk, Nothing to See in New Hampshire or Vermont in 2018

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and Vermont Governor Phil Scott just took office seven months ago, and yet they are already having to run for reelection. New Hampshire and Vermont are unique among the states in that they elect their governors to two-year, rather than four-year, terms—resulting in nearly never-ending gubernatorial campaigns.

Democrats eager to start rebuilding their gubernatorial bench in 2018 are practically salivating over these two northern New England states. They doubtlessly look out on the Granite State’s political landscape and see a state that’s among the swingiest in the nation—one Donald Trump lost by just 2,736 votes in 2016—entering what could be a dramatic Democratic wave election. Meanwhile, in the Green Mountain State, a Republican sits on the throne of one of the most liberal states in the union—the home state of Bernie Sanders that went for Hillary Clinton by 26 points. You can understand why Democrats think they have an opening.

Unfortunately for them, their thinking is flawed; both Sununu and Scott are heavy favorites in 2018 due to the same underlying campaign context that Democrats think will help them. While New Hampshire and Vermont voters can be quite independent, that doesn’t mean they’re impatient enough to give up on their governors after just two short years. Indeed, these states’ unusual election calendars raise a very simple question: how often do governors lose reelection after only two years in office?

In addition to New Hampshire and Vermont, Rhode Island also elected governors to two-year terms until it amended its constitution effective 1994. Out of the collective past 85 biennial gubernatorial elections in those three states, an incumbent governor running for reelection after his or her first term has lost just one. It hasn’t happened in Vermont since 1962; it didn’t happen in Rhode Island after 1962; and it has happened just once (2004) in New Hampshire in the past 90 years. Indeed, running for governor against a two-year incumbent could be considered insane by one famous definition—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

This is a significant difference in job security from governors elected quadrennially. As we’ve all observed, one-term governors are hardly unusual in the other 47 and a half states. It also becomes a lot more likely that Vermont, sometime Rhode Island, and especially New Hampshire governors lose reelection or retire once they serve four years:


What accounts for this near-invincibility? Most likely, it’s an extended honeymoon period. When any politician enters office, he or she generally enjoys increased popularity and political capital. Most of them are able to convert this political capital into action and results, which in turn lifts their popularity even higher. It’s not until a few years down the line that voters begin to get sick of their governor and/or the candidate falters.

This theory arises from the fact that, not only do two-year governors almost always win their first reelection battles, but they almost always do so even more convincingly than they won the corner office in the first place. Historical results for New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island gubernatorial elections going back to 1972 point to the electoral potency of a two-year incumbency:


That’s an average boost of 7.0 percentage points to the incumbent’s vote share and an average 13.4-point widening of his or her margin of victory. That’s conservative, too; Bruce Sundlun drags down the data because he did so well in his first election that his reelection (which he won comfortably) couldn’t possibly match it. In addition, Madeleine Kunin’s vote share fell in her reelection bid even though her margin of victory increased; that was because she faced a credible third-party challenger (Sanders, of all people) in 1986 as well.

Craig Benson in 2004—the one two-year governor during this period to lose reelection—remains the only truly concerning precedent for Sununu and Scott. Indeed, he is a poster child for what not to do in your first two-year term as governor: flout ethics rules, overreach legislatively, and make enemies. However, Sununu and Scott have avoided any such missteps, and their net approval ratings are sky high. They look well ensconced in their aforementioned honeymoon periods, and they are well on the path of every non-Benson two-year governor since 1972 to comfortable reelections. If historical averages hold, Sununu can expect to receive about 56% of the vote in 2018 to his opponent’s 40%; Scott can expect to prevail 60% to 38%.

But there’s also a warning hidden in the data. Two of the three governors whose margins of victory shrank in their reelection campaigns have served within the last 15 years; the recentness of Benson’s example is certainly a red flag. Could we be entering a period of more impatience in the electorate? Are the 21st century’s heightened partisanship and increased correlation between national and state election results finally overpowering these states’ longstanding traditions of voting for the person over the party? It’s impossible to tell as of yet, but it’s something for Sununu and Scott to be mindful of. By no means can they afford to sit back and take reelection for granted. But with prepared and competent incumbents, Republicans at least have history on their side.

Monday, July 17, 2017

How Many Fans Does Each MLB Team Have?: The 2017 Baseball Census

For the second straight year, Harris failed to release its formerly annual baseball poll. Usually conducted right around the All-Star break, the survey is valuable as pretty much our only direct measure of which MLB team is most popular nationwide. But now that I fear the Harris baseball poll has met its permanent demise, anyone interested in the demographics of baseball fans has to take matters into his or her own hands.

That's what I've done for the last three years here at Baseballot. Harris may be the only pollster that canvasses the whole nation about all 30 teams, but our friends over at Public Policy Polling (PPP) love to throw a baseball question or two into their state-by-state political polls. For each state that PPP polls, I use the latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau to estimate a raw number of fans for each team in that state. Here are the cumulative figures nationwide for July 2017:

Team Fans Team Fans
New York Yankees 25,226,872 Colorado Rockies 5,017,208
Boston Red Sox 20,193,922 Kansas City Royals 4,830,504
Atlanta Braves 20,085,743 Baltimore Orioles 4,612,809
Chicago Cubs 18,407,160 Minnesota Twins 4,541,341
San Francisco Giants 11,353,160 Cleveland Indians 4,331,383
Texas Rangers 10,414,884 Arizona Diamondbacks 4,207,748
St. Louis Cardinals 8,743,144 Pittsburgh Pirates 4,161,965
Los Angeles Dodgers 8,380,484 Milwaukee Brewers 3,975,281
Detroit Tigers 7,594,395 Oakland Athletics 3,842,463
New York Mets 7,035,826 San Diego Padres 3,371,712
Houston Astros 6,734,407 Chicago White Sox 3,023,366
Los Angeles Angels 6,702,815 Tampa Bay Rays 3,017,097
Seattle Mariners 6,023,758 Miami Marlins 2,979,375
Philadelphia Phillies 5,402,108 Washington Nationals 2,812,690
Cincinnati Reds 5,107,524 Toronto Blue Jays* 210,801

*These numbers do not include fans in Canada, meaning the Blue Jays are surely underrepresented.

Unfortunately, we haven't gotten a lot of new baseball polls in the past 12 months; PPP was busy asking poll questions about something else, I guess. We did get a new poll of Florida, which is as much a baseball bellwether as it is a political one. In last September's poll, the Yankees reclaimed the title of Florida's favorite baseball team, just as they are America's favorite team with an estimated 25,226,872 fans nationwide. New York (AL) leapfrogged ahead of the Marlins and Rays in the Sunshine State, the two teams fighting for the dubious honor of least popular in the United States. (The numbers above don't include Washington, DC, either, so the Nationals are undercounted just like the Blue Jays.)

We also learned about the baseball preferences of Utah for the first time (finding: they don't really care too much), bringing the coverage of our makeshift baseball census to 39 of the 50 states (representing 88.5% of the U.S. population). Here's what's still missing:


Obviously, then, there are some limitations to this exercise. Missing states like Indiana and Alabama means our numbers for teams like the Cubs/White Sox and Braves are lower than they truly are. And PPP's baseball questions are worded in an opt-out manner, so 78% of poll respondents nationwide claimed to have a favorite team even though we know that only around 40–50% of Americans are baseball fans. On the other hand, PPP also only has time to ask about eight or so MLB teams per state, meaning the handful of fans of the other ~22 teams in that state don't get counted. So, yes, this census is hardly scientific, but it's a fun rough approximation of some very interesting data.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why Ditching Pelosi Would Be Pointless

I don't have strong feelings one way or the other about whether Democrats should fire Nancy Pelosi. But I do have strong feelings about people who howl incessantly that Democrats should fire Nancy Pelosi. There would be no point to forcing her out—and Democrats certainly wouldn't be solving all their apparent electoral problems* by doing so.

There's no question that Republicans have had success using Pelosi as a bogeyman in campaign ads—"vote for the Democrat," they threaten, "and Pelosi's liberal agenda will take over the country!" But do any Democrats really think that these ads will stop without Pelosi in power? That Republicans will just throw up their arms and say, "Oh well, I guess we can't attack Democrats anymore"? No; the GOP will simply move on to the next-best bogeyman—probably Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Furthermore, whoever Democrats pick to succeed Pelosi—even if it's someone eminently likable—will immediately become the target of Republican attacks and will suffer a popularity hit as a result. It is the other party's job to try to define its opponents in a negative way. It is one of the great paradoxes of politics that party leaders (at least in Congress) are always among the least popular members of that party—but that's a feature, not a bug. The very act of being in leadership makes you less popular. That's why it's tempting to always think that a party's congressional leader is the absolute worst choice for the job, but really no one else would do much better.

Others might argue that Pelosi's age (she just turned 77 in March) is holding Democrats back. But I fail to see why Pelosi's age matters to the average voter other than just being one of the ingredients in the Republican cocktail of discrediting her. This is not the United Kingdom; voters don't go to the polls to choose between Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan. They vote for the local candidates in their districts, and as long as Democrats nominate appealing individual candidates (and yes, youth/vigor can be an element of that), the age of the potential speaker of the House doesn't matter.

Nor do I really see anything for Democrats to gain by picking a dynamic new leader. Republicans basically tried this, switching from John Boehner to the young and likable Paul Ryan in 2015. As a result, Ryan's unpopularity shot up, and although his GOP did well in the 2016 congressional elections, I don't know anyone who says it was because of Ryan. The reality is that, in our president-centric system of government, it's just not clear that congressional leadership makes much of a difference in elections (again, apart from being convenient fodder for attack ads). Tim Ryan or Katherine Clark or whoever Democrats pick isn't going to zigzag the nation kissing babies and winning over voters. That's just not the role our legislative leaders play.

There's already a debate in political science over whether presidential elections are a referendum or a choice. Basically, even when the opposition formally agrees that Polly Tishan is going to be the face of their party, and even when Polly embarks on an exhaustive campaign schedule, half of political scientists still think voters are essentially just voting based on what they think of the incumbent president. So in a midterm election like 2018, what chance does the face of the Democratic Party have of convincing voters to cast their ballots primarily as a statement of support for him or her? Fundamentally, our system of government and our electoral culture does not lend itself to Theresa May-vs.-Jeremy Corbyn-style ideological and personal movements. The question of the 2018 election is likely to be simple and blunt: "Donald Trump—yes or no?"

Democrats can decide for themselves what to do about Pelosi. But they would be foolish to think that getting rid of her is a panacea. There is no Democratic House member ready to step in who already has a bulletproof national brand and won't be able to be defined negatively by Republicans. The other party is always going to find a way to demonize your congressional leadership. Electorally, they can never help you, and you should probably just accept that they are inevitably going to harm you. So both parties: stop picking (and picking on) your legislative leaders based on political considerations or popularity. Choose them for their actual job: their ability to cut legislative deals and govern effectively. At the ballot box, it absolutely will not matter one bit.

*I'm not even convinced that they have electoral problems, to be honest. Yes, eventually they will need to sort through their internal divisions to pick a 2020 presidential nominee and settle on a grand message to compete with Donald Trump's, but for midterm elections, just being the opposition party is often more than sufficient.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Reflections on the 2017 Congressional Baseball Game

I always look forward to the Congressional Baseball Game; it's the platonic ideal of my two main interests combined. Usually, it's a fun and intimate affair—me and 10,000 of my closest friends watching the sloppiest All-Star Game of all time—but that all changed this year when a gunman opened fire on a Republican baseball practice the day before the game.

Although, thankfully, no one was killed, the tragedy completely reshaped our fun little tradition. Heavy security and solemn pregame ceremonies changed how I covered the game this year. A flood of interest in the Congressional Baseball Game suddenly meant lots of people were asking me about my experience covering the game and my research into its history. It was, frankly, a blur of activity that I even had trouble sorting through as I was living it. However, for you, my dear reader, I will attempt to make sense of it all. Here are all the articles and quotes I contributed to coverage of this year's Congressional Baseball Game.
Last Wednesday's shooting was, without question, the biggest story in the 108-year history of the Congressional Baseball Game. Without the heroism of the three Capitol Police officers stationed at the practice, it could have been the bloodiest assassination incident in American history. Extremely fortunately, it was not that, but instead evolved into a moment of national unity, bringing awareness to a truly good-hearted charity tradition that did not deserve to be sullied in such a way but absolutely deserves the warm embrace it received from the nation on Thursday night. A full 24,959 spectators attended the game, more than double its previous record attendance; over $1.5 million were raised for charity, another record; and six million people (!) watched the game as it was livestreamed on Facebook. Out of a horrible attack, I was thrilled to see some true goodness emerge.

Friday, May 12, 2017

How to Solve Gerrymandering

Even in today's era of political polarization, there should be a few things we can all agree on. Puppies are cute. Arsenic is bad. Broccoli is the devil's food. And letting politicians draw uncompetitive districts for their own benefit is bad for democracy.

Members of both parties have voiced support for taking partisanship out of the process of drawing congressional and legislative districts. And yet, instead of being the rare issue where both parties are eager to get something done, redistricting reform has proven nearly impossible to implement. The latest example of why comes from the great state of Maryland. Republican Governor Larry Hogan has made an independent redistricting commission one of his top priorities. The Democratic legislature passed a redistricting reform bill with strong majorities. But, this week, Hogan vetoed the measure.

The reason is pure self-interest. The Democratic bill would have only switched Maryland's redistricting process to an independent commission if five nearby states did so first; Hogan, contending that this will never happen, is holding out for a bill that would have Maryland unilaterally disarm. That too will never happen. While Democrats may support nonpartisan redistricting in the abstract, Maryland Democrats correctly see it as a threat to their power. Partisan redistricting always favors the dominant party, and a state as blue as Maryland gives Democrats the opportunity to creatively mold several more Democratic seats in Congress than they are entitled to. They’ve done just that, as 87.5% of Maryland’s congressional delegation (seven of eight) are Democrats despite the party receiving just 60.4% of the combined statewide vote in the last round of congressional elections.

Maryland Democrats aren’t alone in this cartographical trickery. Most states gerrymander their districts, to varying degrees of blatancy, including several Republican-controlled states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas. Like an arms race in an electoral cold war, neither side is going to give up its advantage until the other one does. And so reform languishes.

The Democratic bill hints at a solution but doesn't go far enough. Would-be redistricting reformers can't just sit back waiting for other states to take action on their own; they have to make a deal. Maryland’s gerrymandering problem won’t be solved in Annapolis. In fact, the key to getting fair districts in the Old Line State actually lies in Indiana.

If the Maryland Legislature is ever going to agree to an independent redistricting commission, Hogan needs to strike a deal with another state legislature—a Republican one—first. If Maryland and a red state both agree to stop gerrymandering, the Republican gain in Maryland and the Democratic gain in the other state would cancel each other out—but elections in both states would be more fair. And as it turns out, Indiana is the perfect partner in such a compact.

Like Maryland Democrats, Indiana Republicans have succeeded at gerrymandering their home state. Although the GOP won only 54% of the congressional popular vote in Indiana in 2016, the party controls 78% of the congressional delegation—seven out of nine seats. Reformers in Indiana have likewise tried to implement an independent redistricting commission, getting a bill through the Indiana State House in 2014. But while the appetite was there, the effort was also eventually killed by entrenched interests. Indiana is also comparable in size to Maryland, making the two states a fair trade. If Indiana switched to an independent redistricting commission, it would likely elect five Republicans and four Democrats. That net loss of two Republicans would balance out the two-seat gain that the GOP would probably see under a fair congressional map in Maryland.

Indiana is the best option on a short list of possible partners for Maryland. Wisconsin and Missouri each seats eight representatives—an even more precise match for Maryland—but Missouri already uses a hybrid redistricting system of legislators plus a commission. Wisconsin Republicans, meanwhile, are unlikely to go along since they risk losing control of this blue-tinged state altogether. Tennessee is another possible choice, with its Hoosier-esque 7–2 Republican congressional delegation, but it is more Republican than Maryland is Democratic.

There are still some obstacles faced by such a “grand bargain” between states. First, congressional incumbents in danger of losing their safe seats would certainly pressure their legislators to vote against the plan. In addition, redistricting affects not only the composition of Congress, but also state legislatures themselves; Maryland Democrats and Indiana Republicans would not be enthusiastic about the prospect of reducing their majorities. Although she might regard the swap of congressional seats as equitable, the average Maryland Democrat probably doesn’t care enough about Indiana that she values a State Senate seat there as highly as one back home. And because the plan would redraw existing legislative districts, there is the reality that some of the people asked to vote for this arrangement would lose their seats as a direct result.

Reformers would still have to lobby lawmakers hard to look past these issues, but they are not the main reason redistricting reform has stalled in Maryland and in state houses across the nation. Reformers cannot expect to make progress asking the majority party to give up leverage without getting anything in return. Perhaps soon the many states failing to end gerrymandering on their own will discover the elegant solution of looking to each other for help.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Is Boston Racist?

By now you've heard about the Adam Jones incident. Twenty-four hours later, the topic was still the news story in baseball, unspooling new sub-threads and inspiring much larger debates (anyone still think sports isn't political?). They'll move on, eventually. But in my hometown of Boston, the incident has exposed an ugly truth and forced a great deal of introspection that will—or at least should—linger.

We Bostonians have an inferiority complex, and one of our most tender spots is when the rest of the country plays the "Boston is racist" card. A cosmopolitan, liberal city, Boston certainly doesn't see itself that way—yet at the same time anyone with a more than passing connection to the city carries around the hidden shame of the city's violent resistance to busing in the 1970s. Within my lifetime, the Boston media, city leaders, and the collective masses were all guilty of a rush to judgment about the murder of Carol Stuart, a young suburban mother-to-be killed not by a black carjacker, but by her white husband. When an African American baseball player is called the N-word at Fenway Park, it's impossible not to draw the connection.

My first impression was optimism that our city was at least viewing Jones's assault with open eyes. Instead of attacking Jones or ignoring the story entirely, the Boston elite faced up to it. The Boston Globe led with the story all day on its website, and Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker both issued swift statements of condemnation early this morning. Walsh, an Irish Catholic from Dorchester (still a demographic profile that's more associated with Trumpian intolerance than the bleeding-heart inclusiveness of the Cantabrigian university student), had particularly strong words: "If they claim to be a sports fan, they’re not a sports fan—nothing but a racist." Boston finally seemed to be acknowledging that, yes, it had a problem with racism it desperately needed to fix.

There was also a common thread in Walsh's and Baker's words, as Globe columnist Renée Graham pointed out: "This is not what Massachusetts and Boston are about." So maybe the sensitivity remained. Walsh and Baker were acknowledging that Boston has racist elements, but also insisting that, at its core, Boston was a welcoming and tolerant place. Well, OK. They're politicians—they are going to believe (or at least say they believe) the best about their constituents. But it's worth noting that Walsh's administration last year kicked off a series of town halls "aimed at bringing conversations about racism, healing, and policy work into all Boston neighborhoods." At one of the meetings, Walsh said, point-blank, "Boston has an issue with racism." Whether he thinks "racist" or "tolerant" is a more fitting adjective for Boston in 2017, Walsh clearly understands that there is still racism left to overcome in the city.

That was the city's elite, however. How did the hoi polloi react? Twitter unfortunately became the instrument by which this was measured, and the results were mixed at best. Liberal baseball Twitter pounced upon this tweet by NFL writer Albert Breer that summed up the denial of many Bostonians: "Is it horrible to want some proof? I dunno. I've probably been to 200 games at Fenway in my life. Never heard a slur yelled at a player." (Never mind that Jones had no reason to lie, and Boston fans have a reputation for racial taunting among African American athletes.) However, I saw just as many tweets from Bostonians (not to mention my own reaction) expressing their unqualified disgust for their fellow Red Sox fans in the bleachers Monday night, so I hardly think Breer's viewpoint is universally held here. Twitter attracts a broad element of society, including its dregs. You can find pretty much any opinion on there if you're looking for it. Overall, I think Boston took responsibility for the incident, as it should have—as it must have if we're going to make sure it isn't repeated.

It would be nice if that were the final word. But that inferiority complex is acting up again, because even those of us who own up to the racism of drunk Red Sox fans can't help but get defensive about the resurgent blanket narrative that "Boston is racist." We object to the very logic that people accuse us of: that our entire community should be stereotyped by the actions of a foolish few. This is unfair, of course; most people in Boston are not racist, as illustrated most recently by the classy standing ovation Red Sox fans gave Jones at Tuesday's game. The ovation did not undo what happened to Jones, but neither does what happened to Jones negate the ovation. Clearly, Boston has a racist underbelly, but what percentage of a city's residents have to belong to that fringe in order to say the city as a whole is racist? One bigot does not a racist city make, but a place doesn't need to be 100% pure-grade racist either.

This is something outsiders fail to realize when they smugly ask how Boston can be considered one of the most liberal cities in America while still struggling with racism. The two facts have little to do with each other. Massachusetts isn't a monolith where 100% of its citizens are latte-sipping progressives who nonetheless harbor secret racial animosities. Yes, it's true, 60% of Bay Staters voted for Hillary Clinton in November, more than 45 other states. But that means 33% voted for Donald Trump—at least some of whom were motivated by prejudice. (Trump also won the state handily during the primary.) And yes, some Democrats are racist as well, even if only in subtler ways. It was in dark blue Cambridge that someone called 911 to report that famed African American Studies scholar Henry Louis Gates looked suspicious as he attempted to open the jammed front door of his Harvard Square townhouse. These uncomfortable truths do nothing to change the fact that Massachusetts has been at the forefront of the progressive movement (inaugurating, among other things, same-sex marriage and Obamacare), including on issues of racial justice, which aren't abstract to them either: Massachusetts was home to the first black U.S. senator and the second black governor ever to be elected.

The question is whether Boston is racist with tolerant elements or tolerant with racist elements. And I honestly don't know which is correct. Boston hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt with its history; in addition to the nationally publicized busing crisis, Celtics players including the great Bill Russell confronted blatant racism here during the 1970s and '80s. But Boston is also a very different city than it was back then, and the racist reputation it earned 40 years ago gives us only an incomplete picture of the present day. The Jones incident did elicit a disturbing comment out of fellow African American ballplayer C.C. Sabathia, who said he has "never been called the N-word" anywhere but Boston (albeit not since before 2009); "when you go to Boston, expect it." Former MLB outfielder Vernon Wells chimed in that he "was only warned about two stadiums where racially motivated comments could occur...Fenway was one." In 2007, Gary Matthews Jr., then of the Angels, called Boston "one of the few places where you hear racial comments." But then that reminds you that other fan bases have brazenly engaged in bigotry as well. Athletics outfielder Rajai Davis—who has never played for the Red Sox and has no apparent reason to hold back about the city—said Tuesday, "It's not a Boston problem. It's a national problem."

And there's another confounder. As we learned seemingly nonstop for eight years after we supposedly overcame it by electing Barack Obama, the United States is still infested with latent racism. Other cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC—have racial records as troubled as Boston's. Heck, it's not even limited to this country—the last time Adam Jones was subjected to racial slurs, it was in Toronto during last year's Wild Card game. All this makes it even harder to determine whether Boston is a particular hotbed for bigotry or merely part of a wider problem, from which even coastal liberal bastions are not safe. Of course, the fact that other cities are racist too doesn't make Boston not racist.

So is Boston racist? Ultimately, it's semantic. I have a hard time disagreeing with someone who says Boston is racist according to a certain definition of the term. Personally, though, I would say instead that it has a race problem. So does the entire country—that shouldn't be controversial. Is Boston's worse? I don't know. It certainly was historically; it might still be. We've made enough progress since the 1970s that we're now in a gray zone where the slurs directed at Adam Jones could plausibly be either the residue of Boston's prejudicial past or a symptom of a national trend. But it also doesn't really matter, because neither is good enough. Even after Monday night's vulgarity, I love my hometown. I love it because of all the things it does right—ranked at or near the top in education, medical care, economic vitality. With that pedigree, there's no excuse for having even nationally average levels of racism. We are the City on a Hill, meant from our founding to be an example for the rest of the world to strive toward. The same self-righteousness that makes Bostonians so protective and such easy targets for the rest of the country should be a unique motivator to clean up our act. If you think, in the face of so much evidence, that Boston is already perfect, you're interpreting this Hub of the Universe thing wrong. Instead, it's the nagging conviction that we should be better that propels us there.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Predicting the 2017 Season—American League

Though the baseball season is well underway, I still have preseason loose ends to tie up. Earlier this month, I issued my usual—and simultaneously unusual—National League predictions for the 2017 baseball season. For those new to the blog, these aren't your average team previews. Instead, I predict the final win-loss records in each division but also issue a few wildly specific predictions for each team. Then, at the end of the season, I'll look back and see how insightful—or hilariously off the mark—I was. Here's part two of this doomed exercise: the American League.

AL East


1. Boston Red Sox (102–60, 1st playoff seed)
  • Pablo Sandoval will scream back to relevance with 25 home runs and a positive number of Defensive Runs Saved.
  • Blake Swihart will rake in AAA as Sandy León sits below the Mendoza line. A change will be made by Memorial Day.
  • All of Boston's unreliable starting pitchers from last year, including Drew Pomeranz and David Price (when he pitches), will right the ship. While Price is out, Eduardo Rodríguez will provide similar value.
  • Boston's staff will lead baseball in complete games and shutouts.
  • Carson Smith will return as the AL's best reliever in the second half.
  • The Red Sox will defeat the Nationals in a five-game World Series. More Boston fans than Washington fans will attend the games in DC.

2. Toronto Blue Jays (87–75, 1st Wild Card)

3. Tampa Bay Rays (85–77, 2nd Wild Card)
  • Chris Archer will again be one of the best pitchers in baseball, and Blake Snell will join him in a monster breakout year. The Rays will have the league's best rotation.
  • Jake Odorizzi will pitch a shutout over the Blue Jays in the Wild Card game, but then Tampa Bay will be swept by Boston in the ALDS.
  • Steven Souza will finally have the 20/20 breakout season everyone expected, Colby Rasmus and Matt Duffy will both match their career-high WARs, but the Rays will still have the division's worst offense.

4. New York Yankees (83–79)
  • Greg Bird and Aaron Judge be the mini modern Mantle and Maris, going back and forth all season as the Yankees team leader.
  • Luis Severino and Michael Pineda will both lower their ERAs below 4.00.
  • Clint Frazier will be traded away at midseason for rotation help after not conforming to the "Yankees way."

5. Baltimore Orioles (80–82)
  • With a .330 average, 40 home runs, 120 RBI, and a Gold Glove to satisfy traditionalists and 8.5 WAR and 30 DRS for the stat nerds, it will finally be Manny Machado's turn for an MVP award.
  • Every Oriole starting pitcher except Wade Miley will give up more runs in 2017 than in 2016—yes, even Ubaldo Jiménez.

AL Central


1. Cleveland Indians (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • After the injury bug bit nearly their whole rotation last fall, the 2017 Indians will become the rare team to use only five starting pitchers the entire year. It will be a big factor in getting them to the ALCS.
  • On the strength of his creative bullpen use, Terry Francona will win a second straight Manager of the Year award.
  • Michael Brantley will get injured again and finish the year with fewer than 200 plate appearances.

2. Kansas City Royals (82–80)
  • Jorge Soler will lead Kansas City position players in WAR.
  • Eric Hosmer will have the 20th-best season for a first baseman in the American League—and will get the first-largest contract for one this offseason.
  • Another injury-plagued season for Lorenzo Cain will end up being a blessing in disguise for the Royals, who will afford to keep him this winter after all.
  • With a 2.50 ERA and 240 strikeouts, Danny Duffy will win his first Cy Young Award.

3. Detroit Tigers (76–86)
  • Jordan Zimmermann will rue signing with Detroit as he becomes a pure contact pitcher (setting a career low in strikeout percentage), but the Tigers' league-worst defense fails to convert them into outs.
  • After the Tigers' 10th blown save of the year—in May—Brad Ausmus will finally be shown the door.
  • With the team hovering around .500 at the trade deadline, ownership will finally give the OK to blow it all up and rebuild.

4. Chicago White Sox (73–89)
  • Tim Anderson will respond to his recent contract extension by virtually evaporating as an offensive force. He will show next to no power, will walk fewer than 10 times, and will split the season between pinch-running duties and AAA.
  • Carlos Rodon will shave a run off his ERA and step neatly into the role of White Sox ace after José Quintana is traded.
  • Lucas Giolito will put it together at AAA and make a tantalizing White Sox debut: giving up two runs and striking out 14 over seven innings (in other words, he will finally be the Stephen Strasburg clone Nats fans always wanted him to be).

5. Minnesota Twins (68–94)
  • This will be the year that José Berríos and Byron Buxton right the ship. With them leading their respective sides of the ball, the Twins will begin to look like a franchise with a direction again.
  • Brian Dozier will be a completely different hitter, hitting just .210 with 10 home runs and nearly 200 strikeouts.
  • Miguel Sanó will slug 40 homers but have a WAR of 1.0 thanks to atrocious defense.

AL West


1. Houston Astros (89–73, 3rd playoff seed)
  • For his next trick, José Altuve will captivate America this summer with a hitting streak that hits 50 games.
  • Alex Bregman won't be terrible, exactly, but he'll put up a decidedly meh first full season in the bigs.
  • Carlos Beltrán will continue sipping from the fountain of youth. His full-time DH-hood will enable him to hit 30 homers.
  • For the third straight year, Lance McCullers will put up an ERA of 3.22—but he'll do it over 200 innings and lead the AL in strikeouts.
  • Chris Devenski will step into the starting rotation and post a 1.50 second-half ERA.

2. Seattle Mariners (83–79)
  • Félix Hernández will post a career-low strikeout rate and flirt with his career-low ERA of 4.52 from 2006. 
  • Drew Smyly will make up for it, though, pitching to a 3.20 ERA thanks to an uber-low BABIP driven by the M's' great outfield defense (40+ DRS).
  • James Paxton will finally pitch to his 2.80 FIP.
  • Jean Segura will be be huge bust. Without the aid of an inflated BABIP and Chase Field, he will return to the .270-ish wOBA that has characterized three of his five MLB seasons. Mitch Haniger will turn out to be the more valuable addition from that trade, even in the short term.
  • Prospects Tyler O'Neill and Dan Vogelbach will be on-base machines from the time they are promoted to the majors. Only with them playing significant roles will the Mariners be a complete enough team to break their playoff drought, now at 16 years. 

3. Texas Rangers (77–85)
  • A team that benefited from incredible luck last year will be one of the unluckiest this year. They will have a losing record in one-run games, and they will lead the AL in days spent on the DL.
  • Jurickson Profar will win the batting title.
  • Carlos Gómez will revert back to his Astros form, and he will begin losing playing time to a resurgent Delino DeShields Jr., who will sport a .350 OBP and 30 stolen bases.
  • Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross will both be lucky to post ERAs under 5.00 in Arlington.

4. Los Angeles Angels (75–87)

5. Oakland Athletics (73–89)

Monday, April 10, 2017

Predicting the 2017 Season—National League

They may be a week late, but it will take more than an ill-timed cross-country roadtrip to keep me from cogitating on the upcoming current baseball season. I don't do season previews in the usual sense—no doubt you've already read a zillion of those from analysts more plugged in than I. Instead, I predict the final win-loss records in each division but also issue a few wildly specific predictions for each team. Then, at the end of the season, I'll look back and see how insightful—or hilariously off the mark—I was. First up: the Senior Circuit.

NL East


1. Washington Nationals (97–65, 2nd playoff seed)
  • Bryce Harper will post another monster season even better than his 2015. He will surpass Mike Trout with over 10.0 WAR. He'll again be the runaway MVP.
  • Over half of the Nats' lineup will be worth more than 4.0 WAR: Harper, Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Daniel Murphy. Jayson Werth, improbably, won't be far behind, with one last gasp as an offensive catalyst.
  • For the third straight season, Mike Rizzo will swing a deal for a closer at the trade deadline—and this time it will be for no less than Drew Storen. Disaster will, predictably, ensue.
  • Washington will advance beyond the NLDS for the first time and defeat the Cubs in a thrilling seven-game NLCS. Unfortunately, they'll run into a buzzsaw in the American League champion.

2. New York Mets (91–71, 1st Wild Card) 
  • Jacob deGrom will be fully healthy and join Noah Syndergaard as a top Cy Young contender, as both exceed 200 innings (and 200 strikeouts).
  • Steven Matz will also break out with an ERA below 3.00. Matt Harvey will be respectable again, but that will only make him the team's fourth-best starter.
  • With Lucas Duda suffering through lingering back problems, Jay Bruce will play a lot of first base. He will finally win over Mets fans by giving them a .750 OPS there, as well as enabling a strong season by Michael Conforto with the move.
  • Amed Rosario and Asdrúbal Cabrera will end the season on the left side of the Mets' infield, with José Reyes banished from Flushing for good.

3. Miami Marlins (77–85) 
  • World Baseball Classic number-eight hitter Giancarlo Stanton will be the first Marlin ever to top 50 home runs, leading the National League.
  • While Wei-Yin Chen will return to a 120 ERA+, Edinson Vólquez will again have negative value.
  • Led by Kyle Barraclough's 5.0 K/BB ratio, the Marlins will trail only the Dodgers for the NL's stingiest bullpen.
  • By the end of the season, Jeb Bush will be the proud new owner of the Marlins.

4. Atlanta Braves (71–91) 
  • Jaime García will finally pitch a full season and do it well, setting himself up to be one of next winter's better free agents.
  • Jim Johnson will fall apart for the second time in his career, as his fastball velocity dips to below 90 miles per hour. Opponents will hit .350 off him before his midseason release.
  • The safest prediction on this page: Dansby Swanson will be your 2017 NL Rookie of the Year.
  • Traffic woes and shoddy construction will get SunTrust Park off to a rough start. Attendance will be well below estimates; the park will draw fewer fans than Turner Field did last season.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (64–98) 
  • Vince Velasquez will prove he belongs in the starting rotation, pairing his well-known 25% strikeout rate with 18 quality starts.
  • Velasquez, Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, and Jerad Eickhoff will at times this spring resemble a poor man's Phearsome Phour, but how many of them will be around at the end of the season? The guess here is not Nola (Tommy John surgery) or Hellickson (traded).
  • Clay Buchholz will lead the league in home runs allowed (32).
  • The no-name offense will be the lowest-scoring in baseball.

NL Central


1. Chicago Cubs (100–62, 1st playoff seed) 
  • Wade Davis will struggle with his control in his recovery from injury. By the end of the season, Koji Uehara will have more saves.
  • The rotation will be the closest thing to a weakness on the North Side. Kyle Hendricks will regress to league average, and the fifth starter's job will remain unsettled for most of the year.
  • Jason Heyward has a big bounceback in him. He'll hit .290/.350/.450, paired with his usual 20 Defensive Runs Saved, for a 5.0 WAR season.
  • Ben Zobrist, on the other hand, will run into a brick wall. His modest value with the bat will be offset by the worst defensive season of his career.

2. Saint Louis Cardinals (89–73, 2nd Wild Card) 
  • Yadier Molina's pedestrian .250/.300/.380 slash line will inaugurate the decline phase of his career.
  • Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha will both rebound to above-average ERAs (say, 3.70), and Lance Lynn will pick up where he left off before surgery, but Carlos Martínez has permanently supplanted them as the Cardinals ace.
  • A bone-headed strategic move by Mike Matheny will be the reason for the Cardinals' extra-innings loss to the Mets in the Wild Card Game.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (81–81) 
  • The most important question for the 2017 Pirates will be answered early, when Andrew McCutchen wins Player of the Month for April. He'll finish with a classic McCutchen season: .300/.400/.500.
  • Jameson Taillon will zoom past Gerrit Cole as Pittsburgh's best pitcher, and his 2.50 ERA will put him squarely in the Cy Young conversation.
  • The Pirates will have the NL's best outfield—but its worst infield.
  • Jung Ho Kang's personal and legal problems will prevent him from returning to the Pirates, and the once-revelatory third baseman will wash out of Major League Baseball.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (72–90) 
  • Yeah, Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana may strike out a combined 300 times, but who cares? They will both be fantasy studs, especially in OBP leagues. Look for 20 homers and 30 steals from Broxton, and a mirror-image 30/20 season from Santana. Both will get on base at .350 clips despite .250 batting averages.
  • As quickly as Jonathan Villar's stock rose, it will come crashing down. He'll hit just .240, and his runs scored and stolen bases will both be slashed in half.
  • Junior Guerra may not be the second coming of Zack Greinke, but he'll continue to give the Brewers a chance to win every time out. He'll be the Jordan Zimmermann of Milwaukee's rebuilding effort: not the best pitcher on their next winning team, but still good enough to contribute to it.

5. Cincinnati Reds (61–101) 
  • Anthony DeSclafani will endure another frustrating season of injuries. His recovery from a sprained UCL will last nearly all season, until he debuts in late September—and throws a no-hitter in his one and only start.
  • This will finally be the year that gets Bryan Price fired. Then again, if 2015 and 2016 didn't do it...

NL West


1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92–70, 3rd playoff seed) 
  • Every Dodgers starting pitcher will miss at least eight starts. Even last year's reliable Kenta Maeda will be plagued by some of the "irregularities" found in his physical when he first signed out of Japan.
  • Every year, Clayton Kershaw has found a way to top his seemingly untoppable season from the year before. How will he do it this year? By tossing a 21-strikeout perfect game—by every measure, the best pitching performance in baseball history.
  • A 2.79 ERA. 6.3 hits per nine innings. A 9.7/4.8 K/BB ratio. Kershaw's first full season, or Julio Urías's?
  • Yasiel Puig will match his 137 wRC+ from September of last year, after a demotion to the minor leagues.
  • LA's uncertain left-field situation will be solved when Cody Bellinger forces himself into the lineup in mid-siummer.

2. San Francisco Giants (84–78) 
  • Despite the addition of Mark Melancon, the bullpen will still be a weakness for the Giants. Ironically, their fans will look on longingly as the likes of Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo dominate elsewhere in California while the San Francisco relief corps comes in below average.
  • Handing starting jobs to Eduardo Núñez and Jarrett Parker will prove to be a fatal move for a team in need of offensive help. As age saps talent all around the diamond, San Francisco will post its worst offensive season since the 2011 squad's 91 OPS+.
  • On the bright side, one Giant will finally get his due: Madison Bumgarner will take home the Cy Young trophy.

3. Colorado Rockies (83–79) 

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (74–88) 
  • The D'Backs will be better almost automatically, as Greinke, Shelby Miller, and A.J. Pollock all revert to the mean.
  • Robbie Ray will take a huge step forward, shaving more than a run off his ERA and leading the league in strikeouts.

5. San Diego Padres (68–94) 
  • Even with the help of Petco Park, the Padres will have the worst rotation in baseball. 
  • In just 30 innings pitched, Carter Capps will have the highest WAR of any Padre pitcher.
  • The Padres will run out 61 different players in 2017, breaking the MLB record for most men deployed in a season.
  • Travis Jankowski will pull a Kevin Kiermaier, amassing eye-popping value on the strength of defense alone. Oh, and he'll lead Major League Baseball in stolen bases.