Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Farming Out the World Series

Tonight the Fall Classic (to be completed in November) begins. Yankees. Phillies. Baseball's all-time winningest franchise (26 titles) versus its all-time losingest (first team to amass 10,000 losses). The Jersey Turnpike Series.

There was an interesting article today at MLB.COM that made the case that money alone does not account for the Phillie-Yankee series; the implication here is that the two teams have more or less gotten to the pinnacle of the baseball world along the same, home-grown model.

In a nut-shell, I wonder what reality the article's author is operating in.

Now, I have great respect for the Yankees' success. The team certainly is a collection of great talents, and winning in New York is not always the easiest thing in the world. The fans are demanding. The Boss is legendary. But friends, the idea that money does not play a role - in fact, an enormous role - is nuts.

I am a mathematician, and in maths, there are two ideas that are complimentary. One is that evidence be necessary; the other that evidence be sufficient. NO ONE is saying that money is sufficient as a criterion for success (c.f., the New York Mets). But it is becoming harder and harder to argue that it is not necessary.

The New York Yankees have the highest payroll, by a wide margin, in professional sport. They also have been in the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons. During that span, the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a payroll that is less than the Yankee infield collects, not only have not made the playoffs, but have not had a winning season since 1993. Ironically, that's also the year that Barry Bonds left Pittsburgh when shown the money by the SF Giants.

The argument in the article is that the Yankee core (Jeter, Petite, Posada, River, Robinson Cano) are home-grown talents.

That much is true.

But the point is, in order to build a winning team, you need more than two or three good players, and those players need to play together to develop. Given the economics of baseball today, to draft three high quality players, you realistically need to get good picks over a period of five years. Those players then need to be "hits" (i.e., they cannot be guys like Mark Lewis or Corey Snider). They cannot get hurt or wash out. And it takes time for them to reach the big leagues, mature, and gel.

There is a reason why New York could keep Jeter and Posada and Rivera, and that the Cleveland Indians could not keep Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia. When these players get near their peak value - i.e., when you are in position to build a championship team - they will be going off to New York. Or Boston. Or the Dodgers.

And that ignores the fact that the Yankees are able to add to this "core" with stars like Mark Texeira and Alex Rodriguez when necessary, to fill gaps. Teams like the Yankees sign Johnny Damon. Teams like the Toronto Blue Jays sign guys like Lyle Overbay.

The fact that the Yankees can shop for all-stars is covered to some degree by sports writers. The other side of the coin - that they need not worry about their best players bolting - is not, and I would argue is at least as important a result of the economics of the game today.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

2009 World Series by Proxy

Well, it's finally here. The Fall Classic. The Jersey Turnpike Series (Yankees and Phillies) begins tomorrow night (Wednesday the 28th). That's 28th of October, of course, meaning that the games almost surely will be played, by schedule, in November. Who will be the first Mr November (apologies to Reggie Jackson)?

Could not help but notice, the Game One starters are slated to be C.C. Sabathia (Yankees) and Cliff Lee (Phillies), winners of the two previous Cy Young awards...for the Cleveland Indians. The Yankees are a talented team, but looking at the roster, one sees the predilection of Mr. Steinbrenner to collect prize players the way the rest of us collected their cards.

It got me to thinking about the economics of the game as they exist in the early 21st century. My team, the Toronto Blue Jays, also has a prized pitcher (Roy Halladay, himself a prior Cy Young winner) who was the subject of relentless talk this summer about possible trades to the Yankees and Phillies and Boston and a number of other teams. Ultimately, they decided not to cash him in in yet another chapter in the almost criminal incompetence of its now former regime. Due to the economics of the game (a handful of teams - the Yankees, Boston, the Dodgers) have seemingly unlimited financial resources that allow them to plug any perceived gaps, and thus make the playoffs year in and year out (either Boston or the Yankees has been in the post-season every year since 1994). At the other end are teams like Cleveland who from time to time will get in through a bit of luck and development of young talent. Inevitably, they are forced due to the massive chequebooks of the "big market" teams to trade their best talent for a Whitman's Sampler of "prospects" and mediocre veterans.

So, I am very curious at exactly what point the managers and GMs of the talent producers (Cleveland) are going to recognise the reality that it's in their best interests to get as much out of their talent right now, while they still have it, instead of worrying about the mid and late-stages of these guys' careers?

Over the past 30 years or so, the workload of pitchers has been increasingly monitored - first in the number of innings thrown, until now, where each pitch is counted. In 1980, the Oakland Athletics had a staff that averaged 20 complete games per year. This year, Roy Halladay lead the league with nine.

Does that strategy make sense?

Put simply, if you were the GM of the Cleveland Indians, and you had a pitcher of the talent of Cliff Lee or C.C. Sabathia, why would you worry about how many innings the guy throws, when the rent on that is not going to come due until he is in New York, Boston, or Los Angeles? Today, pitchers are kept on more or less strict pitch counts and inning limits, with the recognition that has arisen that a high workload early in a pitcher's career will have an impact when he reaches 30 or so.

But if the future for C.C. Sabathia is in New York, why is that the concern of the Cleveland Indians? If I were the Indians' management, I would want to get 300 innings out of Sabathia every year I had him.

At some point, I fully expect that the small-market teams are going to wise up to the fact that economics and the future are not on their side.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The New New Media

Today got "tweeted" an interesting feed via Twitter (Motto: you cannot spell "Twitter" without "Twit."), from Guy Kawasaki. Normally, I would pass right over anything from a source such as Mr Kawasaki, since he is one of the most infamous of the Apple Cultists.

In this article, Judy Shapiro (a marketing professional for various e-interests) makes a case for salvaging the traditional media (e.g., the NY Times and other print media) in various ways. Not surprisingly, given her job and her expertise, the advice includes the usual bromides about building "communities" of users, making content more "fun," shifting paradigms (maybe Bain and Company have finally triumphed with their cliches and cereal box sophistries), and generally moving away from the expensive and generally old-fashioned, un-hip "push" model for information to the internet model of information "pull" to draw in news "consumers" and ultimately creating not readers, but "affiliates."

I'm willing to set aside the absurd notion that the creation of information for an educated populace of the sort a real democracy needs to function can be created in a sort of ersatz C-Net on Sesame Street, but there is a number of enormous, existential problems here.

What Ms Shapiro and other proponents of the "new" media fail to grasp is that it's not the entertainment value of the 'news' content that makes it vital, but rather, the quality of that information. It's indisputable that the internet revolution, such as it is, has created an enormous quantity of information that can be had for, at most, nominal charge. For those who want to find out what the actual name of the Skipper character on Gilligan's Island was or who played first base for the 1975 Boston Red Sox was, or other such trivia, all are readily available. But this explosion in quantity has not been accompanied by an equal growth in accuracy or wisdom. One need only go to Google, and enter in a search of "Vince Foster" or "Barack Obama Birth Certificate" to confirm that there is a wealth of junk masquerading as news that is equally available. In short, it's the difference between Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Gathering news is serious business, and relies on serious, professional reporters. That does not include Arianna Huffington.

Ms Shapiro goes on to argue that the current model (fee for content) cannot work because, ultimately, there are too many "leaks" in the systems - security and other holes that can be exploited. So, once the Times publish something, it ultimately will escape and be had by people for "free."

That may be true, but what is the end-game of the exercise Ms Shapiro is proposing - where 'news' is gathered by 'communities' or 'affiliates?' Right now, when you or I goes hunting for the news on our favourite blog or link, free of charge of course, chances are pretty damned good that if it is real news, then a paid reporter, working for Reuters or the Times or some other such outfit actually dug the information up, published it, and it was picked up and communicated via the various channels that lead to your browser. But if the reporter is gone, that information is going to be gone as well, and thus you will no longer have access, either.

Ms Shapiro's argument is akin to saying that the because there are too many leaks in distributing food, we ought to do away with farms. But friends, as the bumper sticker says, no farms, no food.

Finally, as to the argument about "push" versus "pull" content, and making the news more likely to attract "communities," I would offer the obvious example. Which news outlet saw, during the past 10 years, its "community" grow the quickest? It's an outlet that has re-designed its news "brand" to be more "fun," given its consumers what they want, pulled viewers, and last month, via hidden cameras in various ACORN offices, turned a couple of its viewers into affiliates.

The end game of Ms Shapiro's 'new' media is in fact, already here, and it's not my idea of a high-quality news organisation.

It's Fox News.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The New Math, 2009

It's election season (again). Funny how one fantasy about people passing out free goodies follows right after another (Hallowe'en). Personally, I think it's more likely that the Great Pumpkin will rise out of a farmer's field than that the current crop of slick stooges will raise the country up out of the muck.

Here in New Jersey, we are currently being treated to the very real possibility that a man who has the following baggage may actually get re-elected:

1) zero charisma
2) arguably the worst performance in the history of the state
3) images of his political pals being frog-marched en masse off to prison for
money laundering
4) track record as head of Goldman Sachs, who recently were called a
"blood sucking vampire squid"

He's basically George W. Bush without the aw-shucks charm.

Given that the state is and has been run by a foul ad-mixture of corruption and incompetence perhaps only exceeded by the circus in California, one would expect his challenger would practically waltz into Trenton.

Think again. This is the Soprano State, where political bosses and public employee unions have power perhaps only matched by Johnny Sack. Add in that his main challenger, Chris Christie, is running perhaps the worst campaign in the history of politics, and it's a horse race.

But what's really galling is the impact of the mathematical sleight of hand of independent candidate Tim Daggett, who has slowly but surely undermined Mr Christie's campaign by simultaneously attacking his plan for tax reform, and proposing tax reform of his own through shifting New Jersey's infamously high property taxes to sales and other use taxes.

It's the same shell game one hears every few years. It has appeared before as the "flat tax," and the "fair tax."

The bottom line here is that no tax "reform" is going to work unless and until solid proposals to cut government spending are made. Put simply, think of a five foot bed sheet that must cover a six foot bed. You can pull it up to cover your neck, but you are going to expose your feet. Unless you get a smaller bed or a bigger sheet, something is going to get cold.

New Jersey has usurious property tax burdens - the highest in the country. The effect is that it is driving people out of the state. But if property taxes are reduced by 20 per cent, without cutting spending an equal mount, will require that the same amount be raised elsewhere. So, you'll save a few thousand a year in property taxes, but pay the same amount in sales tax or car tax, or other tax, is going to result in the same tax burden. And worse, these other taxes are going to be more difficult to itemise and deduct elsewhere.

Our state has a budget gap that is conservatively described as 'yawning.' The problem is because of spending; the liberal media (e.g., the NY Times) endorsed Mr Corzine, pointing out among other things that Mr Christie has no 'concrete' plan to fix this problem and laughably, on a few occasions exceeded the $400 per night hotel travel limit.

Mr Corzine not only has no concrete plan to fix the problem, but in fact has a defined record of exacerbating it; he is a hand puppet of the unions, and pensions, out-sized raises, and patronage (Mr Corzine once dated the head of the unions) alarms me far more than Mr Christie's hotel bills.

It remains to be seen if the people in this state are any better at maths than they are at civics.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Dr Stangelove 2009, or, How I Learnt to Stop Fearing Socialism and Love the Public Option

I have always been sceptical of people who support increased government power explaining why this or that further incursion is “for my own good,” or prop up the action by offering that opposition to it must necessarily be due to lack of clarity, or worse, because of propaganda that has obscured. Now that the Democrats appear to be on the verge of passing some sort of health care bill (really, calling a piece of legislation that is physically larger than the Manhattan yellow pages is a stretch), and Speaker Pelosi has said that it *will* include some sort of ‘public option,’ I’ve decided to set aside my worries about Big Government and embrace the creeping socialism.

Before I get into any further detail, I’d like to start with a few clarifications ahead of time.

I think the Republican Party has contributed in a large way to the mess we are in. I voted for President Obama. I do not believe he is a crypto-Moslem plant, nor was he born in Kenya or an illegitimate president. I don’t watch Glenn Beck or listen to Rush Limbaugh. I think Fox News is tabloid rubbish. I do not own a gun, do not think that the Democrats are trying to disarm us and install a Soviet or Nazi regime. I have never seen black helicopters flying over, and am not particularly concerned about the Masons or that a black man is president.

But I do believe that the “public option,” as is being discussed by the Democrat House leadership, is a kind of soft socialism. Using monies taken by taxation from one group of people to redistribute in the form of services to others who have not paid for those services is almost the definition of socialism.

Accept it, and move on.

So, in that spirit, here is what I propose as a sort of sugar (Splenda, perhaps?) to help the socialism go down.

Let’s have a public option. But let’s make it a real option, not something delivered at the point of a tax policeman’s gun.

Let the federal government set up a true insurance scheme, run and administered by government experts. Put whatever rules into the plan that they think will make it ‘work’ (i.e., it must cover this that or the other procedures, cannot charge higher premiums according to actuarial data, cannot refuse care for pre-existing conditions, etc.). Allow it to negotiate fees, prices, and co-pay rates. Give people the option of buying into this system or opting out. The profit motive presumably would be removed, and the only goal of such a scheme would be the health of its participants.

That is what proponents such as Dennis Kucinich and Bernard Sanders argue is the fundamental problem with private insurance, and hence the motive of pushing a public option.

But this public option must be subject to the same rules as other choices. Doctors and other health care providers can freely look at re-imbursement and other factors, and choose not to take patients who use the public option.

And, most important of all, require that this public option be self-sustaining. Put simply, it cannot use tax money for funding, and must be sustained by the premiums paid in by its participants. The bottom line here is, the word “option” implies that one has choices, and that participation is voluntary, not compulsory. I like the current health insurance I have, and I do not want to see my quality of care go down (which it would with the sort of single payer scheme seen in Canada or the UK) and my costs go up (which I suspect they would given what Speaker Pelosi is pushing – expanding “coverage” to 45 million additional people).

The maths simply do not work – you cannot provide the same level of care to a larger group of people without an increase in total cost. And presumably, since these additional 45 million (or whatever number you choose) currently do not participate in the current system because they cannot afford to, they would use resources without contributing a proportional amount of money.

Put simply, health care reform, with a public option, must not be yet another means by which federal kommisars rob Peter to pay Paul.

I propose we go forward with this reform, inclusive of such a public option, and after a period of years, see how it has worked out.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Just the Facts, Ma'am.

If it's 1 PM, Monday through Friday, chances are pretty good I've just returned from my company gym. The hour or so at lunch is one of the few times I am able to set aside and do nothing productive, so I usually go for some exercise, which does little to advance shareholder value, increase the GDP, slow global warming, or put an end to the John-Kate feud. But it does make me feel a bit better, and I guess that has some value.

Today I ran my customary 10 kilometres (around 6.2 miles), completed in 43 minutes and 53 seconds. None of those numbers is particularly remarkable, but I did today cross the 11,000 mile marker. Yes; I keep pretty close track of data - it's, as they say, in my nature. I'm a mathematician, and numbers heavily influence my world. In my life, numbers are a bit like a drop of red dye in the wash; as Homer Simpson discovered when Bart's red hat got in, that single drop tends to colour everything just a bit pink, and so it is with me and data.

As an aside, I took to running almost exactly 15 years ago, following the death of my father from cancer. Part of his grim prognosis was because he was not a candidate for surgery - his lung capacity precluded it, so I reckon, if I get sick, I want to increase my odds as much as possible. In those 15 years and two months, I've now covered 11,001 miles. I thought I would take a look at this milestone by the numbers.

11,001 miles in 182 months is about 725 miles per year.
That works out to about 60.5 miles per month, or 14 miles per week.

The most miles I ran in any one year (1998) was 1154. The most in any one month was 132, in May 1998.

In this current year, I've now covered 664 miles, and hope to reach 850 by year's end.

The earth is approximately 24,000 miles in diameter, so I am not 999 miles from the half-way point. Put another way, if I started at the North Pole, I would now be more than half-way through Chile on my way to the South Pole. Using current projections, I'll reach that point sometime in November 2010.

The best "pace" I've ever set was in March, 1998, when I covered 8 miles in 53 minutes and 13 seconds. Age is obviously slowing me down.

I've run the Bay to Breakers four times (an iconic "race" in San Francisco, California). I've seen, inter alia, naked people, people dressed up as chess pieces, various animals, centipedes, cultists, Democrats, Republicans, and people hauling beer kegs. Because of the staggered start (there are literally thousands of participants, some walking), I usually start after the "winner" is done. One year, I ended up sprinting the last 500 metres or so to pass a guy who pushed a barbeque (you read that right - a round, Weber kettle) the 12 kilos. I'll be damned if a cooking implement will beat me.

My best memory is looking at the Hale-Bopp comet in awe in the Winter of 97-98, thinking that it will not be back for more than a millennium.

I wear out two pairs of shoes per year, so that's 30 pairs of Nikes, New Balance, Asics gel, and Reeboks. I've never tried the froo-froo brands (Saucony, Etonic).

Countries I've jogged in include (in no particular order) Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, France, Germany, Austria, Ireland, and Germany.

All in all, I think, an interesting history for a guy who used to view running as a sort of punishment for mouthing off to the coach in junior high.