“This is a profitable business. The company has a good cash flow. It has a good market position. Online revenues more than doubled in the last year.”
—Ben Eason, CEO of the Reader‘s parent, Creative Loafing Inc., telling his execs why the future was bright even though the company had just filed for bankruptcy. Eason eventually lost control of the company.
The most important word of the 21st Century
That would be algorithm, meaning secret formula too arcane and powerful for you to possibly understand. Google was not alone in putting it on the map. Announcing the winner of its BAT award, Hot Type explained:
Bear in mind that even chess genius Garry Kasparov can’t beat computers anymore. In this case lesser humans are up against Baseball Prospectus’s secret weapon, PECOTA, which stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. . . . Baseball Prospectus didn’t just rank the major league teams as the 2007 season began—its computer crunched the numbers and predicted how many games they’d win and lose. And it did a very good job.
The father of PECOTA is Chicago’s Nate Silver. “The idea behind the system,” he explains by e-mail, “is really just to use baseball history to inform our projections in the form of comparable players. So for Mark Buehrle, we might look at other durable left-handed pitchers like Jim Kaat, and for Alfonso Soriano, we might look at speed/power outfielders who struck out a lot, like Joe Carter. By seeing how the comparable pitchers performed, we can have a way to predict future performance that is both intuitive and accurate.”
And it’s constantly being tweaked. “This year,” Silver says, “we started looking at things like platoon splits in more detail, and first/second half splits—if a guy performs better after the All-Star break, that’s a good sign for the next season. But there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ forecasting system.”
Even so, it seems likely that Baseball Prospectus, with its computer and mountains of data, will come closer to one than sportswriters, who’ve been known to scribble their picks on coasters ten minutes before they’re due. Silver says the PECOTA projections represent a “solid block of six weeks or so of work.”
By the time Silver was paid this tribute he was on to bigger and better—the website fivethirtyeight.com, which predicted Barack Obama would romp to the presidency against John McCain. Silver made it easy to choose the cover for our postelection edition.