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He's So Predictable
ALEXANDER WOLFF
September 17, 2012
Nate Silver, the mind behind the must-read political blog FiveThirtyEight, honed his forecasting skills in the world of sports
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September 17, 2012

He's So Predictable

Nate Silver, the mind behind the must-read political blog FiveThirtyEight, honed his forecasting skills in the world of sports

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Baseball's great corpus of received folk wisdom may explain why it has taken outsiders such as Silver and James to deliver fresh perspectives. "Nate has a way of interpreting stuff, but not in the way someone trained by rote would do it," says Anil Kashyap, a professor at Chicago's Booth School of Business who has befriended Silver over baseball. "Nate rolls his own all the time."

Meanwhile, back at Yankee Stadium, it's the bottom of the seventh. Baltimore is up 3--2 when Derek Jeter steps in with the bases loaded and two out. Silver and Jeter have a history: In May 2011, with the Yankees' shortstop about to turn 37 and off to a slow start, Silver declared him to be on the steep downslope of his career. "He'll get his batting average up a bit—but only to .264," Silver predicted. The day after Silver's post, Jeter delivered four hits, two of them home runs. He hit over .300 for the rest of that season, and this year he's batting .324. Silver still gets e-mails from Yankees fans urging him to write off Alex Rodriguez in the hope that, voodoo-like, A-Rod will come to life.

Silver may have once sold him short, but it's not beneath Jeter to use a trusty East Lansing midget ball strategy that might go by the backronym NATE (Not Averse to Taking Everything). He falls behind 0-and-2, yet waits out a walk that ties the game, then watches from the base path as an error pushes home the deciding run in a 4--3 win. "That was almost a better clutch performance than a hit," says the Great Skeptic of Clutch.

A 37-year-old Derek Jeter may be less likely to come through than a 27-year-old one. But it's perfectly possible, and Silver counsels us to sort all possibilities into the probable and improbable. "Prediction," he writes, "is where objective and subjective reality intersect. Distinguishing the signal from the noise requires both scientific knowledge and self-knowledge."

To better remind us of this, Silver riffs on Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer, saying we should "have the serenity to accept the things we cannot predict, the courage to predict the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Amen.

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