Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Review of The MVP Machine

Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik's The MVP Machine: How Baseball's New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players is an excellent, if slightly too long, baseball book. They argue that lots of people have noted the shift toward more granular ways of evaluating players, but few have looked into how data is used to development them, to actually change and shape them.

With the ever-annoying but driven Trevor Bauer as a major case study, they dive into the world of high speed cameras, pitching grips, throwing regimens, launch angles, arm slots, swing planes, and the like, all of which challenge conventional wisdom. As Bauer reasonably notes, he doesn't want any advice that is not based on data (unfortunately, he is a jerk to people who give him advice he believes it bad and in general seems unable to be nice to anyone).

In abundant detail, they make a convincing case for why players who use data improve, while those that don't will be at a disadvantage. Often, the people who can help interpret data aren't former players at all, which is transforming both dugouts and front offices. Scouts are becoming a thing of the past--the human eye just doesn't have the ability that technology does. People who can use and interpret data effectively also get MLB jobs--the website Fangraphs seems to always need writers because their best are continuously snapped up.

In the conclusion, they make two particularly important points. First, baseball is unlike other sports where data-driven improvements make the game more exciting (e.g. longer gold drives or three-point shots). Data decreases the action in a baseball game--fewer ground balls, less base running, more strikeouts. Second, getting data takes money, so kids with poor parents cannot benefit from it and therefore will likely fall behind. This is troubling in our era of year-long sports and club teams. Data has created real problems.

In a book full of examples of how players used data to improve, there is one glaring problem. All of those examples are success stories. In other words, the cases are selected on the dependent variable, thus proving it by definition. They note in passing players that only briefly benefited, but to flesh out this story they need a more detailed discussion of someone who did not benefit. My hunch is that it would bolster their case.


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Michelle Bachelet Blasts Maduro

I had been meaning to write a post on Michelle Bachelet's scathing report on human rights in Venezuela after her visit leading a UN team, but hadn't gotten to it. I did a Twitter thread with quotes from the report (which you can read here). You can also take a look at Andrés Cañizález's article in Global Americans.

Taken along with Bachelet's own comments, the UN is saying that the Venezuelan government is both inept and intensely brutal toward its own citizens, and that Nicolás Maduro is incapable of fixing any of it. It is so condemnatory that Cañizález notes the following:

Venezuelan activists such as Uzcátegui and Luis Francisco Cabezas, general director of the civil society organization CONVITE, believe that the document itself is written in a language that should serve as input for the International Criminal Court (ICC), since the report reiterates the systematic nature of the violations of human rights with cases of torture, forced disappearances and the right to life. The report also includes that individual criminal responsibilities should be acknowledged. 
The fact that Bachelet is the driving force of this report negates any effort to frame it as ideologically driven. As presidential candidate, after all, she brought the Communist Party into her coalition and was routinely called a Communist by the right. The Chilean Communist Party actually criticized the report, but they don't even try to criticize her. There is no way Bachelet suddenly became a tool of the right, a pawn of the Empire, or anything like that. She is firmly on the left and has enormous credibility. There is no wiggle room.

The government says the report is untrue and that it will publish a response. It will be hard, however, to use the "economic war" argument to explain the "dismantlement of democratic institutions" or "electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, water boarding, beatings, sexual violence, water and food deprivation, stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures." Coming from Bachelet, this packs a serious punch.


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Dealing With Bad Debt

The question of how to deal with bad debt has long been a problem in Latin America. Some government or series of governments incurs debt to keep spending high, which at some point becomes unsustainable and there is political transition. The loans keep coming despite the obvious disaster because creditors assume the government will be forced to pay eventually, even if at a discount. (Though Néstor Kirchner famously gave creditors the middle finger).

As Patrice Franko writes in her excellent The Puzzle of Latin American Economic Development:

The history of Latin America contains numerous stories of a state firm's payrolls padded with dead people, construction taking place only on paper, and misguided attempts such as the Transamazonian Highway (p. 81).

It's a terrible dilemma. In most countries, with Venezuela the most current example, the debt was irresponsible and corrupt. Whatever new government comes to power feels no sympathy for the vultures who invested, but faces intense international pressure to satisfy them.

This is what Juan Guaidó is facing now. From Reuters:
Creditors holding Venezuelan debt on Tuesday pushed back on debt restructuring plans backed by opposition leader Juan Guaido, urging a "fair and effective" framework for talks and improved communications with investors holding defaulted bonds.
There is also this nugget:
The committee also took exception to the idea that debts to Russia and China would be treated differently than others.
This is where the particulars of the Venezuelan case show how it's different from, say, the 1980s debt crisis. China and Russia are propping up the Maduro government, so coaxing them away demands preferential treatment, however distasteful that might be. If they are not 100% convinced their demands will be met, they have no incentive to stop propping.

In short, all this talk is really about the political transition itself. Not only is Guaidó asserting himself as executive, he is also sending signals about upholding certain obligations. Vladimir Putin likes the status quo just because it creates trouble for the U.S., but even he wants his money.


Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Conditions of Imprisoned Immigrants

From a report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General. These are just direct quotes about the Rio Grande Valley area.

Specifically, we encourage the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley.  
During the week of June 10, 2019, we traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and again observed serious overcrowding and prolonged detention in Border Patrol
facilities requiring immediate attention. For example, children at three of the five Border Patrol facilities we visited had no access to showers, despite the TEDS standards requiring that “reasonable efforts” be made to provide showers to children approaching 48 hours in detention. 
While all facilities had infant formula, diapers, baby wipes, and juice and snacksfor children, we observed that two facilities had not provided children access to hot meals — as is required by the TEDS standards? — until the week we arrived. Instead, the children were fed sandwiches and snacksfor their meals. 
Specifically, when detainees observed us, they banged on the cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window with their time in custody, and gestured to evidence of their time in custody (e.g., beards) For example, although TEDS standards require CBP to make a reasonable effort to provide a shower for adults after 72 hours, most single adults had not had a shower in CBP custody despite several being held for as long as a month.

There are pictures too. The tone of the report suggests it was written by people who were horrified at what their seeing and hearing. We just more of such people on the inside to speak up. This is not how human beings should treat each other.


Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Alva Noé's Infinite Baseball

Alva Noe's Infinite Baseball: Notes From a Philosopher at the Ballpark sounds so intriguing. What you get, though, is a hodgepodge of previously published pieces with a tacked on introduction. By the time I got through the introduction, I was already getting disappointed. One theme he comes back to is that baseball is a game of responsibility--we're always trying to assign credit or blame for what happens. Such credit or blame ultimately takes the form of numbers, but baseball is in his eyes not a numbers game. It is this last argument that he has the most difficulty explaining and defending. In the intro, I kept stopping and thinking, "This isn't accurate." Some of the assertions in the intro:

--Baseball is an infinite game. Finite games, like chess, "can be simulated with computers" (6). This would come as some surprise to the many enthusiasts of Out of the Park Baseball, a hugely popular baseball simulation.

--Baseball is considered slow because "only explosive hits and big plays count as action" (22). No, baseball is considered slow because the length of time it takes to do the same things has risen quite a lot over time, 40 or so minutes on average during my lifetime.

--he argues that data should not be used to think about medical issues, such as breastfeeding, and so should also not be used to judge baseball. My own opinion is that this is terrible advice. He caps it off with the factually incorrect statement that with a pitcher, "the manager's decision to leave him in, or call on a relief pitcher, is not one that can be decided with the numbers" (25). Yes, human judgment is in there, but those decisions are fundamentally based on numbers.

--Baseball is different because kids model the stances of their favorite hitters (he puts pose in italics (27). Youth games are "rituals." How is this different from other sports? You know kids try to shoot like Steph Curry or do touchdown dances like their favorite receiver.

The intro lays out no framework, philosophical or otherwise, so my advice is to read the chapters, or better yet find the chapters in their original form online. He has some interesting insights into why steroids shouldn't be considered a problem for the Hall of Fame  Well, actually, that's the main interesting thing. He asks whether any variety of medical assistance (even Tommy John surgery) should be considered unfair advantage. Fair questions, and worth asking. That would actually be a better basis for a philosophical discussion.

But for me, this book boiled down to a lot of unhappiness about sabermetrics. He mentions and criticizes Keith Law's book Smart Baseball but really just reinforces Law's main argument. I agree that Law's own take is too intentionally insulting, but his arguments are solid. Numbers don't tell us everything, but they are being used in creative and productive ways to understand current and future performance. Noé says you cannot use numbers to determine value, period (67). He ends with his own shot that underlines his lack of sabermetric understanding: "Want to know what happened on the field? You'd better take a look, and give it some thought" (67). Guess what: Law and everyone else who judges baseball players go to endless minor league games to scout, while using the numbers. If you ignore the data, you will lose.

My advice to Noé is to accept the fact that numbers are more important than he wants to believe, but that they do not mess with the beauty of baseball. And a 2.5 hour game is no less enjoyable and fulfilling than a 3.5 hour one. As someone who lives on the east coast and follows a west cost team, infinite baseball with games that start at 10:10 pm are awful.


Monday, July 01, 2019

Why Did Fidel Castro Endorse Salvador Allende?

Rafael Pedemonte, "The Meeting of Revolutionary Roads: Chilean-Cuban Interactions, 1959–1970," Hispanic American Historical Review (2019) 99 (2): 275-302.


Fidel Castro's endorsement of Salvador Allende's revolutionary program in August 1970 was determined by global transformations and changing priorities within both Chile and Cuba. Since 1968, favorable prospects for the Left encouraged Havana to abandon its radicalism premised on the inevitability of armed struggle. Prior to 1970 Chile gradually promoted rapprochement with the socialist world and lessened Cuba's hemispheric isolation, imposed by the Organization of American States. It is within this framework that the meeting between Cuba's and Chile's revolutions has to be understood. Allende, knowing that Castro's support would push the radical Left to side with Popular Unity in the 1970 elections, sent a delegation to convince the Cubans that socialism could be achieved by peaceful means. These events and strategic discussions within Chile and Cuba reveal how the history of the Left needs to be placed in a broad context defined by the complex unfolding of domestic, hemispheric, and international transformations shaping Latin America in the 1960s.
It's a look at the local and global contexts that framed the Cuban decision to embrace Salvador Allende's peace road to socialism, which previously Fidel Castro said was impossible ("electoral opium" and all that). For example:

--The USSR was threatening Cuba if it didn't stop promoting revolution in Latin America, so this was a way to smooth things over.
--Fidel Castro was isolated in the region and wanted to expand trade and other ties. Allende's decision to restore diplomatic relations was a critical starting point.
--The Chilean Social Democrats started that process earlier, so Chile was a propitious place for Fidel to acknowledge political change that did not overthrow the existing order.
--Salvador Allende need the endorsement to get the radical left to vote for him.

Fidel and Allende needed each other:

The encounter between the Cuban Revolution and the Chilean road to socialism in 1970 was not just a response to the contemporary conjuncture but also the fruit of a long-term evolution rooted in previous developments and molded by a complex set of factors.

This is also a reminder that even radical movements can exhibit strong pragmatic impulses. I've made the case for some time that even leftist Latin American governments are more pragmatic than typically portrayed.


Russian Threats in Latin America

A lengthy white paper written for the Joint Chiefs of Staff  (text shared by Politico here) addresses the failure of the U.S. to counter Russian foreign policy globally. The Latin America part was written by Evan Ellis, who has written a lot on China and who typically I find on the hawkish side (though not alarmist). However, I agree largely with his take on Russia, which is that its influence is restricted and unlikely to grow much. It doesn't hand out cash like China, and outside a few countries there is little interest in engagement. The thrust of the assessment is that China has a far greater presence in Latin America than Russia does. Further, Russia is concentrated in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Its reach is therefore quite limited, though it gets a bit of a propaganda boost from outlets like RT.

In contrast to China, which uses access to its markets and the possibility of loans and investment as tools of soft power, Russian ability to exert influence through economic resources, either by providing aid or denying commercial transactions, is minimal. Even among its friends, Russia’s ability to exert influence in the region is limited.
Like so many much-touted threats extra-hemispheric threats, we should keep an eye on Russia's activities but they are threatening U.S. security.


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