By now, everyone knows the big winner on election night wasn’t Barack Obama or Elizabeth Warren or even, as my ninth grade Civics teacher might say, Americans who participated in a free and open democratic process. No, the clear victor this past Tuesday was Nate Silver, master election¬†prognosticator¬†who on his website “538” correctly predicted which presidential candidate would win all 50 states.
Despite going 49-for-50 in calling states in 2008, the media narrative that this was a close race led to a substantial backlash from a number of high-profile pundits against Silver in the weeks and days leading up to Election Day. According to Silver’s calculations, President Obama’s re-election chances never slipped much below 60% and they spiked to just above 90% as campaigning came to a close. The final margin of President Obama’s verified the veracity of Silver’s methods and has made him something of a rock star, even outside of political geek circles.
For me, and I suspect for quite a few other baseball fans, Nate Silver will always primarily be thought of for his sabermetric work. As has been much reported, Silver’s first public prognostication work came in the form of PECOTA, which¬†stood for¬†Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, a clunky acronym meant in tribute to former big-leaguer Bill Pecota. A middling utility infielder for the Kansas City Royals in the late 80s, Pecota had always managed to torture Silver’s beloved ¬†Detroit Tigers.¬†As a system, PECOTA used past indicators to forecast future player performance.
Silver’s political projections draw on a very similar theme, and like them, PECOTA managed to sharpen and make more accessible prediction theories that were already floating around. While not perfect, PECOTA had some startling hits, like projecting the Chicago White Sox unexpected 90 loss season in 2007 or the Tampa Bay Rays shocking 97 win season in 2008.
This is all a very long way of explaining why that picture above is now my most prized piece of sports memorabilia. See, when I was cleaning out my childhood bedroom about two years ago, I stumbled upon a shoebox of old baseball cards. Between wondering what happened to all the cool moustaches and debating how much someone would have to pay me to chew a piece of Topps bubble gum from an unopened pack, I stumbled upon Bill Pecota’s 1988 trading card.¬†In a moment of¬†wistful¬†inspiration, I decided to spare the Pecota card from the trash bag. Placing it carefully in a plastic sleeve, I told myself that if I ever had the occasion to meet Nate Silver, I’d ask him to autograph the card.
Fast forward to this October. Silver was giving a presentation and signing at a store around the corner from my apartment promoting his new book. In the receiving line afterward, in between the math professor who tried to stump him with a complex proof and the political science grad student with a fascinating theory on independent voters, I approached. I had wondered if he got this request frequently, an army of baseball nerds, following him around whenever he appeared in public, thinking we were clever by ¬†scraps of cardboard in his face.
Even if he’d gotten the request before, Silver could not have been more gracious. He chuckled deeply upon seeing the card and joked about what a Bill Pecota card goes for on Ebay. He signed his name carefully, even tracing over it a second time to make sure it appeared legibly. So yup, that picture is of my Bill Pecota card autographed by Nate Silver. It now has a permanent spot on the bookshelf, ready to take me down a peg every time ¬†I get event
the tiniest¬†premonition¬†that I might be cool.