By Zak Stambor
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane
Nate Silver, age 30, is a pundit—one who espouses opinions based almost exclusively on numbers. Like a meteorologist he mines data patterns to predict what the future may bring, be it the presidential election results or the Chicago White Sox’s win-loss record. During a White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field three weeks into the season, he sounds like a clairvoyant.
When Daric Barton, the Oakland A’s rookie first baseman, steps to the plate, Silver says that the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, or PECOTA—a system he developed to project baseball players’ career arcs by comparing them to similar players from the past—suggests Barton has a 44 percent chance of having a breakout season. Silver highlights Barton’s 73 percent chance to better his 2007 statistics before cautioning that he could be a bust: after all, he has an 8 percent chance of his performance declining at least 25 percent relative to his baseline performance over the previous three seasons.
Silver, AB’00, is the managing partner of Baseball Prospectus (BP), a think tank devoted to the statistical analysis of the sport, or sabermetrics. Regularly cited in newspapers, sports magazines, and blogs, BP and its writers routinely appear on NPR and BP’s own radio podcast. Silver essentially serves as the company’s chief executive officer.
The Burrito Bracket
Standing about five feet nine, he wears his scribble of brown hair pushed forward and extends a flimsy handshake. He speaks in tangents that often make him forget where he started and analyzes nearly everything he encounters. He usually wakes around 10:30 a.m., gulps down coffee or Coke, and plops on the sofa. He slogs away at work until 2 or 3 p.m., when he frequents one of the 19 taquerias—he’s counted—within a five-mile perimeter. Last July he began scrutinizing the restaurants’ tortillas, salsas, burrito proportion (the degree to which every component is “in balance ”), décor, and overall experience, on his blog the Burrito Bracket.
But since November the bracket has been sidetracked by another numbers fixation—the presidential race. Posting on the liberal-leaning political blog Daily Kos as “Poblano ” (a friend’s Daily Kos handle he borrowed, not expecting to gain recognition), he’s parsed polls and deconstructed the reasons behind long-assumed constructs like the Iowa Bounce, the momentum gain for candidates who win the Iowa caucuses. In March, as Poblano, he launched his own site, FiveThirtyEight, named for the 538 Electoral College members. The site features a forecasting system that weights polls based on an individual pollster’s track record, the survey’s sample size, and the date of the poll (surveys have a half-life of 30 days, he says, based on empirical evidence derived from the 2000, 2004, and 2006 election cycles). The system correctly predicted the outcomes of the Indiana and North Carolina Democratic primary races, earning Poblano mentions in the New York Times and the National Journal’s Web site.
The pseudonym allowed Silver to maintain separate identities for baseball and politics. But as the site drew nearly 30,000 unique visitors a day, including influential journalists like the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder and Andrew Sullivan and the National Review’s Mark Blumenthal, he decided to reveal himself as Poblano. Since disclosing his identity June 1 in the New York Post, he’s started writing “Strength in Numbers, ” a weekly column for Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “In polling and politics, ” he noted in the Post, “there is nearly as much data as there is for first basemen. ”