Back from the future

How Bill James used Rafael Palmeiro's Gold Glove to predict Donald Trump

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This was mentioned a few weeks ago on Bill James’ site (I missed it) and then Lonnie Shalton pointed out it via email. It’s really one of the most amazing things I’ve seen (save for my own prediction that the Royals would win the 2015 World Series, of course): Baseball predicting Politics.

In Bill’s Historical Abstract, which came out in 2001 — so, 15 years ago — he went on a little interlude about Rafael Palmeiro’s ludicrous Gold Glove victory in 1999. You might recall, Palmeiro won the Gold Glove at first base even though he only played 28 games at first base, with the rest as a designated hitter. As Bill and many others pointed out, it’s hard to be the best defensive first baseman in the league when you are not the best defensive first baseman ON YOUR OWN TEAM.

It was a bad joke, perhaps the worst award choice in baseball history. Many people had theories about why it happened. Some said it was because the voters (managers and coaches) weren’t really paying attention. Some said it was because Palmeiro had a fantastic offensive season (he hit .324 with 47 homers) and that distracted people from the fact that he no longer played first base well (or often). Some said it was because there was a dearth of good candidates.

Bill saw the problem as one of mathematics.

To quote:

“The larger point, it seems to me, is that a badly designed voting system will fail sometimes, no matter who votes. The Gold Glove is decided by what could be called an unconstrained plurality, meaning:

1. A voter can vote for anybody.

2. If the top vote-getter gets 15% of the vote, he wins, the same as if he had received 80%.”

You might already see where this is going. Still, it’s worth the big finish. Bill continued (and please remember once again that this was 2001):

“A voting structure like this is an open invitation to an eccentric outcome. If the United States were to use a system like this to elect the President, the absolutely certain result would be that, within a few elections, someone like David Duke, Donald Trump, or Warren Beatty would be elected President. If you can win an election with 15% of the vote, sooner or later somebody will. An unconstrained plurality vote gives an opening to someone or something who has a strong appeal to a limited number of people.”

OK, do you see that? Bill predicted that DONALD TRUMP (and David Duke is in there too) could be elected President if you had a voting structure where there’s an unconstrained plurality.* He predicted this 16 years ago. And then, what happened in this election cycle? The Republican Party had a WHOLE BUNCH of candidates (roughly the same number as first basemen in the American League in 1999. And Trump moved to the forefront by getting an unconstrained plurality, first in the 15-20 percent range, then higher, then higher. No matter where you stand on the Trump candidacy, it was this math that paved the way, and Bill saw it many years ago.

*Oh, and by the way, many compare Bernie Sanders to Warren Beatty’s Bulworth. Sanders appears to have fallen off a bit more quickly, perhaps because there were always fewer choices on the Democrats’ side and so the unconstrained plurality really couldn’t take effect.

Bill offered suggestions for how they could improve the Gold Glove voting:

1. Establish some loose statistical limits on who is eligible for the award. No one should be eligible for the Gold Glove at first base unless he plays at least 500 innings at the position.

2. Have a panel of experts—not a different group, but a sub-group of the current voters—review the candidates, and trim it to a list of perhaps five candidates.

3. Get weighted ballots—three points for first, two for second, one for third.”

The Gold Gloves did not take Bill James up on his suggestions. The Republican and Democratic parties, though, might consider taking Bill’s suggestions to heart.