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Baseball Prophet Phil Rogers Wins Golden BAT

Tribune scribe mixes science and gut feeling

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A cup of coffee is all that separates Phil Rogers from lasting immortality. Not that anything's so bad about the 24-hour variety.

Rogers, the Tribune's national baseball writer, is the recipient of this year's Golden BAT. First time I've won since 2003, he said when I gave him the exciting news, demonstrating his competitive focus and also that he's something of a student of the history of BAT prognosticology. Rogers would know this without my telling him, but as you may not, the Golden BAT—for Baseball Aptitude Test, or Baseball Achievement Test, or Baseball Acumen Test (scholars differ and mere scriveners such as myself have short memories)—is the most coveted honor any sportswriter can hope to receive, aside from word from his editor that he'll probably survive the next round of layoffs.

Our subject here is the annual ritual of the press box priesthood wherein as spring training ends they publish their choices in the upcoming pennant races. I'd say this is no small skill, except that the original notion behind the Golden BAT—introduced by the Reader's Neil Tesser in 1981—was that the acuity of sportswriters contemplating the near future is roughly that of the pigeons roosting on the sills of the Loop's Class C buildings. It's no small skill because it's no skill at all.

Yet how else to explain Rogers's BAT-worthy accomplishment as the 2010 season got under way? What put you over, I said, is that, unbelievably, you called the wild card races exactly right. You nailed the Yankees finishing second in the AL East and reaching the playoffs and the Braves doing likewise in the NL East. Picking a division winner is easy by comparison. The wild card does not win its division, and it can come from any division in the league.

Rogers was modest. "It's probably as much guesswork for me as anyone else," he said. "I look at the four best teams." He believed the Yankees—the defending world champs—would prove themselves one of the AL's top four last year, but not quite as good as Boston in the AL East. So he gave them the wild card. As things turned out, Boston didn't make the playoffs. The Yankees finished a game behind Tampa Bay.

As for Atlanta, "it was a sentimental pick as well as factual. We're not computers," Rogers said. "You do factor in the story lines you like better, and I think a lot of people were liking the Braves for a lot of reasons." Or two reasons: they looked good, and it was manager Bobby Cox's last year. But they didn't look better than Philadelphia, which had come out of the NL East to win the pennant the two previous seasons. So the wild card it was.

Sure enough. Just one of the 12 scribes in the BAT competition picked Atlanta to actually finish ahead of the Phillies; but five of them—not to mention a computer—made Atlanta their wild card choice. Only Rogers also picked the Yankees: but then, eight others thought the Yanks would win their division.

In short, as impressively precise as Rogers's wild card picks were, they reflected conventional wisdom. The BAT giants—the Sun-Times's Toni Ginnetti is one—defy it. Ginnetti had what for her was a down year, but nobody else—human or cybernetic—picked the San Francisco Giants to win the NL pennant. Ginnetti even correctly called them to win the Series.

Where almost everyone went wrong, I was telling Rogers, was with the Cardinals. When conventional wisdom's favorites crash and burn, they take a lot of sportswriters with them.

"Did I pick the Cardinals?" he asked. I consulted my files. Yes, he had. Rogers and eight other sportswriters, and the computer algorithm too.

"I was kicking myself all year," Rogers told me. "I was this close to picking the Reds. If I'd had a little more caffeine on the morning I made the picks I'd have picked the Reds. You could see them coming. I didn't really think they were that big of a surprise, and I think they'll run away with it this year."

Rogers clinched his Golden BAT by being the only one in the field to call the AL West for the Texas Rangers (the eventual AL pennant winner). He also nailed the Phillies in the NL East (an almost unanimous pick) and the Twins in the AL Central, where local sentiment strongly favored the White Sox. One more cuppa joe—regular, not decaf—and we'd be dusting off the giddy idioms fit only for living legends.

"You could argue," said Rogers, amazing me with both his humility and his gravity, "that as the only truly old-time national baseball guy in Chicago, I should win it every year. But you can't. It's still guesswork. A lot of people like to think it's a science. Baseball Prospectus makes it as close to a science as anybody. Their forecast is pretty darned good."

I corrected him. When Baseball Prospectus unleashed its Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm—PECOTA—a few years ago, it threatened to revolutionize prognostics the way Babe Ruth revolutionized the way baseball teams scored runs. In the 2008 BAT competition, no human stood a chance: PECOTA named six of the eight 2007 playoff teams and another of its choices missed the playoffs by one game—an unheard-of result. Catapulted to fame, PECOTA's founder, Chicago's own Nate Silver, soon found himself running the fivethirtyeight.com political website, and I believe a case can be made that he triggered the Obama rout of '08 by predicting it: the Silver nod was all it took to persuade PECOTA genuflectors that a landslide was inevitable and any attempt to resist would be fatal. How often did we hear it said: "If it weren't for Nate Silver and Sarah Palin, Obama might be in trouble"?

Yet PECOTA hasn't won a BAT since. Like mere mortals, it whiffed on the Cardinals, didn't see the Giants coming (picking them seventh in the NL), and underestimated the Rangers (expecting them to just miss the playoffs). Unlike the sturdy sportswriter, an algorithm needs special care and feeding. The lesson here might be conventional wisdom in, convention wisdom out.

"You want to make the gutsy pick that goes against the payroll," Rogers allowed. "In 2010, of the nine biggest payrolls only two went to the playoffs. There's a lot more to it than just spending." The most analytic prognosticologist I've ever come across, Rogers said his secret is to wait until the last minute to make his picks, because "the conventional wisdom and the gutsy picks both emerge from Florida and Arizona at the end of spring training." Word gets around, he says, and reporters like him who hit all the camps and keep their eyes and ears open have a leg up. And yet, he went on, "at the end of the day, I still feel like I'm guessing. At least it's an educated guess."

"Who won the Whiffle BAT?" Rogers asked. No BAT champion had ever posed this question before, perhaps fearing it would suggest an unseemly schadenfreude. But Rogers, who's copped the booby prize himself once or twice during his long career, was simply wondering. I studied my charts.

Fred Mitchell, I said. Rogers's Tribune colleague picked the Phillies in the NL East, and he had the Rangers in the playoffs—though he thought they'd be the AL wild card. Otherwise, he was completely wrong. But who knows? Next year we might be hailing him as champion.

For the Golden BAT competition is like life itself. One prepares, one studies, one maximizes one's advantages; yet chance has the final word. There are dissertations to be written at the better divinity schools on the analogy of BAT and fate, though perhaps not in my lifetime.

Sad it is that despite the momentousness of the Golden BAT, so many competitors merely phone it in. Literally and figuratively. As in:

Querulous editor: Where the hell are your baseball picks? They were due last week.

Scribe: Completely forgot. I'll call you back in five minutes.

But the way of Phil Rogers is calm and methodical. To him, these picks take the measure of the man.

"It's my job," he says.

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