SABR-Presidents

Former President Bill Clinton, quoted by Ron Brownstein in Monday’s Los Angeles Times, when asked about how historians rank presidents:

“I really think the circumstances determine where you are ranked — whether you have big wars, like the Civil War or World War II. But there are three or four tests you can apply to any president, which are much fairer than ranking them where the deal is rigged based on the time in which they served.

“First, did they understand their times and articulate a vision of a more perfect union? Did they refrain from abusing their power? Then you have to say, Did they execute [their agenda], and were people better off when they stopped than when they started?

“Those tests are fair to apply to every president.”

I have another idea. Why don’t we turn the business of ranking presidents over to Bill James, author of the seminal series of Bill James Baseball Abstracts, or to guys like Will Carroll at Baseball Prospectus?

These are two of the leading exponents of sabermetrics. Sabremetricians use sophisticated methods to factor out things like luck and particular circumstances (such as the fact that some ballparks favor pitchers and others favor hitters), so that the numbers more accurately measure a player’s contribution to his team winning ballgames.

Among most baseball fans, sabermetricians’ measurements remain unfamiliar. You have to be a pretty devoted fan to know how Win Shares are calculated, or what your favorite player’s VORP (value over replacement player)and EqA (equivalent average) were last year. The only saber-stat that has really caught on is On-Base Percentage (OBP), which, quite logically, overturns the practice of omitting walks and errors from a player’s batting statistics on the theory that a walk usually is as good as a single.

Sabermetrics remains controversial. Traditionalists prefer to evaluate players by watching them and judging intangibles like “character,” “intensity,” or ability to hit well in “clutch situations,” and think the sabermetricians are a bunch of “stat geeks” who have their noses too far into their laptops.

It was thought by some that Dodger owner Frank McCourt’s firing of sabermetrician General Manager Paul DePodesta last fall was the baseball equivalent of the Restoration — a return to the old-fashioned values. The saber-fans over at Dodger Thoughts hope this isn’t the case, but find it discouraging that new General Manager Ned Colletti once said, “How a player approaches the game, how he approaches life, far outweighs what the stat line looks like.” To sabremetricians, you can’t project performance based on something as subjective and nebulous as how a player “approaches life.”

To go back to my original point: In his Times interview, Bill Clinton sounds a little put out that, because there wasn’t a “big war” during his presidency, he is automatically disqualified from the ranks of Great Presidents. He has a point. The lack of a “big war” shouldn’t be held against a president’s historical reputation. Maybe he avoided a “big war” — shouldn’t that count for something? Yes, if war is truly averted and the conflict resolved peacefully (but no, if the war is merely postponed.)

I’m sure Clinton realizes with some frustration that historians tend to devalue the performance of the economy during a presidency. Clinton presided over a great economy, and actually erased the federal deficit briefly, but as the years pass, the aura of that success is fading. Franklin Roosevelt was an inspiring leader, but he was unable to revive the United States economy in his first two terms — and is still considered one of the greats. Were it not for the Second World War, Roosevelt today might be considered a failure. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson presided over a roaring boom economy, but compared with the Cold War, civil rights and Vietnam, their economic policies are usually glossed over.

What should count in evaluating a president? In sabermetrics, there is a term, “replacement-level player.” That means a major-league player whose production can be projected to reach mean, or average, levels. They’ll have good days, and play better against certain pitchers, or in certain ballparks, but over the whole season, they will “regress to the mean” and end up producing what’s expected of them, but no more or less — unless they are especially lucky or unlucky.

Most teams want replacement-level players at most positions. They can’t afford too many stars. The star players are, by definition, above “replacement-level.” Couldn’t the same be said about presidents? Shouldn’t the real test of Clinton’s quality be whether he did as well as, or better than, a “replacement-level” president would have done, given the same circumstances?

To get to that kind of evaluation, the stat geeks would need to orient themselves. What is the equivalent in politics of winning a baseball game? Clinton’s measure, “did they understand their times and articulate a vision of a more perfect union?” is too vague. There need to be quality-of-life measurements that include traditional economic factors such as unemployment rates, average income, but also include, perhaps, environmental progress, or education attainment, or crime. And they would need to be weighted.

An American president also will be judged as a world leader, given our country’s unique role in global security and politics. Ronald Reagan could qualify as a great president, if the saber-president-metricians give him credit for ending the Cold War and liberating Eastern Europe. But, some might argue, Reagan deserves only part of the credit, with other Cold Warriors like Truman and Kennedy due a share. Obviously, the reputations of Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln rest heavily on their wartime leadership and liberation of oppressed people. Woodrow Wilson’s wartime leadership is not often discussed, but he did, after all, win his war, too.

George W. Bush clearly is trying to work his way into the front ranks using the “people liberated from oppression” standard — but he’s got a big hole in his swing, and seems unable to deliver consistent results. Also, John Kerry would argue that “antagonizing allies” like France and Germany should be a negative factor in determining Bush’s “value-over-replacement president.” I’d leave it to the stat geeks. Was losing support from France or Germany measurably important?

I’m sure the political sabermetricians would have a lively debate trying to figure out how much credit to give a president for a good economy. Should the credit go, perhaps, to his predecessor? To what degree is the economy influenced by presidential policy — if at all?

The fact is, even under the microscope of the saber-stats, the great players in baseball history, like Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax, still come out on top. The new stats serve primarily to underscore and dramatize what we already knew. The stats also show that true greatness is rare. Sabermetrics has found few “diamonds in the rough.” Its main contribution is to puncture over-inflated reputations.

I would think the same would be true for saber-president-metrics in terms of determining the very top tier. You’re going to see Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, the two Roosevelts — and perhaps Truman and Reagan will compete at the margins. There might be a surprise or two — Calvin Coolidge, or even Lyndon Johnson. But the ranks of truly great presidents will remain thin.

The real value of a statistical system that ranked presidents from 1-43, best-to-worst, would be predictive. In the next election, it is unlikely that either party will nominate a potentially “great” president. But with the help of stat geeks, maybe we could figure out what factors contributed to the making of a good president, one who is “above replacement value.” That’s not too much to ask.

Maybe they can get Bill James to moderate the 2008 presidential debates.

UPDATE 2/21/06: Correcting the spelling of sabermetrics, sabermetrician and SABR throughout. Sorry, baseball fans. Also a few other edits, since I’m “fussy.”

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