Some Notes on the Idea of the Zone

Note: What follows contains little in the way of quantitative analysis. It does mention The Book, however, and that’s gotta count for something.

I believe the readership will agree that, of all the things that are great about wedding receptions, probably the best thing about them is that phenomenon known as the “open bar.” If you’re like me (intelligent, physically impressive), you like beer…a lot. You think that just as books such as Cod and Salt have tried to explain the world through the lens of those respective materials, that probably the world could, and ought to, be understood through the lens of beer. (Note: This is different than seeing the world through beer goggles. Those you should avoid at all times.) You think that, in particular, the concept of free beer — especially when consumed in the company of loved ones — goes a pretty good way to proving the existence of God. And whenever beer touches your lips, you feel compelled to echo Kanye West’s sentiments from Late Registration — i.e. “It’s a celebration, bitches.”

So, we’re agreed: beer is great. But this isn’t merely an ode to fermentation that I’m writing. It’s serious business. Because you see, drinking at a wedding is especially important if, as I was this past weekend, you’re expected to prepare and deliver a toast.

Nor when I say “toast” should you imagine one of those sprawling, nebulous accounts of late adolescence where the speaker recalls that one time he and the groom yelled “movie” in a crowded firehouse. No, the ideal toast requires structural rigor, not a little wisdom, and something of what the Surrealists refer to as “the marvelous” (and what Kanye West calls, once again, “a celebration, bitches”).

To attain the proper state of (what I’ll call) “enthusiasm,” one must drink. Beer, wine, something called a “Toasted Almond”: whatever. But as is made all-too-obvious by too many Facebook pages, excessive drinking causes sloppiness. There’s little that’s charming about watching an otherwise handsome young man vomit on his lapels in the presence of multiple grandmothers.

Excessive sobriety, however, has its own perils. Public speaking is one thing; speaking on the nature of love, quite another. Owing to the inter-generational nature of this blessed sacrament, one is forced to appeal beyond his own peer group. A Benny Goodman joke here or there is sometimes necessary. One must say to oneself what Arthur Rimbaud said to the world: “I have all the talents!”

In short, there is a “zone” — a state that one hopes to achieve in which one’s faculties are not so impaired as to render him inaudible, but in which one’s nerves are sufficiently dulled so’s to allow the speaker a breeziness and expansiveness appropriate for the occasion.

Typically, I’ve had great success in attaining said zone; however, owing to the lasting effects of Dreaded Pig Flu, I had as yet to regain my appetite for adult beverages by this past Saturday night. (As a side note, I will say that there is no surer symptom of real illness than the loss of one’s thirst.) Hence, I was forced to deliver my toast with only a ginger ale at my side.

In the absence of beer, I delivered a speech that was, I believe, adequate — and certainly full of loving, sharing, and caring. But was it a revelation? Unfortunately, I think not. I wasn’t as quick as I’d like to be. I never got rolling. I never found the zone.

Research tells us that streaks in sport — hitting streaks, shooting streaks in basketball — have almost nothing in the way of predictive value. Tango and friends write in The Book:

Knowing that a hitter has been in or is in the mindset of a hot or cold streak has little predictive value. Always assume that a player will hit at his projected norm (adjusted for the park, weather, and pitcher he is facing), regardless of how he has performed in the very recent past. A player’s recent history may be used as a tiebreaker.

That is, if Andrew McCutchen has hits in five consecutive at-bats, there’s nothing to suggest that a hit in his sixth AB is any more likely than before the hitting streak began. If McCutchen’s a platonic .281 hitter and he’s facing a league average pitcher, then the chances of him getting a hit are very close to 28%. Dean Oliver, more or less the Doggfather of quantitative analysis in basketball (and now an analyst for the Denver Nuggets), makes the same case for basketball in Basketball on Paper. (Although I believe that Rudy Fernandez, a well-known Spanish mystic, might have some relationship with the deity that exempts him from this rule). The human mind so wants to find patterns in randomness that it attaches meaning to these streaks, but the streaks themselves are illusions of random variation. (There’s a pretty good Radio Lab episode about this.)

Typically, I find in sabermetrics almost everything I need in the way of ethical guidance. It trains one to ask questions first, to resist reaching for conclusions immediately, to support one’s claims, to understand randomness for what it is. These are not only sound principles for baseball analysis; they’re all also useful foundations for a happy life.

With regard to “the zone,” however, I feel that maybe, in this case, sabermetrics does not provide a sufficient analog. Because while, sure, Andrew McCutchen might not be any more likely to get a sixth hit after knocking out five in a row, jokes (for example) work differently. If I tell a good one about how the groom is like a disgusting child — if I get laughs from that — then the chances increase of the next joke working.

Why? Probably for like 10,000 reasons. But most likely because (a) people are more likely to laugh a second time after they’ve laughed once, and (b) my own confidence will have increased. While I have no explanation for (a), my guess is that, in terms of confidence, the idea of procedural memory is a pretty important one. Professional athletes, having trained their bodies endlessly, typically work at the top end of procedural memory. Regardless of the context — unless it is very stressful — they will usually be able to hit or catch a ball because they’ve trained their bodies to that. For normal dudes like you and me, though, who don’t spend all our days trying to get crowdfuls of middle-aged people to laugh or weep, our nerves are much more likely to affect our procedural memory. That is, no matter how totally hilarious we are in a small group situation, it likely won’t prepare us for the stress of the wedding reception scenario. So here, the idea of “the hot hand” or “being in the zone” actually applies. In this case, the perception of one’s “hotness” will actually improve one’s future performance because confidence is so strongly tied to that performance — a perception that is greatly aided by the tonic effects of a drink or two.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

42 Responses to “Some Notes on the Idea of the Zone”

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  1. Patrick says:

    Carson… What the hell? I can’t decide if you’re mad or a genius. Or if those things are at all exclusive.

    But seriously. What the hell.

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  2. Oscar says:

    No offense, but I think these articles are 100% out of place on this site. A baseball humor blog, maybe.

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    • Bill B. says:

      I don’t recall seeing a sign posted on FanGraphs that read, “100% serious analysis here based on nothing but records of prior performance. No conjecture allowed.”

      Carson actually raised a pretty good point that all too often gets glossed over in Sabermetric analysis — what of intangibles? We know they exist, but how do we best drill down and eliminate all of the variables to find out, even in a general sense, which factors are worth thinking about and which are not?

      As a former baseball player (not at any meaningful level, mind you), I can tell you that I have been “locked in” before. And, likely, that was counter-balanced by the times when I have been “locked out”. My anecdotal evidence (which means next-to-nothing to anyone else but me) leads me to believe that while streaks have no predictive value, they are not just completely random fluctuations.

      I liked Carson’s analogy to the wedding speech. I’ve given presentations before where I just didn’t have it. It’s not just random; it is caused by various factors (such as Carson’s illness) that can’t just be discarded (unless we are trying to predict future performances).

      Anyway, I think saying that Carson’s articles are out of place simply illustrates that you have a closed and predictable mind. Philosophy does have a place in Sabermetric analysis.

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      • Oscar says:

        Well, my mind’s pretty okay. And I’m completely down with people disagreeing with me. I just didn’t enjoy the article much and found it sort of out of place. Just my opinion, you know.

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    • Dingo says:

      I disrespectfully disagree. Other authors here, like Eric Seidman, have mixed humorous anecdotes together with their analytical insight. Carson’s just continuing in the Seidman tradition, only he’s a lot funnier.

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  3. wt says:

    I completely disagree with Oscar, this article was 100% on target. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a sabermetric/philosophy article, but I really enjoyed it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to stop and contemplate life, randomness, and my own existence.

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  4. Matt says:

    Yo wOBA, i’m real happy for you, and Ima let you finish, but VORP was one of the best measures of a players offensive value, of all time!

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  5. Tiago says:

    I really don’t mean to be a prick, I just say it because I am so tired of seeing it, I don’t even care about being polite for the sake of being polite…
    but if you hadn’t started the article with a paragraph of very uninteresting and unoriginal macho blah blah blah, I might have continued reading further into it to see what it was all about…
    It shouldn’t at all be assumed that the readership will agree that an open bar is the most awesome thing about wedding receptions or that the world should be explained through the “lens of beer”…
    Instead of trying to prevent the lens of beer from becoming the beer goggles (oh my god! disaster!), why not try to avoid validating the outrageous stereotypes that the world already has for us sports fans?
    If it was all meant to be funny, then I’ll conclude that it just wasn’t successful at that and that’s why I didn’t like it.

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  6. noseeum says:

    This post is awesome. Lighten up, sabr geeks.

    But I disagree on the merits. Streaks should be trusted. Even Ron Shandler advocates trusting a streak. It will end, but ride it while it’s going on.

    Seems like this can be easily studied. Check players’ batting averages on at bats after a hit. Check players’ batting averages in games after a 3 game hitting streak. Bunch of random scenarios that could potentially expose that streaks can and do happen and should be believed when witnessed.

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  7. bowie says:

    I love it too, especially while we’re in the offseason.

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  8. Nate says:

    Yeah, stop with all this clever writing and entertainment and get on with the off-season rumor-mongering. Because above all else, nothing related to Baseball should ever entertain us. Bah Humbug!

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  9. Matt B. says:

    Love it….

    Beer is great, and as a Canadian I would consider myself a connaisseur (if beer drinkers are allowed to call themselves this?) so I am curious to see what you are drinking!? Please don’t disappoint and say Michelob or Old Milwaukee or whatever lousy US brands are out there!

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    • Mitch says:

      Beer drinkers are absolutely allowed to call themselves connoisseurs. And don’t disparage all American beer on the basis of the really crappy macrobrews. There are countless wonderful beers brewed by smaller brewers all over the country.

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  10. Logan says:

    Here’s what the article boiled down to-

    Point: Streaks, while currently lacking statistical backing for their validity, do appeal to our intuitive sense of confidence based performance.

    Bulk of the Article: Carson showing his humor and quirky writing style.

    Now, if you’re annoyed by his style, you’re gonna dislike the article. I’m not. I enjoy it and find it humorous. There are plenty like me, and plenty who disagree. But you don’t pay a membership fee for Fangraphs, so he’s not wasting your precious money. If you think he’s wasting your precious time, skip it. But let those of us who enjoy his writing… enjoy it.

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  11. Joel says:

    Absolutely brilliant. Possibly my favorite thing ive ever seen on this site.

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  12. LorenzoStDuBois says:

    I was so caught up in the great writing that, unlike a majority of my fellow commenters, I barely took stock of the deeper sabermetric points that were made. My point is: I just loved the writing.

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  13. MarkInDallas says:

    Here here! I drink to you, sir.

    (now drinking…)

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  14. M W says:

    Although I disagree, I am not at all surprised to see that people are arguing that Mr. Cistulli’s work does not have a place on Fangraphs. His writing is dense, kinetic, peppered with literary allusion, and full of semi-indulgent digression. It is the kind of the thing that is bound to appeal to a minority among the (steadily expanding) minority of baseball fans who find sabermetric analysis compelling. To those who are not interested I would like to point out that it is pretty easy to avoid reading it. Some of us are going to read. In fact, Carson’s work has, in a short time, become meaningful for me. It’s significance is largely rooted in the fact that Carson refuses to sequester his interest in baseball, instead tracing connections between baseball and the rest of his life. His work suggests that his appreciation for the game is enhanced by his other interests and that–and this is maybe more of a stretch– his understanding and enjoyment of his other pursuits in life are enriched by his attention to baseball.

    Fangraphs is helpful to great many of us as we attempt to intelligently pursue a passionate interest in baseball. Carson’s writing suggests that the line between “passionate interest” and obsession can sometimes become a little bit unclear, but that there is considerable joy– and a concomitant sense of danger– in navigating this ambiguous territory. I’m glad that Fangraphs has provided him with a platform.

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  15. Daverino says:

    I liked the post, but it left me wondering about something. Towards the end he writes:

    “Professional athletes, having trained their bodies endlessly, typically work at the top end of procedural memory…For normal dudes like you and me, though, who don’t spend all our days trying to get crowdfuls of middle-aged people to laugh or weep, our nerves are much more likely to affect our procedural memory.”

    This seems to be the basic assumption of the article and I’m kind of curious where he gets this from. Granted, professional athletes do train all of the time and are definitely calmer in high-pressure situations than those who haven’t trained to that extent, but this doesn’t necessarily lead me to believe that streaks have no predictive value. Just because a professional athlete is more accustomed to the high-pressure situations doesn’t mean that going on a hot streak won’t raise their confidence and make them feel more comfortable at the plate (or going on a cold streak won’t kill their confidence). I’m just curious where this idea comes from. Athletes aren’t robots.

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    • B says:

      Athletes kind of are robots, though. I’m exaggerating, of course, but the thing with athletes that is important to note is they really aren’t representative of the real population, when it comes to playing their sport. Beyond just their physical abilities, if they don’t have the proper mental makeup, and they get nervous or lose confidence in a way that really affects them, they’re likely to get weeded out long before they even get a shot at the professional level. Even if they do get a shot, maybe they’re nervous their first time in front of 40,000 screaming fans and fail, and just like that, they’re out of baseball. Just keep in mind the highest levels of a sport are populated with the best of the best, both physically and mentally, it’s an almost Darwining natural selection that leads to this, and so they do not behave like normal people.

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  16. Noseeum says:

    Daverino alludes to it but yes, lack of proof is not proof of lack. Just because we’ve found no evidence that streaks or mindset have predictive value does not mean they don’t.

    It’s definitely worth continuing research IMO. Regardless, more articles in this style Carson!

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    • B says:

      “Just because we’ve found no evidence that streaks or mindset have predictive value does not mean they don’t.”

      It’s not like a couple of people without much knowledge have just taken a quick look at this, though. Very smart people that know what they’re doing have looked at these issues pretty hard, there’s been good research into this, and it’s concluded that streaks are essentially a product of random variation (at least, in MLB or the NBA, doesn’t mean this applies to other levels or populations), and have no predictive value. Now, I won’t rule out what you say, you could possibly be right that they simply haven’t found the evidence yet, but there’s a pretty good amount of “lack of evidence” out there. Honestly, I think everyone’s better off at this point assuming they don’t have predictive value until proved otherwise than vice versa.

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  17. arsenal says:

    first 8 paragraphs were unnecessary and irrelevant

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  18. Michael says:

    Loved the article, Carson, but perhaps the best part was the link to Rudy Fernandez’s blog, which is gold.

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  19. John Willumsen says:

    I’ve never commented on anything at Fangraphs before; I prefer being a small fish in a small pond, rather than being a small fish in a frighteningly intelligent medium-sized pond. I’ve also never complimented a writer on his/her writing to their (virtual) face before, knowing, as I do from personal experience, that writers tend to be egomaniacal jackasses who either love praise so much that it should be withheld simply to teach them a lesson, or else they are so self-assured that they take a rather haughty view towards compliments and more or less laugh at the silly plebes who think that their adulation matters in the least. That said, I feel compelled to say that Carson Cistulli’s writing is truly outstanding. There’s a hint David Foster Wallace style world-weary-yet-not-closed-off irony, a Junot Diaz fluidity and uncompromising wryness, and a wild-eyed but comfortable frenetic energy that leaves the words feeling charged and alive.

    On another note, perhaps you’re right Tiago: the stereotype of the beer swilling sports fan should probably be put to bed. And yes, it’s fair to point out that maybe an open bar does not represent the best part of a wedding for all people, but I would argue that these lines were stylistic choices, meant to set the tone and mood of the piece, not really a declaration of Mr. Cistulli’s values.

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  20. chonb says:

    no but seriously, don’t publish personal indulgences like this. it’s not that philosophy doesn’t have a place, on that note i’m glad someone wants to discuss what’s beyond the numbers. but spare me the self-regaling. the author might consider achieving the editorial zone before hitting the publish button on his next post.

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    • Choad Master 69 says:

      I was skeptical, but did just check my Strunk and White handbook, and there on page 68 found the following: “In all matters of writing, spare chonb the self-regaling.” I had thought it was a typo all these years.

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  21. neuter_your_dogma says:

    Great job! The only significant hole is that you failed to post the text of the speech/toast you gave. Please share it.

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  22. B says:

    Let’s see…I love beer. I love open bars at wedding receptions with people I like. I have a strange love for Rudy Fernandez (I’m not even a Blazers fan). I didn’t even know he had a blog, now I do, and when I visited it, the first thing I read is:

    “It seems that even now, opponents and journalists are sometimes unaware that my lanky frame belies a coiled steel within! This steel was forged years ago in the languid heats of my home island.” – Rudy F

    I will definitely be reading more of his blog. I think the concept of streaks is an interesting and has an incredibly important underlying point, which you highlight – basically, that when it comes to their sport, professional athletes are not like you and me, and we must keep that in mind, always. Good conclusion to the article….

    Long winded (I felt it was fitting) response to this article – Loved it. Probably the best thing I’ve ever read on Fangraphs. It’s at least up with the best articles, for sure. I haven’t enjoyed all your stuff Carson, it’s been hit or miss with me so far, but this article was great.

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  23. divakar says:

    For those that don’t realize Carson’s link to “Rudy’s blog” is actually the fake version… the link above will take you to Rudy’s real blog.

    But don’t bother… The fake blog is borderline genius. Seriously. Carson, are you writing that, too?

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  24. Jaik Jarrkjens says:

    Cool article. I’ve thought before about how my interest in sabrmetrics informs other parts of my life. I dig your work, Carson.

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  25. Ian says:

    Bravo, sir. Bravo.

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  26. Jayson says:

    Nice article, Carson. Very thought-provoking.

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