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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.