Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pete Palmer

Whenever someone mentions David Romer and fourth downs, I think of Pete Palmer, and how he might be the most under-appreciated sabermetrician ever.

While Romer gets all the mentions, Pete was actually first to figure out that NFL coaches are too conservative.  I have a copy of the 1998 edition of "The Hidden Game of Football" (which Pete wrote with Bob Carroll and John Thorn).  Chapter 10, "Kicking Up a Storm," goes through the logic of when you should go for it on fourth down, as opposed to punting or trying a field goal.  Like Romer, Pete finds that teams should try for the first down more often.  One of Pete's many conclusions, just as an example:

" ... you should NOT kick a field goal unless you have six or more yards to go on fourth down.  And if you're inside your opponent's 10-yard line, you shouldn't kick no matter what the distance."  

Romer cites the Palmer chapter in his paper.   He reports that the book's method yields "implausible results," but isn't specific about which results. I think some of the differences come from assuming different values for field position: Romer's data comes from some fancy math with quadratic spline curves, while Palmer's comes from 1997 play-by-play data.  I discussed some of the differences in my blog post on the subject.

But, I've digressed ... my point is not to analyze who's right, just to point out that Palmer had done roughly the same thing, but is barely remembered for it.  Part of the reason, as far as the mainstream press is concerned, might be that Pete is just some guy who wrote a book, whereas Romer is instantly credible as a Ph.D. economist.  Still, my impression is that Palmer gets doesn't get as much recognition even within the football sabermetric community.

In fact, I can't believe "The Hidden Game of Football" gets so little mention at all.  It was the first sabermetric analysis of football I'd ever seen, when the first edition came out in 1988.


This "Pete Palmer wrote a book and nobody notices" thing happened again a couple of years ago.  Pete and Dave Heeren combined on "Basic Ball," a book that combined baseball, football, and basketball (Heeren wrote the basketball part, Pete the baseball and football).  I reviewed the book for "By the Numbers" (.pdf).  After my review appeared, Tom Tango wrote

"I’m as big a fan of Pete Palmer as there is (which is why we asked him to write the foreword to The Book).  And I had no idea he had a book out since last September.  And I know I’ve corresponded with Pete a few times since, and he never said anything to me."

Commenters at Tom's post note that Pete is very humble and doesn't do much self-promotion.  That's not really the point of this post, Pete's character, but ... if you ask around, almost everyone who's encountered Pete has stories about what a nice guy he is.  For my part, Pete has been exceptionally kind to me, and has gone out of his way for me more than once.  And I don't even know him that well.


A few years ago, Tango wrote about the method of finding true talent levels for teams in various sports.  Basically, you look at the overall variance in performance, you subtract the theoretical (binomial) variance that would happen if all teams were the same, and that leaves you the talent variance.

It's simple, but I'd never thought of it, and I started calling it "Tango's method". 

Well, again, Pete was there first.  In a guest chapter of "Baseball Hacks," which came out a few months before Tango's post, Pete describes the method and some applications, and does a little study (see "Hack #68").  And the thing is -- I had actually read that book, and missed Pete's contribution completely.  

If you're a programmer, you'll love seeing how Pete is an engineering geek, and from a different generation than most of the rest of us ... in the book, Pete gives us the computer program he used for his study.  It's written in Fortran.  It uses single-letter variables.  It doesn't indent for structure.  And, it's got GOTOs all over it.  

And this in a book that uses the "R" language for everything else!

For those of you who aren't programmers ... it's like walking into an Apple Store, and one of the techs at the Genius Bar pulls out a 1985 cell phone, the size and shape of a brick with the 12-inch antenna.  And he's not using it as a joke -- hey, he's been using it for 25 years, and he's used to it, and it does the job!

And I'm not making fun of Pete, here, by any means ... I do a lot of my simulations using a version of Microsoft QBASIC from the late 80s ... it comes in one .EXE file, and every time I install a new version of Windows, I just copy it over.


And, finally, one more story.  A couple of years ago, I posted an illustration I thought of on why, in baseball, 10 runs equals 1 win.  Tango hadn't seen that particular method before, and e-mailed Pete about it.  

Is it rude to quote a private e-mail?  Well, paraphrased, Pete wrote back something like, "yeah, I actually figured it out that same way years ago ... I guess maybe I should have mentioned it!"


David Romer writes about being more aggressive on fourth down; Pete had already said the same thing.  Tango writes about variances and team talent; Pete had already said the same thing.  I write an explanation of 10 runs = 1 win; Pete had already figured out the same thing.

Pete, you need a publicist!



At Thursday, November 21, 2013 6:33:00 PM, Anonymous Matthew Silverman said...

I was lucky to work with Pete on many different projects and in each one whenever you got a call or email response from Pete, it was beyond obvious that he was smarter than everyone else working on the project combined. And nicer. And humbler.


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