According to journalist William Hageman, "Silver caught the baseball bug when he was 6, growing up in East Lansing, Mich. It was 1984, the year the Detroit Tigers won the World Series. The Tigers became his team and baseball his sport. And if there's anything that goes hand in glove with baseball, it's numbers, another of Silver's childhood interests. ("It's always more interesting to apply it to batting averages than algebra class.")
Silver earned his journalism chops writing and editing The Portrait, East Lansing High School's student newspaper, from 1993-1996.
In 2000, Silver graduated with Honors from the University of Chicago, where he studied economics. He also wrote for the Chicago Weekly News and the Chicago Maroon. He spent his junior year at the London School of Economics.
After graduating from college, Silver worked for three and a half years as an economic consultant with KPMG. Silver continued to nurture his life-long interest in baseball and statistics, however, and on the side he began to work on his system for projecting player performance and careers.
Silver joined the Baseball Prospectus (BP) staff in 2004 after selling the PECOTA projection system to BP. Since then, he has maintained and further developed PECOTA as well as written a weekly column for BaseballProspectus.com under the heading "Lies, Damned Lies". In this column he applies sabermetric techniques to a broad range of topics in baseball research -- including forecasting the performance of individual players, the economics of baseball, metrics for the valuation of players, developing an Elo rating system for Major League baseball, and many other topics.
Since 2003 he has been a co-author of the Baseball Prospectus (ISBN 0-7611-3995-8) annual book of Major League Baseball analysis and forecasts as well as a co-author of other books published by Baseball Prospectus, including Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning (New York: Workman Publishers, 2005) (ISBN 0-7611-4018-2), Baseball Between the Numbers (New York: Basic Books, 2006) (ISBN 0-4650-0596-9), and It Ain't Over 'til It's Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book (New York: Basic Books, 2007) (ISBN 0-4650-0284-6).
In 2007, while still working for Baseball Prospectus, he began to write about politics, specifically the 2008 U.S. Presidential race. Until the end of May 2008, this writing was under the pseudonym "Poblano" and appeared on Daily Kos or on his blog FiveThirtyEight. Beginning in June he began to publish political analysis under his own name, including in his blog, newspapers, and the on-line The Guardian and The New Republic. He first appeared on national television on CNN's "American Morning" on June 13, 2008.
Silver uses a wide variety of research methods and statistical tools in his writings about baseball. However, he has developed three tools that are identified with his name.
PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) is a statistical system that projects the future performance of hitters and pitchers. It is designed primarily for two uses: fans interested in fantasy baseball, and professionals in the baseball business interested in predicting the performance and valuation of major league players. Unlike most other such projection systems, PECOTA relies on matching a given current player to a set of "comparable" players whose past performance can serve as a guide to how the given current player is likely to perform in the future. Unlike most other such systems, PECOTA also calculates a range of probable performance levels rather than a single predicted value on a given measure such as earned run average or batting average.
PECOTA projections were first published by Baseball Prospectus in the 2003 edition of its annual book as well as online by BaseballProspectus.com. The formulas have been updated steadily since then.
I call this toy QuikERA (QERA), which estimates what a pitcher's ERA should be based solely on his strikeout rate, walk rate, and GB/FB ratio. These three components--K rate, BB rate, GB/FB--stabilize very quickly, and they have the strongest predictive relationship with a pitcher’s ERA going forward. What’s more, they are not very dependent on park effects, allowing us to make reasonable comparisons of pitchers across different teams.
The formula for QERA is as follows: QERA =(2.69 + K%*(-3.4) + BB%*3.88 + GB%*(-0.66))2.
Note that everything ends up expressed in terms of percentages: strikeouts per opponent plate appearance, walks per opponent plate appearance, and groundballs as a percentage of all balls hit into play.
The "secret sauce" formula includes
"[three] key ingredients that strongly correlate with postseason success: a team's [pitchers'] strikeout rate, or Equivalent K/9 (EqK9), adjusted for a team's league and ballpark; its quality of defense, or Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), an estimate of the runs a defense has saved or cost its pitchers relative to the league average; and its strength of closer, or Win Expectation Above Replacement (WXRL), which measures the wins the closer has saved versus what a replacement-level alternative would have done. In other words, teams that prevent the ball from going into play, catch it when it does and preserve late-inning leads are likely to excel in the playoffs.
In March 2008, Silver established his own blog FiveThirtyEight.com, in which he developed a system for tracking and forecasting the outcome of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. At the same time, he continued making forecasts of the 2008 Democratic primary elections. That several of his forecasts based on demographic analysis proved to be substantially more accurate than those of the professional pollsters gained visibility and professional credibility for "Poblano. As a result, his blog generated a growing following among political junkies, increasing numbers of whom contributed constructive and critical comments on his columns. In addition, he posted the results there of some pro bono work that he provided to Progress Illinois estimating the possible impact of increased voting by African Americans, Latinos, and young people in the November election on Obama's chances of success – something that was dubbed "The Poblano Effect.
On May 30, 2008, Poblano revealed his identity to his FiveThirtyEight.com readers with the following statement:
"There are certain pleasures in writing anonymously. Particularly in the political world, where there is a whole mythology associated with anonymity -- think Deep Throat or Primary Colors or Atrios. But I'm fortunate enough to have been granted the opportunity to develop some relationships with larger outlets (you should see these coming to fruition very soon). And it just ain't very professional to keep referring to yourself as a chili pepper".
My real name is Nate Silver and my principal occupation has been as a writer, analyst and partner at a sports media company called Baseball Prospectus. What we do over there and what I'm doing over here are really quite similar. Both baseball and politics are data-driven industries. But a lot of the time, that data might be used badly. In baseball, that may mean looking at a statistic like batting average when things like on-base percentage and slugging percentage are far more correlated with winning ballgames. In politics, that might mean cherry-picking a certain polling result or weaving together a narrative that isn't supported by the demographic evidence.
On June 1, Silver published a two-page Op-Ed article in the New York Post outlining the rationale underlying his focus on the statistical aspects of politics.
"My fulltime occupation has been as a writer and analyst for a sports media company called Baseball Prospectus. In baseball, statistics are meaningless without context; hitting 30 home runs in the 1930s is a lot different than hitting 30 today. There is a whole industry in baseball dedicated to the proper understanding and interpretation of statistics. In polling and politics, there is nearly as much data as there is for first basemen. In this year's Democratic primaries, there were statistics for every gender, race, age, occupation and geography - reasons why Clinton won older women, or Obama took college students. But the understanding has lagged behind. Polls are cherry-picked based on their brand name or shock value rather than their track record of accuracy. Demographic variables are misrepresented or misunderstood. (Barack Obama, for instance, is reputed to have problems with white working-class voters, when in fact these issues appear to be more dictated by geography - he has major problems among these voters in Kentucky and West Virginia, but did just fine with them in Wisconsin and Oregon).
Silver's self-unmasking brought him a lot of publicity, including articles about him in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and Science News. In early June he began to cross-post his daily "Today's Polls" updates on "The Plank" in The New Republic. Also, Rasmussen Reports began to use the FiveThirtyEight.com poll averages for its own tracking of the 2008 state-by-state races.
This added exposure provided him with opportunities to appear on CNN's "American Morning", MSNBC's "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann, and HDNet's Rather] Reports"] as well as to contribute essays and op ed columns to The New Republic, the New York Post, and the Los Angeles Times.
Silver's analyses continued to garner national attention as the election season progressed. On the day after the first McCain-Obama Presidential Debate, Time Magazine's Joe Klein observed on the magazine's "Swampland" blog:
"If there's been a rookie of the year in this year's presidential campaign coverage, it's Nate Silver--a baseball stats guy who has turned his talents to politics and produced some of the most creative slicing and dicing of polling numbers at his website fivethirtyeight.com. Today's offering is typical Silver: he takes the snap polling results and weights them according to the issues the voters considered most important--and finds that Obama won, according to the cross tabs, on the more important issues, thereby accounting for his snap poll victories.
Perhaps the most significant mark of his growing visibility during 2008 was his appearance on "The Colbert Report" on October 7, 2008.
In his spare time, Silver uses his analytical approach at the poker table where he plays semi-professionally. In his blog, "The Burrito Bracket", he applies a one-and-done approach to assessing the quality of the taquerias in his Wicker Park neighborhood in Chicago. He is not related to his fellow Chicagoan and namesake Nate Silver who played quarterback for Notre Dame from 1902-1905.