In recent weeks, we’ve shared a number of stories about people affected by the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus. They’ve worked in a variety of industries, including vocational training, car service and arts and entertainment, which is reliant on ticket sales and live audiences.
But for all the life changes occurring as a result of COVID-19, there have been countless milestones that couldn’t take place because of the pandemic, too: Weddings are a hallmark of the late spring, summer and early fall, but the virus put a stop to such gatherings. Those cancellations and postponements are tough not only for the couples but also for those who would normally work to make those days special.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/many-couples-have-put-off-their-weddings-that-means-lost-income-for-this-photographer/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="
There’s no shortage of horror stories about couples who’ve had to fight to get their deposits back from venues when their wedding ceremonies and receptions have fallen through.
That’s the reality for Wendy Ott, a 45-year-old photographer who lives in suburban Milwaukee. Nine of the 10 weddings she was booked to shoot in 2020 have been either pushed to much later this year — with a fervent, almost desperate hope that there won’t be a second wave of coronavirus before then — or to 2021.
“Since I’m so used to doing what I do every year, I was at a loss for what to do at first. Everything kind of disappeared all at once,” said Ott, who has been self-employed for eight years. Her business relies mostly on word of mouth, and she was coming off her best-earning year in 2019, when she made between $55,000 and $60,000.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="2" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/many-couples-have-put-off-their-weddings-that-means-lost-income-for-this-photographer/#fn-2" data-footnote-content="
Asked for a rough estimate of what she charges to shoot a wedding, Ott said, “It’s in the thousands.”
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Perhaps most challenging for Ott: She generates almost all her income from shooting weddings, so she earns nearly her entire salary just during the wedding season. That means she has to conserve money through the winter, with the expectation that she’ll be able to earn again come late spring.
Her money from last year’s weddings carried her through to about mid-March, then things started to get dire and her bank accounts briefly went into the red. Without any income, it was difficult to pay her rent and bills. Ott feels fortunate that her sister and brother-in-law lent her money — and her federal stimulus payment was helpful — but the wait of more than two months after filing for unemployment was agonizing. Earlier this month, she finally started receiving a little more than $750 per week.
Now that she has some money coming in from unemployment insurance, Ott feels more breathing room than before. It helps that her landlord, who charges $900 a month, vowed not to evict any tenants, even once residential landlords in Wisconsin are legally able to do so. Similarly, Ott’s creditors have been understanding as she pays what she can for now.
Ott has managed to stay centered while quarantined by reaching out to friends and family she normally wouldn’t have as much time to keep in touch with — and by devoting more time to hiking and running to relieve stress. Yet there’s an obvious question that occupies her thoughts from one day to the next: Will the coronavirus numbers dwindle enough to allow weddings to take place later this year?
There are alternatives out there for couples who don’t want to put off their wedding dates any longer. Some may move forward with much smaller ceremonies and opt to hire high-level videographers to document the event. Others are biting the bullet and having virtual weddings over Zoom.
But for Ott to make money, she doesn’t really see a workaround. “I’m banking on the fact that fall [weddings] will happen,” she said, calling herself an optimist. “If fall doesn’t happen, I may need a temporary career.”
One possibility Ott mentioned: As a freelancer, she could do more commercial photography. (Just before the pandemic, she had been in touch with a large Wisconsin bank about work.) She said she could also do some editing on the side for other photographers.
Ott views all these options as things that would merely fill the gaps until she can get back to her passion, though. “I don’t think wedding events will ever go away,” she said, adding that the one-time nature of such outings makes them different from theater or sporting events. “But all I can do is hope things will go up from here.”
FiveThirtyEight database journalist Dhrumil Mehta looks into how the national media has been covering the recent protests against police violence following George Floyd’s killing. We also speak to Danielle Kilgo, a University of Minnesota professor who researches social movements and the media, about how this coverage compares with that of similar protests in the past — and why this matters.
When the novel coronavirus began spreading rapidly throughout the U.S. in late March, 42 states and Washington, D.C., issued stay-at-home orders that shuttered all or most nonessential businesses for an average of nearly 50 days, with some orders lasting as long as 70 days (and counting). Over the same period, the U.S. has seen unprecedented job losses, with Thursday’s report of 2.1 million initial claims now part of a tally of 41 million Americans who have filed for unemployment insurance since the second week of March.
There are a few shreds of encouraging news in the most recently compiled jobs data, though. For weeks, we’ve been waiting for the sheer number of people on temporary layoff or furlough — as opposed to permanent unemployment — to return to work and no longer show up in the official unemployment data. And as the economy begins to open up in 36 of those 42 states with shutdown orders, one place they might finally be appearing is in the number of continued unemployment claims.
As opposed to initial claims, which represent the number of newly unemployed people filing for insurance, continued claims represent the total number of people — newly unemployed or not — whose claims were paid out in a given week. These claims run a week behind initial claims because we don’t know how many of those will eventually be insured. Now that we are months deep into the unemployment crisis, continued claims are arguably a better measure of the current state of joblessness in the U.S. than initial claims are — and for the week ending on May 16, total continued claims declined for the first time since the last week of February, before economic disaster hit American shores.
On top of laid-off workers potentially going back to work, this decline also speaks to companies’ beginning to hire slightly more than they have for most of the crisis. Total job postings on the employment-search website Indeed have increased in each of the past three weeks. Before we get too optimistic, though, those numbers are still sharply worse than in the same time frame in 2019: The volume on May 1 was 39.3 percent worse than on the same date a year ago, but it was just 35.1 percent worse than 2019 on May 22. Still, this is another data point showing that the unemployment situation has started to ever so slightly improve over the past few weeks.
Does that owe to states’ efforts to reopen? To look at this relationship, I asked Indeed for its job-posting trend data broken out by state and classified each applicable state according to how long ago it ended statewide stay-at-home orders.
The four states that reopened the earliest have been a mixed bag since lifting stay-at-home orders. The job-posting trend in Alaska has increased by 8.8 percentage points over the past four weeks, relative to its final week with orders in place; similarly, Montana’s trend is up by 4.9 points. But in the two more populous states, Colorado’s job postings are down 0.8 points, and Mississippi’s are down 5.7 points — meaning that job postings are down more now (relative to 2019) than they were when statewide orders were in place.
That’s just a sample of four states, of course — two of them ranking among the least populated in the country. But the group of states that reopened three weeks ago is larger (11 states) and has seen a similar pattern relative to states that waited longer to reopen:
There could be some selection bias here: States that waited longer may have been in a stronger economic position than those desperate to reopen sooner (although everything above is measured relative to each state’s own jobs trend for its last week in lockdown). And states that never issued stay-at-home orders are, on average, down less in job postings from 2019 (-34.5 percent, as of May 22) than states that still had orders in place as of May 22 (-38.3 percent). But those numbers are also indicative of how little power government orders may have to restart the job market anyway when compared with the power of the virus itself.
Polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans remain somewhat or very concerned that either they or someone they know will become infected with the coronavirus. That has reshaped people’s willingness to go to restaurants and otherwise spend discretionary income, even in states that have loosened restrictions on those activities. As economists have been saying for a while, the only thing that can fully inject life back into the economy is getting the virus under control, which is more true now — according to new daily cases — than it was a month ago, regardless of whether stay-at-home orders were loosened.
And even with the total unemployment situation improving slightly this week, more trouble is on the horizon. The first wave of companies that were granted loans under the Payroll Protection Program will have their expenses covered only through June 30, after which we could see more potential job losses — or temporary layoffs turned permanent. (The U.S. House passed a bill to extend the window to use PPP funds by four months and push back the deadline to rehire workers through December, though it will face opposition in the Senate.) And, of course, any economic progress could be derailed by the ever-present threat of another surge in cases.
It’s another reminder that the virus is what ultimately started this financial crisis — and it will largely dictate the terms of the economic recovery.
This week, the Hot Takedown crew examines the issues underlying the contentious salary negotiations between MLB owners and players, which could prevent the league from starting its season by the Fourth of July. The owners had proposed a 50/50 revenue split that was a nonstarter for several reasons. While a “salary cap”-style system isn’t awful for the players in theory, starting that system the year revenue is guaranteed to be down would leave a justifiably sour taste in players’ mouths, especially given that the owners have been less than transparent about the extent of the losses they’re projected to take. We hope the history of distrust between the owners and the players won’t keep us from seeing baseball this summer, but we’re afraid that it might.
On to happier tidings: Tom Brady ripped his pants and was briefly relatable. We look at “The Match: Champions for Charity,” which lived up to its grandiose name, pairing Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and the adorably flustered Brady in a charity golf match on Sunday. We talk about why the format worked so well and what golf has going for it at the moment, including a more Republican fanbase that might be more receptive to its return. We don’t think that the partisan divide around the coronavirus contributes more to a successful return to sports than the environmental and structural factors leagues are dealing with (outside vs. indoor; team vs. individual; contact vs. not). But it may make a difference as to which sports will thrive once they return.
Finally, Neil takes us down one last “Last Dance” Rabbit Hole and creates a new lens through which to view the Michael Jordan/LeBron James GOAT debate. It turns out that if you were to simulate LeBron on Jordan’s teams and Jordan on Lebron’s teams 100 times, Jordan’s stats go down and LeBron’s go up — but both of them win fewer rings. This is, in part, because we live in the universe where both Jordan and LeBron have gone to more championships than is statistically likely. In MJ’s case, 99 percent of the time he falls short in the simulation of what he actually achieved. Perhaps that’s also a definition of greatness.
What we’re looking at this week:
The rebuilding Baltimore Orioles hope Adley Rutschman becomes the new face of the franchise. Dubbed the best MLB draft prospect since Bryce Harper by Baseball America, Rutschman was taken with the first overall pick last June, the first full-time catcher selected No. 1 since Joe Mauer in 2001. But he could also become a new archetype for his position: a catcher whose primary value is his hitting.
Rutschman told FiveThirtyEight that the story behind his bat is one of nurture as much as nature. As a young player, he taught himself to switch hit with the aid of his father, a baseball coach at George Fox University, a Division III school in Oregon. They would head to the college field with a 5-gallon bucket of balls, or he would hit into a portable net in their home’s driveway. After his freshman season at Oregon State, when he hit just .234, Rutschman rebuilt his swing to add more lift and power. As a sophomore with the Beavers, Rutschman slashed .408/.505/.628, helping the school to a College World Series title and setting a series record for hits. He was even better as a junior, batting .411 with a 1.326 OPS. MLB.com and FanGraphs project him for above-average hitting and power in the majors.
In striving to improve, Rutschman tries to embrace change. “Being OK with being uncomfortable is a huge thing I like to go by,” he told FiveThirtyEight.
Catchers and MLB teams might soon have to get very comfortable with change. Catcher is the one position on the field for which teams have still routinely traded offense for defense: It’s the rare position that has gained in defensive importance this century. But no other position is threatened with having so much defensive value stripped away. An automated strike zone, which MLB has begun to experiment with, would eliminate the value of receiving, and advances in training are already shrinking the gulf in defensive skill at the position.
Yankees catching instructor Tanner Swanson told FiveThirtyEight that an automated zone would completely change the position: “It would be almost a second DH.”
All of this means that finding bats to man the backstop might become very important. It’s a potential sea change in baseball, but Rutschman and the next wave of catchers might be well positioned for it: MLB.com’s top 10 catching prospects include five catchers projected to be better-than-average hitters.
Catchers have been among the worst hitters in baseball — and sometimes the very worst offensive performers in a given season. They’ve often competed with shortstops for the distinction of worst hitters in the game, according to weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which adjusts for the ballpark and the run-scoring environment in any given year. But since the 1970s, shortstops have consistently improved in offensive performance, crescendoing in recent years to what is now described as a golden age at the position. Catchers, meanwhile, continued to lag.
Teams can afford more offense at shortstop, once a defense-first position, because of the confluence of the rise in strikeouts, home runs and defensive shifts: Shortstop is one of many positions seeing fewer and fewer defensive opportunities. If defense is less important, it makes sense that clubs would seek more run-production ability from that position.
But unlike other defensive positions on the field, the position of catcher has added defensive value in recent years. Why? Over the last decade, first hobbyists then teams have quantified the hidden and powerful skill of pitch framing, a catcher’s ability to receive borderline pitches in a way that gets them called as strikes. Teams began to understand the vast difference in framing skill at the position and the number of runs that could be saved by good framers — and runs cost by poor receivers. They started to target players who possessed framing skills and even teach those who didn’t. The value in framing is thought to account for the majority of defensive value behind the plate.
But the skill faces two threats, one existential, the other more immediate.
Framing relies on the fallibility of the human eye, the home plate umpire’s perception of the strike zone. But MLB now has the technology to automate the strike zone. It has experimented with such a zone in the Arizona Fall League and had planned, before the pandemic struck, to bring it to some minor league parks in 2020. Adding an automated zone has also been discussed this year as a way to allow umpires to maintain appropriate distance from the catcher and batter if there is a season. But if MLB chose to automate the zone, catchers could lose much of their value.
“Without question, it [would] completely shift the scope of skills that are required to now play the position. It really shifts the population of who you put back there,” Swanson said. “[Catcher] then becomes more of an offensive position.”
Catchers still perform other important defensive duties, of course: They throw out runners, make pitch selections and block bad pitches. But catchers’ arms have become less relevant as the number of stolen bases drops. “The blocking piece becomes more important,” Swanson said, “[but] I don’t see the throwing piece changing unless you start playing less athletic catchers, and maybe to combat that teams start trying to run more. So it’s the cat-and-mouse game.”
One of the greatest drawbacks of the automated zone, Swanson said, is that a catcher would not even have to catch the ball unless there were runners on base or two strikes. He suggested that stealing first base might need to be an option to ensure that catchers actually try to catch pitches, particularly awkwardly located ones.
But even if MLB decides against an automated zone, there’s another challenge to the framing value of the position: Catchers are getting better at it, so the gap between the best and worst framing catchers is shrinking. Over the last decade, the standard deviation of framing runs — a measure that relies on pitch-tracking technology to determine the probability of a called strike and the associated run value for each pitch, for qualifying players<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/catcher-is-baseballs-most-endangered-position/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="
Catchers with at least 1,000 pitches caught in a season.
“>1 — has fallen.
|Year||Standard deviation in framing runs saved|
If the floor continues to rise, teams will be forced to look elsewhere to create competitive advantage at the position.
Orioles assistant general manager Sig Mejdal said the team had considered that catchers’ defensive value could be threatened before they selected Rutschman with the No. 1 overall pick. But Rutschman has a strong arm, and the throwing component will always be a part of the position, Mejdal noted. Rutschman has received high grades for his all-around ability behind the plate and hitting at it. Rustschman graded as an average framer in a small minor league sample last summer, but some evaluators are bullish on his framing upside.
“I think how we evaluated catchers a decade ago or two decades ago, when we really didn’t appreciate pitch framing, I think we would return to those times” if the value of framing diminishes, Mejdal said. “Of course, there are less stolen bases in the game now, but I still think there is going to be significant appreciation of their defensive skills.”
That appreciation could perhaps include skills that have largely been unquantifiable to date. Mejdal said the new Orioles regime has begun to investigate the value of pitch calling. “It’s irresponsible not to,” he said.
It’s possible that pitch calling will become the new pitch framing. But as innovation changes the game, and without more value placed on specific skills behind the plate, catchers might need to take a whole new approach to their position. Catchers might soon need to turn into sluggers, just like Rutschman.