Friday, February 16, 2007

Pitchers and catchers report...

by Ken Houghton

if you know the rest of that sentence and read this blog, Have I Got a Book for You.

(Yes, this is another promotion of a book I haven't read.)

J. C. Bradbury, an economist (see, it's MU-related) who runs the brilliant Sabernomics blog, has a book, The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, analysing baseball from an economist's point of view, discussed today in the Science Journal section of the WSJ (free link). For instance, the neoclassical-economics-centered claim that HBP rises if the DH is in place turns out not to be dominant:
[R]etaliation explains only part of the NL/AL difference. The NL hit-batter rate equaled, and sometimes exceeded, the AL's after expansion years (1993 and 1998). The presence of more wild pitchers in the NL (which had more new teams) swamped the deterrent effect of possible retaliation, which turns out to be only a minor factor in the hit-batsman rate.

Where the review fails (though I suspect Dr. Bradbury doesn't) is in trying to elide the "small market disadvantage":
After St. Louis won the 2006 World Series, you'd think fans in small cities would stop grousing that major-market teams have a built-in edge. Should any of you not be inclined to concede error, economist J.C. Bradbury [notes] that, while big-market baseball teams win more than small-market teams do, market size explains only part of the differential.

Let's ignore that they call St. Louis a "small" city; it has a very large historic fan base, and just look at Bradbury's analysis of that "built-in edge" that fans grouse about:
Oh, and the big-market/small-market question. Every 1.58 million residents produces one extra win per season, Prof. Bradbury calculates, using data from 1995 to 2004. Based on population alone, the Yankees should win 10.61 more games than Milwaukee.

That's not a small hole; it's more than 6% of the season lost before you reach the starting line—or that you have to make up with superior scouting, management, and luck (e.g., injury-avoidance). The budget restrictions of the smaller (assumed) fan base and (real) local media revenues mean your people have to be better than Theo or Brian or Omar* just to break even. Which means management differentials can be made clearer:
Calculating "population-adjusted wins," he shows which teams did better than their city's size predicts -- and which did worse. I'm talking about you, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee.

No one who even cursorily follows baseball should need Bradbury's book to tell them that; three of those are well known to be deliberately mismanaging their teams (definition of mismanagement is that they are not trying to win, just to capture the most monies in the short term).** It will be interesting to see if Bradbury identifies this correctly as a misalignment of incentives (the owner has the ability to make more money while producing a less valuable product).

Either way, it looks to be a book worth reading if you care about economics or baseball.

*General Managers of high-market teams: Epstein (Boston), Cashman (NY Yankees), Minaya (NY Mets), respectively.

**I don't pay enough attention to Tampa Bay to know whether it is just chronic bad management; the others are all trying to extort their localities for more money and/or deliberately targeting the relatively recent revenue-sharing monies without using those funds to try to produce a better product on the field.

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