That’s the implication Tony LaRussa gave in some recent comments about the Braves.
Rent seeking is “the socially costly pursuit of wealth transfers,” in the words of my former professor Bob Tollison. Most of the time we discuss rent seeking in law-making; for example, lobbyists spend effort to encourage legislators to adopt policies that give interest groups legislated benefits. Rent seeking involves expending energy to change the rules of the game to your benefit, instead of using resources to seek rewards within the rules of the game. In baseball, it means mangers, players, and fans attempting to influence the calling of the rules of the game. Now, the social loss of rent seeking in the game is a bit complicated, but, from my standpoint, watching managers both plead theie cases to an umpire just so we end up where we started in the rulebook is a waste. We could argue over that, though.
Although LaRussa toned down his assertions a bit from Saturday, on Sunday he had a little more to say about Cox’s influence on the game.
“All I said was that when you go against somebody who is complaining all the time, you worry about how it affects the umpires,” said La Russa, who doesn’t think he should be fined for his critique of Dale Scott’s strike zone in the seventh inning when he and pitcher Al Reyes were ejected.
“When I was a young manager, Earl Weaver at Baltimore played it that way. They challenged ever strike. If your wife is getting on you every minute, you get fed up. Pretty soon, you may tune her out and do whatever it takes to get through it. If I was an umpire, I’d put [the Braves] in their place.
“I didn’t say anything to challenge anybody’s integrity. I have great respect for Bobby. He’s out to beat you. He does all that stuff sincerely. I didn’t say anything personal about Bobby Cox.”
Well, the last stuff kind of seems to contradict the first stuff, but that’s not what I’m really interested in. LaRussa makes a bold claim about the Cox-managed Braves that I think is legitimate: Cox’s complaints to the umpire influence the game. I strongly believe that players, managers, and fans harass referees/umpires in a way that can effect the outcome of the game. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, nor necessarily something that any sports league needs to address. Heckling and complaining have long been a part of the game and will persist. I will admit that I think it can go too far and some restrictions would be beneficial.
But in reference to LaRussa, he seems to be saying something further than this; namely, that Cox has more influence than other managers. He’s a successful rent seeker, stealing games by manipulating umpires rather than outfoxing other managers on his way to glory. As someone who has found the success of Braves pitchers quite exceptional without any particular explanation as to why, I wondered if this might be the reason. So, I put on my economic thinking cap and went to work. How could I identify managers influencing umpires? Questec.
Questec is system of cameras and computers that track the pitches in a game. In 2002, MLB installed Questec cameras in 10 parks to track the ball and strike calls of umpires. The umpires were none too pleased, and even players (most notably Tom Glavine and Curt Schilling) complained. While the impact of Questec on the game is a little unclear, one thing it does is keep umpires honest. Think of this situation without Questec. Cox is screaming from the dugout, “You stink ump. Can’t you see the strike-zone.” While I believe umpires are resistant to such calls, I can imagine that on close calls umps may, even subconsciously, favor the complainers. (Fellow professors know what I’m talking about.) Cox might be able to gain a strikeout or lose a walk for his pitchers just by being an ass. But with Questec, the umpire answers not just to managers, but to MLB. Umpires, while they may be swayed when Questec is operational, I think there is less movement for bending.
How can I use Questec to examine Bobby Cox’s rent seeking? One nice feature of MLB’s experiment with Questec is it’s inclusion in only some parks. This article by Nate Silver and and Keith Woolner (with an aside by Rob Neyer) identifies the ten parks with Questec, which was installed beginning in the 2002 season. As best I can tell, the usage of Questec has not changed since their first installment. I then used Retrosheet game logs to look at all of the visiting games (to avoid the home fan/park influence) in which Cox was the manager inside and outside Questec parks for 2002 and 2003. I compared his pitchers’ average strikeout-to-walk ratio in these parks to non-Questec parks. Here is what I found.
Questec K/BB (46 games) = 2.86
Non-Questec K/BB (115 games)= 2.81
A t-test reveals that the difference in not statistically significant, and if anything his pitchers do better in Questec parks. Now, of course, this does not prove Cox has no influence, only that from looking at the raw numbers no influence is observable. Certainly, pitcher and team quality may be important. Sorting through all of that is a big project that I may tackle one day, but today is not that day.
But, I didn’t want to end there. I wondered what LaRussa’s influence might be, since he made such a big deal about it. Well, it turns out that Tony may not be as innocent as he claims.
Questec K/BB (53 games) = 2.00
Non-Questec K/BB (109 games)= 2.75
It turns out, that this estimate is statistically significant at just about the 1% level. LaRussa does do better without Questec in the house to keep the umpires honest. Well, this certainly doesn’t imply that LaRussa is necessarily the cause, but it is fun to point out. While there is no evidence of Bobby Cox winning games through the means LaRussa suggests, the same cannot be said about the man making the accusation.
Note: I would like to add that for games with zero walks, I assigned one walk to the team. When I exclude these observations, the results do not change.