Archive for February, 2007

Defending Gary Matthews, Jr.

The latest steroid story in baseball just broke.

Athletes were involved as customers in an illicit steroid distribution network that led authorities to raid two Orlando pharmacies and arrest four company officials, a New York prosecutor said.

Albany County (N.Y.) District Attorney P. David Soares refused to identify any steroid recipients, saying prosecutors were focused on producers and distributors.

Customers include Los Angeles Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., according to the Times Union of Albany, which first disclosed the investigation, citing unidentified sources. Matthews would not answer specific questions about the story Wednesday.

Gary Matthews, Jr. makes a perfect villain. He is a major league player who had a career year in 2006, which allowed the former bench player to nab a 5-year $50 million contract with the LA Angels of Anaheim.

This just makes too much sense not to be true, right? Finally we have a reason to explain sudden excellence from a mediocre player—so mediocre that the Braves once cut him to keep Dewayne Wise. The career .755 OPS player put up an .866 OPS in 2006. Aha, now it all makes sense!

To all this I say, “can’t an OK player enjoy his success in peace?” Gary Matthews’s 2006 season was mostly a product of luck. Here are his OPS for the past five seasons.

2002 .780
2003 .675
2004 .811
2005 .756
2006 .866

Yes, 2006 seems like an outlier, but so does 2003. If you throw out the good and bad years his average OPS was .778. But wait, the guy hit .866 and is linked with performance-enhancing drugs! Here is where the role of chance comes in. Gary Matthews was one of the luckiest hitters in baseball last year.

According to PrOPS, which predicts a players OPS based on the way a player hit the ball without relying on in-play outcomes, his OPS for 2006 should have been .792. This is hardly different than his .778 average, and certainly not out of step with what he had achieved with the Rangers during the previous two seasons. In fact, only four other players in the American League were luckier than Matthews. If his improvement was the result of performance-enhancing drugs his PrOPS should have improved as well. PrOPS has no knowledge of Matthews’s light-hitting history. It generates a prediction from past hitting performances of players who hit the ball similarly.

The role of luck can also be seen in some other stats, too. He hit 2 more homers in 2006 than in 2005 in 145 more plate appearances—his homer rate actually declined. His isolated power (SLG-AVG) in 2005 was .181, compared to .182 in 2006. He didn’t get a PED power boost. Where he did improve was with his batting average on balls in play, where luck can accumulate. His BABIP was up to .349 compared to the .283 of 2005.

This does not clear Gary Matthews of using PEDs, but it doesn’t look like he got much of a boost if he did use them. Who knows, maybe he would have had a .700 OPS season without them. But, I don’t want to see a rush to judgment on the player just because he had one fluke year. The important point is that the stats don’t convict him at all. If anything, they exonerate him. However, if I am an Angels fans, I am concerned for other reasons. ;-)

Was Watching: The Baseball Economist Review

Steve Lombardi (also of NetShrine) reviews The Baseball Economist at Was Watching.

“The Baseball Economist,” powered by “sabernomics,” looks into trends on hit batsmen, the influence of on-deck batters on pitchers, the fallacy of fearing left-handed catchers, the impact of managers chirping on balls and strikes, the value of Leo Mazzone, the myth of market driven competitive imbalance, dealing with steroid use, and ‘putting a dollar sign on the muscle’ (meaning using stats and the economic approach to judge talent and determine worth) – among several other topics.

I found the content of Bradbury’s book to be original, refreshing, thorough, objective, and thought-provoking. As such, “The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed” is the type of book that the analytical baseball fan will find as worth reading – and reading again. The publisher of Bradbury’s book refers to the work as “Freakonomics meets Moneyball” and I would agree with this label. And, I would not be shocked to see “The Baseball Economist” do just as well (as those two books) on the seller’s charts. I highly recommend Bradbury’s book as one of the “must-read” baseball books of 2007.

Rosenthal on Protection

Ken Rosenthal mentions my opinion in the on-going debate over lineup protection.

Kennesaw State professor J.C. Bradbury, author of “The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed,” argues that there is some downside to a powerful on-deck hitter. Fearing the on-deck hitter, a pitcher throws more strikes, issuing fewer walks, and better strikes, allowing fewer hits. The net effect is negligible; protection is a wash.

In most cases, that probably is true. In extreme cases, the difference between on-deck hitters is more tangible. Howard is an extreme case, the closest thing in the game to the old Bonds. Pitchers treated him as such when he got hot after the All-Star break, issuing him 77 walks — 32 intentional — in 75 games.

So, Ryan, is protection a myth?

“It is and it isn’t,” he says. “It all depends upon what the situation is. Obviously you have to go out there and try to still do what you can, be selective on pitches. But if they’re intentionally walking you, you want that guy behind you to come through.”

Did he just ask Ryan Howard about something I did? :-) I’m guessing it’s just the way the article flowed. As a Braves fan, any lineup with Howard, Burrell and Utley scares me.

In my book, I discuss protection in the second chapter: “The Legendary Power of th On-Deck Hitter.” The chapter discusses a study that Doug Drinen and I did of protection using play-by-play data. Here is a post about our protection study.

Oakland Athletics Internship Opportunity

I often get e-mails from readers who are interested in working in an MLB front office. Well, here’s your chance to break in. Farhan Zaidi, an economist who works in the Oakland A’s front office e-mails me this exciting opportunity.

We just posted an internship listing on our website for someone to help us during draft season (April to June). I think it’s an excellent opportunity. I’m emailing a few bloggers and site administrators about the listing, hoping they can put it in a quick plug for it and encourage people to apply. The link and full listing are below. Any mention you could make of it on your site would be helpful.

http://oakland.athletics.mlb.com/mlb/help/jobs.jsp?c_id=oak#job_05

Baseball Operations Intern: 1 position
April – June
The Baseball Operations department is seeking an intern for the Spring 2007 season. The Intern will report to the Assistant General Manager and Baseball Operations Analyst. Primary duties will include but are not limited to the following:

- Assisting with data collection and analysis projects
- Research and report on all potential player personnel decisions, including Amateur Draft
- Game-charting and report generation from game-charting programs
- Prepare staff for organizational meetings
- Complete specialized projects as assigned

Requirements:
- Qualified applicants must be motivated, well organized, detail-oriented, and be able to work independently and on a deadline.

- Candidates must be proficient in all Microsoft Office programs (especially Excel).
- Proficiency in statistical packages, such as Stata, SAS, and SPSS is a plus.
- Knowledge of scripting languages (Perl, Python) for screen-scraping programming is a major plus.
- Background in math and statistics is preferred.
- Candidates must be within commutable distance of our offices in Oakland for the duration of the internship.

Interested applicants should send a cover letter and resume to Intern Coordinator, 7000 Coliseum Way, Oakland CA 94621, or via fax 510-563-2397, or email baseballjob@oaklandathletics.com* by March 1, 2007. Please clearly detail your technical and programming skills in your resume. No phone calls, please.

I think “excellent opportunity” is an understatement. Even if this job isn’t a good fit for you now, please take a close look at the qualifications: Excel, Stata, SAS, SPSS, Perl, Python, math, and statistics. That should speak volumes about what you need to get a leg up on the competition if you want to work in MLB.

New Arrival

I just wanted to take a moment to announce the birth of my second daughter, Sarah: 7 lbs 13 oz. She wasn’t due until early March, but I guess she wanted to make sure to catch the beginning of Spring Training.

Braves Journal: The Baseball Economist Review

Mac Thomason at Braves Journal has posted his review of The Baseball Economist. Here is a highlight.

It’s a good book. I’m not in 100 percent agreement with JC on everything, but life wouldn’t be much fun if we agreed on everything, would it?

No, it wouldn’t. :-)

The Baseball Economist in WSJ

Science Journal columnist Sharon Begely writes a flattering story about The Baseball Economist in today’s Wall Street Journal (free article). She offers a thorough preview of the book, summarizing several chapters.

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 is ready to regale you with statistics, regression analysis and Cartesian plots to prove mathematically that, while big-market baseball teams win more than small-market teams do, market size explains only part of the differential.

With pitchers and catchers reporting to the grapefruit and cactus leagues this week, it’s time for baseball fans to dust off the equipment they, too, need for the 2007 season. I am referring, of course, to calculators, statistics, economics and multiple regression analysis, which calculates how much one factor (such as market size) contributes to some outcome (team wins).

In the hands of Prof. Bradbury, of Kennesaw State University, Georgia, these techniques lead to counterintuitive results sure to spark a bar fight or two. His coming book “The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed,” takes aim at all sorts of baseball lore to separate fact from myth.

Thanks Sharon!

The Baseball Economist: One Month To Go

Well, it’s been about 17 months since I announced that The Baseball Economist would be published, so what’s another month? March 15 is the official release date (March 20 in Canada), and right now I am pretty busy getting ready. There are many review copies out and the reviews should begin to trickle in over the coming days and weeks. Plus, I will be making a few media appearances, and I will post here when and where they will happen. Also, I will post the preface to the book within the next few days.

Here are the advance reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly.

Booklist

Bradbury would be the first guy to tell you that baseball fans are the most statistically minded sports fans out there. And he should know: he is an economics professor and a baseball addict (and a popular blogger, too). Here, he tackles some of the game’s most cherished truisms and controversies. Is being left-handed really a disadvantage for a catcher? What role, really, do steroids play in being a home-run king? (You may be surprised at the answer.) How can we effectively evaluate a player’s value to his team? Ball fans may be shocked at how relevant economics is to their favorite game, and economists may find an exciting new application for their specialty. Like John Allen Paulos, author of such “popular math” books as A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1995), Bradbury writes with a smooth, accessible style and makes the tricky game of numbers seem both straightforward and exciting. Like Bill James’ Abstracts (2003), this volume could become essential reading for baseball fans.

Publishers Weekly

Subjecting recent baseball debates to plentiful regression analyses, Kennesaw State economist Bradbury gamely fuses our national pastime and the “dismal science” somewhat in the spirit of Steven Levitt (Freakonomics), Michael Lewis (Moneyball) and Bill James (Baseball Between the Numbers). Like the latter, Bradbury offers a front-office perspective on labor (that’s the players), salaries, managerial influence, steroids, market size and the like. Like a scrappy role player, Bradbury’s enthusiasm is evident (he’s a Braves supporter); he offers a chapter on managers’ ability to work the umps (“it appears that most managers don’t seem to have any real impact in arguing balls and strikes”) and investigates top pitching coach Leo Mazzone’s contributions. A blogger at his Web site sabernomics.com (a play on the acronym SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research), Bradbury, while not forging new ground, shines in the closing chapters, in which he convincingly bucks the conventional wisdom that Major League Baseball behaves like a monopoly. While the numbers crunched are more of the Financial Times than the box score kind, the issues the book deals with are those discussed in many a barroom.

If you’re interested in buying the book, it’s available for pre-order in many places.

Arbitration Losses

Yesterday, two pitchers lost their arbitration cases: John Patterson of the Nationals and Kevin Gregg of the Marlins. I have a few thoughts.

Patterson was asking for $1.85 million but the Nationals now have to pay him only $850K. In my mind, this case went to arbitration because Patterson’s agent submitted a number that was way too high. There is no way he was going to get that. By my calculations, Patterson’s 2006 was worth about $2.87 million. Arbitration-eligible pitchers typically get 75% less than their previous season’s performance value, putting him at about $720K—that is less than what the Nationals offered. I suspect Patterson’s good 2005 may have made him a bit overconfident. Still, when Patterson’s number came in, I suspect the Nationals didn’t even try negotiating. Why bother? There was no chance that the panel would give him $1.85 million. If he’d asked for say, $1.25 million, he’d have probably ended up settling with a contract close to $1 million.

Kevin Gregg is an interesting case, because I don’t see how he lost. He asked for $700K and the Marlins countered with $570K. Gregg had a really nice career with the Angels, generating $4.43 million in 2006 and $3.16 million in 2005. He should have easily garnered a million dollar contract, but his less glamorous role as a middle reliever/spot starter may have cost him. And I admit that my model for predicting non-free agent contracts is rough. But never underestimate the Marlins when it comes to managing their budget. I guess there is a reason I find them to be the best organization in baseball in my book.

So, You Want to Work in Sports

People frequently ask me how they can get a job working in a major league sports organization. As someone who has no personal experience in this I can only pass along what I have learned from others. Normally, I say something like “work hard, take any job you can get, try and make a name for yourself, and when you get your chance make the most of it.” Not really specific advice, is it?

Sal Baxamusa of The Hardball Times passes along some wisdom from the M.I.T. Sloan Sports Business Conference he attended over the weekend.

Lou Perna of Turnkey Sports suggested that entry-level employees should be prepared to roll up their sleeves and do dirty work. “It will be beneath you,” he cautioned, but he encouraged folks to use their revenue-generating abilities to distinguish themselves early on and save the brainpower for later in the career. Conference co-chair and Houston Rockets assistant general manager Daryl Morey suggested that young people find mentors that can help them through their early career. When asked who his mentors were, he said, “Billy Beane and Bill James.” Not bad as far as mentors go, I suppose, but it says a lot that his opening comments were that success in the sports industry was a “strong combination of luck and skill.”

I think I’ll just pass this paragraph along in the future. :-)

David Pinto also has a write-up of the conference.