Archive for May, 2007

Business of Baseball Roundtable

I contributed to a baseball economics roundtable at Business of Baseball.

Here is the lineup and topics discussed.

* Andrew Zimbalist – Author of several books, including In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig and The Bottom Line: Observations and Arguments on the Sports Business, sports consultant and Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College specializing in sports economics
* Rodney Fort – Author and Professor at Washington State University who has specialized in sports economics
* Roger Noll – Professor Emeritus of Economics, Stanford University
* Vince Gennaro – Author of Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball
* JC Bradbury – Author of The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, and founder of the Sabernomics blog
* Nate Silver – Author, and Executive Vice-President of Baseball Prospectus
* Maury Brown – Former Co-Chair of SABR’s Business of Baseball committee, author for Baseball Prospectus, Founder and President of BizofBaseball.com

We’ll be talking five different topics:

* The latest CBA
* How regional sports networks impact MLB’s economic landscape
* The value of marquee players and the value of club brand
* Comments on whether MLB should implement a player payroll floor
* The panelist picks a topic of their liking

Thanks to Maury Brown for putting this together and asking me to participate. :-)

Racist Referees

Alan Schwarz writes a column about a paper by Justin Wolfers and Joseph Smith in today’s New York Times. The paper Racial Discrimination and NBA Referees looks at how referees call fouls against players of different races. The results are very interesting.

An academic study of the National Basketball Association, whose playoffs continue tonight, suggests that a racial bias found in other parts of American society has existed on the basketball court as well.

A coming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student says that, during the 13 seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players.

Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School, and Joseph Price, a Cornell graduate student in economics, found a corresponding bias in which black officials called fouls more frequently against white players, though that tendency was not as strong. They went on to claim that the different rates at which fouls are called “is large enough that the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game.”

You may recall Wolfers from his work on point shaving in NCAA basketball. Similarly, Wolfers has found a way to use sports as a laboratory to examine human behavior in a controlled setting. When I see a study like this, I slap myself in the forehead and say “why didn’t I think of that?” I’m jealous. What an interesting way to examine those subtle racial biases that are so difficult to study in the general population.

Studies of racism in sports are very common. Why? Because one of the hardest things to control for in studies of racial discrimination is performance. You might look at a sample of workers who get promoted and who doesn’t, but there is always the possibility that other factors correlated with race influence the promotion decision. Controlling for this is much less difficult in sports because we can control for performance characteristics.

Using Dave Berri, Stacey Brook, and Martin Schmidt’s “Win Score” measure, the authors find that the effect is big enough to affect a few wins in a season. As Wolfers puts it “Basically, it suggests that if you spray-painted one of your starters white, you’d win a few more games,” Mr. Wolfers said.

It’s not surprising that the NBA disputes these findings with data that it will not share. I think there are several legitimate reasons to keep this data private, But, the league also has a duty to take the Wolfers-Smith result seriously and to investigate this issue further. In no way do I think any NBA referee consciously uses race to referee a game. But in a fast-paced contest, where decisions must be made immediately, it is not surprising to see such bias sneak out. As this story plays out, I hope that we will learn more about race and society.

What To Do with Mark Redman

Well, Mark Redman stinks. I’m not really surprised that he’s not blowing the league away, but Atlanta fans want him cut. The problem with this is that the Braves need another starting pitcher. Oscar Villarreal is probably a better option as a starter, but Redman might still be able to help the team.

My suggestion: put him in the pen. If he puts all of his effort into a short stint, he can’t be worse than the worst reliever on the team. I’m not even sure who that is right now. He’s already paid for, and there is no obvious promotion candidate in the minors. This could be the beginning of a new career as a LOOGY.

Fisking Feinstein

John Feinstein

I have no problem with people who believe that performance-enhancing drugs affect baseball. There is no doubt that some players have used drugs such as steroids, HGH, amphetamines in an attempt to improve their performances. If they work, players have every incentive to do so. I think this is wrong, and I wish it didn’t occur. However, I find John Feinstein’s grumpy old man condemnation of baseball’s “steroid era” in today’s Washington Post to be seriously lacking in many areas. Given his condemning tone, I think he should be more careful.

It’s time for a fisking.

Welcome to the latest chapter in Major League Baseball’s ongoing nightmare: steroids, steroids and more steroids.

Welcome to a rant about steroids that takes advantage of the public perception that steroids are a huge problem in baseball and that great performances can only be explained by use of PEDs. No, there’s nothing new or interesting here. Tomorrow: how rap music degrades women and glorifies gang culture.

Chances are good that Kirk Radomski, the former Mets “clubbie,” isn’t the only guy out there who sold drugs to ballplayers who is going to turn evidence to try to cut himself a break with prosecutors. Chances are also pretty good that there are going to be some significant names showing up at some point soon.

Chances are that if a petty pusher is a big fish in a steroids investigation has been operating for 4-5 years, that there isn’t much here. With all the leaks surrounding this issue, the fact that actual big names aren’t out yet leads me to believe there won’t be any. Give me some names and details before I get excited.

Those who played in the big leagues during the 1990s are now starting to talk about circumstantial evidence they saw — but for the most part ignored — during that period. As they talk, it is becoming more and more evident that those who didn’t partake were probably the minority.

OK, now we’re getting to the evidence. Maybe there is something worthwhile in here after all.

“It’s at the point now where you wonder if anyone was innocent,” said Ron Darling, who pitched in the majors from 1983 to 1995. “The only reason pitchers from my era are pretty much in the clear is that no one had figured out back then that steroids could help us too. Clearly that changed somewhere along the way but I was out of the game by then.”

What? The “evidence” is that guys are using today because you know from personal experience that guys in the past didn’t use?

Darling has a clear memory of when he noticed the sport changing….When I got to Oakland in 1991…. As soon as the game was over, most of the guys would come inside, change out of their uniforms and go down the hall to pump iron for an hour. At least. Then they’d get up the next morning, workout again and eat 4,000 calories at lunch. And they never got tired.

“Looking back now, it’s pretty clear what was going on. Back then, I just didn’t give it much thought. I was worried about getting ready for my next start.”

Hmm, so working out more equals steroids. Certainly, working out is needed for steroids to work, but you find very few baseball players who don’t work out these days.

Furthermore, if all of this was going in in 1991, why didn’t the jump in home runs spike just in Oakland in the early 1990s? Speaking of data, let’s take a look at how Oakland’s power number changed over the years. I’ll start in 1980 to give a five-year sample before Jose Canseco joined the team.

					
Year	HR	HR/G	AVG	SLG	Iso-Power
1980	137	0.85	0.259	0.385	0.126
1981	104	0.95	0.247	0.379	0.131
1982	149	0.92	0.236	0.367	0.131
1983	121	0.75	0.262	0.381	0.119
1984	158	0.98	0.259	0.404	0.145
1985	155	0.96	0.264	0.401	0.137
1986	163	1.01	0.252	0.390	0.138
1987	199	1.23	0.260	0.428	0.168
1988	156	0.96	0.263	0.399	0.136
1989	127	0.78	0.261	0.381	0.120
1990	164	1.01	0.254	0.391	0.137
1991	159	0.98	0.248	0.389	0.141
1992	142	0.88	0.258	0.386	0.129
1993	158	0.98	0.254	0.394	0.140
1994	113	0.99	0.260	0.399	0.140
1995	169	1.17	0.264	0.420	0.157
1996	243	1.50	0.265	0.452	0.187
1997	197	1.22	0.260	0.423	0.163
1998	149	0.92	0.257	0.397	0.140
1999	235	1.45	0.259	0.446	0.187
2000	239	1.48	0.270	0.458	0.188
2001	199	1.23	0.264	0.439	0.175
2002	205	1.27	0.261	0.432	0.171
2003	176	1.09	0.254	0.417	0.162
2004	189	1.17	0.270	0.433	0.163
2005	155	0.96	0.262	0.407	0.145

Average	167.73	1.06	0.259	0.408	0.149


There doesn’t appear to be anything suspicious about 1991 or its surrounding years. Granted, you could parse numbers many different ways, but nothing obvious appears to be going on. I’d say Darling’s conjectures don’t have much support.

Every pitcher you talk to from that era insists that the baseball’s changed radically after the strike. …Mike Mussina, now with the New York Yankees, then with the Baltimore Orioles, remembers cutting open two baseball during a rain delay as a time-killing science experiment: “No comparison,” he said. “The core of the old ball just laid down flat on the table. The new ball, the core literally sat up it was so lively.”

Juiced balls, smaller stadiums and juiced players led to the monster home run years enjoyed, not only by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, but non-home run hitters who began reaching out and hitting home runs to the opposite field. Now, belatedly, baseball is paying a price for closing its eyes to what everyone could see just by sitting around a clubhouse and noticing everyone was in the weight room. And never getting tired.

What do balls and stadiums have to do with “steroids, steroids, and more steroids” mentioned in the first paragraph? I guess the lively ball and smaller stadiums kept players from tiring. Maybe they got some greenies from the old-timers who who made the game so great.

[Bud Selig] has to turn his back. And please let us not continue with this foolish notion that Bonds and the others must be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.

I’ll agree to this if you promise to provide compelling evidence that the rise in offense in the modern era could not have been produced by other factors—including the other factors (smaller ballparks and a lively ball) that you include in this article.

As for Bonds, I think it’s a shame that he has to live with illegally leaked damning evidence that he cannot respond to because of on-going legal process. It doesn’t look good for him, but what does this say about the rest of the league?

If you are paying even a little bit of attention — ala Darling in the Oakland clubhouse in 1991 — it is pretty clear that the number of players using steroids in the last 15 or 20 years has been epidemic.

I might be skeptical and wrong, but it’s not because I’m not paying attention. How about you? What about expansion diluting the talent pool of pitchers? Does Darling’s story check out? You’re not even reading your own article (small ballparks and lively ball)!

Evidence of rampant steroid use does not exist, and there are many other possible explanations for why the game has changed. And given that MLB has been testing for drugs for two seasons and the power numbers didn’t change, I’d say the steroid theory is the weakest one out there right now. And please, don’t even think of bringing up HGH.

[Bonds is] not alone by any means. In fact, every day it is becoming more and more apparent that he was probably a part of the majority. He’s just the symbol of an era that baseball can’t forget soon enough.

The problem is it is going to be a long, long time before anyone is able to forget. Baseball has been stained. Perhaps not forever and probably not irreparably but in ways that won’t be forgotten, and shouldn’t be forgotten, anytime soon.

Where is the damning evidence again? Complaining about steroids in baseball simply in fashion. All the cool kids are doing it, so let’s all jump on. Baseball fans deserve better than this. People sometimes ask me how it is that I can be so skeptical of the impact of steroids in the game. Well, people like John Feinstein make it easy. If I had to choose sides just based on the commentary, it would be an easy choice.

I can’t prove that the game hasn’t been affected by steroids. Indeed, it is possible that it has changed the game. But until I see some better evidence, I remain skeptical.