Archive for August, 2007

The Script

The Braves are in a bad position: seven games back in the East and four back in the Wild Card. They have two reliable starters, just released their “closer,” and three key players (Edgar Renteria, Chuck James and Octavio Dotel) are on the DL. It’s over, or at least that is what many are saying. I’ve said it to myself a few times. But this is not why we watch sports—to witness the obvious and expected.

I recall watching a basketball game with a friend of mine who wasn’t into sports. With a minute to go, the leading team hit a three-pointer to extend the lead to five. “It’s over,” he said. “Change the channel.” I was offended by this comment, and I couldn’t understand why. Deep down, I knew it was unlikely my team was going to loose. And after the minute was up, my friend could only gloat, “told you!” But that wasn’t the point. The fact that games and seasons are not over, when they most likely are is what makes them exciting. Maybe that is why some people get sports and others don’t.

As a Braves fan, I cast aside negative thoughts and look at the glorious script that is being written. The team is down but the situation is not hopeless. The team has six games a piece left with the Mets and Phillies. Chipper Jones is having a magnificent season, second in the NL in OPS behind Bonds. A September like 1999, when he took the MVP by burying the Mets almost single-handedly—at least that’s how Braves fans like to remember it—is still possible. I’d love to see him boost his HOF credentials with another MVP. If James and Dotel can come off the DL and pitch their best, and Andruw Jones does what he is capable of doing, this could be one of the most exciting Octobers in Braves history.

Hope, it’s all we’ve got. And let’s not forget how much fun the ride can be.

“I knew we had ‘em right where we wanted ‘em after eight.”
— Skip Caray

Mailbox

If you have mailbox questions you can submit them here.

In my anecdotal, small sample watching of the NCAA tourney, I observe there is overall more scoring in college games than in MLB. Why?

My guess (uninformed as ever) is that it has something to do with less mound talent on the college level, particularly in tournament play where teams are forced to pitch deep into staffs. But as the ever observant 3-year old pointed out during the Rice game Sunday, they also have metal bats.

So, what’s your thoughts on the greater run scoring of the college game? — CI

Looking at the difference in college versus can best be seen by looking at the extremes. If you ever get a chance watch a Division III game. Even at this level of play there is no such think as a routine play. Sometimes grounders to third, where the ball is fielded cleanly result in an infield hit simply because the arm of the fielder isn’t strong enough to throw out the runner to first. At the lower level of competition, the weaker competition simply leads to more scoring because balls in play are less likely to result in outs.

I have a question about Mike Hampton’s contract and insurance. I know the Braves will never release information about how much of an insurance payout they’ve received for Hampton’s injury. But it seems the Braves have made a successful insurance claim for a portion of Hampton’s contract the last couple of years.

Let’s hypothetically suppose that Hampton’s insurance policy pays the Braves $9 million for each year he is injured. This payout actually exceeds the $8.1 million the Braves owe annually to Hampton, averaged over 2003-2008 (since the Rockies/Marlins are paying the remainder of his salary). Therefore, the Braves could theoretically be making a net profit off of Hampton’s contract when he is injured, right?

Wouldn’t the commissioner’s office or the player’s union have a problem with the Braves keeping the entire insurance payout? After all, doesn’t this situation create a perverse financial incentive for the Braves to allow Hampton to become or remain injured?

Obviously, the Braves would prefer to have Hampton healthy and in the rotation. But do you know if and how MLB deals with this potential moral hazard problem? — HM

No insurance company will insure a player for more than he is going to make, so I am sure Hampton’s payout is less than what he is making. Deductibles exist on all types of insurance policy to limit moral hazard misbehavior by the insured.

In terms of Mike Hampton’s insurance that we keep hearing about, I don’t think it exists as the Braves portray it to the public. The media widely reported that his individual policy expired last year; however, when he went out in spring training some “insurance” that may or may not cover his salary appeared out of nowhere. My take on this is that the Braves have a limited policy that covers all players if injuries exceeded a certain about (say $10 million), and whether or not they would get any additional money for Hampton would be determined by what other injuries the Braves had over the course of the season. If injuries resulted in more than $10 million in lost salary then the insurance would kick in, and part of Hampton’s contract would be covered by this pool. But if they had less than $10 million in injuries, then they wouldn’t get any additional money to cover his contract.

This is purely speculation on my part, induced by the Braves lack of transparency on the issue. I get the feeling they are telling the truth, but not the whole truth.

I saw you mentioned NBA rule changes (August 6th, 2007 post) and that you like
soccer. What rule changes would you suggest for soccer?

Here’s what I would do: First and foremost, get rid of the offsides rule. Totally eliminates a thrilling element of the game – the fast break. Though I suggest that the forwards can’t camp inside the goal box (the innermost ring; or maybe extend the ring).

Another rule would be to make a player sit out 5 minutes for a yellow card. Similar to hockey (power play). — MH

I like soccer, but I don’t plan to ever follow the MLS like I follow MLB or the NFL. I think the main reason that soccer cannot compete with the other major sports leagues in the US is that fans prefer these other sports. It’s my opinion that no minor rule change to soccer is going to be enough to overcome the dominant US sports. Therefore, I suspect soccer needs to concentrate on a core of fans who already like soccer and hope to grow the traditional fan base. Tweaking the game may ultimately alienate current soccer fans without gaining new ones. Even the soccer fan in me finds your rule changes unappealing, simply because they are different from what I am used to. But that won’t stop me from suggesting my own changes. :-)

I hate ties and penalty kicks. This is unfortunate since many soccer games end as ties or are determined by a controversial penalty in the box. I suggest an overtime system of five minute periods that are played until the tie is broken. After each five minute session the teams lose two players. This way the game ends by playing soccer, but should facilitate a quicker ending after regulation.

Does Race Influence Umpires?

This is the question addressed in a new study by economists Christopher Parsons, Johan Sulaeman, Michael Yates, and Daniel Hamermesh.

In the new study, Hamermesh’s team analyzed the calls on 2.1 million pitches thrown in the Major League between the 2004 and 2006 seasons. Controlling for all other outside factors, such as the pitcher’s tendency to throw strikes, the umpires’ tendency to call strikes and the batter’s ability to attract balls, researchers found evidence of same-race bias — and the data revealed that the bias benefits mostly white pitchers. Not surprising, since 71% of MLB pitchers and 87% of umpires are white.

The highest percentage of strikes were called when both the home-plate umpire and pitcher were white, and the lowest percentage were called between a white ump and a black pitcher. The study also found that minority umpires judged Asian pitchers more unfairly than they did white pitchers. It’s a significant disadvantage for Asian pitchers because the MLB doesn’t have any Asian umpires. Interestingly enough, Hamermesh’s research found that the race of the batter didn’t seem to matter — the correlation was only between the pitcher and the home-plate ump. Rich Levin, an MLB spokesman, refused to comment on the research findings.

I don’t have much time to write much, but here is my quick take. This is an interesting study, which I had a chance to see a few weeks ago. When a similar study was done in the NBA, I immediately thought that baseball would be a better testing ground for this type of behavior. I had actually begun collecting some data when this study rolled across my desk. The most interesting aspect of this study is that the discrimination that exists shrinks in QuesTec ballparks, when umpires are being monitored.

The good news is that the effect of the bias is very small, a little less than one pitch per game. And I don’t think there is much that can be done to alter this (except more QuesTec), as it is probably the result of something deeply rooted in the human psyche. I don’t believe that umpires set out to make calls along racial lines, it just happens.

Kudos to Rich Levin for not pulling a David Stern and having a conniption. This is research of an interesting question, and I hope that the league work with the authors as opposed to castigating them. This should generate some good discussion. If you wish to comment—and I encourage you to do so—please behave yourself with such a sensitive issue.

Addendum: Here are links to the paper and FAQ.

Congratulations Barry!

Barry Bonds is the new home run king. If you are curious what I think of the record, see my op-ed in last week’s AJC.

In years to come, we may learn that Bonds broke the rules. At that time, it will be proper to view Bonds with contempt. But what if that day never comes? Baseball fans will have missed the opportunity to celebrate a truly great achievement and give credit to a man who deserves it. As a baseball fan, I am going to enjoy watching Bonds breaking the record, and I hope other baseball fans choose to do so, too.

Discover Your Inner Economist

I am still waiting on my copy of Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist to arrive. Tyler is a co-contributor to Marginal Revolution, one of my favorite blogs. I ordered the book the other day when Tyler was offering free podcasts for those who purchased the book. I asked him the following question:

What rule change would you make to the NBA?

The rule can improve the game for you or society, and I would like to know why you suggest this rule and its implications for the game.

You can hear his answers here.

I asked about the NBA because I know that Tyler likes basketball. I was afraid if I asked about baseball he’d suggest eliminating baseball to improve the NBA talent pool.

What would I change about the NBA? Let me give you some background. I grew up in Charlotte and my dad went to Duke. North Carolina is basketball crazy, and ACC and Hornets basketball were popular topics of conversation. I liked the NBA game better as I got older, and by the time I moved to DC for graduate school, I’d occasionally sit in my car to listen to the games broadcast from Charlotte. I was a big fan.

Now, I don’t even care about the NBA. I actually prefer to watch soccer. I don’t know what it is about the game that has changed—maybe it’s my preferences that have changed—but I don’t enjoy the game very much any more. I think the problem is that there are too many people on too small of a court. Sometimes I feel that I’m watching a rugby scrum, waiting for an orange ball to pop out towards the hoop and hope that there is no whistle. My solution would be to increase the size of the court, which of course won’t happen since the court is constrained by the size of arenas. I think this would open up more passing and reduce fouling. I think Tyler would disagree with me as he seems to be happy with basketball as it is. But, listen for yourself.

I’ll post a review of his book as soon as I finish it. Though I am one of his former students, I really don’t know Tyler well and I didn’t spend much time with him in graduate school. Yet, his influence on me has been immense. I’ll explain more when I review the book.

Other Deadline Moves

I’ve been busy away from the computer the past few days. Here are my thoughts on the Braves other deadline deals.

Kyle Davies for Octavio Dotel
This is a deal I would normally not like; though, it reminds me of the Horacio Ramirez for Rafael Soriano deal, which I did like. Go figure. The reason is that I don’t like giving up much for relievers, because they play very little. Yes, Dotel is a much better relief pitcher than Davies is a starter, but I think Davies has the potential to be at least an average starting pitcher who will prevent runs for many more innings a year.

So why do I like this deal? Kyle Davies was going nowhere in Atlanta, and I’m not sure he would ever get his head straight with the Braves. He was called upon to do too much too early in his career. He’s 23 and in his third season in the majors and seems to have gotten worse. When he was sent to Triple-A a few weeks ago, it was too late. It may be that Davies doesn’t have the talent that I think he does and that he will never be much of a pitcher, but we will just have to wait and see. With the Braves shipping off four pitching prospects to the Rangers in the Salty deal—including Matt Harrison, who might be ready in time for next season—I don’t know how the Braves plan to replace him. I hope that the Braves leave Jo-Jo Reyes down for the rest of the season to work on things to make him better. He is clearly not ready for the big leagues—I think Harrison is better than Reyes now—and I don’t want him to be distracted from improving.

I do wonder how all of this impacts Roger McDowell’s job security. I’m not saying it’s his fault or that I think he’s doing a bad job. I don’t think this. After all, he deserves some credit for a pitching staff that is above average. But I wonder what the Braves expect from him in working with pitchers like Davies and Reyes.

Will Startup and Wilfredo Ledezma for Royce Ring

I think Will Startup must feel like Ralph Wiggum in the following video.

The Cartersville resident, known by several of my current students, must have been expecting a call-up when the Braves couldn’t get a lefty to stick in the pen. Though not on the 40-man roster, he seemed to be doing everything right to become the next Georgia boy on the roster. At best Royce Ring appears to be no better than Startup and is four years older. I’m not sure why the Braves are not high on Startup. Relievers are difficult to judge due to their low-inning totals, so I guess the scouts must see something that I don’t.