We miss the effects of randomness in life because when we assess the world, we tend to see what we expect to see. We in effect define degree of talent by degree of success and then reinforce our feelings of causality by noting the correlation. That’s why although there is sometimes little difference in ability between a wildly successful person and one who is not successful, there is usually a big difference in how they are viewed.
(Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk, p. 212)
It’s that time in the season when fans begin to notice that teams and players aren’t living up to expectations (and to a lesser fans notice that some expectations are exceeded). When a career All-Star bats below the Mendoza line, or a pre-season playoff favorite resides at the bottom of the division, commentators go looking for answers. “He needs to make adjustments to his swing” and “This team has the wrong attitude” are common statements often heard on broadcasts. Right now, the Mariners and Braves are in last place in their divisions; the Red Sox are below .500: fans of these teams are in full panic mode. It’s fine to have some concern—losses in the early season are just as important down the stretch, and poor performance now may indicate poor talent—however, I feel that fans are too sensitive to swings that are largely the product of randomness. Sometimes good teams win and bad teams lose, All-Star sluggers strike out and bench players hit home runs.
Occasionally, these things happen in clumps (like the Braves losing nine games in a row), and fans are quick to respond with disdain and frustration. For example, the data below represent wins (w) and losses (l) in a 162-game season for a .500 team, generated randomly via a computer program (Stata code: generate x=round(uniform(),1)) . Note that this team actually finishes below .500 and has several streaks of wins and losses. In fact, there is an 18-game span where the team has two five-game losing streaks and one six-game losing streak while going 2-16. I imagine the sports pages would have a field day with this team as being one of the worst in baseball, when in fact it is an average team.
l l l l w w l l l w w w w l w w l l l w l w l l l l l w l l l l l w l l l l l l w w w l w w w w w w l w w w l w w w l w w l w w l w l l w w w l w w l l w w l w w w w l l w w w w w l l w w w l l l l w l l w l l l l l l w w w w l w l w w w w w w w l w w l l w w l w w l w w w l w l w l l w w w l w w l w w l w l w w l l l w l
Even though such runs are perfectly natural by random chance, fans often demand changes or they’ll turn away from the team. And such negative feelings can be contagious as they are spread far and wide. In old-media days, management might be able to reason with reporters and broadcasters to keep the mood light. But with the rise of the Internet, venting is impossible to control with spin jargon. In fact, managers and GMs are often mocked when they declare bad luck to be the culprit for poor play.
This has to be frustrating for management, because the belief that random fluctuations represent real and easily-correctable problems can have financial consequences. A good team that plays poorly can translate into losses at the gate. A GM may look at his roster and see a good team that he doesn’t want to change, but “hang on and be patient” doesn’t resonate well among fans who demand answers. How can a GM signal that things are going to get better when the team is already configured optimally? Fire someone who doesn’t matter.
The players are the main input to success on a baseball team, and are the last thing a manager or GM wants to adjust. Replacing Chipper Jones (2010 OPS: .770 with Brooks Conrad (2010 OPS: .822) will only hurt the the Braves’ chances of winning. The next step up the line are coaches. The Mariners have already fired hitting coach Alan Cockrell. Now, there may be good reasons to fire Cockrell, but I don’t think one month of poor performance can be attributed to Cockrell, or that any damage he did will remedy the Mariners’ hitting woes. I have no doubt that Mariner hitting will improve as players regress toward their true talent level with or without a new coach. I’m also certain that someone will attribute the expected turnaround to the installation of Alonzo Powell as hitting coach. But firing Cockrell serves the purpose of appeasing the masses. It’s management’s way saying “hey, we’re mad too, and we’ve fixed the problem.” Many fans who declared their anger may head back to the ballpark that they would have otherwise abandoned.
The next level up is the manager, and managers are often fired in mid-season on under-performing teams. Though we often give lots of credit to managers for the successes of their teams, I don’t think managers contribute too much to the game. The nature of the game requires sending individuals up to the plate on their own to perform. There aren’t plays to draw up, junk defenses to employ, or reacting to another coaching strategy. After picking the lineup, all managers can really do is pull pitchers, shift the defense, and call hit-and-run type strategies. And most of these choices could be dictated by a computer algorithm. Managers may do some coaching and stroke player egos, but I don’t believe that managers have much effect on teams. Rather I think they serve as public figureheads, who handle the media and put a public face on the franchise. In this sense, one of a manager’s main responsibilities is to serves as a scapegoat, sacrificed to the fan gods to preserve good will with fans and keep them coming through the turnstiles.
Now, I don’t believe that managers are totally benign, just overrated. But, I wanted to examine who managerial changes affected fans. If new managers affect attendance positively, then the manager-as-scapegoat theory has some support. So, I looked at managerial changes within seasons, where the talent of teams remains someone consistent, and observed the attendance after such changes. This is a complicated exercise because managers are typically replaced on bad teams; attendance is expected to be falling, so this analysis requires controlling for several factors. Using Retrosheet game logs (and double-checking with Baseball-Databank‘s managerial records), I identified how attendance changed when a new manager (managing a minimum of 10 games) was brought in.
As controls I used the performance in the last 10 home games (to proxy recent local excitement regarding the team), the winning percentage for the entire season (to proxy the quality of the club), and the career winning percentage of the manager (to proxy managerial quality). Because of the panel aspect of the data, I corrected for detected serial correlation over time and used fixed effects to control for unique properties in each market. I also used year dummies to capture the impact of individual seasons, month dummies to proxy seasonal shifts in attendance, and day-of-week dummies to capture daily fluctuations. The results below are from a sample from 2000–2009.
Impact T-statistic New Manager 1041 2.60 Wins in Last 10 Games 187 3.62 Team W% 32928 16.50 Manager Career W% 26821 11.66 Obs 18614 R2 0.41
The estimate indicates that a new manager nets a club about 1,000 additional fans per game. So, even while a team may be losing, and winning more may bring in more fans, the addition of a new manager seems to boost attendance. Thus, it appears that the manager-as-scapegoat theory has some legs.
But, another interesting finding is that this relationship does not appear in the 1990s or 1980s. In the 1990s, the effect is positive, about 140 fans per game, but the estimate is not statistically significant. In the 1980s, the estimate is negative and significant. Are fans more responsive now than they were in the past? Maybe the new social media puts more pressure on teams to act swiftly and fans respond in kind. Or, maybe this is just a spurious correlation. Still, I think the preliminary findings show that it is worth further investigation. And if a team has a run of bad luck, I wouldn’t blame a GM for firing a coach or manager as a PR move. It’s not like ex-managers have a problem getting second and third chances. In fact, firing appears to be part of the job description of managers.
It may seem unfair to put blame on blameless parties, but coaches and managers also receive praise for performances that they have little control over. It’s not like they are not paid well. They continue to receive their contract salary, and they will likely find work again within baseball. So, for the sake of the fanbase, I say fire away.