Archive for Book Review
Sports economics is fun. That is the main lesson of The Wages of Wins, which focuses on the research of three economists who have made numerous contributions to the sports economics literature in recent years. However, the material is most certainly not frivolous, as the authors make a substantial contribution to the field of sports economics. Berri, Schmidt, and Brook demonstrate that sports economics is enjoyable not only because of its entertaining subject matter, but because sports games yield so many unanswered questions about human behavior that social scientists have failed to investigate thoroughly.
Until recently, sports economists tended to focus on issues that were excessively practical: public financing of stadiums, labor squabbles resulting from bilateral monopolies, racial discrimination, etc. These issues are important and should be studied by sports economists. Other issues that economists ought to study have been largely neglected, and this is where the authors focus their attention. Economists occasionally do employ the economic method to study many seemingly trivial aspects of human life, but rarely have economists made substantial careers doing so. When the American Economic Association awarded Steven Levitt the John Bates Clark Medal in 2003, it acknowledged the important role of the discipline in studying every aspect of human behavior. Levitt is particularly known for finding unique testing grounds for interesting economic theories, including a television game show, sumo wrestling, and sporting contests. It is in this vein that the authors promote the scientific study of sports, without apology. Furthermore, the author’s approach mirrors Levitt’s Freakonomics (coauthored with Stephen Dubner) and William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest for Growth, in writing a book that targets a general audience using studies published in the academic literature. At the same time, the authors also challenge economists working within theses spheres of research.
There is nothing subtle about the approach. The authors challenge many aspects of the conventional wisdom directly: labor disputes drive away fans, rich teams can buy championships, sports leagues are losing competitive balance, and competitive balance is crucial to the success of sports leagues. Furthermore, the authors tackle the difficult job of disentangling individual contributions from jointly-produced outcomes in team games. Their findings are often counter-intuitive, yet convincing. The book will provoke everyone from seasoned sports economists to the average fan. The prose is clear and written to entertain as well as inform the reader. The subject matter and tone remind me of the casual conversations economists have at professional meetings. It includes many of the same thought provoking ideas that the participants vow to investigate further, but feel the need to concentrate on other more traditional topics instead.
I enjoyed the first edition quite a bit, and I am using it in my sports economics class this semester. It’s cheaper and contains more information than the first edition…what are you waiting for?
My good friend and intellectual collaborator Doug Drinen, posts his review of The Baseball Economist. Granted, it’s a biased review—he’s a friend and we co-authored some of the studies that I discuss in the book—but Doug probably knows more about the book than anyone since he watched it develop.
Most of you are probably not aware that I used to be as intensely into baseball analysis as I currently am into football. I wrote for a few sabermetric sites and publications and I like to think I came up with a few nifty little studies along the way and contributed a bit to the field. But it’s now clear that my biggest contribution (by far) was that I introduced John-Charles Bradbury to the existence of sabermetrics.
I could drone on about how much of a hero I am for leading J.C. out of the wilderness of RBIs and pitchers’ wins, but I’ll spare you. It is worth mentioning, though, that the fact that J.C. didn’t encounter sabermetrics until relatively late in life probably prevented him from becoming Just Another Sabermetrician. Rather than viewing things through a traditional sabermetric lens — as those of us who grew up with Bill James tend to do — he started to look at them in light of his training as a professional economist. When combined with the tools of sabermetrics, it leads to a fresh perspective.
I owe a lot to Doug for his contributions, as he tempered my thinking on many issues. And I’ll never forget watching the Aaron F’n Boone game with him. “What the hell are you doing, Grady? Take Pedro out!”
I am occasionally asked about using my approach in other sports. I point them directly to Pro-Football-Reference.com and his blog. I’m hoping that his work there will result in a book on football in the near future. If I were a literary agent looking for prospects, Doug would be near the top of my list of targets.
I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the economics of baseball or sabermetrics (the statistical analysis of baseball).
I just received a copy of The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball by USS Mariner blogger Derek Zumsteg. Derek also runs a blog just for the book here. I’ve only had time to flip through it, but I like what I see so far.
As a Braves fan, I first checked to make sure he devoted some time to the evil 1991 Minnesota Twins. This team won the World Series by cranking up the AC to give Kirby Puckett a tainted home run off of Charlie Leibrandt. Zumsteg covers this, but misses the most egregious incident of that series: Kent Hrbek pushing Ron Gant off the bag to get an out. The play was so obvious that Hrbek couldn’t even keep a straight face when later describing the play. I remember one of my good friends was a Twins fan who had a Wheaties box with the Twins celebrating their “victory.” Wheaties?…more like Cheaties. Ok, maybe I’m not that mad about it. 🙂
As for Braves cheating, Zumsteg reminds us of the team’s manipulation of the catcher’s box to make the strike zone seem larger than it was. The fact was actually pointed out by the TBS television crew. There is no doubt that those guys root for the Braves, but they are not partisan when it comes to commenting on the game. The organization then classlessly booted the broadcast team off of the team charter. One unnamed source was also quoted as saying “Mazzone sucks” three times.
I look forward to sitting down with the book for a full read very soon. It looks to be an enjoyable read.
This book also makes me want to play one of those weird connection games. Every time I see the name Derek I think of my high school job recording high school sports scores for The Charlotte Observer. One thing I learned from fielding calls from all over the Carolinas is that there are more ways to spell Derek than any other name. My time at The Observer brings me to another connection to an author with a baseball book out right now. Joe Posnanski, Kansas City Star writer and current author of The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America also worked for The Observer at the same time I was there, though I did not learn this until recently. I bet few in that newsroom would have pegged us as future authors…well, maybe Joe, but certainly not me. Although, I was very good at spelling Derek, Derick, Darek, Daryc….
Buy either, or both, of these books with The Baseball Economist and get free shipping from Amazon. 🙂
Earlier this week, Jeff Merron interviewed me for his blog The Southpaw, of 108 magazine. Jeff is an excellent writer, and you may remember him for his in-depth article on Leo Mazzone and his interview of Malcolm Gladwell.
Jeff posts the full interview here, and here is a brief sample.
JM: To me the most important finding in your book is the lack of influence of the on-deck hitter. It’s such a well-worn and consistent strategy that you’d think that someone would have changed it if it didn’t work. What were your thoughts about that particular study?
JCB: I was convinced before we started the study that there had to be protection. There’s no way the on-deck hitter does not influence the pitcher.
But the more I thought about it and saw the results were in the opposite direction, and it fit with what I later thought and talked about, which is that pitchers frequently alter their effort.
There are two things to think about. One is that a manager may do better to think more about lefty-righty matchups more than protection. And I think as a general manager it could make a huge difference in what players you sign.
Jeff also offers a brief review of The Baseball Economist.
The range of topics Bradbury covers is impressive. The first chapter is on hit batsmen and how differences between rates in the AL and NL can be explained by the “price” of hitting a batter (which has changed over the years). The second chapter presents a surprising finding about how much “protection” on-deck batters really provide. The topics then expand in scope, to scouts vs. stat-heads, player salaries, steroids, the issue of whether or not MLB is a monopoly, and finally expansion. This is a book you can dip into at random: each chapter stands alone. And you’ll find plenty of variety.
Although Bradbury is an academic, his writing style is fluid and accessible. He doesn’t use many technical terms, but when he does, he explains them clearly and briefly, in a fashion that makes the material more easily understood. This is a book that’s worth your buck. Let’s hope we’ll see another collection from Bradbury in a couple of years.
I very much enjoyed chatting with Jeff, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get to catch a game together one day. If you’re a fan of baseball history and you’re not reading The Southpaw, you are missing out. I highly recommend it. Thanks to Jeff for giving me the opportunity. 🙂
“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.
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. 🙂
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.
Have you ever had a particular play from a baseball game long ago that you can’t quite recall? My memory of baseball events is always hazy. I can remember what sort-of happened, but the details are gone. For example, I was just thinking the other day about a Braves game against the Nationals in which the Jones boys hit back-to-back home runs to win the game. But was it just late in the game or extra innings? Why does this game stick in my head?
Well, now with Baseball-Reference’s Play Index (PI), it’s easy to find out. Sean Forman, the creator of the greatest baseball statistics website, has created the ultimate tool for baseball fans. By putting a front end on Retroseet play-by-play data, finding out minute details of games up to 50 years ago takes only seconds, and requires no special software or programming skills. Sean offered me a limited-time comped subscription so that I could take a full tour, and I’d like to share with you my experience.
So, how does it work? Let’s return to my memory of that Braves-Nationals game. It was either 2005 or 2006, and I know Chipper hit the first home run. So, I go to the PI, type in “chippe” into the search box—the auto-complete displays the text “Chipper Jones”—and then I click the “Batting Event Finder” box. The site then takes me to a page where I can search for every time Chipper stepped to the plate, walked, homered, scratched his crotch, etc. O.K., the scratching isn’t there, but you get the idea. I decide to chose home runs.
Here I see a list of every home run Chipper Jones has ever hit, all 357 of them: 36 against the Mets, 8 off Steve Trachsel, 99 to dead-center…you get the picture. Then I scroll down the list to 2006. I see the game situation of every home run he hit. I scan the Nationals homers for close-and-late situations, but I don’t see any matches. I scroll up to 2005, and there’s a possible match. Chad Cordero was on the mound, the score was 6-7 when Chipper stepped to the plate in the ninth with two outs, a runner on first (Pete Orr), and he belted a homer to right-center to put the Braves on top after working the count to 2-0. I click on the link to the expanded box score, and I see that Andruw Jones padded the Braves lead with a solo shot to left, just as I had thought. Why does this game stick in my mind? Well, the box score tells me: Blaine Boyer, John Foster, and Chris Reitsma had just blown a four-run lead in the bottom of the 8th. A devastating loss became a victory. A sour memory is replaced with happiness, and thanks to Baseball-Reference, I was able to relive it.
So, there is one small example of what the PI has to offer. I plan to use it a lot in the future. Unlike the rest of Baseball-Reference, a paid subscription is required to utilize all of this tool’s features. But, the fee options are reasonable, and it’s the information provided is well worth the price. I encourage you to take a tour, and I expect you will be as wowed as I am.
Two weeks ago I spent a long weekend on a series of plane flights. On the recommendation of a friend I picked up The Blind Side by Michael Lewis just before I left. I had planned to read the book at some point, but I had too many other unread things in front of me. But, the book got a strong recommendation, so I went ahead. High expectations usually lead to disappointment for me, but this was not the case with The Blind Side. In fact, I find myself thinking about the book almost every day.
The book has two subjects: Michael Oher and left tackles, which come together very quickly. Michael Oher is a poor black kid from a Memphis housing project. Though”Big Mike” towers over nearly everyone around him, he’s shy an introverted. His mother is on crack, his father is dead. The foster care system doesn’t know where he is, and gave up looking. He’s one of many siblings living only on street smarts. As fate would have it, Oher was taken by a friend to Briarcrest Christian School on the other side of Memphis. Though his education was woefully lacking, the school took a chance on him. That’s where Oher meets Sean Tuohy.
Tuohy is a former Ole Miss basketball player who was able to sympathize with this young man, because he too grew up poor. He offered Oher some help, but it was his wife, Leigh Anne, who could get to know Michael better than anyone. A petite blonde who was a sorority girl cheerleader at Ole Miss, and the daughter of a racist father, makes him a part of the family. She defends him, pushes him, and loves him as her child. Oher is still at a huge disadvantage, but the Tuohys do all they can to give him the things most Americans take for granted.
In the early eighties, Lawrence Taylor was terrorizing NFL quarterbacks, and his play revolutionized the way the outside linebacker was used. Taylor’s favorite path to his prey was from behind. With the right-handed quarterback facing the right side of the field, Taylor would come from the left, where the quarterback couldn’t see him: the blind side. Even if Taylor didn’t make it to his destination, the fear of what might be there when Taylor was on the field was enough to cause quarterbacks to make poor decisions. The NFL is a copy-cat league, and soon others were emulating LT. As the Bill Parcell’s defense took over the league, Bill Walsh was spreading his offensive vision. Because Walsh needed the pass more than the run, pass rushers like Taylor could destroy them. Protecting the quarterback from the blind side rush was second in importance only to the quarterback himself. Correspondingly, the man in charge of having his QB’s back has become the second most highly paid football player in the league.
Michael Oher was born to play left tackle in the NFL, as the Tuohys soon find out. The boy who kept out of trouble by thinking he’d be the next Michael Jordan was being recruited by every big college program in the country. Though his grades weren’t good—how could they be?— and it takes some real knowledge of NCAA loopholes to get him into college, he ends up at the Tuohy’s alma mater, Ole Miss.
Whether Michael Oher will be all that he is projected to be has yet to be decided, but he’s at least on the right path. This is amazing considering his upbringing. The writing is up to Lewis’s usual standards, as he chronicles Oher’s journey towards the NFL. The story itself makes the book worth reading, but that’s not what’s keeping me awake at night.
Michael Oher lost a cruel lottery in life, and this kid isn’t alone. There are other kids out there who don’t get adopted by family willing to make him one of their own. Many don’t have the athletic gifts either. Even Michael’s own natural athletic talent would not have been able to get him out of his own situation. There was no one there to make him go to school, protect him from the bad, or comfort him when he failed. Michael Oher is a remarkable fellow, but without the Tuohys he’s probably not on a football field today. Sean and Leigh Anne realize that there are others like Michael out there, and say they want to do it again. This is what haunts me. Could I do that? There are plenty of excuses not to. I’ve got my own family to think of. I’m not as financially secure as they are. I don’t have the understanding that Sean had of a disadvantaged youth. But still I wonder, and this is what haunts me.
Aside from my own personal explorations, the book heightened my hatred of the NCAA. It’s time to cut this phony bologna that big-time NCAA athletics are about “student athletes.” That’s beyond bullshit, and the organization ought to be ashamed of itself. To read of the NCAA investigation of the Tuohys was maddening. They were investigated for guiding Michael to their alma mater. Because they were his guardians they could shower him with the comforts of life that their other children enjoyed—the most important being a loving family. Yet, the NCAA is concerned that this might be a recruiting violation. Soon there might be other rich folks scooping poor kids out of the ghetto to get their schools to a BCS bowl. SO WHAT?!!!! Is that really so bad? Shouldn’t the NCAA be encouraging this type of behavior, even though Lewis makes it pretty clear that recruiting was not on Sean Tuohy’s mind when he invited him into his home? Nah, that’s just their lot in life.
Why do we tolerate the scholar-athlete charade of the NCAA? Let the Michael Ohers of the world play football. Screw grades, screw class, and screw scholarships—pay these kids the money they are generating for these schools. It’s an outrage that this system operates as it does. I have hope that a few brave governors will one day join together and throw the NCAA out of their schools, pay their athletes…and maybe even have a football playoff. Americans wants to watch gifted kids play football, so let these kids do it and get paid for doing it. Sports economists have preached monopsony exploitation angle for years, but it just doesn’t sell. Michael Lewis humanizes the damage done by the NCAA. It might be the book’s single greatest attribute.
So, if you can’t tell, I liked the book. I suggest picking it up. Although, like me, you’ll probably end up watching a lot more Ole Miss football games with your eyes on the left side of the offensive line.