Archive for People

Michael Lewis EconTalk Podcast

Russ Roberts posts an interesting discussion with Michael Lewis focusing on the economics in Moneyball and The Blind Side. As expected, Roberts does an excellent job emphasizing the economic issues.

Most interesting is his discussion of the value of managers. Basically, Lewis says managers hardly matter. The funny thing is, I was just noticing how low MLB manager salaries are relative to football coaches in college and the pros.

Super Bowl Extravaganza

For the past two years, I’ve turned Sabernomics over to Doug Drinen for the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. I won’t be doing so this year, because Doug has become a full-time blogger at the Pro-Football-Reference Blog. So, go on ever and check out what he has to say.

Today, he updates The Manning Index, which he first presented here, two years ago.

Love for Baseball-Reference

Jim Caple of Page 2 has a very nice piece on Sean Forman and all that he is doing with Baseball-Reference.

As it is, the most challenging part of Baseball-Reference.com is convincing your spouse that you aren’t surfing for porn — that you really can spend that many hours staring at the computer screen without a single salacious image.

How does Sean do it?

[It's] dedication, brains and midnight oil that allows us to know that Sandy Koufax held the Mets to one run over eight innings to win his 19th game in 1963 despite pitching on just one day of rest. And that Paul Molitor hit .291 in his 20s and .308 in his 30s. And that Barry Bonds has led off a game with a home run almost as many times (nine) as he’s ended one with a home run (10). And that Pete Rose had more hits against Phil Niekro (64) than any other pitcher. And that …

Sorry. I can’t help myself once I get started.

The hard work also helped Forman reach the true standard of success in life. His hobby is now his career. After all those lonely hours and long years of research, the site has become lucrative enough through subscription and page sponsorships — he says the page averages 40,000-50,000 hits per day — that Forman recently left his teaching position at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia to make Baseball-Reference.com his full-time occupation.

So now he’ll have even more time to make the site better. Though I don’t know how it possibly could be.

Neither do I. Excellent work, Sean.

All I Want for Christmas Is BR.com’s Play Index

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.

How I Became a Baseball Economist

I meant to post this last week, while I was traveling, but computer problems wouldn’t allow it. This is a breakfast speech I presented in October. It’s mostly autobiographical.

Presented to the Rotary Club of Etowah
October 31, 2006

Good morning to everyone, and I’d like to thank the club for inviting me to visit with you this morning. I haven’t been to Cartersville in a long time, and I’m happy to be here.

So what do I have to offer this group? Well, I thought I tell you a little bit about what it is that I do, and how I ended up with this job. What I do for a living is unique: I’m a baseball economist. What does that mean, and what does economics have to do with baseball? I have to admit that I’m a bit shocked about where my career path has led me, so let me give you a brief history of how I got here.

I was your typical unmotivated high school student. Despite having good parents, I took my advantages in life for granted. I barely lifted a finger in school, satisfied with earning Bs, and purposely not challenging myself. I couldn’t get interested in anything—none of the traditional subjects in school excited me. My one success was winning the 1992 North Carolina High School Debate Championship, along with my partner. Though I was eager to learn, I didn’t know where to focus my energy.

When I arrived at Wofford College in the fall of 1992, I had little idea of what I would major in. I continued on with a mentality that was slightly improved over my high school days, but I wasn’t doing anything exciting. But fate would intervene. Wofford had a very unique registration system that would help me out. It was a mad free-for-all in the gym. The professors lined up behind tables and you ran around to sign up for the classes you wanted: first come, first served. As a freshman, I was in the last group in, and after getting three classes, everything else I had wanted was full. All that was left on my list of courses I might want to take during my college career was economics. The Clinton-Bush election was in full swing, and the economy was a big issue. Though I liked politics, I had to admit to myself that I had no understanding of the economy. I promised myself that I would take one economics class before I graduated. “Great, I guess I’ll get that over with.”

My first economics professor was Matt Stephenson. His white hair, soft voice, and attire fit the economist stereotype. But I soon found his lectures to be anything but boring. I thought the guy was hilarious, and apparently I was the only one in the class. I was often the only person laughing at his dry humor; everyone else thought he was just dry. I soon realized why: I think like an economist, and up until that time, I hadn’t been exposed to this way of thinking. But, I had always thought this way, and I was finding out that the whole discipline of economics was built off of a logical foundation that I had already bought into.

For example, take the economic notion of sunk costs. Any economist will tell you that sunk costs are irrelevant, but students have a hard time believing it. Let’s assume I had bought 2 tickets to Game 4 of the World Series for $1,800 (that was the going rate on E-bay) and a non-refundable plane fare to St. Louis for $1,200 for me and my wife. Two hours before my flight, I look on weather.com to see a 100% chance of rain—heavy rain. Even if they are able to get the game in I’m probably going to have to sit through 5-6 hours of getting soaked. I hate getting wet—so does my wife—and I can still see the game on TV if I don’t go. The question is: what am I giving up by not going? The standard student’s answer is $3,000, which is incorrect. Whether I stay or go, I am out $3,000. My choice is between seeing the game wet or seeing it dry. I can see it dry and that’s a perfectly rational decision. And it would be irrational for me to consider the $3,000 spent. It’s gone, and I can’t get it back (the ticket is non-refundable, and I don’t have time to sell and ship the tickets before the game). When I teach sunk costs to students with similar examples, it drives them mad. That’s not the way we’ve been trained to think. “You have to get on that plane or you’ll be out $3,000!” someone will say. I chuckle, because that was my first reaction. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood.

I was hooked. After a few weeks with Dr. Stephenson, I was an econ major. I would take nearly every course in the subject offered by the department. I became interested in the economics of government—a field known as Public Choice—and would go to George Mason University to study under Nobel Prize winning economist, Jim Buchanan. I wrote my dissertation on how different legislature configurations influence fiscal policy. I have published many academic papers on public economic issues, and I am still an active participant in theses fields—attending conferences, refereeing papers, and writing new papers. That’s pretty odd work for a baseball economist, so let me tell you how I moved off the standard economist track.

My second job out of graduate school was at Sewanee: The University of the South. I was eager to continue my dissertation research, and related projects, when I arrived. Because the department was small, I didn’t have any colleagues working in my fields, and I found my research engines cooling. I had been used to graduate school where I was overloaded with ideas. I began having lunch with a colleague of mine in the math department, Doug Drinen. Though Doug was a mathematician, he had majored in economics as an undergraduate, so he liked talking about economics. But also, we were both huge sports fans. I had known about the field of sports economics in graduate school, but I had steered away from it. One of my former professors, Bob Tollison (now at Clemson), had done a lot of research using sports as a testing ground for economic theories in a field he dubbed sportometrics. Traditionally, economists had only concentrated on the business aspects of the games, but sportometrics used the in-game data. For example, Dr. Tollison was interested in testing how much influence police had on deterring crime. So, he looked at the fouling behavior of players in the ACC basketball tournament after the league added a third referee. He found that the added referee deterred fouling and that it improved the play of the game.

Doug and I would often have lunch to discuss economics questions in sports. Doug was interested, but Doug didn’t let on knew much more about sports than I did. Doug had grown up reading the Baseball Abstracts of Bill James—he owned every single one from 1982 on. Bill James, as many of you probably know, is the founder of sabermetrics, which involves and analytical approach to studying baseball. When arguing who was the best hitter, sabermetricians don’t just look at hits, RBIs, and homers (traditional measures of hitting), but instead first evaluate what metrics tell us about scoring runs, and evaluate them according to objective benchmarks. I had never heard of sabermetrics. Now, when we talked about baseball, Doug could have simply said, “you should really read some of Bill James.” But he didn’t. Instead, he’d roll out James’s and other sabermetricians’ arguments when they applied. It was great fun, and as I enquired further he finally introduced me to James, and let me borrow all of his abstracts. I was jealous.

Remember I mentioned my academic struggles as an adolescent? One day I said to Doug, “If I had known about Bill James when I was 12, it would have changed my life.” As I read through Bill James, I saw we spoke the same language. He’s an economist, despite not having the official title, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was an econ major as an undergraduate. When I was twelve, baseball was one of the most important things in my life. My playing days wouldn’t last much past Little League, but I followed the game. Had I known of Bill James, I would have gotten that dose of economics that I wouldn’t get until I was 19. We all reminisce about our wasted youths, and things that might have changes our fortunes, but I honestly think sabermetrics would have made a huge difference in my life.

One of the discussions that Doug and I had was about the designated hitter. He liked it, I didn’t; however, that wasn’t what we were interested in. Some economist friends of mine had published a paper arguing that hit batters were higher in the AL than in the NL, because AL pitchers didn’t bat. What does this have to do with economics? It fits with the law of demand—the higher (lower) the price, the lower (greater) quantity consumed. Pitchers in the NL faced a higher price for plunking opposing hitters, because they faced retaliation when they bat. AL pitchers didn’t have to bat; therefore, they faced a lower price and thus consumed more hit batters. In fact, the evidence fits with the theory. Since the introduction of the DH in 1973, the AL hit batter rate has been 15% higher than the NL’s. However, there is an empirical problem here, one that a few other economists had noticed (including Freakonomics author Steven Levitt). A higher hit batter rate isn’t necessarily caused by a law of demand response. Because pitchers are typically exceptionally poor hitters, the last thing the opposing pitcher wants to do is hit a pitcher when he’s batting. Therefore, the lower hit batter rates in the NL might reflect pitchers being careful not to hit the pitcher when he bats, because he represents an easy out.

Doug and I reviewed these past studies, and we both agreed the data used wasn’t good enough to differentiate the between the two hypotheses. But, because of Doug’s involvement in the sabermetrics world, he knew about a gold mine of data known as the Retrosheet project. Retrosheet is a volunteer project that gathers play-by-play data from every baseball game ever played. The project is far from complete, but we were able to use some of the data to test the reasons for hit batters by controlling for several contributing factors. Also, Doug’s familiarity with sabermetrics and computer programming were integral to the project. Using some advanced econometric methods we were about to tease out the different effects, and we found that the law of demand explanation explained most of the differences in hit batters between leagues.

We presented our findings at national mathematics conference, and, to our surprise, The Wall Street Journal picked it up and wrote a story on it. The New York Times Magazine listed our work as one of its Ideas of the Year in 2004. Here I am, a guy who had planned on developing optimal fiscal policy rules to improve government and possibly aid in constitution formation for emerging nations getting calls from major media outlets about studies on baseball. But thing were about to get even more interesting.

After the 2004 season, Jaret Wright had turned his amazing season with the Braves into a fat free agent contract with the New York Yankees. Some Braves fans were disappointed, but others said not to worry, “Leo Mazzone can fix anybody.” “Pfft!” I scoffed. “There’s no way the pitching coach could be responsible for resurrecting these careers. It’s just a matter of perception. We remember guys like Jaret Wright, John Burkett, and Mike Remlinger, but forget about the guys like Albie Lopez, Odalis Perez, and Jason Marquis.” So, I decided to do something about it. I gathered up a list of every pitcher who’d pitched for Mazzone and for another pitching coach and compared their performances with and without Mazzone. I controlled for factors such as league, age, park differences in preventing runs, etc. I was shocked: Leo Mazzone was shaving about half-a-run of his pitchers’ ERAs. That’s a huge effect. I didn’t think much of it and posted the results of the study on my blog, Sabernomics. Blogs are a funny thing, because you don’t understand who is reading what you’ve written. It turns out a lot of people were reading it, and a follow up study I did for The Baseball Analysts. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN.com, and even Fox Saturday Baseball were talking about my results. It was at this point that I realized that while public economics is fine field for me, the market was sending me a signal: you’re a sports economist specializing in baseball.

By this time, I had already started writing my book The Baseball Economist. Initially, the book was more about the business side of the game. In particular, I was applying different models of competition to demonstrate that MLB imposed little to no monopoly harm on society. But with the success of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, which offers a great lesson in the economics of technological innovation, I realized that a focus on topics within the game would be more interesting. Furthermore, Freakonomics would soon be published, which made economics the hippest it’s ever been as a discipline. And because most of my research focused on play within the game, I saw that this is where I had the most to offer the sports economics community.

So, the book is a collection of things I’ve been thinking about for the past few years. Some of the ideas I’ve discussed before, others are new. I hope that the book will encourage people to increase their interest in baseball and economics. And regardless of how well the book sells, it was a pleasure to write.

Here are some brief descriptions of topics that I cover in the book. I hope you’ll find them interesting enough to purchase the book.

1) Hit batters and the law of demand – expanding on my work with Doug Drinen
2) Protection – Do good on-deck hitters protect the batter at the plate? This is based off of another study I conducted with Doug Drinen, in which use economics of externalities (actions that spill over onto third parties) to examine the impact of protection.
3) Why aren’t there any left-handed catchers? How the short supply of southpaws has caused their extinction at this one position.
4) What advantage do big cities have over small cities? The advantage exists, but how big is it?
5) Is the rise is offense the result of heavy steroid use by the players? It’s not clear, but there are many potential causes that we must rule out before we settle on steroids as the only explanation.
6) What’s a ballplayer worth? Did you know that John Smoltz was more valuable than Andruw Jones in 2005?
7) What is the best managed organization in baseball? It’s not the Yankee’s or the A’s.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

RIP: Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman, one of my heroes, died today at 94. He is one of the few popular economists who was also an academic giant. When I teach economics, it’s amazing how often his name comes up. We were lucky to have him live so long. His memoir, co-authored with his wife Rose, was a joy to read. He’s done so much, I don’t have time to summarize his accomplishments. I’ll just say thank you.


Time Cover

Addendum: Austan Goolsbee explains one of the reasons Friedman was so influential to economics.

What struck me as I talked with my colleagues yesterday was how Mr. Friedman’s legacy among economists is in some ways similar but in some ways quite different from the public view. His manner of research, his personality, even the topics he studied spawned a great deal of the economics we know today — even among economists whose politics differ greatly from his. A striking number of topics he worked on, for example, ultimately developed into other people’s Nobel awards.

One of Mr. Friedman’s major impacts on economics was in establishing a basic worldview. Economics is not a game or an academic exercise, in that view. Economics is a powerful tool to understand how the world works. He used straightforward theory. He gathered data from anywhere he could get it. He wanted to see how well economics fitted the world. That view now holds sway throughout much of the profession.

Mr. Friedman was proof that a great economist could become famous for just talking about economics. But he wasn’t afraid to poke his nose in places where people said economists had no business being. He passed that attitude on to students like Gary S. Becker, who would win the Nobel in 1992, and in the wider profession, especially among a younger set of economists like Steven D. Levitt of “Freakonomics” fame.

Mr. Friedman’s legacy might mean laissez-faire politics to the outside world, but to economists — and especially Chicago economists — it is more about trying to understand how the world works and engaging in a debate about it.

Thanks to The Sports Economist and Marginal Revolution for the links.

RIP: Johnny Sain

Former Brave and Leo Mazzone mentor, Johnny Sain, died yesterday. I hope it is a comfort to know that he died as someone who mattered. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family

Addendum: Jeff Merron has some great interviews with Sain’s friends—Jim Bouton, Hal Naragon, Denny McClain, Mickey Lolich, and Leo Mazzone—over at The Southpaw.

In Case You’re Interested

Phil Birnbaum isn’t too happy with me.

But to J.C. Bradbury, that research might as well not exist.

As he writes, all that research was done only by the “analytical baseball community” – not by reputable Ph.D.s in economics. It has not undergone “formal peer review.” Further, “it has not been tested with sufficient statistical rigor” and “has undergone very little formal scrutiny.” It does not use “proper econometric techniques.”

And so Dr. Bradbury sets out to correct this. How? Not by reviewing the existing research, and validating it academically. Not by finding those studies which have “insufficient statistical rigor” and analyzing them statistically. Not by summarizing what’s already out there and criticizing it.

No, Dr. Bradbury’s paper ignores it. Completely. He mentions none of it in his article, not even in the bibliography. Instead, Dr. Bradbury’s explains his own study as if it’s the first and only test of the DIPS hypothesis.

This happens all the time in academic studies involving baseball. Years of sabermetric advances, as valid as anything in the journals, are dismissed out of hand because of a kind of academic credentialism, an assumption that only formal academic treatment entitles a body of knowledge to be considered, and the presumption that only the kinds of methods that econometricians use are worthy of acknowledgement.

What kind of person would I be if I didn’t acknowledge my critics? I’m not sure why Phil is so angry with me, and I don’t think he chose the best forum to address his concerns. I guess I should apologize for knowing some econometrics, since it’s only useful for out-credentialing other scholars. If you read the paper, I think it’s very clear that I’m not claiming to have invented DIPS, just trying to replicate it for an academic audience, then to test how well the labor market values DIPS. I’m not sure that it warrants a detour through a few studies on the Internet. I think it’s a pretty pro-sabermetric paper.

The paper he’s discussing is an earlier version of a paper of mine that is forthcoming in Journal of Sports Economics. I don’t own the copyright to the newest version, so I can’t post it, but I’ll tell you that the cluster of years where BABIP seems to matter disappears when I make some slight changes to the model. Also, the results hold for runs allowed as well as ERA. These modifications were the result of some excellent suggestions by an anonymous referee. If you’re reading, thanks!

Sometimes I wonder, if everyone is just going to assume I’m a professor ass-hat, maybe I ought to just act like the real deal. And now I’m off to devour my sons.

Addendum: More comments at BTF.

The Southpaw

Jeff Merron is now writing for 108 Magazine, where he’s running The Southpaw blog. You may remember him from his extensive article on Leo Mazzone last year for ESPN.com.

With the passing of Syd Thrift last week, Jeff decided to publish his full interview with Thrift that he used in his profile of Mazzone. Thrift is the man responsible for ending Mazzone’s playing career and giving him his first coaching job. Here’s an except.

THRIFT: A lot of the pitching coaches try to get everybody to pitch the way they pitch. That’s the mistake they make.

JM: But they know Leo doesn’t do that, right, I mean Leo doesn’t keep anything secret?

THRIFT: No, no, no he’s wide open.

JM: So, if let’s say I were trying to become a pitching coach, I…

THRIFT: You’d go learn from him, wouldn’t you?

JM: What’s your favorite thing about Leo?

THRIFT: My favorite thing about Leo is that he’s a teacher. You know a teacher is sometimes a person who can take information and give it to another party. Sometimes though without even realizing what’s happening, you know? It just happens. And I think the main thing is, the reason he has great results is the players and the pitchers trust him. They trust him and they respect him.

Also, check out his discussion of Johnny Sain.

Interview with BDD: Part II

Joe has posted Part II of my interview at Baseball Digest Daily. In this installment, we talk about The Baseball Economist.