If you're going to trash baseball, at least use the right data

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NOTE: See below for an update/addendum

The Big Lead ran a big story yesterday about baseball attendance in which the author attempted to argue that baseball’s attendance gains in recent years are a function of the novelty of new stadiums, that novelty has worn off and now attendance is about to crater.

That’s an interesting idea. And in particular markets it may have some validity. Unfortunately none of the data in the piece supports the premise, and there’s a giant, giant omission that renders the post completely useless.

I won’t reproduce all of the tables — click through to read them yourself — but the meat of the piece sets forth attendance gains by the Indians, Orioles, White Sox, Mariners, Rangers, Blue Jays and Braves in the years after their stadiums were built. Then those numbers are compared to average attendance figures for those stadiums for 2005 to 2009.  All but one of them — the White Sox — showed a big decline.

See! The novelty has worn off!! You’re doomed, baseball! Doooooomed!

Of course, maybe it would have been helpful for the author to include the one bit of data that has been shown by multiple other studies to best correlate with attendance: winning. If he had, he would have to note that every single one of those teams save one — the White Sox, who won a World Series in 2005 — suffered major on-the-field declines during the sample period. Yeah, the Indians had a blip in there for 2007, but overall the team was way worse off in that period than in the decade after Progressive Field was built.

The statistical recklessness continues when the author attempts to show that even in the old stadiums (e.g. Fenway, Dodger Stadium, Wrigley) the increases in attendance do not match the overall increase in population, with the haughty conclusion that “If the upsurge was from baseball’s burgeoning popularity and not new
stadiums, the teams that kept the same stadiums from 1989 to 2009 . . . would show
increases,” presumably commensurate with population growth based on what he wrote earlier in the piece.

Except Fenway, Wrigley and Dodger Stadium were pretty damn full during the early parts of the sample he uses. Sure, Fenway has added some seats over that time, but we’re not talking a gigantic number. How can the author expect these parks to match the nearly 20% increase in population over that time? Not that those parks didn’t show attendance increases anyway (they did).

Look, you can argue all day about whether baseball is popular, deeply popular, deceptively popular, the bestest thing ever, the worst thing ever or anything in between.  But if you’re going to attempt to do so quantitatively, at least don’t leave out the most important variables (i.e. wins and loses) and please, don’t be so disingenuous as to expect the Red Sox and the Dodgers to violate the laws of physics in order for them to refute your point, OK?

UPDATE:  I received an email from J.C. Bradbury, economist and baseball dude extraordinaire.  This is territory he knows very well, so his comments are definitely better reproduced than merely summarized:

While the evidence provided includes glaring omissions, as you correctly noted, even after controlling for factors such as winning and population
the general theory is right.  There is typically a huge boost in
attendance from new stadiums, and within the economics literature this
boost is known as the “Honeymoon Effect.” [note: see more from Bradbury on that here]  It tends to last 6-10 years
after a new stadium has been built.  Here is a link to a recent study of
the issue
 

So, I think the Big Lead story falls in the
Unjustified True Belief category of knowledge.  Like seeing a broken
clock stopped at the exact time it actually is.

Magic Johnson says the Dodgers will win the World Series

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Baseball, as we so often note around here, is unpredictable. Especially when it comes to the playoffs. You can be the best team in the land for six months but a few bad days can end your season once October hits.

In 2001 the Seattle Mariners won 116 games in the regular season but lost the ALCS to the Yankees, four games to one. In 1906 the Cubs won 116 games in a 152-game season and lost the World Series. In 1954 the Indians won 111 games in a 154-game season and lost the World Series. In 1931 the Philadelphia A’s won 107 games and lost the World Series.

More recently, with the advent of expanded playoffs, the chances for the team with the best record to win the World Series have been pretty dang terrible. Since the beginning of the wild card era, only five times has the team with the game’s best record gone on to win the World Series: The 1998 and 2009 Yankees, the 2007 and 2013 Red Sox and the 2016 Cubs. That’s it.

At the moment, the Los Angeles Dodgers have baseball’s best record. They’re 71-31 and sit 12 games up in their division. Their playoff chances are almost 100%. The above examples notwithstanding, if you had to make a prediction as to who might win the World Series, it would not be unreasonable to pick the Dodgers. Sure, you’d want to make sure they got Clayton Kershaw back by early September or thereabouts to make it a safer prediction, but it’d be a totally defensible pick. Maybe even the one most people make.

But it’d be the utmost in magical thinking to presume that one could make such a prediction with any degree of certainty, right? The Los Angeles Times, however, passes along some Magical thinking:

Magic Johnson called his shot Thursday night, and he wasn’t shy about it. The Dodgers’ co-owner did not hesitate when he predicted how the team would finish this year.

“The Dodgers are going to win the World Series this year,” Johnson said. “This is our year.”

The headline calls it a “guarantee.” I don’t know if I’d call it that — I think it’s more of a confident prediction — but it is a bold statement whatever you call it.

If I had to pick one team at the moment — and we could assume a healthy Clayton Kershaw — I suppose I would make them my World Series favorites too. And, yes, if I had an ownership interest in the Dodgers, I’d probably say what Johnson said.

But given the example of history, I think “field” would be a much safer bet.

Mariners trade Steve Cishek to the Rays for swingman Erasmo Ramirez.

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The Tampa Bay Rays have acquired reliever Steve Cishek from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for reliever Erasmo Ramirez.

Cishek had appeared in 23 games this season for Seattle after recovering from major offseason hip surgery. He’s 1-1 with a 3.15 ERA, with a 15/7 K/BB ratio in 20 innings. He’s a setup man right now, but he has experience as a closer, saving 25 games for Seattle last year and as many as 39 back when he pitched for the Marlins in 2014.

Ramirez has appeared in 26 games for the Rays and has started eight games. He’s 4-3 with a 4.80 ERA and a 55/16 K/BB ratio in 69.1 innings. This will be his second stint with the Mariners, having played for them from 2012-14.

Sort of a surprising deal given that both Tampa Bay and Seattle are competing for a wild card spot, but needs are needs.