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.

Major League Baseball orders balls stored in climate controlled rooms for some reason

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Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reports that Major League Baseball will mandate that teams store baseballs in “an air-conditioned and enclosed room[s]” this season. He adds that the league will install climate sensors in each room to measure temperature and humidity during the 2018 season, with such data being used to determine if humidors — like the ones being used in Colorado and Arizona — are necessary for 2019.

This move comes a year after Major League Baseball’s single season, league-wide home run record was shattered, with 6,105 dingers being hit. It also comes after a year in which two different studies — one by Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman for The Ringer, and another by FiveThirtyEight’s Rob Arthur — found evidence that baseballs were altered at some point around the middle of the 2015 season which coincided with home run numbers spiking in the middle of that year, quite suddenly.

Also coming last year: multiple player complaints about the baseball seeming different, with pitchers blaming a rash of blister problems stemming from what they believed to be lower seams on the baseballs currently in use than those in use in previous years. Players likewise complained about unusually smooth and/or juiced baseballs during the World Series, which some believe led to a spike of home runs in the Fall Classic.

To date, Major League Baseball has steadfastly denied that the balls are a problem, first issuing blatantly disingenuous denials,  and later using carefully chosen words to claim nothing was amiss. Specifically, Major League Baseball claimed that the balls were within league specifications but failed to acknowledge that league specifications are wide enough to encompass baseballs which could have radically different flight characteristics while still, technically, being within spec.

Based on Verducci’s report, it seems that MLB is at least past the denial stage and is attempting to understand and address the issues about which many players have complained and which have, without question, impacted offense in the game:

Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday that MLB commissioned a research project after last season to study the composition, storage and handling of the baseballs. He said that investigation is not yet completed. “I’m not at the point to jump that gun right now,” he said about the findings.

The investigation is not yet completed, but the fact that the league is now ordering changes in the manner in which balls are handled before use suggests to me that the league has learned that there is at least something amiss about the composition or manufacture of the baseballs.

Major League Baseball is a lot of things, but quick to impose costs and changes of process on its clubs like this is not one of them. There is likely a good reason for it.