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.

Don Mattingly thinks pace of play can be improved by changing views on strikeouts

Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly sits in the dugout prior to a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles, Monday, April 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo
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Marlins manager Don Mattingly has one potential solution to the pace of play issue: change the way people value strikeouts, the Associated Press reports.

Strikeouts have been rising steadily since 2005. Then, a typical game averaged 6.30 strikeouts. In 2016, there were 8.03 strikeouts per game. There are many explanations for this phenomenon. For one, teams are searching specifically for young pitchers who can throw hard — like triple-digits hard. They figure they can teach them the other pertinent skills in the minors. Second, Sabermetrics has shown that a strikeout is only marginally worse than an out made on a ball put in play. Sometimes, the strikeout is preferable, especially if there’s a runner on first base with less than two outs and a weak hitter at the plate. Sabermetrics has also shown home runs to be the best and most efficient way to contribute on offense. Furthermore, younger players tend to focus more on power in order to get noticed by scouts. Unless it’s paired with other elite skills, a scout isn’t going to remember a player who hit the ball into the hole on the right side, but he will remember the kid who blasted a 450-foot homer.

Here’s what Mattingly had to say:

Analytically, a few years back nobody cared about the strikeout, so it’s OK to strike out 150, 160, 170 times, and that guy’s still valued in a big way. Well, as soon as we start causing that to be a bad value — the strikeouts — guys will put the ball in play more. So once we say strikeouts are bad and it’s going to cost you money the more you strike out, then the strikeouts will go away. Guys will start making adjustments and putting the ball in play more.

[…]

If our game values [say that] strikeouts don’t matter, they are going to keep striking out, hitting homers, trying to hit home runs and striking out.

Simply believing strikeouts are bad won’t magically change its value. However, creating social pressure regarding striking out can change it. Theoretically, anyway. Creating that social pressure is easier said than done.

There is a dichotomy here as well. Home runs are exciting. Strikeouts and walks are not. Often, though, the three go hand-in-hand-in-hand. A player actively trying to cut down on his strikeouts by putting the ball in play will also likely cut down on his strikeout and walk rates. There doesn’t seem to be an elegant solution here. Wishing for fewer strikeouts, walks, and homers doesn’t really seem to give way to a more exciting game.

Sean Doolittle: “Refugees aren’t stealing a slice of the pie from Americans.”

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 25:  Sean Doolittle #62 of the Oakland Athletics pitches during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 25, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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In the past, we’ve commented on Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle and his girlfriend Eireann Dolan’s community service. In 2015, the pair hosted Syrian refugee families for Thanksgiving and their other charitable efforts have included LGBTQ outreach and help for veterans.

Athletes and their significant others have typically avoided stepping into political waters, but Doolittle and Dolan have shown that it’s clearly no concern to them. In the time since, the Syrian refugee issue has become even more of a hot-button issue and Doolittle recently discussed it with Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times.

I think America is the best country in the world because we’ve been able to attract the best and brightest people from all over the world. We have the smartest doctors and scientists, the most creative and innovative thinkers. A travel ban like this puts that in serious jeopardy.

I’ve always thought that all boats rise with the tide. Refugees aren’t stealing a slice of the pie from Americans. But if we include them, we can make the pie that much bigger, thus ensuring more opportunities for everyone.

Doolittle, of course, is referring to Executive Order 13769 signed by President Trump which sought to limit incoming travel to the United States from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. A temporary restraining order on the executive order was placed on February 3, a result of State of Washington v. Trump.

Doolittle spoke more about the plight refugees face:

These are people fleeing civil wars, violence and oppression that we can’t even begin to relate to. I think people think refugees just kind of decide to come over. They might not realize it takes 18-24 months while they wait in a refugee camp. They go through more than 20 background checks and meetings with immigration officers. They are being vetted.

They come here, and they want to contribute to society. They’re so grateful to be out of a war zone or whatever they were running from in their country that they get jobs, their kids go to our schools, they’re paying taxes, and in a lot of cases, they join our military.

Around this time last year, Craig wrote about Doolittle and Dolan not sticking to baseball. They’re still not, nor should they be. Hopefully, the duo’s outspokenness inspires other players and their loved ones to speak up for what’s right.

[Hat tip: Deadspin’s Hannah Keyser]