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


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.

Tigers in discussions with Jordan Zimmermann

Jordan Zimmermann
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reports that the Tigers are in discussions with free agent starter Jordan Zimmermann. His sources have told him that the talks have become “serious”.

Zimmermann, 29, has a career 3.32 ERA across parts of seven seasons in the majors. He finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award balloting in 2014, finishing with a 2.66 ERA and a 182/29 K/BB ratio over 199 2/3 innings.

Among starters who have amassed at least 1,000 innings since 2009, only Cliff Lee, Dan Haren, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Greinke have compiled a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Zimmermann’s 4.09. While he doesn’t have the star power of other free agents such as Greinke or David Price, the Tigers would certainly improve their rotation by bringing him on board.

Blue Jays still focused on upgrading their pitching

Marco Estrada
AP Photo/LM Otero

Having already added Jesse Chavez and J.A. Happ to the mix and re-signing Marco Estrada early in the offseason, Blue Jays interim GM Tony LaCava said the team will continue to pursue pitching upgrades, as Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith reports. Nicholson-Smith added that LaCava declined to comment on free agent ace David Price. It is believed that the Jays will not pursue Price and other big-name free agent starting pitchers given their November activity.

The Jays re-signed Estrada to a two-year, $26 million deal on November 13, acquired Chavez from the Athletics in exchange for reliever Liam Hendriks on November 20 and signed Happ to a three-year, $36 million deal on Friday.

Nicholson-Smith notes in a column on Sportsnet that the Jays need to address the bullpen in particular. That is especially true after swapping Hendriks, who had a career-best 2.92 ERA out of the Jays’ bullpen in 2015, for a back-end starting pitcher.

Report: Jonathan Papelbon is “untradeable”

Jonathan Papelbon
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports spoke to an anonymous baseball executive, who said that Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon is “untradeable”. The Nationals are hoping to trade both Papelbon and the man he displaced, Drew Storen.

Papelbon has a poor reputation in baseball, particularly after a dugout altercation with superstar outfielder Bryce Harper. Focusing strictly on what he does on the field, Papelbon still gets the job done. The 35-year-old finished the last season with a combined 2.13 ERA, 24 saves, and a 56/12 K/BB ratio over 63 1/3 innings between the Phillies and Nationals.

The Nationals owe Papelbon $11 million for the 2016 season.

Minor league home run king Mike Hessman retires

NEW YORK - JULY 29:  Mike Hessman #19 of the New York Mets bats against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 29, 2010 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Cardinals 4-0.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper reports that corner infielder Mike Hessman has retired from professional baseball after 20 seasons. Hessman hit 433 home runs in the minor leagues, an all-time record. He broke Buzz Arlett’s record this past August and with style as #433 was a grand slam.

Hessman, 37, was selected in the 16th round of the 1996 draft by the Braves and remained with the organization through the 2004 season. He then went to the Tigers from 2005-09, the Mets in 2010, then drifted into the Astros and Reds’ farm systems before returning to the Tigers for the last two years.

Hessman took 250 plate appearances at the major league level, batting .188/.272/.422 with 14 home runs and 33 RBI.