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The big flaw in modern ballparks

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Travis Sawchik writes about the post-Camden Yards generation of ballparks over at FanGraphs. The ones everyone loves because they’re nice and clean and friendly and are full of amenities. And that’s true! They are nice! But they all have a huge flaw: unless you’re in expensive seats, you’re too far away from the action.

Sawchik uses cross sections of ballparks — available at Andrew Clem’s website — to show that fans sitting in the upper decks of ballparks are way higher and way farther back than they used to be at many old ballparks such as Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, Old Comiskey, Tiger Stadium and Ebbets Field.

A lot of this has to do with an admirable impulse: to eliminate the beams which obstructed the view of many seats in those old parks. If you want to move that upper deck closer to the field, you have to have the beams because one can only achieve so much via cantilever effect. But that’s not the only impulse and probably not the primary one. More expansive lower bowls — which feature more expensive tickets — push the upper deck back and up. As do the luxury suites and club level amenities in between the lower and upper decks. Exacerbating this is the fact that most newer parks are built on vast tracts of land with few architectural constraints. If you can sprawl, you will, which leaves the most affordable seats in the land of binoculars.

I don’t agree with everything Sawchik writes here. He spends a lot of time talking about how much better neighborhood parks like Wrigley Field are and how it’d be better if newer parks were built in neighborhoods. I agree, neighborhood parks are ideal, but the fact is, most places don’t have mass transit like Chicago does. In most cities you have to have a place for 40,000 people to park.

That’s a quibble, though. Mostly, it’s a good look at an important thing most folks overlook when they praise the new parks. Important because, if you don’t have an enjoyable experience at the ballpark, you’re not likely to come back. And if you’re not fortunate enough to be able to buy expensive tickets, you may not have a great experience at the ballpark.

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

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Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.

Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.

The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:

At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.

It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.

There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?

Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.

Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.