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Tanking teams are killing attendance

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Your must-click link of the day is Rob Arthur’s article at Baseball Prospectus in which he analyzed the effect tanking has on attendance. (note: it was originally behind a paywall but it’s now free for everyone, so do go read it).

The executive summary can be read in a Twitter thread Arthur wrote on the subject. The executive summary of the executive summary: Attendance is down again this year and has steadily declined for the past five years. There are several reasons for that, but Arthur’s analysis of attendance against the backdrop of a given team’s probability of making the playoffs — while controlling for weather — shows that 35% of the attendance drop is attributable to a much greater percentage of games involving teams with no playoff shot whatsoever.

And there are way more of those teams: according to Arthur, the fraction of teams out of contention — which he defines as having a less than 5% chance of making the playoffs at the time of a given game — has increased by almost 40% from 2014 to 2018.

And it’s getting worse in 2019. As I mentioned this morning there are at least three and very possibly four teams in the AL that are going to lose 100 games or more and one team in the NL, the Marlins, that will do the same. On a given night, if those teams aren’t playing one another, a full third of the games feature a team making no effort to try to compete over the course of the year. Do you really wanna pay money to go see that?

In the past, this was self-correcting: if fans didn’t show up to the games, owners would not make money, so they worked like crazy to make their teams better so they could make money. As I’ve argued in this space many times, however, that system is gone now. The league increasingly relies on sources of income that have little or no connection to clubs putting entertaining and competitive baseball teams on the field — marketing partnerships, side businesses and real estate ventures — and, in some cases, have no connection to the playing of actual baseball games at all. While those incentives are working for MLB at the moment, they could go away more quickly than the powers that be might think.

If that happens — and if major league clubs continue to see fielding winning and entertaining teams as an unnecessary component of their mission statement — the game could find itself in serious trouble.

An Astros executive asked scouts to use cameras, binoculars to steal signs in 2017

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The Athletic reports that an Astros executive asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts in August of 2017, suggesting in an email that they use cameras or binoculars to do so.

The email, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports, came from Kevin Goldstein, who is currently a special assistant for player personnel but who at the time was the director of pro scouting. In it he wrote:

“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”

The email came during the same month that the Red Sox were found to have illegally used an Apple Watch to steal signs from the Yankees. The Red Sox were fined as a result, and it led to a clarification from Major League Baseball that sign stealing via electronic or technological means was prohibited. Early in 2019 Major League Baseball further emphasized this rule and stated that teams would receive heavy penalties, including loss of draft picks and/or bonus pool money if they were found to be in violation.

It’s an interesting question whether Goldstein’s request to scouts would fall under the same category as the Apple Watch stuff or other technology-based sign-stealing schemes. On the one hand, the email certainly asked scouts to use cameras and binoculars to get a look at opposing signs. On the other hand, it does not appear that it was part of a sign-relaying scheme or that it was to be used in real time. Rather, it seems aimed at information gathering for later use. The Athletic suggests that using eyes or binoculars would be considered acceptable in 2017 but that cameras would not be. The Athletic spoke to scouts and other front office people who all think that asking scouts to use a camera would “be over the line” or would constitute “cheating.”

Of course, given how vague, until very recently Major League Baseball’s rules have been about this — it’s long been governed by the so-called “unwritten rules” and convention, only recently becoming a matter of official sanction — it’s not at all clear how the league might consider it. It’s certainly part and parcel of an overarching sign-stealing culture in baseball which we are learning has moved far, far past players simply looking on from second base to try to steal signs, which has always been considered a simple matter of gamesmanship. Now, it appears, it is organizationally-driven, with baseball operations, scouting and audio-visual people being involved. The view on all of this has changed given how sophisticated and wide-ranging an operation modern sign-stealing appears to be. Major League Baseball was particularly concerned, at the time the Red Sox were punished for the Apple Watch stuff, that it involved management and front office personnel.

Regardless of how that all fits together, Goldstein’s email generated considerable angst among Astros scouts, many of whom, The Athletic and ESPN report, commented in real time via email and the Astros scout’s Slack channel, that they considered it to be an unreasonable request that would risk their reputations as scouts. Some voiced concern to management. Today that email has new life, emerging as it does in the wake of last week’s revelations about the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes.

This is quickly becoming the biggest story of the offseason.