Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Baseball Economist by J.C. Bradbury

Why I Read It: Bought it at the MIT Press bookstore; and I'm still looking for a baseball book I don't like.

Summary: Looking deeply between the numbers at baseball, finding true value, missed opportunities, etc.

My Thoughts: I've always been one of those people who has thought that sabermatricians are doing a lot to tear down the fun of baseball, much like fantasy football players have done to that sport. But I haven't stood outside of my front door and yelled at them all to get off my lawn or anything like that; far from it. In fact, I'm a stat geek. I've always just thought that there's room for a basic, pure love of the game that should not be forsaken. There's nothing like the anticipation of a long fly ball edging its way toward the fence, then the exuberance that erupts when it crosses that line. The immediate reaction should be "YEAH!" and not, "Well, that's going to do wonders for his OPS."

But I do think that once we step outside the stadium and reduce major league baseball players to heaps of numbers (which we do), there is a lot of fascinating information therein. And, true to the title, the author does expose some, like why Bartolo Colon never should have won his Cy Young Award and why Derrek Lee was stiffed out of an MVP.

The author digs into many long-term nagging questions about baseball, some of which bring up questions of my own. For example, the author goes into pretty fine detail about the advantages and disadvantages of left and right-handedness behind the plate, debunking the old notion, for instance, that left-handed-throwing catchers can't throw runners out trying to steal third base. Steals of third happen so rarely, and generally are not worth the gamble anyway, that having a left-handed catcher would hardly influence a game, or a season. He mentions that right-handed catchers have no problem throwing to first, but fails to mention that nobody ever tries to steal first. The timing is different when you're just trying to pick somebody off. But there are more issues to be raised.

First, when a catcher attempts to throw out a runner stealing a base, he is in his stance to catch the ball for quick release well before the pitch arrives. Whether he's righty or lefty, the mechanics are the same, and the results should be the same.

The problem arises with the handedness of the batter. The major leagues have a preponderance of right-handed hitters. When a runner steals second and a right-handed catcher jumps up to throw, most of the time the batter at the plate is right-handed, meaning that the catcher has a clear path to throw the ball. For a left-handed catcher, most of the time the batter is in the way. That, to me, would be a hindrance. And the fact is that when baseball was young, there were very few left-handers in general. One writer, Bugs Baer, wrote in 1923 about the lack of left-handed catchers, saying that this was in fact the reason, that before they were so policed, batters would make hell for a left-handed catcher trying to throw to second.

The author brings up a Bill James quote at the end of the chapter, in which James states that since there are so few left-handed throwing major leaguers, teams should prize the best arms, which they do, by not using them as catchers, but instead as pitchers. But there's more to pitching than just a live arm. Without control and accuracy, a 95 mph fastball is for naught.

So, in the end, as far as the left-handed catcher question goes, I am just not convinced, at least by this argument.

As for other topics: The author dedicates a chapter to the big market vs. small market question (does a large population guarantee success?), and in the end states that the belief in the idea is misleading. Yes, a large fanbase can have an effect (i.e., New York, population 18 million, should outplay Kansas City, ten times smaller, as the former can afford to pay for better talent), but that other factors are involved outside of money. True. But he misses one. "The bigger problem appears to be inept management of a few clubs that happen to be smaller market teams." Doesn't it stand to reason that if a team can't afford to pay top notch baseball talent, that it also can't afford to pay top notch managerial, administration and baseball operations personnel as well? Can't "inept management" fall right back under the small market blues?

One question I'd really like answered is sudden regional variability. Why does the NFC South go south? Why does the Western Conference dominate the NBA right now? Is it just pure coincidence that all of the teams in one NHL division can, for lack of a better word, suck at the same time? Do teams generally attempt to build their rosters to defeat their nearest neighbors, just to "get in the tournament" and worry about the big prizes at the end later?

I think I could go on and on, but will stop here.


  1. "I've always been one of those people who has thought that sabermatricians are doing a lot to tear down the fun of baseball, much like fantasy football players have done to that sport."

    As I was reading your comment above, I could hear my husband and son in the kitchen talking about various players on their fantasy football rosters.

    This is the first and last year of fantasy football for us. It does take the fun out of watching a team. Instead it's all about individuals. It also leads to time wasted that could be better spent on homework (or college essays).

    I read your above quote to my son, and he surprised me by actually knowing what "sabermatricians" meant. I had to look it up.

    Interesting point on regional variability. I'll have to bring that up at dinner and see what the guys think. They were talking about the NFC South earlier.


  2. Well, I would never say anything that would drag a student away from homework or college essays! I think the whole thing has just turned sports on its head. We rooted for local teams forever because we had no real way of knowing what the other teams were up to in the moment, but that has all changed. The author actually states that we should do away with geographical ties for baseball teams and just make them vagabonds, a never-ending road show (much like professional wrestling, I guess). It's an interesting concept, and one which would play fully into the individualization of the sport and the way we watch it.

    I wish your son luck on those essays!