Myth Busting in Baseball

Posted on February 16, 2007 by

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Sharon Begley of The Wall Street Journal has authored a column today entitled: “A New Study Shows How Baseball Myths Can Hurt the Game.”

The “study” Begley notes is not one study, but a series of studies authored and summarized by JC Bradbury in The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed. This is Bradbury’s first book, due to be released next month. Here is how Begley summarizes the book in the second and third paragraph of her review:

With pitchers and catchers reporting to the grapefruit and cactus leagues this week, it’s time for baseball fans to dust off the equipment they, too, need for the 2007 season. I am referring, of course, to calculators, statistics, economics and multiple regression analysis, which calculates how much one factor (such as market size) contributes to some outcome (team wins).

In the hands of Prof. Bradbury, of Kennesaw State University, Georgia, these techniques lead to counterintuitive results sure to spark a bar fight or two. His coming book “The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed,” takes aim at all sorts of baseball lore to separate fact from myth.

Begley is not alone in saying very nice things about this book. Here is what Publisher Weekly had to say:

Subjecting recent baseball debates to plentiful regression analyses, Kennesaw State economist Bradbury gamely fuses our national pastime and the “dismal science” somewhat in the spirit of Steven Levitt (Freakonomics), Michael Lewis (Moneyball) and Bill James (Baseball Between the Numbers). Like the latter, Bradbury offers a front-office perspective on labor (that’s the players), salaries, managerial influence, steroids, market size and the like. Like a scrappy role player, Bradbury’s enthusiasm is evident (he’s a Braves supporter); he offers a chapter on managers’ ability to work the umps (”it appears that most managers don’t seem to have any real impact in arguing balls and strikes”) and investigates top pitching coach Leo Mazzone’s contributions. A blogger at his Web site sabernomics.com (a play on the acronym SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research), Bradbury, while not forging new ground, shines in the closing chapters, in which he convincingly bucks the conventional wisdom that Major League Baseball behaves like a monopoly. While the numbers crunched are more of the Financial Times than the box score kind, the issues the book deals with are those discussed in many a barroom.

And Booklist noted the following:

Bradbury would be the first guy to tell you that baseball fans are the most statistically minded sports fans out there. And he should know: he is an economics professor and a baseball addict (and a popular blogger, too). Here, he tackles some of the game’s most cherished truisms and controversies. Is being left-handed really a disadvantage for a catcher? What role, really, do steroids play in being a home-run king? (You may be surprised at the answer.) How can we effectively evaluate a player’s value to his team? Ball fans may be shocked at how relevant economics is to their favorite game, and economists may find an exciting new application for their specialty. Like John Allen Paulos, author of such “popular math” books as A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1995), Bradbury writes with a smooth, accessible style and makes the tricky game of numbers seem both straightforward and exciting. Like Bill James’ Abstracts (2003), this volume could become essential reading for baseball fans.

And then there was this comment:

“Combining sabermetrics with the tools and techniques of economics, Bradbury has done more than just discover “Sabernomics.” He has demonstrated that economics can provide fresh and fascinating insights into the National Pastime.”

Okay, that last one is my comment on this book from its cover. As readers of this forum know, I am a big fan of Bradbury’s research and his blog, Sabernomics. So it’s not surprising that I would say (and will continue to say) very nice things about this work.

I do want to add an observation to Begley’s glowing review in The Wall Street Journal. Above I reported the second and third paragraph from her review. Here is the first paragraph:

After St. Louis won the 2006 World Series, you’d think fans in small cities would stop grousing that major-market teams have a built-in edge. Should any of you not be inclined to concede error, economist J.C. Bradbury is ready to regale you with statistics, regression analysis and Cartesian plots to prove mathematically that, while big-market baseball teams win more than small-market teams do, market size explains only part of the differential.

The idea that payroll does not explain all of wins should be familiar to those who have read The Wages of Wins. A few months ago Stacey Brook summarized our research on payroll and wins in baseball, a post that led to some debate. Bradbury also weighed in on the subject, noting that his research confirmed our basic point.

It’s important to note that the issue of payroll and wins is but one story Bradbury tells in his book. The Baseball Economist covers a vast number of subjects in baseball, including the impact the designated hitter has on hit batters, the value of “protection” in a line-up, and the ability of managers to lobby for balls and strikes. And this list is only from the first 25% of the book. The entire book covers so much more and is sure to do as its title suggests – Expose the Real Game of Baseball.

Over the next month I hope to offer a few more comments on the many new insights Bradbury offers, and hopefully convince as many people as I can to buy and read The Baseball Economist.

– DJ

Posted in: Baseball Stories