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Daily Box Score 8/4: Academic Disciplines and Baseball Collide!

Before we start, let's get the PitchF/X drooling out of the way. Neftali Feliz has arrived.

Economists and philosophers (not to mention physicists and mathematicians) don't have a terribly long list of things in common. (In fact, the closest I've seen an entire room of adults come to fisticuffs was at an economics vs. philosophy lecture.) Nevertheless, it seems a great many philosophers and economists appreciate baseball. So when I wanted a calm look at two recent storylines in baseball, well, I turned to a philosopher and an economist.

It is possible that a lot of people aren't as sick of talking about steroids and PEDs as I am. But I would guess if you plotted the opinions of sportswriters vs. those of the general public, there would not be much overlap. That's why I was so pleased when Jonah Goldwater applied the reasoning of the Euthyphro dilemma to the question: "Is taking steroids morally wrong?" He says:

After reflection, we may be left only with the vague or nagging sense that performance-enhancers are wrong, and that something creepy is going on. At every moment of our lives, we are each faced with the question "what should I do?". When that ballplayer is faced with a decision whether to take certain chemicals that might allow him to continue to do what he loves, or provide for his family’s long term financial security, and he is wondering if using them is wrong, he should hear more than "it just is."

There's plenty of juicy moral philosophy to go with it at the link.

So having learned something from philosophers, what can we learn from the economists? Because of the bailouts over the last year, we have heard a lot about the economic concept of "moral hazard." Moral hazard is one of the things economists say can make markets inefficient, because it is a type of information asymmetry. But how does it impact general managers in baseball?

Writing for Dugout Central, Tyler Hissey says it can be a big problem:

Clearly, Ricciardi increases the chances for success in the near term by holding onto Halladay. It was in his personal best interest, as far as holding down his dream gig, to keep the righty and run him out for 35 starts in ‘10. Even if he had landed an excellent package that greatly increased the franchise’s chances of future success, there is a good possibility that he would have been gone by the time that those players made a significant impact on the team’s fortunes.

Ricciardi's contract is set to expire with Halladay's after the 2010 season. I agree that moral hazard is a problem here, and the Ricciardi situation is an excellent example of the princpal-agent problem. Of course, most (non-baseball) firms deal with the principal-agent problem by giving long-term performance incentives. Billy Beane, for example, is a part owner of the Oakland A's and therefore has interest in the team's success even after he leaves. Perhaps teams would be wise to sign GMs to contracts with deferred payments based on team performance in addition to a base salary. 

For those of you who are especially quanty, you might enjoy this recent lecture given by baseball physicist Alan Nathan. He talks about why studying the physics of baseball is useful, how to get interested in physics and baseball, and even a comparison between Babe Ruth and Albert Einstein. He also goes into depth about the ball-bat collision and the flight of the baseball, both of which are particularly important to HitF/X analysis.

Next is a good reminder about statistics from MGL at the Book Blog. He uses the example of Albert Pujols (aka "The Machine") to wonder whether a true baseball machine would be consistent in the way most people use the word:

If his true K rate is 1 per 10 PA and he is so consistent that that never changes, he is still subject to a binomial standard deviation around that "p." Same for HR rate, hit rate, BB rate, etc.  There is nothing that he can do about it, no matter how consistent he may be skill-wise.  If a player actually has been incredibly consistent over the course of his career or some long time period, it HAS to be a fluke.  A player cannot be more consistent than a computer that has the exact same skill level in every PA, and that computer "player" will produce a performance that looks like a bell curve with a known mean if we look at the distribution of results for a series of any fixed time periods (one month stretches, one week stretched, one day stretches, etc.).

I hope you're all well-practiced with BINOMDIST.

In database news, Sean "Rally" Smith has teamed up with Jeff Sackmann to provide Total Zone calculations for I know some of you hate on Total Zone, but remember that it can be constructed from play-by-play data and therefore can be applied to the entire Retrosheet era as well as (now) minor league games. At Hardball Times, Sackmann runs through some of the minor leagues' defensive wizards. A highlight:

Shortstop: Brewers fans will be happy to see Alcides Escobar near the top of the list again, this year at +12

I was also surprised to see Mike Moustakas rate so well at third base (+9). My only beef with is that JavaScript chokes the site to death on Safari and Chrome, so remember to fire up your trusty Firefox before you head over there.

Fellow BtBer Justin Inaz has an excellent (and easy to follow) explanation of surplus value over at his blog, Basement Dwellers:

It's the extra value a player provides above what their salary would bring on the free agent market. The keys to winning, at the club level, is 1) to spend money for good players, and 2) to get players who produce value above what their salary would predict. Most teams can't get by on #1 alone, and the easiest way to do #2 is to get young players making "slave" wages.

For some reason, this article reminded me of one of my all time favorite baseball quotes, courtesy former Devil Rays (as they were known at the time) GM Chuck LaMar:

"The only thing that keeps this organization from being recognized as one of the finest in baseball is wins and losses at the major league level."

You know, if he had been given deferred payment based on future wins and losses back in 2006 (as I suggested above), he'd have a lot more money right now. Sometimes history vindicates us.

For more on surplus value, check out this Washington Post article. I won't excerpt it, because apparently they object to that sort of thing.

For some lighter fare, Walkoff Walk describes beep-beep baseball:

Beep baseball, originally invented by telecommunications employees in the 1960s, is a way for the blind to play the game. Previously, the blind were only able to participate in baseball as umpires.

Pretty neat stuff.