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Las Vegas makes a baseball gamble with the Diamondbacks

Las Vegas turns the average Triple-A hitter into 2019 Jose Altuve. I’m serious.

How many homers would Eduardo Escobar hit in Las Vegas? All of them.
Hayden Schiff from Cincinnati, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

One of the more remarkable parts of being a baseball legal writer is covering the seemingly never-ending battles between Major League Baseball franchises that want new stadia and government entities which generally fund and own those venues. One of the teams currently looking for a new ballpark is the Arizona Diamondbacks, and that battle ended up in court a couple of years ago.

Early last year, I wrote for FanGraphs about a settlement between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Maricopa County, the owner of the team’s current home venue, that would allow the team to leave as early as 2022, and take the county off of the hook for millions of dollars in stadium repairs.

“On the surface, it seems like a reasonable deal: the Diamondbacks get to look for a new park, and the County doesn’t have to pay millions for repairs on top of the $250 million it paid to build the park. But the question then is who will pay for the new stadium, because so far, nobody seems to want that dubious honor.”

As I’ve written before, committing tax dollars to build ballparks is rarely a winning strategy for governments or taxpayers, even on a minor league scale. We’ve increasingly seen studies showing that public funding of new stadia simply doesn’t provide the economic benefits claimed by owners seeking taxpayer subsidies. As one study from the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Utah noted in summarizing the current state of academic literature on the subject:

“Few fields of empirical economic research offer virtual unanimity of findings. Yet, independent work on the economic impact of stadiums and arenas has uniformly found that there is no statistically significant positive correlation between sports facility construction and economic development.”

It gets worse. The Utah study also found that new stadia funded by taxpayer dollars actually “had a negative impact on the level of per capita income” and that, “in the 30 metro areas where there was a change in the number of stadiums, 27 areas showed no change in per-capita personal income growth and three showed a negative change.” In other words, there is some data to suggest that not only does public financing of stadia have no economic benefits, but it may actually make per capita income — i.e. an area’s annual income per person — worse.

That’s because the public funding is only recouped by taxpayers if the stadium generates tax revenue sufficient to repay the initial taxpayer investment, whereas the economic growth from the stadium is a benefit which accrues to the wealthy team and business owners who occupy the stadium. As Jeffrey Dorfman explains in Forbes, “stadiums can only justify public financing if they will draw most attendees from a long distance on a regular basis.”

It’s pretty clear-cut, actually: for a municipality, the most likely outcome of funding a new stadium is losing a lot of taxpayer money. The worse outcome is ending up in litigation over the stadium, which happened with the Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins, and White Sox, among others. The best case scenario for taxpayers is the deal that St. Petersburg has with the Tampa Bay Rays, a deal so bad for the team that it’s actually hamstrung the franchise and spurred talk of a split-city schedule. Still, despite the Pyrrhic victory that a publicly funded stadium represents for a local government, municipalities across the country still step up to offer them. Portland is building a stadium in hopes of luring a team.

Now a suburb of Las Vegas is getting in on the action by courting the Diamondbacks. According to Jenna West of Sports Illustrated and Blake Apgar of the Las Vegas Review Journal, the city of Henderson, Nevada made a pitch to the team complete with ballpark renderings and some bold promises. Per West:

“The team talked with officials in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nev., to discuss a possible relocation. The Review-Journal reports city manager Richard Derrick signed a nondisclosure agreement with the Diamondbacks on July 31, 2018, and the city called the effort ‘Project Marble.’

Proposed plans for a ballpark in Henderson included a retractable-roof stadium with 32,000 seats and standing room for 4,000 fans. Construction for the proposed ballpark, which would be publicly-funded and tax-exempt, was estimated to be around $1 billion, reports the Review-Journal.”

Henderson is actually the second-largest city in Nevada, just southeast of Las Vegas. A stadium in Henderson, which is part of the Las Vegas metropolitan area, would presumably make the home team the “Las Vegas Diamondbacks.” But while Las Vegas has been talked about for years as a potential expansion site, there are reasons it hasn’t happened yet. First off is the gambling factor; although sports gambling has been legalized and even embraced to a degree by MLB, that doesn’t mean the sport is suddenly willing to place a marquee franchise at its epicenter.

Second, there’s a legitimate question regarding whether the Las Vegas metropolitan area is large enough to support a major league franchise; although it’s growing rapidly, Vegas and its outlying suburbs still are only the 28th largest metropolitan area in the country, behind (among others) Portland, Oregon; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Sacramento, California.

That said, a recent growth-spurt has pushed Las Vegas past baseball cities like Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Kansas City, so whilst Vegas would be a smaller-market team, it would hardly be an outlier. On the one hand, the success of Las Vegas’ new National Hockey League team, the Golden Knights (both on and off the ice) adds credence to the idea that the area could support an MLB franchise; the Golden Knights sold more than 105% of capacity over the 2018-19 season.

“The Golden Knights’ ticket revenue likely topped $60 million with that type of attendance as the Las Vegas-based franchise averaged 18,319 fans per game. There’s typically several hundred comps for the visiting team, sponsors and close team friends for each home game.”

On the other hand, that total per-game attendance figure is basically the same as the Kansas City Royals’ average 2019 draw. So while the Golden Knights might be proof of concept, an MLB team in Las Vegas would have to draw as many as 10,000 fans more per game to be viable.

Then there’s the third factor, the elephant in the room. Las Vegas is about 2,000 feet above sea level (Henderson isn’t much lower). That would easily make a ballpark in Henderson the second-highest in baseball by elevation, twice as far above sea level as Arizona’s current Chase Field. Combine dry, hot desert air with the thinness of elevation, and a Major League team in Las Vegas would give the Blake Street Bombers of Coors Field a run for their money.

Fortunately, we have some idea of how the baseball would behave in Las Vegas. Since 1983, Las Vegas has been home to a Triple-A team. This year, the Las Vegas Aviators have a new stadium in their first year as the top affiliate for the Oakland Athletics, but until last year the then-Las Vegas 51s played in Cashman Field with some of the more eye-popping offensive park factors in professional baseball.

In a 2013 report, when the 51s were still the highest farm team of the New York Mets, Ted Berg noted that Las Vegas combined Coors-like effects on breaking balls from altitude with thin-air boosts on fly balls and grounders. The Dodgers, when Vegas was their Triple-A affiliate, skipped many of their premier pitching prospects over Triple-A entirely, including a young southpaw named Clayton Kershaw. The Mets followed suit, largely skipping Jacob deGrom over the level.

How much does Las Vegas inflate offense? In 2014, Noah Syndergaard tossed 133 innings at the level with a 4.60 ERA fueled by a .378 BABIP. A year later, he posted a 3.24 ERA and 3.25 FIP for the Mets’ varsity team. Abbey Mastracco wrote in 2017 that pitching in Las Vegas was all but impossible.

“Start with the desert air. Trying to throw a minor league baseball, a ball with higher, tighter stitches that feels slicker coming out of a pitcher’s hand, through that hot air can feel like an exercise in futility.

‘The air is so thin in Vegas that you’re throwing sliders and you’re just ripping them,’ [Chasen] Bradford said. ‘You’re throwing them as hard as possible so they just move a little bit. And you go to a place like Tacoma, you throw a slider with ease and it moves two feet. You’re like, “Huh, that’s awesome.”’”

Now, it’s possible that at least some of those effects were unique to Cashman Field and not Las Vegas itself. Unfortunately, the early returns on Las Vegas Ballpark - the Aviators’ new home - suggest that things have only gotten worse. According to Baseball America, Las Vegas Ballpark is in the 98th percentile for run-scoring across the minor leagues, making it the third most hitter-friendly park across 120 affiliated baseball stadia.

As a team, the Aviators have a 5.50 ERA. Former major leaguer Paul Blackburn, who leads the team in innings with 110.2 IP, has a 4.55 ERA. Jake Buchanan has a 6.16 ERA across 99 innings. Former big leaguer Kyle Lobstein has a 4.78 ERA across 58 innings. Another former big leaguer, Ryan Dull, who was a key reliever for the A’s for a couple of years, has a 5.45 ERA. Sean Manaea has given up four homers in just ten innings for Las Vegas. Tyler Alexander has given up twenty-five homers in just 85 innings.

Meanwhile, hitters at Las Vegas are feasting. As a team, the Aviators are hitting .304/.376/.539, which means that Las Vegas turns the average Aviator hitter into 2019 Jose Altuve (.304/.366/.541). I’m serious.

  • Thirty-year-old Corban Joseph is hitting a lol-worthy .379/.429/.609 in 88 games.
  • Prospect Skye Bolt, who had never hit more than ten homers at any minor league level and has a career MiLB triple-slash of .254/.338/.433, is hitting .306/.379/.512 with nine homers in just 286 plate appearances.
  • Last year, Franklin Barreto hit .259/.357/.514 at AAA; this year, still in the Pacific Coast League but now in Las Vegas, he’s mashing to the tune of .296/.379/.549 with 24 doubles, five triples, and 12 homers, and has more extra-base hits in 73 games at Las Vegas than he had at all levels last year combined.
  • Last year, former Yankees farmhand Mark Payton hit .259/.368/.401 in the International League with six homers and six doubles in 62 games. This year, Payton is hitting .334/.402/.655 with more doubles (23) and homers (21) than he’d hit in his last two seasons combined.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Granted, some of the gaudy numbers are the result of elite prospects breaking out; Payton, Jorge Mateo, and Franklin Barreto are all high-end talents, to be sure. Further, at least some of this offensive explosion can be blamed on the new juiced baseball. But at the same time, Las Vegas isn’t the third most hitter-happy ballpark on the planet for no reason; we have the data to show that baseball in Vegas isn't like baseball elsewhere.

In 2018, for instance, Kevin Plawecki— yes, that Kevin Plawecki— hit .328/.375/.514 across 275 plate appearances in Las Vegas, while his team hit .270/.346/.458 (that’s an .800 OPS without the new juiced ball). Moving a MLB team to Las Vegas would be the biggest offensive blowup baseball has had since Coors Field, and that’s saying a lot.

The good news is that talks between the Diamondbacks and Henderson appear to have stalled, and the D-Backs are once again focused on renegotiating their contract with Maricopa County. But Henderson is undeterred, and has begun wooing other teams.

“‘While a proposal for an Arizona Diamondbacks ballpark has not moved forward, the city of Henderson would welcome conversations with other major league franchises that may be considering a move to a different market,’ a statement from Henderson about its attempts to lure the Diamondbacks said.”

Perhaps driven by the massive offense, the Aviators are the minor leagues’ biggest draw, with better attendance than the Miami Marlins. It’s a point that Henderson is using to entice teams struggling with attendance to the Las Vegas market. For a team like Tampa Bay, then, Henderson could represent a tasty alternative: a new ballpark, more fans, and Tommy Pham hitting 80 homers a year through his age-50 season.