Thursday, November 8, 2012

Three Strikes'll Send You to the Dugout, or San Quentin

In 1994 my home state of California passed an initiative measure that was officially titled “Three Strikes and You’re Out.” The Three Strikes Law, known in other states by the more technical sounding name of the Habitual Offender Act, ostensibly has nothing to do with baseball. It establishes increased penalties, (25 years to life imprisonment in California’s case) for a criminal who commits three felony crimes. I began thinking about this law recently because two days ago, amidst all the Presidential hoopla, California voters passed Proposition 36, which altered the existing Three Strikes Law to emphasize punishment of violent offenses, and to shorten prison terms for those who did not commit violent crimes.

Intrigued by talk of the ever-controversial Three Strikes Law, and in clear baseball withdrawal with the World Series over, I began to consider the apparent baseball connection to this law. I did a bit of research and was slightly surprised to note that not only was “Three Strikes and You’re Out” the wording that actually appeared on the ballot, such laws, no matter their official title, are referred to in legal jargon by the acronym TSAYO. Even stranger to me was the fact that the connection of a law that shapes lives, deaths, and demographics is so explicitly based on an arbitrary rule in baseball.

One scholarly paper I found referred to this connection offhand, as if it were entirely incidental, mentioning that, “President Bill Clinton received lengthy applause during his State of the Union address when he touted the law with the catchy baseball name.” Or labeling a chilling graph about convictions like this: “California ‘Strikes Out’ 4 Times as Many Persons As All Other 3-Strikes States Combined”

A less scholarly but still extensively detailed article described how baseball players are allowed three strikes in an at bat before they are out as a preamble to explaining how “the same concept is invoked in the language of habitual offender laws, as three strikes laws are more properly known, as in ‘three strikes and the offender is out of society.’”

So, this strongly enforced and significantly impactful law is based on the logic of the baseball plate appearance. It was at about the time I realized this that I began to ask an absurd number of rhetorical questions about the history of the traditional inputs to the baseball plate appearance and its influence on the Three Strikes Laws.

The history of the three-strike strikeout has remained remarkably stable throughout baseball history, with only one real blip, as Joe Posnanski noted in his profile of deadball hurler Old Hoss Radbourn: "in 1887, for one year and one year only in the National League, they changed the rules so that it took FOUR strikes to get a strikeout. Could you imagine, say, Justin Verlander having to deal with that? Hey Justin, we changed the rules. It’s four strikes for a strikeout now. Yeah. But it’s also five balls for a walk. Go on, have some fun out there."

The number of balls that equals a walk, however, has not remained static throughout baseball history. It was not until 1889 that the various baseball associations and leagues agreed that four balls would equal a walk. In the preceding decades as many as nine balls had been required for a batter to get a free pass, with the number gradually decreasing starting in 1880 before settling in at the “natural” number of four.

So here begins the long chain of rhetorical questions:

What if, like balls, the number of strikes had varied a lot in the late 1800s? What if that magical year of 1887 had become the norm, and five balls and four strikes remained the rule. Such a change would not have inherently altered the structure of the game. After all, the only reason four and three seem “natural” is because they are what we have grown accustomed to.

How would the game have changed?

But perhaps even more meaningfully, how would our modern approach to crime legislation through Three Strikes Laws be different?

If batters and pitchers lived in a four-strike world, would cops and criminals battle in one as well?

How would it affect our perception of crime and criminals?

Would we have Four Strikes Laws instead of Three, or would we have none at all?

The almost certainly rhetorical question I have struggled with the most however, is whether the only reason we have Three Strikes Laws at all, and the argument, misery, and debatable justice they imply, is because of an arbitrary rule in what was once a children’s game. If so, what does that tell us about the role of baseball in shaping America’s cultural and political mindset, and what does that tell us about our democratic, legislative, and judicial systems?

As I said, these are rhetorical questions, I truly do not have answers to them, and to me at least this is somewhat troubling. Chime in with comments if you think you have answers, or even if you just have more questions.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Now Batting, Michael Jordan

The logical thing for me to write about at this stage would of course be the actual baseball season that just concluded, specifically the New York Mets’ performance therein…but I’m in a fairly good mood right now and I don’t want to spoil it by thinking about that. Instead, with the NBA season upon us, I’d prefer to retell one of the stranger stories in the history of basketball or baseball.

By the start of the 1993-94 season, 30-year-old Michael Jordan had played in the NBA for nine years and was well on his way to earning the status of legend. Jordan had been an All-Star in all but his first year, a three-time MVP and a seven-time NBA scoring champion, and he had just led his Chicago Bulls to an unprecedented third straight NBA title as well as leading the league in more categories than I can count. So it’s hard to overstate the shock he caused by first retiring from the NBA the day before the start of training camp and later announcing that he had signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox. A possible equivalent might be if Barack Obama left the presidential race to pursue his dream of becoming a movie star.

Affected by the recent murder of his father, who had always dreamed of his son playing professional baseball, Jordan set out to prove that his talent transcended basketball, beginning the story of perhaps the most famous career minor league ballplayer of all time as he reported for training camp in March of 1994. (The Bulls and White Sox, then as now, were both owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, who continued to honor Jordan’s Bulls contract during his time in baseball.) After starting at right field for the White Sox in the Windy City Classic exhibition game against the Cubs (Jordan, batting sixth, went 2 for 5 with 2 RBIs), Jordan joined the Birmingham Barons of the AA Southern League.

Jordan (play) fights with a teammate.
Jordan’s presence focused the sports world’s attention on Birmingham as the Barons consistently played to sold-out crowds. Despite lacking any other notable players (probably the best-known Baron that year besides Jordan was manager Terry Francona, who would go on to manage at the major league level), the Barons were frequently featured on shows like “SportsCenter” and were the center of attention in Birmingham as well as other Southern League towns like Greenville and Huntsville, the latter the eventual champion of the division in which Birmingham finished last. The Barons may have been the most talked-about minor league team in history. Francona and his players, none of whom became particularly successful in the majors (with the sole exception of Steve Sax, who at 34 was winding down a lengthy and mildly impressive major league career), seem to have mostly been bemused by the whole spectacle. “We couldn't just go somewhere with him because it would be a mob scene,” shortstop Glenn DiSarcinia (who never made it higher than AAA Nashville) later recalled. "The whole place would just be staring at him, like he was a rare zoo animal."

Besides becoming involved in a real, live media circus, DiSarcinia and the rest of the Barons also had the opportunity to see a sporting legend brought down to the level of mere mortals. As it turned out, despite his powerful height and build and his tremendous athletic ability, Jordan was a fairly awful baseball player. In 436 at-bats for the Barons, Jordan hit a mere .202 with an OBP of .289 and a slugging percentage of .266. While committing 11 errors in the field and striking out 114 times, Jordan hit just three home runs. His impressive total of 30 stolen bases was more than balanced out by the 18 times he was caught stealing. All told he boasted the lowest OPS (on-base + slugging) of any player on the Barons with more than 15 at bats and in the league as a whole, Jordan's .556 mark did not even breach the top 100. Even on a team lacking all distinction Jordan stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who showed up to watch him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was (props to Joseph Heller). “Michael Jordan has no more business patrolling right field in Comiskey Park than Minnie Minoso has bringing the ball upcourt for the Chicago Bulls,” concluded Sports Illustrated (albeit before the Barons’ season officially began).

Jordan’s year with the Barons wasn’t all bad. His teammates, who were initially shocked by how bad he was, noted his steady improvement over the course of the year and marveled at the work ethic and competitive drive that had fueled his rise to the top of the NBA. For the Barons, the most impressive part of Jordan’s time with the team was how well he integrated himself into the clubhouse. While the trappings of fame followed him wherever he went, Jordan seems to have genuinely wanted to become a big league ballplayer on his own merits and took great pains to avoid letting his celebrity affect his role on the team. Jordan befriended several of the players, showing particular interest in those from the Chicago area, and participated in team bonding activities including the occasional pick-up basketball game (one can only imagine how that must have gone).

“Even though he wasn’t a great baseball player, he was a great role model,” DiSarcinia concluded. "If he came out as an 18-year-old I didn't have any question that he would make the big leagues -- the work ethic, the hand-eye coordination. It was just a little too late for him."

Perhaps recognizing this, Jordan eventually concluded that continuing in the minors was the wrong move for him. After a stint with the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .252, Jordan announced his return to the NBA on March 18, 1995 with a two-word press release: “I’m back.” He took the court the next day for the Bulls (wearing jersey number 45, his number with the Barons—the iconic number 23 had been retired in his absence), and the rest is history. (Of course, this being Jordan, said history includes two more retirements.) It should be noted that Jordan’s baseball career did form the background to the plot of Space Jam, so at least it wasn’t a total loss.

Michael Jordan is far from the only athlete to show interest in multiple sports. For example, in 1995 the Montreal Expos picked a high-school catcher from California, Tom Brady, in the 18th round of the draft. However, Brady wisely chose to become a star quarterback instead, first with the Michigan Wolverines and later with the New England Patriots. There are athletes who have played multiple sports at the highest level, but most of these tend to be historical footnotes (much like the USFL or the California Golden Seals). Two exceptions stand out in baseball. Jackie Robinson’s stellar and historic baseball career has tended to overshadow his tremendous athletic achievements; at UCLA, he lettered in four sports (baseball, basketball, football and track), a feat unparalleled in UCLA history before or since. And Jim Thorpe, who played six seasons in the 1910s for the Giants, Reds and Braves, has become known as one of the greatest athletes in the history of American sports. In addition to baseball, he received two gold medals in track and field at the 1912 Olympics, enjoyed a long and successful career in collegiate and professional football and even briefly dabbled in basketball. However, rather than opening a chain of steakhouses and watching the money roll in from his Air Thorpe sneakers, Thorpe had his medals revoked (for playing baseball for money at a time when all Olympians were amateurs) and died in poverty. Sometimes life isn’t fair.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ned Colletti and Brandon League ($22.5million): A Good Relief Pitcher Strategy

MLB 2K9 was a pretty good baseball simulator for its time. The game balanced the players well, had decent playing mechanics (aside from a propensity for outfielders to run into each other), and had a mediocre at worst General Managing experience. I spent perhaps a few too many hours constructing teams, simulating seasons and playing games, and because of the time I invested in the game I noticed one significant glitch: the designated closer on my team would rack up the requisite 30-40 saves, appear in 50-60 games, and usually post a decent ERA, but he would have only thrown about 25 innings!

It didn’t take me long to figure out that during the games simulated by the computer, the “designated closer” would almost always be brought into the game in a save situation to face only the last batter of the ninth inning. The closer would retire this batter, rack up a save, and look incredibly valuable to a surface analysis.

Though I had yet to truly become immersed in Sabermetric analysis, and would not have applied it to my video game teams even if I had, I noticed the potential to cheat the system. So I traded away the closer, installed a mediocre relief pitcher in the “designated closer” spot, and kept my best pitchers in the set-up and middle relief spots. The game, unable to perceive my genius any better than it could fix its flaws, doggedly kept trying to switch them back. My plan was brilliant, my best relievers threw lots of innings, my mediocre “closer” racked up saves and actually put up decent peripheral numbers because he was not actually facing the best hitters in the toughest spots, and my team won big.

I bring up my crowning moment in computerized baseball not because I think video games can apply directly to real baseball, I don’t, unlike fantasy baseball, in which success is directly predictive of one’s ability to be a major league GM (third place in my 8-team league!!!!). I mention it because the real world usage of major league closers is only slightly less absurd than that of the pixilated closers in my glitchy game.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I’m a Sabermetrician and I Oppose the Expansion of Instant Replay in Baseball

When it comes to baseball I define myself first and foremost as an adherent of the principles of sabermetrics. I define myself secondly as a baycurious fan (I root for the teams on both sides of the San Francisco Bay).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sabermetrics as the “the application of statistical analysis to baseball records.”

The Oxford English Dictionary does not yet include a definition for baycurious.

But let’s get back on topic. As I understand it, sabermetrics is the search for objective knowledge about baseball. Stats experts compile data on what happens on the field and use it to properly weight and value each action by a player as rigorously and independently as possible. The community of sabermetric friendly writers and bloggers then massage and interpret that information to convey it in a vaguely comprehensible manner to their readers and friends, the latter of which quickly learn to change the subject whenever possible.

So what I don’t understand is why it is assumed that sabermetricians and their less-mathematically-capable cohorts should be in favor of instant replay in baseball. Now, don’t get me wrong, if every play in baseball were subject to instant replay through either an NFL-style review system (shudder) or a more palatable fifth umpire setup, one element of uncertainty in the game would be removed. Sabermetric analyses would become slightly more indicative of the true talent levels of the players involved, but only slightly.

Think about it this way: Michael Bourn of the Atlanta Braves is a very fast runner, so far this year he has successfully stolen 39 bases in 50 tries, resulting in an very respectable 78% success rate. Many of those plays, by their very nature, were assuredly quite close, and it is entirely possible that through umpire error one, maybe even two or three of the times Bourn was thrown out at second he should have been called safe. In which case he would have achieved a success rate of 80, 82 or 84%, different to be sure, but it does not substantially alter Bourn’s objective value or the subjective way in which we perceive him. Had be been thrown out a few more times, it would had an equally noticeable, but hardly life-shatteringly negative effect on his statistics.

Instant replay could make sure that what happens on the field is slightly more objectively recorded. However, officiating mistakes have a negligible effect on the values of individual players and teams as the errors in judgment are (hopefully!) not the result of inherent biases against certain players or teams. Forcing the umpire to make a mistake is not, as it is insoccer, a repeatable skill. Thus the errors will come close enough to evening out over the aggregate that they will have an almost inconsequential effect on how we view individual players. As far as I can tell, the only measurable area in baseball in which players can influence the rulings of umpires through their own skills is that of pitch framing by catchers. As no one is seriously suggesting replacing home plate umpires with robots, this exception can be discounted.

Alright, so instant replay will only improve our understanding of the true skill level of baseball players slightly, but it is still an improvement, so why do I, a self professed sabermetrician (with admittedly non-existent math skills), oppose the expansion of instant replay?

I am not captive to the absurdly romantic notion of some “human element” being essential to true enjoyment of the game. When the umpires make a mistake I do not consider it a particularly beautiful aspect of my chosen leisure activity. What I do value, however, is the fact that when an umpire’s arm goes up, to signal either out or safe; that, as they say, is that. I can then whoop and holler, high five and fist bump (if I happen to be at an A’s game, I can do the Bernie lean), or I can curse and yell, and start to throw things and then recover my sanity just in time to express my frustration but avoid assault charges.

The one thing I do not want to do is wait.

Maybe I am just too much a part of the instant gratification, plugged in, ADD generation, but when my favorite player rounds third and heads for home I don’t want to wait for an official review to determine whether my celebration or consternation was warranted.

To me, the infinitesimal benefits to our statistical understanding of the game that would result from the expansion of instant replay are not out-weighed by the omnipresent fear, now part and parcel of football, that your moment of absurd excitement or even more absurd disgust will be cancelled out by a minutes-long trip to the review booth.

I have gracefully accepted the place of home run video review in baseball: the fences are too far away, the fans too close to the field, and the ballparks just too damn quirky to ignore the fact that when the ball reaches the seats, or at least appears to, the umpires need some help. However, just because I profess to be a sabermetrician, does not, and should not necessarily mean that I want replay expanded to the entire field. If you are in favor of instant replay I will of course respect your opinion even as I argue with you, I simply believe that you should not assume I am a member of the Joe Morgan-esque brigade of stats haters because I do not agree with the supposedly majority opinion on instant replay. The two need not be synonymous, just as sabermetrician need not conjure up images of pocket protectors, pale skin, and mother’s basements.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What 1943 Can Teach Modern Baseball Announcers

The language baseball announcers use to describe the action on the field is stilted and repetitive. This is not to say that the play-by-play man of each broadcasting team should be composing a sequel to Ulysses with every Texas-Leaguer, but a bit more inventiveness would be nice. I am not typically one to trumpet how much better things were in the past, but in the area of colorful descriptions of events on a baseball diamond, THINGS WERE BETTER IN THE PAST.

I spent quite a while yesterday perusing an article entitled “Baseball Jargon,” written for the journal American Speech in April 1943. The article was quite comprehensive, and left me pining for the good old days when the Nazis were the bad guys, the French were brave and a fly ball was a cloud-buster.

Let’s take, for example, the Texas-Leaguer, described by the article as a “fly ball hit over the infield and yet too short to be caught by an outfielder.” Because the Texas-Leaguer caused such exasperation for fielders, in 1943 if one occurred during a game, sports writers around the nation could describe it as a “Sheeny Mike, banjo, humpback liner, plunker, Japanese liner, drooper, looper, special, leaping Lena or a percentage hit.” Leaving aside the racist connotations of the “Japanese liner,” and the anti-semitic slant of the "sheeny Mike," they are still undeniably entertaining.

Homeruns might be the only area in which modern announcing has kept pace with that of years past. When announcers crow that Buster Posey has just gone yard, hit a bomb, jacked one out, or hit a dinger, I feel that they are not noticeably worse off than when announcers declared that Stan Musial had hit a circuit clout, a four-bagger, or ticketed, tagged or lofted one into the stands.

Descriptions of bunts have also barely improved, in 1943 bunts were still laid or put down, though the ability to “dump” a bunt has apparently degraded over time.

In what was surely an important policy insisted upon by the player’s union in the 1970’s, descriptions of hitters and their abilities have become far more complementary over time. In 1943 weak hitters were called “cream puff, Yankee Doodle, buttercup or dauber-down hitters.” Nowadays, weak hitters are called David Eckstein, but only if they are white and short.

While some of the archaic descriptions are best left in the past, there are a few that would greatly improve the casual fans’ appreciation of the game. When Jose Bautista takes one of his typically monstrous hacks, it would be nice to hear the announcer remark that he “really unbuttoned his shirt on that swing!” And, after Bautista fails to reach base in a game it would greatly improve my enjoyment of the post-game show if a commentator were to mention that Bautista had been “horse-collared” that day.

The most sadly lacking area of description in the modern game seems to lie in comparisons between a player’s performance prior to and during the game. While modern announcers would happily comment that a pitcher looked good in practice but had a tough day once he got on the mound, he would doubtless never call such a pitcher a “Fancy Dan,” or a “dressy pitcher” who turns “sour” when it counts. On the hitting side, no matter how often an announcer may comment on a player’s “batting practice power,” none would ever dare to call someone who hits better in practice than in a game a “two o’clock hitter.”

Changes in the way the game is played and parsed have also led to changes in the jargon used by reporters and announcers. In a world in which complete games were the norm and not an extreme rarity, it was common to refer to a pitcher whose only crime was failing to complete the game as being “derricked, relieved, sent to the showers, knocked off the mound, or batted out of the box.” While announcers today will typically say that a pitcher who has been demolished has been sent off for a shower, merely being removed from a game before its completion would scarcely be grounds for any comment whatsoever.

A more subtle change can be seen in how walks were perceived in 1943 as opposed to the present day. The commonly used terms in World War II for a walk included “to stroll, get ticketed, get an Annie Oakley, get free transportation, get a handout, get four wide ones, or to be passed.” While there is certainly a great deal of interesting variety here; I have no idea what Annie Oakley has to do with baseball, what is noticeable is the lack of agency assigned to the batter in these descriptions. The idea of a walk being a “handout” from the pitcher, or the batter receiving “free transportation,” paints the walk as an act fully under the control of the pitcher and the umpire. This sense is confirmed by the very next sentence of the article, which reads: “If, however, a pitcher’s control is good, the batter may strike out, fan, whiff, go down swinging, or hit a line drive to the catcher.” So, if the pitcher’s control is good, he can induce the batter to “hit a line drive to the catcher” (probably my favorite phrase in the article), if it is not good, the batter will walk.

Thanks to the rise of sabermetrics and the popularity of Moneyball, walks are increasingly treated in modern times as the result of a conscious battle between the pitcher and the hitter (with the unwelcome intrusion of Angel Hernandez from time to time). Teams now pay top dollar for on-base ability, and not even the famously laggardly Twins would claim that walks are solely the fault of the pitcher.

The fact that a modern day announcer would never imply that a batter had no part in drawing a walk suggests that even though announcing may have gotten drier since the good old days, it may have become ever so slightly more insightful at the same time. Still, I feel that modern day announcing and sports reporting would be infinitely improved by referring to Hunter Pence as a “hitchy-koo,” instead of simply calling him twitchy or nervous. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

New Frontiers for Baseball, Part 2

            In my last post I brought up the intriguing idea of baseball expanding into Latin America, before essentially shooting it down. For reasons I've already gone into, I believe the idea of a new location for baseball in the foreseeable future is very possible, and if this new location isn’t south of the border it will have to come from inside the U.S. and Canada. This post will take a brief look at what options might be feasible for MLB going forward.
            I was a little apprehensive about writing this because I knew that a proper analysis would require the use of a lot more statistical know-how than I possess. As it turned out, though, I didn’t need to worry, because the kind folks at the Business Journal newspaper chain have already conducted a study of all metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Canada, evaluating their ability to support a team in any of the “Big Five” professional sports leagues. A handy chart of these findings can be found here.
            I have a couple of issues with this study, which I’ll get to in a bit, but in general it seems like a very useful tool to see which areas could realistically support a team and which clearly don’t make the cut. (Sorry, Pocatello.) The methodology of the study is explained here, but basically it adds up the annual income of all the residents in a metropolitan area and compares it to the cost of running a team in each league. So the focus is entirely on the financial side.
            One thing this study takes into account, which I had not realized before, is the high cost of running an MLB team as compared to teams in other sports. Based on the average price of tickets and the operating costs associated with baseball, the study finds that an MLB team must have an income base of at least $85.4 billion in order to be viable. By contrast, an NFL team would need $36.7 billion and an MLS team just $15.4 billion. Because of this, the study suggests that over a dozen cities could support a new team in any of the major leagues except MLB (including such locales as Tulsa, Rochester, New Haven and Honolulu).
            If we take the study on faith, the outlook for MLB seems grim. Only six metropolitan areas are rated as being definitely able to support a new team—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Houston and Riverside-San Bernardino—and of these six five already host at least one MLB team. While on paper these cities would certainly have the capacity for a second or third team, in practice it seems difficult to imagine a new team building a fan base; the only instance I can think of in which MLB expanded into a city already hosting a team was its creation of the New York Mets, and in that case two previous teams had already moved out of New York, leaving a fan base ripe for appropriation. A new team in New York or any of these cities today would have no such advantage—with baseball fans generally committed to the existing team(s), and with the existing team(s)’ quality of play probably higher than the new team’s for some time, except perhaps in the case of a second Houston team (zing), it seems hard to imagine a new team gaining much traction in a city already represented in MLB. If we eliminate cities with existing teams, then, Riverside-San Bernardino—the region of Southern California known as the Inland Empire—is left as the only guaranteed viable destination according to the study. Among the other possibilities, Montreal is rated as close to ideal, and several other cities are rated as borderline, including Bridgeport-Stamford, Las Vegas, Virginia Beach-Norfolk, Providence, Austin and Hartford.
            This study’s weakness is that it is, by its own admission, incomplete; while it measures the vital question of viability, it does not take other important factors into account. One of the biggest issues I see is that of existing teams’ territory, both in terms of official territory and fan base. Territorial rights nearly prevented the Montreal Expos from moving to Washington and have been a stubborn obstacle to an A’s move to San Jose. A new Inland Empire team—they would have to be called the Stormtroopers—would face just such a problem, as the Dodgers and Angels (and possibly the Padres as well) would likely resist an attempt to move a fourth team to Southern California. This might also derail attempts to move a team to New Jersey (not designated as a separate area in the Business Journals study but proposed in the past), Providence or Connecticut; existing teams would undoubtedly try to block such an effort. Another problem is that of existing fan bases. A New Jersey team—which could perhaps be named for the Newark Bears—would struggle in the shadow of the Yankees and Mets; there is certainly a precedent for teams identifying as New Jersey teams, but these have had, erm, mixed success. A better case could perhaps be made for a team in southern Connecticut (we could maybe call them the Connecticut Wasps, as I understand the name Yankees is taken). In addition to its wealth, Connecticut fans have been supportive of Connecticut teams in the past, and a state without a professional team of its own would probably respond well to MLB. Still, competing with the Yankees and Red Sox for attention seems chancy at best. I’m not sure how much of a problem this would be in the Inland Empire, since I am far less familiar with Southern California than the Northeast, but since much of the region shares a television market with Los Angeles, it seems likely that the Dodgers and Angels would have a significant following.
            Having gone over some areas with nearby existing teams, let’s look at some completely unoccupied markets. From a financial standpoint, the Business Journal study identifies several borderline viable markets: Montreal, Las Vegas, Hampton Roads (the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area of southern Virginia) and Austin. Las Vegas seems alluring at first glance, but besides the obvious unsavory association with gambling it has been hit extremely hard by the current economic climate, has few nearby populated areas outside the immediate urban core and, as a city of expatriates and tourists, would likely struggle to build up a fan base. (Its AAA team, for example, has had dismal attendance; more on those numbers in a bit.) Hampton Roads and Austin would be intriguing if unproven options—neither has hosted a major league team in any sport—but I would argue that Montreal might actually be the most viable market without a current team. Besides its large population, it has a preexisting (if relatively small) fan base left over from the Expos. In their heyday (around the 1980s) the Expos were a viable team, and with a modern facility replacing Olympic Stadium a revived franchise could conceivably be viable again. However, even putting aside the unlikelihood of securing a new stadium, it seems all but impossible that MLB would risk a return to Montreal in the foreseeable future, considering the fate of the Expos. While I would argue that a Montreal team would have a shot at success, it would still be a significant risk, and one that MLB would be especially reluctant to take. (MLB should, however, seriously consider giving Montreal a AAA team, which seems eminently doable.)
            Plenty of other markets are worthy of consideration. Besides Austin and Hampton Roads, several cities such as Portland, San Antonio, Columbus, Charlotte, Vancouver and Salt Lake City are worth a look based on size alone. (I’ll get to Orlando, Sacramento and San Jose shortly.) An additional factor not addressed by the Business Journal study comes into play here as well—namely, the intangible question of whether a place would make a good baseball town, with fans that would be likely to support a team even if it struggled in its early years and a population likely to help finance a place to play. This is obviously very subjective, but we can look at the turnout for minor league baseball and other sports to get an idea of whether an area could possibly keep a team afloat despite not quite making the cut income-wise. High AAA attendance figures make Austin and Columbus look like more appealing destinations and put such locales as Louisville, Indianapolis, Albuquerque, Buffalo and minor league-leading Allentown (surprise!) on the radar screen. In particular, Indianapolis and Louisville strike me as good places for sports; both have a long professional and college sports tradition and do not overlap any of the current markets.
Another city I would definitely add to this list is Omaha, which, besides having solid minor league attendance, draws large crowds to the College World Series each year as well as to college basketball and hockey games (as one writer points out, Creighton University’s basketball team is among the NCAA’s attendance leaders and only drew 1,500 fewer fans per game than the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, despite not being in a major conference). In fact, despite being smaller than most of the competition, Omaha may be one of the more appealing possible destinations for MLB for the simple reason that it is one of the few cities with a usable ballpark already available. TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, which opened last year, is a state-of-the-art facility which, while currently only able to seat 24,000 fans, can be expanded to 35,000 if need be, big enough to house a team. Omaha’s willingness to build such a large facility to be used largely for college sports speaks well of both the economic climate and the locals’ interest in baseball. Compare that with Portland, which lost the AAA Beavers after consistent local opposition destroyed several plans for a new ballpark (which would have been considerably smaller than Omaha’s). This is not to say that Portland couldn’t work for baseball—the city is the largest U.S. market without a team apart from the Inland Empire, and it has proven it can support professional sports—but the comparison illustrates how a smaller market could potentially beat out a larger one in attracting an MLB team. (This actually had a shot at happening in 1991, when the success of Buffalo’s AAA Bisons led to the city being seriously considered as an expansion site, along with the much larger markets of Washington, Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Denver. Sadly, as you may have guessed, the last two cities were eventually chosen.)
Nevertheless, a team in any of these cities would face the considerable disadvantage of being in a small market, a serious problem in an era when the wealth gap among major league teams seems more significant than ever before. All of the cities I've listed would qualify as small markets, and an expansion team in such a market would find it particularly hard to remain viable, at least at first. An inability to turn a profit in the early years could cripple the Portland Beavers or Tidewater Tides or Omaha Crickets or whatever before the team could really get off the ground. Many of these places are also untested as far as major league professional sports are concerned, and such expansion into totally new markets has had mixed results. The obvious goal for a small-market expansion team would be to emulate Basketball's Oklahoma City Thunder, whose success on the court has been appreciated by a highly enthusiastic fan base. But there are plenty of less successful examples such as the recently sold Memphis Grizzlies (not to mention their previous iteration in Vancouver) or the consistently mediocre Columbus Blue Jackets. Starting a team in a new market, even a relocated existing team, is a significant gamble, and the relatively small population base of most of the sites I have proposed makes success even more of a challenge. Everything has to come together for a new team to succeed, and particularly during difficult times for the game it could be tough to convince MLB's front office and/or a potential owner to get behind a move to a new market. So while there is certainly a great deal of potential in moving, the risks are high, and the challenge of developing a fan base while building a competitive team, not to mention the problem of finding a place to play in most of the potential home cities, is a daunting one.

For existing teams, then, another option might be more appealing: movement within the home region. As discussed in my previous post I believe that the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays are probably the most likely candidates for relocation in the near future, which means that the local options realistically consist of San Jose and Sacramento for the A's and Tampa and Orlando for the Rays. All four cities are considered by the Business Journal study to be below the required income to sustain a team, but my suspicion is that the population growth in all three, as well as the proximity to Oakland/St. Petersburg (meaning that fans are already in place), would allow any of the cities to sustain a team. Sacramento's case would also likely be helped by the likely departure of the NBA's Kings for Anaheim in the near future, leaving a professional sports void. One problem would be finding a place to play and, in the case of San Jose, getting permission to play there; this problem has prevented a deal for a San Jose ballpark from being solidified. Sacramento and Orlando are also considerably further from the current homes of their teams than the other two, and a team moving to these cities would be hampered by the need to develop a new fan base. This is especially true of Orlando; the A's are far more established in Northern California than the Rays are in Florida, and the presence of a popular A's AAA affiliate in Sacramento has likely created a fan base that could be appropriated. San Jose, being part of the San Francisco Bay Area, could likely draw fans from the Oakland/East Bay area and from San Francisco proper, and Tampa is already the center of the Rays' fan base. (This article has assumed from the start that the Rays would be able to find a way out of their oppressive lease with St. Petersburg, which tethers the team to the city; if this can be done, a move seems not just possible but likely.) Still, a new stadium would have to be financed, and the teams would still need to be competitive in order to thrive.

The final option? Staying home and building a new stadium near the old one. In the end, that might be the safest choice, particularly for Oakland. This article has provided plenty of options for new homes, but all are fraught with risk, and moving within the region carries the risk of losing a fan base if support in the new city cannot be built up (this is not as much of a problem for the Rays in Tampa since, as I mentioned, their fans frequently come from Tampa anyway). A new destination for MLB has the potential to generate new interest in the game or the potential to fail miserably. Particularly under difficult economic conditions, a renewed effort to stay home would be a safer way to guarantee at least some measure of viability.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

New Frontiers for Baseball, Part 1

On the surface, at least, this doesn’t seem like a particularly good time to be talking about new locations for Major League Baseball. We’ve just come to the end of a string of newly constructed stadiums from Baltimore to Miami; today only 9 of the 30 teams play in ballparks built before 1992, and most of these parks (such as Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium) have aged well and are not considered candidates for replacement. Furthermore, the economic downturn in the United States has probably ruled out another round of expansion for the foreseeable future. But this does not mean we should rule out the possibility of a new team completely.

Two teams have conspicuously been left out of the recent ballpark-building spree and could certainly be considered candidates for relocation. The Tampa Bay Rays have consistently had among the lowest attendance in baseball since their creation despite fielding good teams in recent years. Tropicana Field is widely despised, and its location in St. Petersburg is a significant distance away from most Tampa Bay Area residents. Owner Stuart Sternberg’s proposed new stadium in St. Petersburg was denied funding by the city, and the Rays and MLB have been exploring other options (with MLB commissioner Bud Selig recently calling the Rays’ low attendance “inexcusable”). At least one member of the Rays front office has acknowledged that, in general, “baseball hasn’t been very successful here in Florida.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Oakland Athletics have found themselves in a similar situation; the team plays in an outdated stadium (which it has occupied since moving from Kansas City in 1968) and has become a familiar presence at the bottom of the MLB’s attendance rankings. After attempts to construct a new stadium in Oakland or nearby Fremont, owner Lew Wolff is currently trying to gain approval to move the team to San Jose (a considerably larger city than Oakland), but this depends on the San Francisco Giants giving up their rights to the area, and it is unclear whether this will happen. It still seems likely that the A’s will stay in Northern California—in addition to San Jose, Oakland is making another push to keep the team, while Sacramento is positioning itself as an alternative after being jilted by the NBA’s Kings—but a move farther afield is not impossible. And an improved economy could conceivably lead to expansion at some point in the future. Recent changes such as the expansion of the playoffs and of interleague play appear designed to excite and attract fans, and it’s possible that MLB could go so far as to expand (in a hypothetical future in which the economy is solid) in order to generate a buzz.

So as a thought experiment I plan to look at potential future destinations for Major League Baseball. And to start with, I’ll consider what may be the most intriguing possibility for baseball: moving beyond North America.

South of the Border?

The advantages of placing a major league team in Latin America are obvious. Baseball is wildly popular in several countries in the region, and a large and increasing percentage of players and fans hail from there. A team would help solidify MLB’s fan base in Latin America. Perhaps more important would be the precedent a move to Latin America would send. No major professional sports league in the United States has ever fielded a team outside the U.S. and Canada. (As a side note, the AAA International League did include a team in Cuba, the Havana Sugar Kings, during the 1950s; it would be interesting to consider whether MLB might eventually have ended up in Havana if the Cuban Revolution had not succeeded.) In a period when MLB has been steadily losing ground to the NFL and NBA, such a risky move could help shake up baseball’s aging fan base and, combined with other measures, get more people excited about the game. Other leagues have also seen the possibilities that could stem from a global presence; NBA commissioner David Stern, for one, has spoken openly of his desire to place a team in London at some time in the future. An effort to globalize baseball could be the very thing needed to place the game on a stronger footing at home as well.

MLB has given Latin America serious consideration in the past. In this post I will look at the three cities that have been considered in the past: San Juan, Mexico City and Monterrey.

All are big markets. Mexico City’s estimated city population of 8.9 million and metropolitan population of 19.5 million make it the second-largest urban area in the Americas after São Paulo and one of the largest in the world. Monterrey has over a million people in the city and over four million in the metropolitan area, which would likely rank in the top 15 in the United States (its exact ranking depends on how a metropolitan area is defined). San Juan proper is quite a bit smaller, but its metropolitan area has over two million people (more than half the population of Puerto Rico) and, while not as large as Monterrey’s, would still be larger than several metropolitan areas that host MLB teams (Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee). San Juan would have an additional advantage in that, despite being part of Latin America, it is also part of the U.S. (and may become a state in the near future), which would enable MLB to avoid problems such as political instability, visa issues and the Mexican peso while still reaching out to Latin America. A San Juan team could also attempt to build up a fan base among the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, which is larger than the population of Puerto Rico itself (though doubtless many of these fans would remain loyal to the Yankees or Mets).
Baseball previously considered San Juan as a destination in 2004, when the Montreal Expos were looking for a new home; the team played a fraction of its “home” games in 2003 and 2004 at San Juan’s Estadio Hiram Bithorn, where they drew more fans than in Montreal (though this admittedly says much more about Montreal than about San Juan) and inspired a push by Puerto Rico to lure the team there permanently. While this effort was not successful, MLB did return to San Juan in 2010 with a highly anticipated series between the Mets and the Marlins. Mexico City and Monterrey haven’t hosted MLB games, but both have large, enthusiastic fan bases and have been considered as destinations for baseball teams in the past.

Despite all these pros, a move to Latin America in the near future seems unlikely. The main problem is simply one of money.

For a Mexican team this is not quite as glaring an issue as many Americans would assume; Mexico City and Monterrey are the two richest cities in Mexico. Based on the Human Development Index, generally used as an indicator of quality of life in a country, both Mexico City and Nuevo Leon (the state that contains Monterrey) are at levels of human development equivalent to many European countries, and many people have high levels of disposable income. However, these statistics obscure the high levels of income inequality in Mexico; while wealthy Mexicans would likely be able to afford tickets, most people do not make enough money to be able to easily afford to attend games at major league prices. Mexico’s Gini coefficient, a measure of the extent to which income equality in a country deviates from a perfect equality (higher means less equal) is considerably higher than that of the United States, and over a third of people in Mexico City itself (which, again, is one of the richest parts of the country) live below the poverty line. Considering its huge population Mexico City could conceivably have enough wealthy citizens to form a fan base capable of paying for major league tickets, but having a team that can only hope to draw a minority of the population even in a best-case scenario seems like a losing proposition. (The same goes for Monterrey, only more so due to the city’s smaller size.) And that doesn’t even take into account other problems, including finding or building an MLB-quality ballpark in either location, Mexico City’s high altitude (it would be the highest in the majors) and low air quality, and the ongoing Mexican drug war, which has turned once-safe Monterrey into a hotbed of violence and would undoubtedly loom over any effort to find investors for a Mexican venture.

San Juan doesn’t have the last two problems, though it would likely need a new ballpark (Estadio Hiram Bithorn has a capacity of only 20,000), but the wealth problem would still likely cripple a team based there. An estimate of Puerto Rico’s median income in 2009 placed it at only $18,654, around half that of the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi (and considerably lower than Mexico City as well), which would likely make it impossible to consistently draw fans without setting ticket prices at unsustainably low levels. MLB games in San Juan have been priced at levels similar to games in the U.S. (in the 2010 series, while bleacher seats could be had for $13, other seats sold for $34 and up), which would make it very difficult for most Puerto Ricans to attend more than a few games per year, but lower ticket prices would make it harder to pay operating costs (as will be explored in my next post, MLB teams cost quite a lot to operate). I can’t think of a realistic means of solving this problem. (Incidentally, this is also why a team in a more exotic locale such as Caracas and Santo Domingo, where interest in baseball is high but the standard of living is low, would also be a losing proposition.) One way a team in San Juan might try to keep itself viable would be securing a lucrative television contract in order to appeal to Puerto Ricans on the mainland (who now outnumber Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico itself), but success in this would seem to be improbabe at best. Besides the challenge of getting people to watch, teams can’t survive on TV alone. Without a fan base able to regularly attend games, a team cannot survive. The same factors that prevent teams in excessively small markets from thriving would likely doom a team in San Juan.

As tempting as the idea is, then, movement into Latin America does not seem like a realistic idea at present. It is possible that in the coming decades conditions will change enough to make this work—Mexico’s economy has been projected to expand even further, and the possibility of statehood for Puerto Rico might ultimately change the economic and social conditions there. For now, however, if MLB wants to make a change, it will have to start at home. This will be the subject of my next post.