The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed

Table of Contents

J. C. BRADBURY is an associate professor of economics at Kennesaw State. His research has been featured in the
New York Times
and the
Los AngelesTimes
. His op-ed pieces have appeared in the
Wall Street Journal
, and he writes about baseball, economics, and the Atlanta Braves on his blog at
Professor Bradbury coined the term
to describe his way of combining the tools of modern economics with the statistical revolution in baseball made famous by Bill James and his sabermetrics (derived from the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research). J. C. Bradbury lives in Marietta, Georgia.
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Previously published in a Dutton edition.
First Plume Printing, March 2008
Copyright © J. C. Bradbury, 2007
All rights reserved
The Library of Congress has catalogued the Dutton edition as follows:
Bradbury, J. C. (John Charles), 1973–
The baseball economist: the real game exposed / J. C. Bradbury.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-0-452-28902-4
1. Baseball—Economic aspects—United States. I. Title.
GV880.B73 2007
796.357’640973—dc22 2006027888
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o my father,
the man who taught me how to throw and hit.
Economics is the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.
Principles of Economics
ECONOMICS has a nickname: the dismal science. To say the least, this gives the wrong impression. It earned this moniker not for its supposedly dull subject matter, but from the ideological bent of one of its founders. In the nineteenth century, infamously racist social critic and historian Thomas Carlyle came up with the nickname in a dismissive retort to the brave classical economist John Stuart Mill, who had openly argued that slavery was wrong. I’m happy to say, the dismal science nickname turns out to be a badge of honor.
A popular misconception is that economics is just about money, which does make it sound dismal. But economists study behavior in all aspects of our lives. Nowadays, anywhere human beings make choices, economists will be watching. Whether it’s deciding what to buy at the grocery store, whom to vote for in the voting both, how fast to drive a car, or whether or not a pitcher decides to plunk a batter, economists have something to say.
A couple of decades after Carlyle’s dismal jab, Alfred Marshall, one of the fathers of modern neoclassical economics, described his discipline as “the working of common sense aided by appliances of organized analysis and general reasoning, which facilitate the task of collecting, arranging, and drawing inference from particular facts.” I like his emphasis on common sense and a general approach. His most famous student, John Maynard Keynes, echoed these sentiments, stating, “[Economics] is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique of thinking which helps its possessor to draw correct conclusions.”
It is a method, not a doctrine. Most recently, Steven Levitt, an award-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has gained notoriety for daringly applying the economic method to matters as diverse as cheating in sumo wrestling and racial discrimination on television game shows. He and his coauthor, Stephen Dubner, wrote in
, “Since the science of economics is primarily a set of tools, as opposed to a subject matter, then no subject, however off-beat, need be beyond its reach.” Baseball isn’t exactly offbeat, but it is my favorite place to apply economic method.
In the economic way of thinking, the first rule in analyzing human behavior is that
all choices have trade-offs
. Baseball players have choices to make in their job just as most non–baseball players do in their workplace or around the home. Attempting to steal second base is a choice that involves sacrificing a safe position at first in order to move into scoring position. With this choice, the runner risks making an out; conversely, choosing to stay at first has the cost of not advancing to a better scoring opportunity. No matter what he does, the player must decide to sacrifice either his safe position on first or the better scoring opportunities of second base. There is no way to make a costless choice. There are many other aspects of the game to which economic thinking about trade-offs applies. Should a manager play a left-hander or right-hander at catcher? Should owners want Major League Baseball to act like a monopolist or a competitive firm? Should a player use steroids to enhance his performance or not? These are just a few of the choices that require trade-offs that people in the baseball world must make.
The second rule in understanding human behavior is that
people respondto incentives
. Human beings are predictable creatures that tend to engage in activities with high rewards and low punishments. Raising and lowering rewards and punishments predictably affects the choices people make. This is a very simple and powerful assumption. Baseball is a game full of well-defined benefits and costs, which makes it a fantastic laboratory for economists. It is easy to predict what a player will do once we understand the relevant incentives. Why do pitchers hit more batters in the American League than in the National League? How does arguing with the umpire affect the way he governs the game on the field? Do pitchers treat batters differently according to the ability of the on-deck hitter? The economist’s job is to predict behavior based on the expected punishments and rewards.
Economists also love disentangling data, and baseball has plenty of data to play with. As evolutionary biologist and baseball enthusiast Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “If philately attracts perforation counters, and Sumo wrestling favors the weighty, then baseball is the great magnet for statistical mavens and trivia hounds.”
We can theorize all we want about what we think
to be going on in the game, but we really want to know what
going on. The answers are in the numerical records of the game, but it’s hard to extract information about individual contributions in a team game. How responsible is the pitcher for preventing runs? What is the best statistic for measuring offense? What is the effect of city size on winning? To decipher the numerical records, we need tools that can condense huge tables of numbers into more comprehensible measurements. Economists call the combination of economic intuition with statistical methods
. They use it to test the validity of their economic theories. Without these tools, patterns in the sea of individual observations are often unrecognizable or misleading. I’ll be using these methods to answer the questions I raised above. The answers are often counter to ingrained beliefs about the game.
I’m not the first person to look at baseball more or less in this way. Bill James, who not coincidentally was an economics major as an undergraduate, is the Johnny Appleseed of analytical baseball research. Many years ago James became annoyed that the established conventional wisdom of baseball was not entirely right and that few baseball insiders seemed to care. He wanted objective answers. What is the best statistic for measuring a player’s ability to create runs? How many more runs is a single worth than a walk? Is a strikeout worse than any other kind of out? Very few other people seemed to be trying to find out, so he decided to do it himself, publishing his findings in the annual
, along with several other books, over the years. James was not the first person to dabble in this, but he was the most vocal and popular member of this community, not to mention a very gifted writer. A certain segment of the population ate it up.
is the name that James gave to his pursuit, in honor of the acronym of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

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