The Nationals and their fanbase

Tom Verducci, in an article on the Spawn of Boras Bryce Harper, mentions that the Nationals averaged only 12,000 households viewing each home game last season.

It occurs to me that the Nationals may be the only team in the country where the “fanbase” is more likely to go to a game than watch it on TV.  After all, the Nationals to a certain extent positioned their new stadium as a prime location for D.C. power players to sit in a luxury suite and pay half-hearted attention to a baseball game while discussing the future of our Great Nation.  If the Nationals were “hot” (say, with Stephen Strausberg, Bryce Harper, and the Zimmerman(n)s leading the way), the Nationals would have access to a unique audience base with a lot of money and not a lot of interest in the team.

I found stadium attendance and TV ratings from the 2009 season, and compared them.  The bigger the ratio, the larger the percentage of assumed “fanbase” attends games:

The Nationals were the only team who averaged more fans in the seats than households tuning into the game.  The Yankees and the Red Sox, with the TBS-bolstered Braves, were at the bottom.  The Marlins and Rays both had two different cable networks showing their games, which increased their household viewing numbers.  I don’t know enough about that television situation to know whether I interpreted that correctly.  The sources I used did not have TV numbers for the Blue Jays.

Some other interesting aspects of this data.  Much has been written about how a new stadium no longer “saves” a team beyond a few years.  Frequently-cited evidence of this has been dropping attendance in Baltimore and Cleveland.  Yet they rank 4th and 9th respectively in ratio of game attendance to tv audience.  This suggests that perhaps their beautiful ballparks are still saving them from an even more precipitous decline in fanbase interest.

Note: this is reposted from my personal blog.

Sources: 

tv numbers: http://www.sportsbusinessjournal.com/article/63798

attendance numbers: http://espn.go.com/mlb/attendance/_/year/2009

Tony La Russa makes more moves than Kobe Bryant

Joe Posnanski has a great article on the wheeling and dealing of Tony La Russa during last week’s marathon 20-inning game:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/joe_posnanski/04/19/tony.larussa/index.html

A very funny blow by blow account of La Russa’s moves during the game.  And a good illustration of why baseball managers have very little effect on the course of a game (compared to the NBA or the NFL).

Headlines from Opening Day

This appeared on ESPN.com at 8:30 am Tuesday morning:

A home run against the Cubs may not prove much

For the big print readers out there, it says: Jason Heyward needed only one major league at-bat Monday to validate all the talk that the Braves rookie is on his way to stardom.

If you were too busy counting the money you were going to win from predicting the Butler-Duke championship, Heyward homered in his first major league at-bat.  This is a rare feat accomplished by other famous sluggers such as Adam Wainwright.

Of course, most of that validated talk came from ESPN commentators and writers in the first place.  But if that’s what we’re going off of, here are some other headlines from the first full day of the baseball season:

  • Placido Polanco establishes himself as the Phillies’ best hitter.
  • Josh Johnson shows why the Marlins shouldn’t spend money on their players.
  • Can any team get Albert Pujols out more than once a game?
  • Joe Mauer thanks Minnesota for his $184 million dollar contract with 1-4 night, loss.
  • Will the Dodgers lose every game this season?

Ron Washington Is Very Excited About The Rangers

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Ron Washington, the Texas Rangers manager, held a press conference to confess that he tested positive for cocaine during the 2009 season.  Team officials confirmed that Washington failed a drug test during the 2009 season.

“I guess this explains some stuff,” shortstop Michael Young said when asked to comment about his manager’s reported drug use.  “There was a flight we took from Seattle to Tampa where coach paced up and down the center aisle for like four hours, talking about how he was an underrated middle infielder in his time, and that me and Kins [Ian Kinsler] are really important for middle infielders, like really important, and that we’ll know what he’s talking about someday.”  Young shrugged.  “Probably also explains that one lineup card.”

The lineup card Young was referring to was one Washington filled out against the Blue Jays on July 23rd, 2009 which looked like this:

1. Ian Kinsler
2. Josh Hamilton
3. Ian Kinsler
4. Josh Hamilton
5. Ron Washington
6. Ian Kinsler
7. Josh Hamilton
8. Ian Kinsler
9. Josh Hamilton

At the time, Texas bench coach Jackie Moore said it had been a typo.

Rangers management said they appreciated Washington owning up to his behavior, and that it explained why he gave Chris Davis 122 at bats against left-handed pitching last season, a horrible decision made more understandable in light of hard core drug use.

The Mets Are Losing

I saw the second to last game ever at Shea Stadium, where Johan Santana pitched a complete game in the drizzle.  Thanks to that purchase, which had everything to do with Shea Stadium and nothing to do with my affinity for the Mets, this weekend I received a glossy flier advertising the 2010 Mets season.  The slogan?

It's only March, but the Mets are already losing, apparently.

I’m no one to judge, rooting for a team whose motto last season sounded like the slogan of a losing political candidate (“A New Day, A New Way” – Seattle Mariners 2009).  But as my housemate pointed out, “Boy, the Mets seem to be admitting that they’re already losing.”

Baseball in the Olympics

Yesterday Jayson Stark at ESPN posted an Insider article about Major League Baseball’s chance of rejoining the Olympics.  The seed for the article is the fact that more Americans watched the Canada-United States gold medal hockey game than watched the World Series (apparently).  He asks if baseball could replicate that kind of attention with Olympic participation.  He decides that baseball will not and should not, and his reasoning, backed up with quotes from Bud Selig, falls into these points:

  • You can’t suspend the baseball season the way the NHL suspended its season for the Olympics.  The summer games happen in August or September, which is too critical of a time for baseball.
  • You can’t suspend the baseball season because fitting in 162 games while keeping the playoffs from going into November would then be impossible.
  • You cannot shorten the baseball season because of the hit that would deal to baseball’s finances.
  • America understands and enjoys the Summer Games more, and baseball would not stand out in the Summer Games the way hockey stands out in the Winter Games.

Fair points, all.  He goes on to advocate for the WBC to be concluded during the All-Star break, which is a fun idea.  I’ve written about the WBC here before, but a couple of thoughts about an approach to letting professional players participate in the Olympics (should baseball be readmitted, of course).

The crux of the idea: let major league players leave their teams in order to play in the Olympics.

The cons:

  • Teams would lose their best players for a critical stretch of the season.
  • The impact on teams would be uneven (some might lose 5 best players, others might lose none).
  • Teams lose revenue, theoretically, from loss of star players.
  • Tension created between a country wanting a specific player, that player’s desire, and an owner not wanting the player to leave the team.
  • Team tension between a player wanting to leave for the Olympics, and teammates who view it as a selfish decision.
  • Taxing a pitcher mid-season, increasing chance of injury or fatigue for the playoffs.

(Notice how I started each ‘con’ with the letter T?  That’s the mark of a good, coherent thesis.)

Here are some thoughts for doing this anyway:

  • First, the Olympics are every four years, so this would not be a frequent problem.
  • Baseball currently has an image problem.  The Olympic spirit of selfless patriotism could inject baseball with story lines and personalities the game could use to counter its money-and-steroids image.
  • I think we underestimate both fans and teammates’ respect for a player being selected to, and playing for, their national team.  Evidence of this can be found in the Penguins-Sabers game yesterday, when the Pittsburgh crowd gave Ryan Miller a bigger standing ovation than it gave Sidney Crosby.
  • Nobody wants to tax an athlete into injury, but at some point you have to just let them play.  These are world-class athletes, and there is a chance of injury whether they play in Pittsburgh or Perth.  Pitcher coddling can be taken too far.
  • A fundamental part of sports is its ability to generate inspiring stories of courage and respect amidst competition.  For every fan who respects Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game, there is a fan who respects Sandy Koufax for not pitching on Yom Kippur.  Allowing MLB players to leave their teams to play in the Olympics has the potential to generate defining moments in the history of the sport.
  • Example: Imagine if the Phillies and the Mets are tied for first place on August 1st.  Johan Santana, David Wright, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley all leave for 2 weeks to play in the Olympics, with an unspoken nod to each other that they will have unfinished business when they return.  That story would linger beyond whatever transpired that summer, and be a moment both those players and baseball can point to with pride.

Sadly, I don’t think it will happen, and the WBC is probably hurting baseball’s chance of even being reinstated into the Olympics.  But it is nice to daydream about great acts of national pride in which millionaires forsake money to play their favorite sport in the most heralded athletic competition in the history of homo sapiens.

Snark In Brief: Cole Hamels

The Inquirer today ran an article by Matt Gelb about Hamels’ off-season preparation.  It’s the standard spring training stuff, about what Hamels learned from last season’s frustrations and how everybody is expecting great things from him.

One line stuck out to me which I can’t help but mock:

On the suggestion of Mark Prior, the former Cubs pitcher and a close family friend, Hamels began a long-tossing program right after the 2009 season ended.

Isn’t asking Mark Prior for arm conditioning tips sort of like asking Al Gore for presidential election tips?  This is, of course, ignoring the fact that it’s mostly Dusty Baker’s fault Prior’s arm fell off.

Auctioning Off Historic Baseballs

Whenever a fan catches an important home run, there is the push and pull between giving it back to the player, giving it to the Hall of Fame, keeping it, or selling it.  When a ball has sentimental value to the player but not necessarily the Hall of Fame, it’s always a little obnoxious to me when the fan decides he’s going to sell the ball.

Yesterday, someone sold Alex Rodriguez’s 500th home run ball for $103,579.  I have no sympathy for Alex Rodriguez in any facet of his professional life, but it does remind me of an important point.  Why doesn’t the player just buy the ball at the auction? 

Maybe this does happen and they just keep it hush-hush, the way international companies pay ransoms for their kidnapped employees.  Still, I can’t imagine there is a more interested and financially capable bidder for Alex Rodriguez’s 500th home run ball than Alex Rodriguez.

Seattle’s Rotation May Actually Decline in 2010

The Mariners are getting lots of props online for their winter moves.  I agree that this off season has made me as optimistic about the franchise as I’ve been in years.  I encountered an interesting statistic today, however, which dampens my expectations for significant improvement from 2009 to 2010.

Let’s play the popular guess-which-pitcher-this-is game.  Below are two pitchers from 2009:

Pitcher 1: 14-13, 231 innings, 245 hits, 43 walks, 181 K, 3.22 era, 1.25 WHIP
Pitcher 2: 13-9, 216 innings, 176 hits, 67 walks, 169 K, 2.71 era, 1.13 WHIP

Which pitcher would you rather have pitched for your team in 2009?  Given that wins and losses are not a great metric for pitcher performance, I’d guess most people would go with Pitcher 2.  Fewer innings, but significantly better ERA and WHIP.

Cliff Corcoran over at Sports Illustrated points out that Seattle traded for Cliff Lee essentially to replace Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard in the rotation.  On paper it’s a good swap.  But Pitcher 1 is Cliff Lee in 2009, and Pitcher 2 is Bedard and Washburn’s combined performance for Seattle in 2009.  No one expects Washburn to pitch in 2010 like he did for Seattle in 2009, and nobody expects much of anything from Erik Bedard (except, perhaps, for his mother).  But as good as Lee has been the last two years, it seems unlikely to ask him to replicate those Pitcher 2 numbers.  Combine that with the unreasonable expectation that Felix could do much better than he did last year, and it seems entirely possible that Seattle’s pitching production from its #1 and #2 starters will decline in 2010.

Trends in Major League Salaries (Tim Lincecum Edition)

3rd year player, or best pitcher in the NL?

Tuesday Tim Lincecum filed an arbitration claim of $13 million dollars.  The Giants countered with $8 million.  He made $650,000 last year, so he’s due for a big raise no matter what.  But if Lincecum wins, what appears to be a big victory for the players may actually be a death knell for dozens of mediocre veteran players looking for work.

Growing up a baseball fan in the 1990s, my impression of salaries was that players were paid for being veterans.  Rookies made very little, veterans made more, and great veteran players made the most.  Baseball rewarded time in the big leagues primarily, and performance secondly.  That made sense to me, as that’s how I understood the real world worked.  Work for the same company for many years, and your salary will go up. 

In this last decade, I’ve seen the rise of a parallel argument for high player salaries.  The new argument is that production is production, regardless of experience level.  This is the basis for Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Howard, and Tim Lincecum’s large arbitration salary claims.  No one doubted they were, at the time, among the best players in the game.  Their agents, and by extension the Players Union, argued that they should be paid as such.
 
In the last 5 years, teams have realized that arbitration is becoming as costly as free agency.  Thus, shrewd teams like Cleveland (Grady Sizemore) and Tampa Bay (Evan Longoria) have signed young stars to long-term deals which buy out arbitration and a year or two of free agency.  The player gets the security of guaranteed money, and gives up some money they could receive via the arbitration route.  Those contracts are also mutual affirmations of interest in the relationship between team and player, symbolic actions which resonate with fan bases but which may actually have limited value to the participants (Joe Mauer’s impending free agency being the ultimate test of that).
 
But players like Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Papelbon, who do not sign deals but rather keep hitting the arbitration trough, are undermining the notion that experience drives salary increases.  What’s more, they are undermining the entire notion of arbitration.  What is the point of “team control” if arbitration salaries are subject to the same market values as free agent contracts?  Why are the Giants in danger of making Tim Lincecum one of the highest-paid pitchers in the game if they “control” him for four more years?  It’s like the Giants are being forced to make a big free agent signing.
 
This trend is pushing teams to devalue experience and, by extension, losing player loyalty.  The Red Sox have become extremely unsentimental, as evidenced by their exports of Pedro and Manny, and their attempts to rid themselves of Jason Varitek.  Teams are increasingly tapping a rookie over a veteran player if both men contribute the same win shares to the team.  Why pay more for the same results?
 
I believe the Players Union is running a significant risk here.  Pushing the arbitration system to such extremes is a transparent grab for a bigger slice of the billions in revenue inundating baseball.  But making arbitration so expensive will only encourage teams to abandon mediocre veteran players in favor of cheap rookies.  This trend appeared in the great number of unsigned free agents last off season.  It isn’t collusion – in fact, it is the reaping of a crop the players have sewn.
 
We may not be too far from a point where major league teams are comprised of a few all stars making $10-$30 million a year, and a lot of rookies and veterans willing to play on the cheap.  Free agents will be evaluated by their wins added, and the market rate for a win will determine the deals they are offered.  “Paying your dues” in the league before seeing big money will be 2+ years of service time instead of 6, as your free agency will really start with your first arbitration hearing.  Promising young players will sign their first big contract after 2-4 years of service time, and hope that they are still all-stars when that contract runs out.
 
And the Players Union, which clamours that the market should dictate players salaries, will get exactly what they ask for.  Baseball, like the NFL, will be a game where you need to grab your money fast.  Not because a linebacker can land on your knee and end your career, but because there will always be a rookie with no service time waiting in the minors to take your roster spot.