Thursday, May 22, 2008

Does Florida know that the Marlins are 26-19?

You would like to believe that, in a state with a notoriously poor reputation for the aptitude of their professional baseball teams, the emergence of not one, but two quality teams would catch the state up in a baseball furor. Bandwagon-ers and fair-weather fans, (is there such a thing in that sunny state?) would swarm the stadiums to experience the forgotten pleasure of a winning team in their very own backyard. Sadly, that is not the case. Now, granted, not all the news out of Florida has been good. But the dual accomplishments of the Marlins and the Devil Rays deserve some attention from someone, right?

webblosesJudging by the attendance at what promised to be quite an exciting  game, with world-burner Brandon Webb going for his 10th straight win, Florida doesn't agree. At right, you see a go-ahead home run heading into the seats, launched by Cody Ross, he of a strange grimace and a .184 batting average. There are precisely six people in this frame. One is Diamondbacks left fielder Eric Byrnes. Two of them are very, very lonely, (and probably unconscious, given the demographic,) fans sitting contently (dangerously?) still as the ball soars towards them. The other three are overly enthusiastic sprinters determined on beating the rest of the stadium to Ross' 30th home run ball. Not exactly the excitement that the NL East leading team had probably hoped to generate. Indeed, the game's total attendance was an astounding 11,227 persons. All this for a matchup that featured two of the better hitting teams in the league, as well as one of the premier pitchers of our time. In terms of revenue, this is disastrous for the owners. But you can't help but envy those true fans that get to truly enjoy the game in peace, right?

I know Dolphin Stadium isn't the ideal venue to watch a baseball game. I know it was a school night. To be fair, lets consider an interleague matchup on a Saturday afternoon. That should garner some attention, right? Does 16,214 work for you? Now, the Marlins sold out opening day, as nearly every baseball team in the country manages to do. I will give them that. Come day two, against the same New York Metropolitans team, they managed to pack the house with 15,117 loyal fans. Florida Marlins tickets appear to be an inelastic good, with demand staying steady regardless of record or excitement.

The Rays are not doing much better. Strangely, MLB experimented with sending the Rays to Disney's Wide World of Sports in the hopes of... popularizing the team. From April 22-24, the Rays faced off against the Toronto Blue Jays in the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps confused by the change of venue, perhaps annoyed by the blatant commercialism being shoved down their throats, attendance was in the 8,000's.

In 2005, Kevin and I frequented Comerica Park throughout the season. At this point, as many may recall, the Tigers were not known to be a good team. They were only secretly good. We knew the ushers, because it isn't too hard to spot a regular in a crowd of 5,000. This was fun stuff. Most of the other fans were just like us -- skipping work, or judiciously using their vacation days, to watch a bad team play ball because they liked the sport. And then, when the Tigers 'got good' the following year, it was as we feared -- the park was swamped with people who had no idea what they were watching. The signs were familiar. Cheers erupted at inappropriate times, for two reasons. Firstly -- and this happens in any city where people are new to the game -- every ball that left the infield was a home run that just died out before it got to the wall, and the crowd responded as such. As a former outfielder myself, I am always fascinated by the lay-person's inability to judge a fly ball. Secondly -- and I suspect this to be unique to Detroit -- people were actually watching the Pistons game on the TVs hanging from the upper deck. The bandwagoners had come to a Tiger's game, because that's what everyone was doing. And when they got there, they had to watch the Pistons game, because that's what everyone else was doing. It was a creepy orgy of conformity. For Kevin and myself, the value of the experience had certainly declined.

So in a way, Florida's true baseball fans are the lucky ones. Not only do they get to enjoy the thrill of a good team in their midst, but they get to do so without the underwhelming crowds that usually accompany such success. Unfortunately, economics doesn't reward such consumerism. The real fans don't pay any more to enjoy the game than anyone else. In fact, I would posit that they pay less, because they don't get sucked into the costly parking traps or the $28 pizzas. (In Detroit, this is vertical integration at its finest. The owner of the Tigers also owns Little Caesar's, which supplies the only filling food in the stadium. The Ilitchs' also own the Red Wings and are, thusly, a very wealthy couple). 

Does the value of the ballpark experience decrease when a team begins to improve? Would you rather experience a game with a few like-minded fellows, or be surrounded by people that are surprisingly unaware of what's happening in front of them?

Friday, May 2, 2008

If someone handed you $15 Million...

Say you are the GM of an organization that, while part of a rather large market, is struggling with defining your identity. Your roster is one of, if not the, oldest in the game. Your team hasn't performed well in awhile, and you need to make some changes. You've recently freed up a bunch of cash -- say, $18 million a year -- and now you have to decide how to spend it. You obviously have a few options. Many of the more attractive options consist of investing this money in a variety of young players, acquired through trades. You could accomplish this by taking on the contracts of some has-beens. You could also sign a number of decent free agents who could improve the ballclub. Either way, this chunk of money is so large that you can easily snatch up three All-Stars. What would you do?

Well, whatever choice you made, real-life GM Brian Sabean had a better idea. Rather than take the time to do some scouting and efficiently divvy up about $15 million a year, Sabean -- the Giants' GM -- decided to blow it all on one star pitcher. The problem was, the pitcher wasn't much of a star. By now, you know where we're going. Before the 2007 season, Barry Zito was signed to a 7-year, $18 million-a-year contract.

Barry Zito is not the best pitcher in the league. In 2002, he received the AL Cy Young Award. He has not had an ERA under 3.30 -- which he had in 2003 -- since then. In fact, in the three years prior to signing the largest pitching contract in history, Barry Zito had an ERA slightly north of 4.00. We know that ERA's do not solely define a pitcher. Zito has always had control problems. But, like many power pitchers, he has a decent enough strikeout rate to make up for it. However, Zito's stats are, in no way, misleading. He was once a good pitcher. He is not, however, getting better. He is getting worse. Observe.
The following chart was created by taking Barry's stats and dividing them by IP. In the green, you see Strikeouts -- a stat you want to increase. In the yellow are Walks -- something you want to decrease. That scary red line are Earned Runs -- something you really do not want to increase. Unfortunately, prior to his signing with the Giant's, all of Zito's stats were heading in the wrong direction. The straight lines are trend lines of linear regressions. This graph took me 20 minutes to create. Had the Giant's management taken 20 minutes out of their busy days to do the same, they may have saved themselves $18 million for the next seven years.

The trends on the graph are in no way misleading. Zito had an another bad year in 2007, and the numbers fit right in with the trend line. And that brings us to 2008. After starting off the season 0-6 with an ERA of 7.54, Zito was yanked from the rotation and assigned to the bullpen. When the Giant's signed Zito, I knew it was a bad deal. But I didn't expect it to turn this sour.

Zito is not this bad. So what is the problem? The newest news is that he is seeing a sports psychologist and believes his problem is mental. He may be right. But, there is no way he is worth $18 million a year. Not back in 2001, and not now. $10 million should have locked him up. But, at the same time, Barry is a workhorse. 2007 (196.2 IP) was the first year that he pitched under 200 innings, and you could even chalk that up to the NL switch. In that sense, Barry is worth more than your typical 4.00 ERA pitcher. But, still -- he is a 4.00-3.80 ERA guy at best. In 2006, Zito was one of 17 pitchers to pitch over 200 innings and run an ERA under 4.00. However, there were 14 guys ahead of him. Which leads us to our next target -- Jason Schmidt.

Jason is in exactly the same boat. However, Jason is older than Barry, (35 to Barry's 29), and better for less time. Now, here is where you are going to want to listen closely. Jason Schmidt was never a great pitcher until he came to San Francisco. He came to the Giant's from the Pirates, who gave him up for Ryan Vogelsong, a career 5.86 ERA reliever. Schmidt arrived in mid 2001 and immediately started getting better. In 14 games with the Pirates, he had an ERA of 4.61, consistent with the past 5 years. In 11 games with the Giants, he had an ERA of 3.39. I will let you look at the numbers. The data isn't compelling, but it is interesting that upon moving to San Francisco with Mr. Bonds, Schmidt's numbers immediately went up. In 2005, when baseball began steroid testing, Schmidt's numbers began to fall back to Earth. You have to wonder if Schmidt wasn't using some variation of the Bonds Cocktail. I usually wouldn't bring this up, but it is one thing that could explain an otherwise confusing data set. Other things could be the team atmosphere, age, maturity, pitching coach, etc. It's only a trend, and I'm not going to indict the guy based on some funny looking numbers. I'm merely pointing out something that might explain Schmidt's surprising rise and fall. His K/IP, BB/IP, and ER/IP were much higher and lower, respectively, from the time he arrived in San Francisco through 2004, the last year steroids were not tested for in baseball.

In any case, the Giant's passed off Schmidt to the Dodgers who, surprise, signed him for $43 million, 3 year deal. This mistake isn't as egregious as the Zito one. A shorter contract and a player with obvious flaws, but an apparently good pitcher. But, again, Schmidt had essentially three good years and was much older, being 33 at the time of his signing. He has performed miserably in Los Angeles, pitching only 25 innings in the one-plus season he has been around. As a pitcher that relies on power, it would be expected that he would deteriorate in his late 30's. That's why he only got three years. But Jason probably could have gotten this deal from another club; I can't imagine another team that would give Zito his current contract.

So where does this leave us? Sometimes, I am amazed at the contracts that some clubs sign. I can't imagine how anyone can figure that these deals are good deals to make. But the Barry Zito deal was, literally, the most expensive mistake ever. Of course, he still has six long years left on that contract to pull it together. This, in turn, leaves me with one question for Mr. Brian Sabean.

Were you high?