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April 4, 2007

The Big Picture

Stepping Back

by David Pinto

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When Nate Silver contacted me about writing for Baseball Prospectus, I was both flattered and scared. I'm a two paragraph blogger who dabbles in research. Yes, I like to play with probability models and defensive play-by-play statistics, but I couldn't imagine coming up with something new every week. What could I add to this fine site?

However, I attended a sports business conference in February, and as noted at the time, Bill James talked about something different:

Bill is talking about the future of sabermetrics. He's saying we're moving more toward fringe ideas since the big ideas have been done. Sabermetricians now need to step back and look at an even bigger picture, how the sport is run, since sabermetricians now have access to clubs.

That was something different than what I write at Baseball Musings. Plenty of people are working on fine-tuning the values of runs based on offensive, defensive, and pitching stats. These sabermetricans develop formulas and concepts that constantly increase our understanding of the game, and in fact are slowly changing the way general managers construct teams. They improve the health of the game on the field by making it better.

But what about the health of the game as a whole? When sabermetrics started, we asked a big question, "Why do teams win?" We figured out that wins came mainly from run differential, and since that time we've been coming up with better ways to measure run production, both at the team and player level. I want to step back from that and not ask what makes teams win, but what makes franchises healthy. Why do fans flock to certain teams and stay away from others? Is it wins? Is it runs? Is it the ballpark? Are the concession lines too long? I want to get a handle on why fans not only love the game, but what gives them that extra push to convert that infatuation into dollars spent.

I want to step back from that and examine the health of leagues. Right now, baseball is going through an era of high attendance and high revenue growth. But as the last decade showed, that can fall as fast as it rises. Many different sports leagues exist now. They use different models of revenue sharing, free agency, and league stability. What can MLB learn from the NFL, or for that matter, the AFL? Could something like the soccer promotion system work in the majors? How might the NHL be a cautionary tale for major league baseball? Each league represents a unique way of doing business, based on what league officials, owners, and player unions see as the best way to run their leagues. Altough they would not see it this way, each is an experiment, a model, testing a hypothesis of sucess. I want to figure out which parts of these experiments work, and see if we can apply those to baseball.

Of course, there is no one correct model. Even when we examine how teams win, we find lots of different methods of reaching the goal. The Yankees model of spending big money on great players works just fine, but so does Oakland's ability to exploit market inefficiencies. Let's ask questions like what is the purpose of a salary cap, and does it accomplish that purpose? If parity helps a league, is it better to push for parity through economic controls, or through challenging teams to figure out the best ways to win? Do we want to make it easy for teams to create a winning ballclub, or do we want to force them to think and innovate? By examining the models that leagues implement, we hope to pull out the techniques that lead to success, and throw out the ones that lead to failure.

Now is a perfect time to examine these issues. Because the game of baseball is healthy, we have the luxury of taking our time to figure out what changes would affect the game positively. When the game is suffering from a decline in interest, decisions get rushed, and those decisions, once made, tend to remain in place. When the next crisis happens, well-developed ideas can be placed on the table to start the climb back up.

So I'll use this column to present ideas about the game, the teams, and the league. It's my hope that these columns spark plenty of discussion. Baseball attracts fans from many different disciplines, so there should be an abundance of wise criticism aimed my way. I look forward to stepping back and conducting a different kind of sabermetric research.

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David writes about the game regularly at his blog, Baseball Musings.

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