September 26, 2007
The Big Picture
The end of the regular season brings an end to The Big Picture, as I'll be departing for the Sporting News to do a weekly column at their site. I want to thank everyone at Baseball Prospectus for the opportunity to contribute to this fine publication. Christina Kahrl deserves a special "thank you" for her excellent work editing my pieces; week after week, she turned my rough sentences into prose.
As 2007 ends, baseball finds itself setting a new attendance record. Through Monday, September 24th, the 30 teams sold 76,456,323 tickets, 400,000 ahead of 2006. It's the fourth straight season that baseball has upped its attendance figure. There's still plenty of room for growth, because three teams still draw under 20,000 fans per game. Just getting Tampa Bay, Florida and Kansas City up another 4200 tickets sold per game would add another million in attendance to the final tally. Beyond that, the Red Sox are busy expanding Fenway to capture more of the demand for their product. The game is healthy, wealthy, and even getting a bit wiser.
In my column back on May 30th, I pushed for dynamic ticket prices. That was followed by the news from early August, when Major League Baseball completed a deal with StubHub, thereby taking a big step in that direction. Rather than fighting ticket resellers, MLB joined forces with them to earn revenue from the high demand for tickets in many ballparks. With luck, a positive experience with dynamic ticket pricing will lead to dynamic pricing in other aspects of the game. Naturally, I was gratified to see that happen.
Dynamism has been the theme for The Big Picture. A changing game helps baseball thrive. New teams, new divisions, new schedules, and new playoff formats can all work to win or retain the interest of fans. This October, baseball will crown a new World Series champ for the seventh year in a row. Winning franchises draw fans, so awarding a different team the championship each season causes the fan base to expand. Player movement excites fans, and although you may hear people complain about a lack of loyalty between owners and their employees, the era of free agency saw the fastest growth in attendance in the sport's history. The constant reshuffling of rosters means teams can travel from the second division to the playoffs relatively quickly, filling seats as they go.
In the last week of the season, eight National League teams stand a chance of traveling to the playoffs, five of which did not make the cut last year. The Cubs and Diamondbacks each finished in last place in 2006 and demonstrate another dynamic--there are many ways to build a winner. The Cubs took the free-agent route, bringing in Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, and Jason Marquis. The D'backs allowed a young team to develop and rode a wave of good luck to first place. That variety keeps fans arguing the merits of these engines of change, even when the season is over, but there again, the trades and free-agent signings during the winter makes baseball a year-round sport.
Because of that, I believe MLB should move toward even more freedom of movement for players. The draft no longer lives up to its promise of providing losing teams a chance to gain top-flight talent. With amateur players gaming the draft to bring in the most money, the time is right to make them full free agents, able to play for the highest bidder. Let them compete against foreign players on a level field, and the flood of talent should put a damper on signing bonuses. Baseball should even take this a step further and make all minor-league players free agents whenever their contract expires. Keep the supply of players high, and the price for minor-league talent will remain low.
There's some evidence Major League Baseball is starting to think more creatively about the sport. From plans for the Athletics' new high-tech stadium to dynamic pricing of tickets to even the twist added to the first round of the playoffs this season, people are thinking outside the box. With growth comes opportunities, and too many times in the past MLB did not make the most of those. I'm hopeful that will change.
One postscript to the articles on saves-- Bil Burke, one of the database wizards here at Baseball Prospectus, worked up a list of most rescues this season. A rescue occurs for a winning team when a relief pitcher comes into a game and raises the probability of his team winning by 0.1. The relief pitcher with the highest change in win expectancy gets the rescue, but multiple pitchers can earn one if they are all at 0.3 or above.
Here are the leaders for 2007:
From this information, you can see a big reason for why Seattle, Milwaukee, and Arizona played so well this year. You can also see that closers really don't get used in tough situations that often. Since the use of the closer evolved to fit the rule, a rule change might shift the management of the best pitcher in the bullpen to the toughest situations.
Finally, I'd like to offer the readers my thanks for your comments and criticisms throughout the year--I found them very valuable in developing new columns and clarifying my thinking on the issues you raised. I also offer my best wishes to all at Baseball Prospectus for continued success--it's an invaluable web site and organization, and I'm proud to have been a member of the team.