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July 27, 2009

Ahead in the Count

Aces and Attendance

by Matt Swartz

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In last week's article, I estimated a dollar value of adding Roy Halladay for each of the contending teams mentioned in trade rumors related to Doc as of last week. Using an approximation of the effect on playoff odds and subsequent success in the playoffs, I found that Roy Halladay's contract was worth nearly $15 million more to a contender than he is to the Blue Jays. However, there are many other factors that play a role in revenue that vary by team, and one factor is that Blue Jays fans love Roy Halladay. Many of those fans cannot stand the thought of losing him, and the Jays certainly may wonder if subtracting him would hurt their attendance enough to deem it unwise. The concept of a franchise player having a high sentimental value to a city is one worth exploring, so let's discuss the effect of Roy Halladay on the Blue Jays' attendance.

For a comparison, back in the late 1990s Curt Schilling played for a series of bad Philadelphia teams. However, Schilling was very good. As a result, the Phillies won 55 percent of the games that he pitched from 1996 until he was traded in 2000, against only 42 percent of the games that he did not pitch. As a young Phillies fan who hated going to games that his team lost, I developed a strategy of picking the games that I attended based on the pitching matchups, and as a result I went to about every fifth game-and the Phillies would win about 55 percent of the games that I went to. Throughout 2002-2009, the Blue Jays have won 64 percent of the games that Roy Halladay has pitched and only 46 percent of the games that he has not pitched. This led me to ask the question: Is it possible that there are a lot of Blue Jays fans doing exactly what I did in my pointedly aiming my attendance at Schilling's starts? Are Blue Jays fans going to Halladay's starts more often?

The reason that this is useful to study is that looking at attendance by starting pitcher is a way to gain some insight into the true value of a losing team's franchise player. It would be difficult to study the cost of what would have happened if the Orioles had traded Cal Ripken to a contender during his career, because he played in every game. The question of how many Orioles fans came out only because they would get to see Ripken is a very difficult one to answer. However, as starting pitchers' schedules are well known, Blue Jays fans may be going to games only to see Halladay.

Initially, I tried to simply compare the attendance in Halladay's starts to the rest of the Blue Jays' games. During the average Halladay start between 2002 and July 21, 2009, the attendance at the Skydome/Rogers Centre was 27,918; when Halladay did not start, it was 26,426, a difference of 1,492 seats sold. If we stopped the analysis there and concluded that these fans would simply stop coming if Halladay did not pitch, then with about 17 home starts per year and about $30 per ticket, then this would cost them about $761,000 per season. Given last week's adjustment to Nate Silver's approximation of the value of a win excluding the impact on playoff odds would have put Halladay's value at $6.75 million, then an additional $761,000 in value of people coming to see Halladay's games is what I'd call 'nontrivial.' While some of that attendance factor may already be included in the value of a win, that still seems like a pretty large effect to ignore.

However, if we just focus on how the Blue Jays sell tickets in games that Halladay pitches and in games that he does not, then we ignore a lot of other significant factors in team attendance. For instance, Halladay pitches more often on Sundays and the Blue Jays get more attendance on Sundays than other days of the week. Halladay pitches more often against the Yankees too, and those are often hot tickets in Toronto. So I decided to run a regression analysis to consider the effect of Halladay pitching as well as other effects on attendance for the Blue Jays. I included dummy variables to account for year and month, as well as several other factors: whether Halladay pitched, whether the game was on a Sunday, whether the game was on a weekend, whether the game was against the Yankees, whether the game was against the Red Sox, and-another huge factor-whether the game happened on Opening Day. The inclusion of the home opener was important; the Blue Jays' attendance in home openers over the last eight years is 49,342, while their attendance in other games is 26,551. As Halladay pitched in five of the last eight Opening Days, not including the impact of Opening Day will overstate Halladay's effect on attendance.

Here are the effects on attendance of each of those variables (excluding the years and months) without including the home opener variable:

Halladay: 1,873
Sunday: 2,397
Other weekend: 1,918
Vs. Yankees: 10,231
Vs. Red Sox: 5,472

Here are the effects on attendance of each of those variables (excluding the years and months) with the regression properly specified:

Halladay: 758
Sunday: 2,901
Other weekend: 2,146
Vs. Yankees: 10,278
Vs. Red Sox: 5,359
Home Opener: 28,466 

Each of the non-Halladay variables was statistically significant, as were all of the year and most of the month dummy variables. The one exception was whether Halladay pitched. Although there seems to be a slight positive effect, it is not even statistically significant and is less than half of the original estimate that did not account for these factors. Clearly ignoring the home opener effect is wrong, and doing so will lead us to overstate the effect of Halladay pitching by 150 percent. It turns out that instead of $761,000, the dollar value of the extra attendance in Halladay's starts is around $386,000. What this means is that Halladay is probably not doing all that much to increase the Blue Jays' attendance beyond winning ballgames.

This reinforces the idea that the goal of player acquisition should be to win baseball games and not build around hometown favorites. Even a Toronto legend like Roy Halladay is not helping their attendance very much, and it becomes even more imperative that Riccardi trade him. The dollar value of the offers being reported by various teams are very close to the value of Halladay to a contender, which is around $25-28 million. The dollar value of Halladay to the Blue Jays is clearly about half that much, even after adjusting the attendance effects as specified in this article.

Of course, this is just one pitcher's effect on one team, and it may be that in other circumstances, the value of a franchise player is higher than this. There is also the much larger issue of price's effect on attendance which frequently gets ignored in these studies, which I did not get into in this article. Nonetheless, the qualitative lesson that we can learn from this analysis is that franchise players do not have anywhere near the effect on revenue as the standings do. This reinforces what I said last week-if Riccardi does not move Halladay now, he's costing the Blue Jays a lot of money and a lot of wins.

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matt's other articles. You can contact Matt by clicking here

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