An Interview With the Baseball Economist

J.C. Bradury, who writes regularly on his blog Sabernomics and who’s also contributed here at THT, was nice enough to answer a few questions I had about his excellent book The Baseball Economist. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, the book combines many of the basic fundamentals associated with economic theory, grinds them down so someone like me can understand them, and then applies them to some interesting baseball questions. Enough of me, here’s what J.C. had to say…

Brian Borawski: When I first read the title of your book, “The Baseball Economist,” I figured that the book was going to deal with a lot of baseball business issues. While it does deal with things like whether baseball is a monopoly or not, it also touches on much more than that. When the book idea was first conceived, what was your overall goal for the book?

J.C. Bradbury: When I first started out, the business of baseball angle was the first topic of the book I planned to cover. In fact, the last three chapters of the book on the weakness of Major League Baseball’s monopoly power were the first chapters I wrote. However, I quickly realized that I wanted to have some more fun with baseball, and concentrate on questions that are relevant to economics but do not have business implications.

There is a big misconception out there that economics and business are the same things. Economics is a social science with a universal theory of human behavior. If you want to understand business, you have to study economics, but there are many other topics that economists study outside of business. For example, I did my graduate work at George Mason University, which is known for its application of economics to politics—a field known as public choice. Naturally, as a baseball fan, I had lots of questions about the game that I thought economics could help answer. And I’m not the first economist to look at the game like this.

This approach is very similar to the approach taken by sabermetricians, which is something I discovered after meeting Doug Drinen while working at The University of the South. Doug is a mathematician with a background in sabermetrics. He grew up buying the Bill James Abstracts, and has contributed several important studies to the sabermetric world. Right now, most of his work is in football over at Pro Football Reference. We would talk baseball quite frequently, and I learned a lot from him. Several of the chapters in the book had their origins in our lunchtime discussions.

My goal of the book became to highlight topics that I thought economic thinking could contribute something to baseball fans seeking to know more about the game. As a secondary motive, I was hoping to teach a little economics through a fun subject so I decided to minimize the business aspects and concentrate on the fun stuff.

BB: You’ve been writing at your blog, Sabernomics, for several years. Was the book an extension of some of the things you began to analyze at Sabernomics or was the idea behind the book there all along with the blog allowing you to hash out the ideas that eventually made it into the book?

JCB: I started the blog as a tool to help me write the book. At least, that is what I told myself to justify working on it. However, it turned out to be much more useful of a tool than I anticipated. I really like blogging because it gives you a forum to write about whatever is on your mind. Sometimes there are good ideas there, sometimes there are bad ones. When I wasn’t blogging, I had troubled separating the good from the bad as well as coming up with new ideas. So, hashing out the ideas on the blog was a definite advantage.

Also, when you blog, you have to pay attention to what is going on in the world that you’re writing about. A few ideas in the book, such as my study of Leo Mazzone, are the results of blog posts I did that I hadn’t planned to do when I woke up that morning.

I’ve had a few people ask me advice about writing a book, and the first thing I suggest is to start a blog.

BB: You have 16 chapters in the book, each of which covers a particular topic that ranges from how effective of a pitching coach Leo Mazzone was to why we no longer see left-handed catchers. Does any particular chapter stand out in your mind? Which one did you have the most fun with?

JCB: The left-handed catcher chapter is one my favorites, because it is a fun question. When I was in graduate school, we would engage in a type of discussion we called “armchair economics.” It’s a term coined by Steven Landsburg in his book The Armchair Economist. This discussion method involves bringing a puzzle to the table like “why is movie popcorn so expensive?” and trying to come up with an answer using economic theory. The left-handed catcher chapter is an exercise in armchair thinking: It’s a puzzle that requires a logical progression of thought to reach a conclusion. The process is sound, and that is what is important. I’m not even sure if my answer is right, but I’m pretty sure that the exclusion of left-handed catchers is not a product of stubborn mangers.

BB: In one chapter, you attempt to rank the best organizations using data from 2002 through 2005 based on the value they obtain. Your top three are the Florida Marlins, Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics. It seems like your analysis was dead on because the Indians are on the verge of breaking out, the Marlins were one of the best value teams ever in 2006 and the Athletics made it back to the playoffs in 2006. Without rehashing the numbers, do you think any team makes a move up into the top tier based on what they did in 2006?

JCB: When I first did the analysis for the chapter just before last season, I was really scared. The Marlins had just traded away everyone and here I was saying they were on the cusp of something great. Then, all of the sudden, the Marlins came out and had a fantastic year on a tiny payroll. I don’t think many people are shocked by Cleveland. They were quite unlucky last year, and they put together a 93-win season in 2005.

As for movements into the top tier based on last season, I can’t say without revisiting the numbers. I think Minnesota certainly improves, but I don’t think they are in that elite group yet. And I’m not saying Minnesota is a poorly managed franchise—it’s not—but they just haven’t been as good as those other teams. I think Detroit, Colorado, and Arizona are all improving organizations over what I found in the book.

BB: Were there any ideas that you had that didn’t make it into the book? Any chapters that ended up getting cut?

An Angell at Spring Training
For decades, Roger Angell's writing has warmed us to the romance of the new season.

JCB: Yes, I had other material that got pushed out. The main reason that stuff didn’t make it was that I just didn’t think it was comparable to what I had included. One of those chapters I struggled with for a few days before saying to myself, “why am I forcing myself to write this?” After that, I didn’t try to write about anything unless I wanted to do so.

BB: Was there any question that you analyzed, that once you ran the numbers, the answer didn’t quite come out like you thought it would? Or more simply put, what was the biggest surprise along the way?

JCB: When I first looked into Leo Mazzone’s influence on pitchers, I didn’t think I was going to find much of an effect. As someone who roots for the Braves, I liked the guy, but I thought most Braves fans had too much faith in what he could do. But when I ran the numbers over and over again, I couldn’t get the impact to go away. I’m a big believer in Mazzone’s method now.

I also believed that on-deck hitters protect the preceding batter. The study that Doug Drinen and I did changed my mind. There does not appear to be any spillover of hitter abilities onto teammate performance. This really surprised me.

BB: What was the hardest chapter to write? What was the easiest?

JCB: The chapters discussing why MLB is not a monopoly were challenging because I had to try and rid myself of technical economist jargon that I usually use when discussing these subjects. One thing the blog was good for was loosening up my writing style. Previously, most of my writing had been published in academic journals, which require the formality that I couldn’t use in this book.

As for an easy chapter, I’m not sure there was one. I re-wrote every chapter in the book, and I re-ran all of the studies multiple times. It’s very scary to let go of a project like this. On my blog, I can just pop online and edit out mistakes or add corrections. With a book, it’s out there for good, so you better make sure you did it right. I know there are going to be mistakes, and I’m just going to have to live with them.

BB: Just to wrap things up, if there was one thing you’d want people to come away with after reading “The Baseball Economist,” what would it be.

JCB: While the conclusions I reach in the book are the ultimate goal, it’s not the answers that interest me. The search for answers is more about the process than the actual conclusion. Sure, the ultimate goal is to find truth, but the truth is often elusive. I’ve pursued these questions to the best of my abilities, and I hope that my book will encourage others to do so, as well. And though we may not often find the right answers, if you approach problems in the correct manner you are more likely to find correct answers.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me Brian. I enjoyed answering your questions.

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