Reviewing The Baseball Economist
May 6, 2007 2 Comments
Seems like the thing to do among Sabermetrically inclined baseball bloggers is to write a book and J. C. Bradbury of Sabernomics has written a good one. If you haven’t yet read The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, put it on your wishlist and hope that your birthday is around the corner.
The book isn’t a true Sabermetric book in the tradition of Baseball Prospectus’ Baseball Between the Numbers or the excellent The Book — Playing the Percentages in Baseball. You’ll find plenty of graphs and charts, but J. C. appears more interested leveraging the fact that he is an economist (he has a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and teaches classes at a couple of universities) and just happens to be a baseball fan. Maybe he would argue that he’s a baseball fan who just happens to be an economist, but not suprisingly the questions he tackles are mostly economic in nature. Which front office is getting the best return on their money? (The Indians!) Is baseball acting like a monopoly? (No.)
Reading his book left me scrambling through my head trying to remember the two econ classes I took in college, but even if you no background at all in economics, Bradbury’s delivery is easy enough to understand. The secret is that he’s probably used to explaining these econcepts to folks who don’t understand them. He’s a teacher. The book would be better classified as a series of essays of varying lengths, with probably a lot drawn from a few lectures that he’s given in class. When he talks about whether MLB is behaving like a monopoly, he first explains what economists know about monopolies, then makes his case about why he doesn’t believe that MLB behaves like one, and it all makes sense. At least it did to me.
If you’re a hardcore Sabermetrician, this book might leave you a little wanting. It’s not that his research is flawed or that he commits some tremendous error that makes him lose all credibility. It’s that Bradbury looks at things like data like the rate at which hit batsmen occur and looks for an economic explanation to why it’s happening and what factors inform the decision-making process, not how many runs it costs a team. As someone trained as a psychologist, I was at home reading these chapters. He doesn’t really develop any new metrics (save one; more on that in a minute) or investigate in-game strategies. He does look at the small-market/big-market debate, the dreaded S word, and even the scouts v. statheads argument. Every time, his points were informed, his observations sharp (especially concerning steroids), and his writing crystal clear every time. After reading the chapter on steroids, which Bradbury does not believe to be the primary cause of the home run explosion, I walked away with plenty of new perspectives on the issue that I hadn’t previously considered. Being able to write that sentence there is always the mark of a good book.
The centerpiece of his work, at least as far as his contribution to the Sabermetric slice of life, is his valuation of players contributions in dollar terms. He uses it to identify which teams are getting the most bang for their (millions of) bucks and thus, which are the smartest and most-likely-to-succeed teams for the near future. Fortunately for this Indians fan, the Indians came in second on his measure. Sadly, the evil Florida Marlins came in first. My critique of J.C.’s work here is that his valuation of players is keyed off some pretty basic stats (AVG/OBP/SLG). There are more sophisticated (although much more complicated and obscure) statistics to use in assessing players. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to stick with that with which a general audience would be familiar. He also uses average level as a baseline instead of replacement level, which I believe is a weakness in his method, but the rest of his logic and argument is strong. In fact, he makes an excellent case for Derrek Lee being the most under-appreciated player in baseball, wrongly denied an MVP by the fact that he plays on… well, the Cubs.
I’m proud to say that I own this book, even if it was written by a Braves fan. (My wife’s from Atlanta, so I have to be kind to the Braves, even though they did ruin my sophomore year of high school.) Is it a Sabermetric book? Somewhat. But it’s worth the read because it’s a thinking man’s book on baseball. It’s the sort of book that a Sabermetrician (or any fan of the game) can really get into, especially on those train rides to work. If you’re looking for a fun one to expand your collection, you have my official Pizza Cutter approval to buy this one.