Why the Way That You “root, root, root, for the home team” is Changing the Game

Written By: Brooke Brady

“What’s it been- 30 years now of the Sunday tradition coming to the old ball game?” Ben gleams. “Where’s Jim?” Ronald turns to him and asks. “Darn box office prices got to him again. These costs just keep soaring. I’m not sure if we can keep this weekly venture up…” Ben stiffens. Ronald looks around at the cold empty seats by his side. He reflects on the time when he could barely get a spot in the nosebleeds to see his favorite team play in the sweltering heat. Now, no one comes out to the plate anymore- it’s all seen on TV.

Bat and ball has become a whole new ball game for baseball lovers around the nation as more and more people are watching from the comfort of their home. With the rise of live stream and online viewing for sports, major decrease in fan attendance to the actual game has followed according to the NY times. Not only is accessibility a cause for decrease, but also the lack of actual game play. Sources such as The Washington Post have found that box office numbers are “directly tied to the rise in strikeouts and fall in base hits.”

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Baseball fans around the country have continuously complained of the changes the game is experiencing. From a major increase in strikeouts, to an excruciatingly long play time, baseball is said to be becoming the game with “not enough action” as said by the Boston Globe So what exactly does this mean for the future of baseball?

It means less money in ticket sales and less people in the stands for the entirety of the game. Wait times between plays have increased substantially. According to Sports Illustrated, “the average time between balls put in play is a staggering 3 minutes, 45 seconds.” USA Today reports that “the game is simply devoid of action, with players striking out, walking or hitting home runs in 34 percent of their plate appearances. So, for more than a third of every game, there’s not a fielder involved in the action.” 

On the contrary, sports columnist, Noah Frank, has decided that these claims are simply the “perspectives of people who watch the game every day, for work… while they may be some of the most informed when it comes to the minutiae happening on the field, they are necessarily blind to the fan perspective.”

He believes that baseball has been and always will be “entertainment.” He doesn’t think that people will stop coming to the game simply because it takes too long, but more so because it costs too much. Wtop sports reports, the truth is that “the value of such entertainment isn’t measured in pitch clocks or percentage of balls put in play — it’s measured in dollars and cents.” Frank continues to elaborate on his view that baseball as a sport is too costly. He incorporates the fact that parking has become outrageous, food prices are continuing to skyrocket, and even the ticket price has “doubled since the year 2007.” All of these factors build over time and eventually discourage people from attending the big game.

 

“I know it’s a hassle getting to the ballpark. I get it. Even if we’d have won 100 games, who knows if it would have been different?”

– Kevin Kiermaier (Rays outfielder)

 

Frank does turn to the numbers for support as well. Pointing out that the minor league has actually had a “increase in average attendance and overall since 2016.” This is because people view the minor league as the “best entertainment value” and a more “loyal fan base” found among the 160 teams.

There is no shortage of conversation among the fans and their fellow attendees. People have taken advantage of the internet and the ease of communication it has brung among the “common folk” and the big corporations which run many sports leagues.

One service in particular for users to directly interact with companies and sponsors is the social media network “twitter.” With only 280 characters, people have their opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions. The platforms main form of communication features “tweets” which are ultimately posts to a world wide bulletin board. After analyzing tweets containing the words, “mlb attendance,” it is easy to see that the dialogue around baseball turnout today isn’t a positive one. Overall, there is a trend of criticism combating the numerous claims of attendance lowering throughout the league. Audience members throw around the word “ratings” and claim that all MLB wants is to make more money.

To understand the fan-baseball attendance relationship, I decided to dig deeper and analyze the language and recurring media trends seen throughout the tweets. I found this collection of data as the best methodical approach due to the fact that many times, twitter conversations are typically candid and show a great depth of personality. They give a unique glance at the public’s reaction to minute events and show us how individuals use the network to make their voice heard. As a casual form of media, twitter engages users in a continuous conversation which can be seen by everyone. This distinctive feature distinguishes the platform from other forms of communication and social media.

There remains an open discussion among fans asking why this is happening and whether or not the patterns will continue. Many of the tweets feature linked articles or responses to prior conversations in the twitter world around MLB motivations. Most of the talk is streamed directly from personal accounts, but every now and then a touch of accredited news sources or organizations will pop up. What does this mean for the companies in charge of the big business of baseball? Are they hearing their fans out or are they simply doing what is best for the enterprise.


 

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Nationals play Seattle Mariners 5/25/2017

“This game was moved to 12:05 from 4:05 start to get avoid rain expected later. Resulting in rather low attendance as we watch the first Seattle batter come to the plate.” 

Michael Neubert, Getty Images



One user account, @ProblemsMlb, is dedicated to the sole purpose of striking up a conversation around the issues in the MLB. A specific conversation the account pursued brought in the perspective of the family. On December 6th, 2018, he wrote a response to an initial tweet made by WOWK 13 News linking their article on the “steep attendance drop” throughout the league. 

The additional use of hashtags to advertise ones tweet has also remained relevant in the discussion around MLB. Popular hashtags include: MLB, Fans, Attendance, and even things like the mentioned above, affordability. All of 

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 3.52.17 PM.pngthese factors point to the fact that the fans of the MLB want particular pieces of their tweets to stick out. The hashtag gives a user the ability to follow a certain word through a like strand of tweets containing the same tag. This gives the tweets more exposure and in the case of frequent tweeters such as @Problemsmlb, a consistent track of their previous comments and thoughts.

Everyday another account updates their twitter with an opinion about the MLB and their attendance policies. These postings can range from parody articles, to statistics, to angry rants, but the fact that there is still an ongoing conversation proves to be a good thing. As the saying goes, “bad publicity is still publicity” and it can be considered that the MLB will continue to take everything and make it a home run.

An additional piece of evidence worth understanding is the MLB year-by-year statistical report with average attendance, average attendance per game, and average number of pitchers used by individual teams in the season.

“Average attendance” provides average numbers  based on the amount of tickets sold during home games. The table shows a substantial increase from 2000 until 2007, when the numbers of average overall attendance begin to drop again. This trend downward may be due to the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 in which many people began to eliminate frivolous entertainment practices. From 2008 to 2009 is when we can see the biggest drop as explained by @ProblemsmlbSeason tickets are automatically renewed the year before, so this drop in 2009 as opposed to 2008 was probably due to the fact that people had to cancel their tickets later than they wanted to due to renewal constraints.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 9.00.33 PM.pngIn the far left column of the table also stands the pitchers statistic. The only significance this pattern shows is the continuing increase in the number of pitchers teams keep on their roster. With more team members, comes more costs and more salaries to pay so as this goes up, so will prices, and then attendance will fall.

Dynamic pricing has also become a hot button for the people whom are purchasing tickets to the game. The algorithm many ticket specialists are using is said to “measure demand and price sensitivity to a particular game on a real-time basis” as fangraph explains. It’s not just a one and done deal for pricing consultants and teams alike, “many factors are considered, including the weather, a winning or hitting streak, the debut of a hot prospect and the price tickets are selling for on the secondary market, like StubHub.”

All in all, people are beginning to focus their interests and money elsewhere. After reading endless tweets about fan complaints and experiences, it was seen that people simply don’t want to spend the money and time anymore at the actual game. Families and even just regular old sports fans don’t like the amount of bills traveling from their wallet to the ticket stands. When they go to purchase their tickets or anything else included in the home game experience, they feel ostracized by their favorite sport. If prices of all aspects of baseball continue to rise, people will find cheaper alternatives to actually showing up to be the live audience.

Times are changing according to Beyond the Boxscore report which states that “the average age of a baseball fans is almost 55.” The average sports fan attention span is slowly degrading as big media companies are working towards making the next big sport faster, better and bigger. The NFL is bringing in the viewers who “don’t have the time to watch nothing happen.” Sports watchers want a lively game for their entertainment. Although baseball has remained prevalent in American culture, will it be able to save it’s long standing decline in attendance? Will it continue to be “America’s favorite past time”? It seems that question will be answered when you attend your next home game.

 

featured image from: http://fortune.com/2018/06/15/mlb-attendance-rate-declining/ 

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Thin Air vs. the Numbers; Does Elevation Affect Batting Statistics?

Statistics rule the game of baseball. It’s a game of skill, where the biggest, strongest, fastest guy isn’t always necessarily the best. Experts perform studies, watch reruns of games, and analyze the stats day and night to try to formulate the best factors to look at in a player, team, setting, etc. These stats can help properly evaluate a strategy to see if it really is effective. Every single detail and decision of a player can be factored into statistics. People track every foul ball hit, every time a pitcher throws over to first base to check the runner, every missed ground ball, etc.

The game has been played the same way for the past hundred-so years, with bases at 90 feet apart, and home plate being 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound. Baseball’s heritage and tradition are richer and deeper than those of other sports, with more numbers and more history making the statistics so important to evaluate. Through all the numbers, though, which are the most important to look at? More specifically, does a field’s elevation affect how well a team performs offensively?

Before trying to use the numbers to determine if there is a significant answer to this question, it’s important to decide which batting statistics should be used to investigate the issue.

 

wOBA – Weighted On-Base Average

This uses linear weights to determine exactly how valuable each offensive outcome truly is. We know a single is better than a walk and a triple is better than a double, be we can actually compute the precise values with this statistic.

 

BABIP -Batting Average on Balls in Play

These tend to fall for hits based on three factors. The first is how well the ball was hit, the second is the quality of the defense, and the third is luck. The first one is important, but you don’t want to penalize a hitter for the second two. Luck and defense will eventually even out over a big enough sample, but it can take 500 to 1,500 PA in some cases.

 

wRC+ – Weighted Runs Created Plus

This credits a player for total production rather than on an at bat by at bat basis. It combines the virtues of a weighted statistic like wOBA, with the virtues of counting stats that give players credit for producing at a given level over a great number of plate appearances. It provides a measure of how many runs a player contributed to his team with their bat. It’s also very simple to read. League average is always 100, so the average hitter in 1998 and 2014 would both have a 100 wRC+. Therefore, a player with wRC+ of 110 would be doing 10% better than the league average.

 

HR/FB – Home Run per Fly Ball

This is the ratio of home runs a player hits out of their total number of fly balls (including home runs). While a player’s raw total of home runs will tell you something, their HR/FB ratio can be useful in providing context about how sustainable their power is. According to FanGraphs.com, an average HR/FB rate is about 9.5%, where a good hitter will be around 15-20% and a poor hitter ranges from 1-5%.

 

Physics

When comparing these different statistics across different levels of elevation, physics is the most important factor to consider.

Newton’s first law states that every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. This is normally taken as the definition of inertia. The key point here is that if there is no net force acting on an object (if all the external forces cancel each other out) then the object will maintain a constant velocity.

Newton’s second law explains how the velocity of an object changes when it is subjected to an external force. More simply, force (F) equals mass (m) times velocity (a). Newton’s third law, on the other hand, states that for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.

When combining all three laws in baseball terms, the force that’s applied when hitting the baseball determines how far the ball will actually go. Then, any ball hit into the air will have the force of atmosphere (pushing against the ball when it comes to distance) and the force of gravity acting on it (pushing the ball down as it goes into the air).

Physics

 

Elevation

Therefore, does the different amount of atmospheric pressure at different elevations influence how much force is applied on the ball downward and resisting it to go further? Using wOBA, BABIP, wRC+, and HR/FB, we can compare to see if the ball tends to travel further in thinner air at higher elevations, causing singles to turn into doubles, fly balls into home runs, etc.

Next, to analyze the numbers, let’s establish a base upon which we’ll be using for comparison. The Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field has an elevation of about 5,211 feet above sea level. The next highest field elevation is that of Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field at 1,059 feet above sea level. The average elevation of a major league baseball field is 355.86 feet, excluding Coors Field. Including Coors Field makes the average elevation 517.53 feet. If that’s not enough to understand the difference in field elevation, here’s a bar graph that shows the differences.

 

Elevation

*all field elevations were found at BaseballPilgrimages.com

 

The Players

To approach an understanding of differences in elevations, I decided to compare the players from the Colorado Rockies to see how they played at home versus on the road at another field. It’s important to note that more away games are played within their NL West league than out of their league, however I was not able to find the away statistics within their league compared to out of their league, so the numbers might have some skew. Other factors such as not normally playing against a team or in an unfamiliar away field may play in as well.

A rather difficult task that I didn’t think needed much focus was choosing the players which I was going to compare, yet it ended up being one of the hardest parts. I started off wanting to use the 10 players who had the highest plate appearances within the last 10 years to compare. Although, I only wanted to compare players who had a significant number of plate appearances, which I identified as at least 200 to allow for the chances of random error and chance to not have a huge effect on the numbers.

Then, I had to dwindle the number of players to those who have stayed with the Rockies for at least 10 years, and practically all the players had been removed from the “possibly usable” list. After some tweaking and trying to find what was going to work out best, I have chosen 5 players to compare over the last 6 years. I’ve gathered their stats for home vs away games, averaged them, and put each stat in a graph for each player.

 

Nolan Arenado

It’s evident here the difference makes for at home games versus away games over the last six years.

Nolan Arenado

Charlie Blackmon

Though the numbers here are closer together, there seems to be a large difference in home run to fly ball ratio at Coors Field compared to other ballparks

Charlie Blackmon

DJ LeMahieu

Again, the numbers are close together, with a large difference in home run per fly ball hit.

DJ LeMahieu

Carlos Gonzalez

Differences seem to be pretty consistent across the board for Carlos Gonzalez

Carlos Gonzalez

Chris Iannetta

Chris Iannetta

Chris Iannetta seems to have a significantly different trend of stats when comparing to the other players. He seems to have a better average when it comes to away games, yet he tends to hit more home runs at his home games.

 

Another thing to note is the different layouts of different major league fields. A fly ball in the Astros’ stadium could be a home run in Fenway Park. Other factors must be taken into consideration as well when comparing home to away games like how sleep/travel could affect a player, an opposing crowd, etc.

It’s possible to further analyze this data in several ways as well. One could look at the same stats for other teams to compare how well they play at their home fields versus away fields to see if there is a significant difference in numbers between them and the Rockies. Also, someone could compare how specific, individual players play at fields of higher altitude compared to that of lower altitude. All in all, there seems to be a consistent trend of the Rockies’ players to hit better in their home field, which has a significantly higher elevation than that of other fields.

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Shifting Sands: Major League Baseball and the “Defensive Shift”

Header Photo: CBS Sports

On July 14th, 1946, the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox met for a Sunday baseball double-header. During the first game of the double-header, Ted Williams blasted the Indians with three home runs and eight RBI, going 4-for-5 over the nine-inning contest. The next game, player-manager Lou Boudreau told his players to adjust their field positioning whenever the left-handed Williams came to bat. He knew that a great deal of Williams’ hits were sent to right field. So with a brief yell, the shortstop/coach gave the signal for his players to “shift,” resulting in seven players on the right side of second base, leaving only the left fielder on the opposite side of the diamond.

Lou Boudreau Shift
Photo: CBS Sports

Boudreau’s cunning strategy became known as the “Ted William’s Shift,” after the all-time great hitter for which it was used to stop. Unbeknownst at the time, a similar tactic would become the marquee strategy of Major League Baseball’s analytics revolution seventy years later.

Ted Williams “only” went 1-for-2 that game with a double and two walks, as managers around the league grew curious about this gimmicky idea.

A general shift in fielders can be traced back as far as the 1920’s , but the tactic used with Ted Williams was different. A change in defensive positioning of that magnitude had never been consistently or faithfully executed before, yet for the rest of his career Williams was faced with non-traditional defensive positioning whenever he came to the plate. It became one of the only strategies that seemed to be remotely effective against one of Major League Baseball’s most prolific hitters of all time, and for nearly 50 years the shift was occasionally used against heavy-hitters known for hitting the ball to a particular side of the field with incredible consistency.

Statistically, left-handed hitters tend to hit baseballs to right field more than left field, while right-handed batters tend to do the reverse. If one of these events occur in an at-bat, the hitter is said to “pull” the ball to whichever field is opposite his dominant hand. If, for example, a left-handed batter hits the ball into left field, he is said to hit it to the “opposite field”. In 2018, only 31,723 out of 126,275 balls put into play by a batter resulted in the batter hitting the ball to the opposite field (FanGraphs). That is only 25%, leaving the remaining three quarters of balls in play either being pulled or hit to center field.

Of course, some batters are more likely to pull the ball than others, and it is identifying these batters has become a growing infatuation with the front offices around the league. These observations have created an avalanche of research and analytical analysis that has subsequently inspired what is now called the defensive shift.

As Washington Nationals player Daniel Murphy told ESPN,

“When baseball started, they set players up in the positions they did because that’s where they thought the ball was going to be hit. You had the first baseman and the

Daniel Murphy
Daniel Murphy. Picture: ESPN.com

third basemen at the corners, the middle infielders and three outfielders. There was no rule that you had to have five guys on the dirt, a catcher and three outfielders. They just set it up that way because they said, ‘Hey, this is where we think we’re going to hit the ball.’ It’s the same thing that’s being done now.”

 

 

For the majority of baseball’s life, even after the Ted Williams Shift, the trend never really caught fire among major league teams. The majority of players never had to worry about one of the most dreaded, annoying things a hitter can face.

That is, until the early 2010’s.

From 2011 to 2018, the total amount of shifts used in a particular season in the MLB went from 2,350 to 34,671. In other words, as of 2018, nearly 19 percent of plate appearances have provoked a traditional shift, compared to just over 1 percent in the 2011 season (FanGraphs).

The Tampa Bay Rays were one of the first modern teams to embrace this philosophy, and from 2009 to 2011, 22.4% of ground balls against the Rays became hits, compared to the American League average of 23.6% during the same time period. While seemingly arbitrary and minuscule, this difference would, according to models, lead to approximately 1.7 more wins per season. For reference, a baseball player’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) rating, which attempts to “summarize a player’s total contribution to their team,” indicates that 1 WAR is worth on average $7 million (Fan Graphs). So in theory, simply changing where players stand on the field could lead to millions of dollars saved and an more tallies in the win column. How could Major League front offices resist?

Infographic Timeline

So, what is the shift, exactly? According to MLB.com, it is a “situational defensive realignment of fielders away from their ‘traditional’ starting points.” Vague, yes, but if we establish a sense of what “traditional” is, then it may become clearer. The image to Standard Positioningthe left depicts what is meant here. Infielders typically split themselves equally on both sides of second base, as the left and right outfielders are equidistant from the center fielder, who is more or less lined up with second base and home plate. These positions are generally fluid, as fielders often adjust their distance away from the plate and proximity to their base based on the situation (runners on base, if they expect a bunt, if there are one, two, or no outs, etc.).

Thus, Major League Baseball puts all at-bats into three separate categories: Standard, Three (or more) Infielders on One Side of Second Base, and Strategic Shift. For purposes of this article, any mention of the word “shift” refers to the second of these three categories listed, unless otherwise specified. For all intents and purposes, the Strategic Shift category is designed to include all defensive alignments that are not covered by the other two. For example, a strategic shift may have two infielders on both sides of second base, but one of them may be pushed back considerably into the outfield grass, as pictured to the rightBaseballpositioning-infielddeep.png. These situations could be a reaction to runners on base, the number of outs in the inning, or simply who is up to bat. The point being that front offices are continually creating new non-traditional defensive alignments, charged by the idea of saving runs, winning games, and saving money.

When casual fans talk about the defensive shift, pitchers may fail to enter the conversation. However, such an omittance would be misguided. Some pitchers are known for generating ground balls, others deal a considerable amount of strikeouts, while still more hang their hat on producing fly-outs. Each pitcher has their own arsenal of pitches – curve ball, fastball, sinker, cutter, etc. – that tend to evoke different kinds of balls in play. As a result, certain pitchers throw in front of the shift with extreme frequency, while some rarely pitch with the shift behind them.

Infographic what is the shift

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A common thought in economic theory is that under a fair and open market, two opposite effects such as supply and demand will eventually reach equilibrium. So, when MLB was set off-balance by the emergence of the defensive shift and batters around the league became frustrated watching former singles and doubles turn into outs, there was chatter that players would simply adapt. How hard could it be to simply hit the ball the other way?

Very hard, it turns out.

“It was common thought, ‘People are going to learn just to go the other way,’” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, “But the fact of the matter is the human element took over, and what they decided to do was go over the top rather than go the other way.”

In an interview with ESPN, Daniel Murphy summed it up by bluntly explaining, “If any of us could control hits, we would get more of them. But you can’t. You can only control the process,” emphasizing how “I’m really never in the business of trying to aim for a certain area because I have to be perfect, and I’m not perfect.”

That’s why players haven’t started from scratch and reinvented their swings. As Commissioner Manfred hinted at, players have resorted to other methods of combating the shift other than going the opposite direction, such as hitting more line drives to go over infielders.

Despite what certain statistics and logic suggest, the jury is still out as to whether the shift is even effective. As baseball has been played since the 1800’s, the past seven to eight years is relatively a small sample to work with in the grand scheme of the sport. In a 2016 article by FiveThirtyEight.com, authors Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh point out that from 2011 to 2016, “league-wide batting average on balls in play has increased, from .294 to .300.” Furthermore, the league average of ground balls – what the shift is supposedly designed to stop – has gone up during the same time period, from .228 to .242. Batting average against pulled balls (balls that go into the shift) has decreased, but the batting average of balls that go away from the shift has skyrocketed. Whether these are a direct effect of the shift or a result of some confounding variable is uncertain. Players could be trying to hit the ball harder and higher as Manfred suggested, or maybe there is something else at work here.

One example of the shift doing its job is the story of Ryan Howard, a former MLB superstar and heavy-set power hitter who won the MVP in 2006, well before the shift was popularized. In a FiveThirtyEight.com article by Rob Arthur, it is explained how over his first eight seasons before the shift, Ryan delivered 21.6 wins above replacement, compared to his final five shift-filled seasons, where he delivered a WAR of -2.2. From 2010 to 2016, Howard was shifted on roughly 88% of the time. In 2016 he was cut from the Philadelphia Phillies, and never saw playing time in the Major Leagues again.

So as baseball continues to adapt and transform, one might wonder what the future of the shift entails. In terms of usage, the path seems to be skyrocketing upwards. 2017 has been the only year since 2011 that has seen a decrease in total shifts from the previous year, when it fell from 28,130 to 26,705. However, there were 34,761 shifts recorded in the following year, 2018 (FanGraphs). At what point will expected returns from shifting reach zero and shifts per year will plateau? It’s a question many teams around the league are trying to answer.

Despite how much front offices have embraced the use of the shift, some argue that whether or not it continues its exponential climb may be moot point. In early 2015 and in his first public interview as Commissioner, Rob Manfred suggested the idea of banning baseball’s defensive shift entirely. Since then, the idea has never completely faded from public discourse, but it also hasn’t gained much momentum. Banning the shift would require imposing a plethora of different issues and subjectivity to the game of baseball. How would it be enforced? Where would certain position players not be allowed to go? How would fans react to confusing and complex rule changes? These are questions that have no clear and ready answers, and perhaps never will.

Front offices around the league are already focusing on adjusting to their new life with the shift rather than fighting its credibility. It may not be pretty and it may not be traditional, but the shift is here to stay.

*All self-generated statistics use data from either FanGraphs or Baseball Savant*

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