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interview_with_jc_bradbury_baseball_blogger_braves_fan_and_author_of_sabernomics | April | 2009 Articles

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Interview with J.C. Bradbury, Braves Fan and Author of Sabernomics Blog

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My friend J.C. Bradbury is a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta. He's the author of The Baseball Economist, a primer on applying economic concepts to baseball, and, for five years, has written the Sabernomics blog. His arguments are frequently counterintuitive and sometimes controversial -- among other things, he contends that lineup protection is basically a myth, that Leo Mazzone lowered more than half a run from his pitcher's ERAs, and he doesn't like Fangraphs' salary estimators (see question 3). In an uncertain economy like this, it's nice to be able to talk to an actual economist!

1. We've always known there were haves and have-nots, but this offseason the split seemed sharper than ever. Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixeira received mammoth contracts, while other teams struggled to sign Orlando Hudson for $4 million or Bobby Abreu for $5 million. What effect will the national economy continue to have on the baseball economy in 2009 and beyond?

If you look at  the big contracts, most of them happened earlier in the offseason. For example, look at Ryan Dempster's 4-year, $52 million. Or compare Jeremy Affeldt's two-year $8 million versus Will Ohman's inability to even find a contract after turning down several offers. When the signing season began, I was looking for evidence of a recession effect. I wasn't seeing it, and if you were reading the sports business media regularly (e.g., Sports Business Journal) the reporting on the economic effects was optimistic.

However, I think as the recession began to sink in, credit markets got even dryer, and season tickets and advertising didn't come at expected rates, teams just backed off. I think it is more out of uncertainty than actual down projections -- but once Abreu signed for $5 million, it was clear that the economy was affecting baseball.
2. What effect will the economy have on the Braves? Do we lose our ability to make deadline deals and improve our lineup midyear? Does it take away our ability to lock up cornerstone young players like Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, and Jair Jurrjens? Looking further down the line, does this encourage the front office to be a little more gunshy about burning the arbitration clock of hotshot prospects like Tommy Hanson and Jordan Schafer?
[ed. note: I asked this question, and JC answered it, before it became clear that Schafer would be the starting center fielder. After the Josh Anderson trade, JC indicated that he stands by what he said.]

The Braves' attendance was well below their own expectations last year. Some of this was due to the poor play, some if it possibly due to the economy, but I think the biggest problem was the construction on the I-75/85 connector. It was an absolute nightmare to get to an evening game last year. I think the Braves are banking on improved attendance from better access and from a better team.

I'm not sure how the front office will approach deadline deals any differently. If the Braves are contending and one player could help, I can see the corporate owner being a big asset. While credit may constrain other owners, the Braves might be able to find cash through internal lending from Liberty Media. How much you've spent already should be irrelevant to acquiring additional post-season revenue.

As for signing young players to long-term deals, that is a big money saver. Again, I think internal credit may be a big asset for making this happen. I think the Braves would like to see Escobar and Jurrjens play one more season before making a long-term commitment.  As for Kelly, he's never appeared as a front-office favorite; however, it's possible he's been offered a deal but has turned it down.

On the service clock, it makes sense to hold Schafer and Hanson back. After the rushing of Francoeur and Davies, I hope the organization is a little slower to promote young talent.  There is a myth out there that when players do well in Triple-A, they have "nothing left to prove." The minor leagues aren't about proving, they exist for practice without consequence to the major-league squad. At this stage, I think both players would benefit from a little more practice.
3. If you'll put on your professor's cap, a lot of us talk about the size of contracts without really understanding what a "fair" price for a player is. You have developed Marginal Revenue Products for players, while Fangraphs has a very different system -- with very different results -- to evaluate a player's offensive and defensive worth. Considering the massive market readjustment, how do we understand the value of a dollar this year?

Yeah, I'm not a fan of the popular online approaches. For one, replacement players aren't worth league minimum any more than a Starbucks gift card from your grandma makes coffee free. Like the gift card, players have value beyond what you have pay to get the good.  Also, the revenue-wins relationship is non-linear, increasing at an increasing rate.

Valuing players is difficult. I've been thinking about it for three-plus years, and I'm still not sure that I'm doing it properly.  The hardest part is seeing the numbers pop out of the system for the first time. "Oh, these look fine...wait, Francoeur is worth $12 million? Whoa, can that be right?" It's hard to know whether to trust your model or your instinct when they differ. I don't think Frenchy is worth $12 million, and I don't think relievers are as overvalued as I once thought. But, it's hard to know what the best estimate is. I'm constantly re-evaluating my estimates, and I'm just starting to feel comfortable with my model. More changes will surely come, and I will present them all when my next book comes out next year.

How does this affect the market now? Well, revenues in baseball had been growing at over ten-percent per year over the past several years. The question is: how long will this downturn last? If it persists, we should no longer expect 9-10% salary growth for free agents to continue. But, this could just be a hiccup. We'll just have to wait and see.
4. Leaving the money aside for a second, how do you like the 2009 Braves? How do you like our chances to sneak into the playoffs? Did our offseason adequately address the flaws of the 2008 Braves?

The Braves have a good chance to take the division. Frank Wren deserves a lot of credit for rebuilding the rotation. While the Braves should not expect much offense from the outfield, its infield offense should be able to carry the load.
5. We'll bring you back to talk about the Gwinnett Braves, whose doings you've followed on your blog. Instead, let's talk about writing and blogging. You're a published author and a New York Times-quoted blogger. Do you have any more books in the pipeline? Any advice for baseball bloggers?

My next book will be published by Wharton/Financial Times in 2010. We haven't settled on an exact release date. It wasn't intended to be so originally, but it's mostly going to be about valuing players. I'm busy writing the manuscript right now, and it's taking up most of my time. In fact, since you sent me this list of questions, I decided to take a blogging hiatus. One of the reasons for this was because so much of my writing energy is going into the book.

Writing is a funny thing. I feel that little things keep me motivated. Some days I just can't write, and I never force it. Other days, I have to make myself stop.   Both my parents were journalists, so I grew up in the newspaper business. Writing has always come naturally to me. I've never taken a class or done much more to improve my writing other than to be self-critical. I write everything on my mind first, then edit it all into shape (unfortunately, that's not a good practice for blogging, because I don't take the time to edit like I do my other work).  I find the more I read, the better I write.

As for baseball blogging, write about what comes natural to you, write about more than your opinion, concentrate on your perspectives that make you unique.
6. If you were the Commissioner of Baseball, what would you do?

  1. Eliminate arguing with umpires. Take care of that off the field, after the game. Tantrums should result in 10-game suspensions and hefty fines.
  2. Eliminate mound visits.  Motivate your pitcher from the dugout with signals and coded language, just like my Little League coach did. Meetings on the mound are a complete waste of time.
  3. Eliminate warm-up pitches for relievers. That's what the bullpen is for. Run in and start pitching.
If you can't tell, I'd like to speed up the game a bit. And I do like the game's pace in general, I just hate the lack of action when it could be avoided.  I think these are some simple steps that I'd like to see before we start enforcing time-limits between pitches.
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