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interview-with-j-c-bradbury-economist-and-sabernomics-blogger | November | 2009 Articles

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Interview with J.C. Bradbury, Economist and Sabernomics Blogger

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bradbury_hsJ.C. Bradbury is an economist at Kennesaw State University and author of the popular blog Sabernomics. He uses economic principles for baseball analysis, which often makes him an iconoclast in sabermetric circles. We haven't spoken to him since April, so it's good to have him back on the blog!

1. It's great to have you back in the blogger community after a long hiatus. Are there any special tidbits you can share with us from your research?

Thanks! Glad to be back. I'm appreciative of readers who have come back to following me. I did not realize how much I needed the break at the time I stepped away. I knew writing had become difficult, but I thought it had more to do with outside obligations that were zapping my time and energy. When it came time to start blogging again, I was almost dreading it; but, I had promised to come back, so I did. However, I have been surprised how easy it has been to write. Sometimes, a vacation is really in order. I will probably take periodic vacations from time to time to avoid the rut I'd gotten into after five years of blogging.

During my hiatus, I spent most of my time working on a book project. Although it was not my original intention, the book is completely about valuing players. In The Baseball Economist, I used a simple system that I had developed to value players. It was actually developed as a side project, but I thought it might be of interest to readers so I included it in the book at the last minute. I'm glad I did, because when I used it to value players on Sabernomics, I received a lot of feedback, especially questions. So, I decided to lay it all out there; and when I was done, I had a 200-page manuscript instead of the single chapter I had planned on writing. I completely tore down and rebuilt my model, which allowed me to improve the model and correct past mistakes. The book is at the editing stage, and I'm just beginning to circulate drafts to publishers right now. The plan is to publish a year from now. But, with the hot stove league upon us, I plan to use much of the work in the book to evaluate deals this offseason.

2. Your recent post "Are General Managers Myopic?" reflects a sentiment not often seen in the internet baseball community: the humility that GMs know more than we do. But there will always be GMs who are ahead of the curve and GMs who are behind. Do you see any qualities which appear to be undervalued by the market?

I think some GMs are better than others just as some economists are better than others. But, at some level all economists agree on basic core principles. GMs are no different. My contention isn't that they are all equally bright or that they don't make mistakes, but that they are not making the boneheaded moves that people often claim that they are. The stupidity required to not understand that performance fluctuates from year to year is off the charts. No GM thinks that a player is exactly what he is at the moment, especially when his recent performance is so different from his career. Certainly, it's bad policy to expect GMs to be fooled by hot and cold performance. The baseball insiders I've talked to don't believe in this widespread ignorance either.

3. The biggest question for the Braves right now is what to do with our overstocked pitching staff, and the two that Braves fans would be gladdest to be rid of are unsurprisingly the two least valuable, Kenshin Kawakami and Derek Lowe. How can the Braves best maximize their resources? All embarrassment aside, would a straight salary dump be a good idea?

What a nice problem to have. The Braves have too much of something that the rest of the league desperately wants while needing to replace Adam LaRoche, Mike Gonzalez, and Raphael Soriano. I might be tempted to use Kawakami in relief, but I'm not sure how he would adjust to the switch---though he did pitch some out of the pen in 2009. I think the Braves will move a starter for the best bat that they can get; and they'd be smart to do so, because I believe the market may be overvaluing starting pitchers right now. They'd like to move Lowe, and wouldn't mind dealing Kawakami or Vazquez if the package is right. I even think that they'd trade Jurrjens, because he's still young and cheap enough to bring a good return. Hanson appears to be off-limits. I don't think Kawakami would be a salary dump. He pitched at a level similar to his compensation last year, and I have to believe that bodes well for a year when he's making a major life transition.

Lowe will be harder to move, but I do think he is better than he performed last year. I'm all for a Lowe-for-Milton Bradley swap. Hell, it couldn't make the Braves less interesting. This team is about as vanilla as it comes, and I'd welcome a little excitement. Bad personalities didn't do anything to hurt the Falcons. They're still complaining about D'Angello Hall and Mike Vick; and there are still plenty of people who love them. Trading one good overpaid player for another isn't such a bad idea. Bradley is a very good offensive player who will bounce back from his 2009. If any team can handle his volatile personality, it's the Braves; remember, Gary Sheffield was a perfect teammate here.

4. Another big question which we'll need to answer in the next few days: whether to re-sign Adam LaRoche. At this point in his career, we know that Adam is an extreme second-half player who provides moderate power production from first base but is prone to slumps, mental mistakes, and molasses-slow baserunning. Compared to what's available on the open market, is Adam worth it?

I don't think Adam is really a second-half player. He's had some good second halves, but the statistical evidence is that such splits are random (see Albert and Bennett's Curve Ball). On occasion, it's going to happen that a player has an extreme split one way or the other. Maybe it's something that's unique to his style, but I doubt it. Having said this, I'll take Adam with his warts. He's a good hitter that the Braves can use. There has been a lot of talk about the Braves needing a right-handed power bat. But, between Diaz, Church, McClouth, and Heyward/Schafer the outfield should be fine. The Braves need a bat, and I don't care what position he plays. Why not get that pop at first base? If not Adam, I think the Braves would be wise to upgrade their offense at first.

5. What are some of the biggest misconceptions in the internet stat community? If you could do away with one trendy cliche or assumption, what would it be?

Well, I think the community's main problem is hubris combined with a groupthink attitude. Ken Rosenthal discussed this in a recent column and the sabermetric community chose to chastise rather than heed his point. This is compounded by the fact that those conducting and consuming the analysis aren't adequately familiar with the employed analytical methods and so bad analysis sometimes becomes part of the group belief.

For example, the other day I pointed out an excellent study by economists Jahn Hakes and Skip Sauer that examined baseball's labor market at Baseball Think Factory . A commenter responded "Tangotiger hates the Hakes & Sauer paper"; I guess I was supposed to defer to him. Anyway, I followed the link and the analysis conducted by the pseudonymous sabermetric icon doesn't refute the findings at all. He's plugging in extreme values into a model to make absurd predictions outside the sample for a model that the authors are acknowledging is out-of-whack with what should be. For some reason, this damns the model. I have seen Jahn and Skip present their work several times in front of many economists who are well-versed in the techniques used. It's been vetted by skilled referees and editors and published in respected academic journals. I've read their work closely and talked to them about it.

Yet, what bothers me is not that someone reaches an erroneous conclusion, but that the commenters wholehearted embrace the flawed critique, which it is later parroted across the Internet. No attempt is made to contact the authors, or submit a response to the journal that published the article--a common practice when flaws are discovered after publication. That's not what this is about, it's some sort of status game--chest thumping at a safe distance. Sabermetrics (with a big S) has become a club focused on rhetoric, not a serious research program.

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