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The Baseball Economist:

I just recently read John Charles Bradbury's marvelous new book The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed. J.C. is currently an economics professor at Kennesaw State University and writes the brilliant blog Sabernomics. I also had the pleasure of being the outside reader on J.C.'s PhD dissertation, which was a splendid public choice analysis of legislative bicameralism (which had the added virtue of reinforcing some of the themes in my Seventeenth Amendment scholarship).

J.C.'s blog is entitled "Sabernomics" and the idea behind the blog and his book is to combine standard sabermetrics analysis of baseball statistics with economics to generate hypotheses that can be tested. So, for instance, he tests the proposition of whether having "protection" by a good on-deck hitter helps the batter at the plate by making the pitcher give him something to hit (Bradbury says no, contrary to conventional wisdom). He also discusses the method by which player's on-field contributions can be converted into a measurement of their actual financial value to their team (which the Wall Street Journal also discussed a few weeks back). He also concludes that there really was a "Leo Mazzone" effect on pitchers with the Braves. And I think my favorite chapter is "The Extenct Left-Handed Catcher" which I think is the cleverest chapter in showing how adding clear economic thinking can help think through some baseball puzzles that sabermetrics alone can't answer.

It is really a great book and I think VC baseball fans will enjoy it. And if you enjoyed this, you'll certainly want to move on to read his empirical work on bicameralism (ok, maybe that part is just me).

Charlie (Colorado) (mail):

...standard sabermetrics analysis of baseball statistics ....


You mean sabermetrics isn't a groundbreaking new innovation anymore?
5.3.2007 11:28am
Seamus (mail):
Kennesaw State University? Is that near Kennesaw Mountain, namesake of Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis?
5.3.2007 11:31am
Kovarsky (mail):
I think most of the serious statistical analyses have debunked the myth of "protection in the lineup" and, to the extent that the lineup around a hitter influences the proximity of pitches to the strike zone, it's been shown that the composition of hitters in front of the batter probably matters more than that of hitters after him.

I'd be curious to see the left handed catcher theory. My pet theory about left handed catchers is that, growing up, if you're a lefty hitter they don't ever stick you behind the plate. You instead end up playing one of the softer fielding positions.
5.3.2007 11:42am
Jacob (mail):
Kovarsky-
Rob Neyer had a column six or so years ago about the lack of lefthanded catchers. He went through some of the ideas about having to throw around a batter (the "conventional wisdom"), and concluded that most of them were ill-founded. The real reason, he said, was that any coach would convert a 14-year-old lefty with a strong enough arm to throw from the plate to second base into a pitcher (where the combination of left-handedness and a good arm has higher value). I wonder if Bradbury's conclusion is similar. It does seem like something sabermetrics wouldn't be as useful in answering. I suppose Zywicki's gonna make us buy the book to find out, though.
5.3.2007 12:10pm
Michael A. Koenecke:
I always thought the dearth of left-handed catchers was because most hitters bat right, which blocks the throws of a left handed catcher. Lefties are only 8 - 15% of the population anyway, and the ones who play baseball are way more useful as pitchers or first basemen.
5.3.2007 12:12pm
Stevetype:
Without reading the book:
I always thought catcher's mitts were too expensive for a youth-league team to have both a right-hander and a southpaw version. So the obvious choice - by virtue of there being more right-handers - was the mitt for a right handed catcher. A left handed kid could never learn to catch.
5.3.2007 12:25pm
The Cabbage:
Can clear economic thinking explain why lawyers love baseball?
5.3.2007 12:26pm
markm (mail):
Cabbage: Perhaps lawyers are professionally interested in concatenations of low-probability events? A distinguishing feature of baseball is that most of the runs are scored because of a series of events that are each below 50% probability - that is, first someone has to get a hit and get on base (a .400 chance for the very best, much less for most of the lineup), then one to three others have to bat him in, each having no better a chance. To get the chance of a man coming home by, say, a single + double + single, you have to multiply the probability of each step, and it comes out to a pretty low number - and yet, in most games even the losing team manages to score several times.

I'm a test engineer. My main professional adversary is Murphy's Law. I think the most exciting part of watching a baseball game live is watching the grass grow, but I can get fascinated by after-the-game analysis because it's a great model for the same tangle of statistics and probability theory that makes Murphy's Law work. I suspect that lawyers would similarly be interested - civil suits usually start because someone wants to blame someone else for an example of Murphy's Law, and criminal lawyers would have little to do if their clients' plans for getting away with crimes didn't backfire so often.
5.3.2007 12:58pm
Opus:
Probably the most obvious reason, or the least technical, why lefties don't catch is the throw to third, particularly when there is a right-handed hitter. The (often statically-based) objection that righties throw to first just fine with a left-handed hitter is not well-founded since (a) righty "POP" times (on good piches) on throws to first are higher than they are to third - by .25 to .35 seconds (at which time the runner travels a very significant extra 10-15 feet); and (b) in any event, pick-offs at first, which are more about catching someone napping, are rarely successful (the success rate easily is under 10%).

I always thought the dearth of left-handed catchers was because most hitters bat right, which blocks the throws of a left handed catcher.

There really is much a difference between throwing with righties or lefties, and there aren't that many more righty hitters in any event.
5.3.2007 12:59pm
Kovarsky (mail):
Opus,

There are considerably more righty hitters than there are lefties. I'd guess the ratio is around 3 to 1.

But defense doesn't even matter anymore for catchers. Nobody cares about the throwing game, as long as it's not the case that everyone can take a base at will. For catchers, they care much more about calling the game these a' days (see, for example, brad ausmus, who can't throw for shit, winning the gold glove last year).
5.3.2007 1:15pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Actually that post mostly left me wanting to read about the public choice analysis of legislative bicameralism. Do you have a link to that stuff?
5.3.2007 1:22pm
JB:
There have been lefty catchers, in the early 1900s. They all sucked and the experiment was dropped. That was before catchers' mitts in general.

IIRC it had to do with the spin and direction of throws to second. Lefties were more likely to err to the left, making it harder to catch basestealers.
5.3.2007 1:32pm
Jacob (mail):
Ah, I guess I can assume his chapter mimicks his blog post here. He came up with a 12 run/season difference if right-handed catchers were better positioned for throwing out runners than left-handed catchers. That seems large enough to justify strategic consideration in the long run, but not large enough to explain the complete lack of left-handed catchers. He also mentioned the theory about pitching, which I now guess he and Neyer both got from Bill James.
5.3.2007 1:44pm
Opus:
There are considerably more righty hitters than there are lefties.

I was a bit imprecise. Righties constitute about 60% of plate-appearances, not the overall number of batters.


But defense doesn't even matter anymore for catchers. Nobody cares about the throwing game,

Perhaps, but the position still clearly is predominated by guys who throw well (at least in terms of "pop-times"): Ramon Hernandez, I-Rod (heck, nearly all the latin catchers), Mauer, the Royal's John Buck (who has to deal with a pretty wild staff), Washington's Brian Schneider, Kenji Johjima from the M's, Jason LaRue, and the list goes on. Ausmus (who at one time was an above-average thrower, at least stastically speaking) is the exception. I'm guessing that fewer than 8 of the catchers who play in more than 80 games can't throw.
5.3.2007 2:40pm
Dave N (mail):
I was with Logicnazi--and wondering how Nebraska fit in.

Nevertheless, I am glad that I can at least agree with Kovarsky about baseball.
5.3.2007 3:05pm
Rick Wilcox (www):
I might have to bug him sometime - I'm a PoliSci undergrad at Kennesaw State University.
5.3.2007 3:24pm
The Cabbage:
markm

Interesting theory. I've never thought of it that way before. I always figured that it had more to do with how the practice of law requires a very methodical and deliberate approach, and that a job like that would make a person appreciate a slower game like baseball.
5.3.2007 3:25pm
Zywicki (mail):
On the Left-Handed Catcher:
Kovarsky and Jacob together pretty much anticipated J.C.'s theory: (1) it is not necessary to use the catcher's position to get left-handed batters into the lineup unless the guy had a really good arm. Essentially, left-handed players are already overrepresented in baseball and you can get them on the field at first base or any outfield position where there is no detriment at all of being left-handed. So the very slight advantage of being a right-handed catcher that Jacob notes may be just enough to tip the balance--it would only be if you wanted to work a 5th left-handed field layer into the lineup that you would consider him at catcher. And (2) if he had a good enough arm that he could overcome the slight average detriment of being left-handed, he'd be made into a pitcher somewhere along the way (the James theory).
5.3.2007 3:41pm
Left Hander (mail):
As a former left-handed little leaguer, who often caught, I have some definite opinions here. First, as Stevetype points out, there aren't enough left-handed catcher's mitts available. Catcher's equipment, almost always supplied by the league, is expensive, and individual players often don't buy their own until they are established at the position. Younger lefties who want to catch often don't have the gear available. I have a 9 year-old cousin who was recently thrilled when I gave him my old left catcher's mitt because, for the first time, he could play.

Second, the throws to second base are harder with right-handed batters. Although statistics above say that approximately 60% or so of major league batters are righ-handed hitters, the percentage is much higher in little league and high school, before serious players have learned to switch hit. It's more like 90%, so right-handed catchers have an advantage.

Finally, coaches stick the lefties on first base.
5.3.2007 3:47pm
Kovarsky (mail):
By the way, in 3 years Mauer will be a first basememan. You think they're going to let a batting champ burn out behind home plate?
5.3.2007 6:42pm
The Red Menace (mail):
That's what you would think Kovarsky. However, we know Piazza, who is one of the worst defensive players in the last twenty years, continued to catch even though it cost him a large number of games during the season. Not to mention it earned him the nickname of Mr. May (though this is a bit unfair, his post ASG numbers were generally as good as his pre ASG numbers, but he would tail off noticeably in September.)

In any case, though it makes sense to move Mauer, it's far from certain.
5.3.2007 7:51pm
KeithK (mail):
Regarding Mauer, I think it all depends on whether he wants to catch or not. Back in the old days maybe the Twins would've forced him to move for the long term good of the team (and his own hitting). But these days I suspect a star player has enough leverage to refuse a positional change as long as the team wants/expects to be able to keep him. If the Twins try to move Mauer to 1B against his will in three years he's much more likely to wlk in free agency.

Note: a few years ago I would've countered by saying that Mauer would be almost certain to leave the Twins anyway when he reaches free agency. But there's enough money floating around in the game now that it's no longer so certain.
5.3.2007 8:35pm
DeezRightWingNutz:

By the way, in 3 years Mauer will be a first basememan. You think they're going to let a batting champ burn out behind home plate?

I've always doubted the effectiveness of this strategy. Mauer isn't that much better that the average first baseman. He's way better than the average catcher. Even if playing at catcher negatively impacts his average performance and the length of his career, I bet the Twins are better off with him catching. It's relatively easy to find a good bad with defensive skills suited towards 1B or the corner outfield positions. Not so at catcher.

Additionally, does anyone know at what level the star athlete, who both pitches and plays the field/hits on his non-pitching days, specialized in one or the other? Why couldn't Babe Ruth have pitched every 4th day and played 1B the other games?
5.4.2007 12:04pm
The Red Menace (mail):
DRWN, specialization isn't ridgid until you get paid to play. Some top college players will pitch aand then play the field in between outings. Mark Kotsay is a recent example. However, once drafted, those days are gone. People who pay people to play baseball want their baseball players focused on being pitchers or positiion players, not both.
5.4.2007 1:52pm
keypusher (mail):
Here's a pretty good left-handed catcher:
5.4.2007 7:58pm
keypusher (mail):
Sorry, here is the link.


Young Babe
5.4.2007 8:01pm
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