Thoughts about our National Pastime and occasional thoughts for the Good and Welfare of the Reader (and maybe the writer)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Finding Value in Camden Yards

Have you ever been on an airplane and noticed that, as soon as it lands, most people jump up and get very antsy until they are able to leave the plane (and even angry if there is a delay in opening the doors)? They are acting out an Economic principle.

In classical economics, value is seen as a combination of price and utility – in other words, how much money a buyer is willing to exchange for a good or a service is dependent on how useful the buyer perceives the good or service to be. What baffles economists is how to measure the value of time – in other words how much time will a person expend in order to achieve a result.

We perceive a value in getting from one place to another quickly and we pay accordingly to fly in an airplane. Once we have reached our destination, we no longer see value in sitting idly on the transport, so we rush to get out and go about our business.

Today’s question is what our expectation of value is when we invest in a season ticket or simply invest the time to care about how a team competes. I am guessing there is a limit to how much time we are willing to spend on that team and that limit manifests itself in how soon we leave a game, whether we show up at all near the end of the season and, importantly to the owner, our propensity to renew our real investment in the tickets.

I thought of all of that today as I am getting ready to sit among Orioles fans, many of whom timed their late winter escape from Baltimore to watch the start of what they hope will be the resurgence of their team, but what is very likely to be another disappointing season. I just do not know how they can compete in the AL East with the questions that surround the rotation. Is Koji (penciled in as the #2 starter) another Dice K? Does Hendrickson have enough left to be the #4 and are they kidding with Brad Hennessey at #5?

There is a saying in baseball – every team knows they are going to win 54 games and lose 54 games. It is what you do with the third 54 that counts. The question is -- where is the value?

The minimum expectation is 54. But, losing 108 games is rare and clearly not acceptable. The MLB record in the modern era is 119 losses (Detroit Tigers – 2003). The modern era NL had three teams lose 111 (1941 Phillies, 1963 Mets, 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks).

No one is going to be spending time and money, even at the superior right field barbecue stand at Camden Yards, on a team that is on track to win 54.

At the other end of the standings, Casey Stengel was once quoted as saying, “The Yankees don't pay me to win every day, just two out of three." Even George $teinbrenner did not really think that. It is a rare team that wins 108. The Mariners and the Cubs hold the single season record, both won 116, the Mariners in 2001, the Cubs in 1906.

How about 81? If, as some say, baseball is a game of failure, then breaking even is probably a good thing. Last year, the lower wild card team, Milwaukee, won 90. The Dodgers won 84 in the woeful NL West to get into the playoffs

Maybe based on that, we ought to go with 81 wins as a respectable outcome, worthy of continued fan support. But, not all 81 wins are the same. Here is what would have happened had we taken the team that came closest to 81 wins and promoted them to that level in 2008.

In the American League East, with 81 wins Baltimore would have still finished in last place. In the Central, 81 wins would have tied Kansas City with Cleveland for 3rd place, a reachable until the end, 7.5 games out of first. In the West, 81 would have been two more wins for Texas, but they would still have finished in 2nd place, but the Angels would have been looking over their shoulders.

In the National League East, 81 wins for Atlanta would have kept them where they were, behind the Marlins. In the Central, give Cincinnati 81 wins and they still trail St. Louis and lead only the Pirates. But, in the West, the 81 wins would have put Colorado just a game behind the D-Backs, still in third place, but keeping us interested until the end.

What that tells me is that wins alone are not a good measure of value. I think we need to factor in another statistic to account for the division in which a team plays. My candidate is Number of Games in Contention. In other words, at what point does a team step on the brake, shed the big dollar contracts and start calling up the AA kids to play catch in the bigs.

For some teams the throw-in-the-towel date comes as early as the All-Star break, for others in might be sometime in August. For the Marlins, for example, it was about the second week in September. This is not the date when the team is eliminated mathematically; it is a more subjective, but fairly obvious, measure. Except for the handful of players playing for incentives or for next year’s appearance before the arbitrator, everyone else is operating at three-quarter speed, hoping to avoid a late-season injury that would interfere with their planned trip to Las Vegas.

Sorry, Orioles fans, that date is more likely to be earlier, rather than later this year.

Mike Berardino writes about Matt Wieters in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Weiters, the next phenom who is meant to save the Oriole franchise is a catcher from Georgia Tech. He is the number one prospect in the Baseball America top 100 and John Sickels writes, “If you can find a serious flaw in Matt Wieters, plese let me know because I can’t find any.”

Berardino says, in today's article, “Informed estimates have that debut coming sometime around June 1.” That is good enopugh for me to call it the beginning of the out of contention season for the O’s. From then on, you will be able to walk up to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and buy a good ticket at the box office, not two blocks away from the guy in the dirty raincoat.

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