Archive for December, 2007

The Deal of the Year

I have enjoyed following the free agent market this year, and I’ve tried to put a value on most of the players who have signed contracts so far. While there are plenty of contacts yet to be signed, I’d like to give the award to the best signing to the 2007 offseason to the San Francisco Giants. The Giants signed Aaron Rowand to a five-year, $60 million deal earlier this month.

Now, $12 million a year sounds like a lot for a 30-year-old center fielder; however, in comparison to his free agent competition he’s a bargain. Both Torri Hunter and Andruw Jones signed deals worth about six million more per year than Rowand’s. Jones ended up with a shorter two-year deal, while Hunter also got a five-year deal. I think Jones is a better player than both Hunter and Rowand, but I see little difference between Rowand and Hunter. I have Rowand valued at $87.8 million over the course of his contract. Basically, the Giants are getting Torii Hunter for two-thirds of the price that the Angels are paying for him.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that signing Rowand to a long-term deal was a good idea. The Giants may need to do some more work internally before becoming competitive. But at worst, if Rowand continues upon his projected path and salaries grow as they have been, Rowand is someone the Giants can move for decent prospects at a later date.

Padres Snag Prior

I have been wondering where Mark Prior was going to land and for how much. Last week, during a radio interview, I was asked what I thought Prior would be worth. His story is intriguing. Unfortunately, I don’t have my numbers in front of me, so this is all from memory. In 2002 and 2004-2006, Prior was a $5-6 million pitcher—good, but nothing to get excited about. It’s 2003, when he was an $18 million pitcher, that has us drooling. In 2007, he didn’t pitch at all. This is quite a range in performance.

The San Diego Padres are the big winners. They are paying $1 million guaranteed, with the possibly of over $2 million in incentives, to gamble on Prior. As long is he is somewhat healthy, this is a good deal for the Padres. However, that this is the best deal he could get and that the Cubs were not willing to risk paying him $3.5 million in arbitration tells me that MLB teams are skeptical that Prior will be healthy in 2008. That zero in 2007 is weighing heavily in GM’s minds.

Also interesting is that Prior did not agree to a team option, which probably would have netted him some more guaranteed money. I think this indicates personal confidence in his health, and therefore Prior didn’t want to give up any of his future earnings. It looks like 2008 will be an audition. If he shows signs of being healthy early on, I look for the Padres to go after an extention, and I think Prior will be eager to listen. $1 million is far less than he thought he would be making at this stage in his career.

Christmas Is A Time That Can’t Be Stolen

It is a first requirement of good literature that it be true, and honest. Not in the sense that it contains only a factual recounting of actual events, but that it portray honestly the thing at its core — be that emotions, or events, people, or principles. Even fables, for example, can be entirely fanciful and concocted, and yet convey a truth.

That’s why I think Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas qualifies as good and honest literature, because it tells a truth about Christmas. Namely, it tells the truth that Christmas can’t be stolen, even by a Grinch of vast power and vile cunning.

For most of us, that amounts to poetic truth. It doesn’t reassure us about burglars who might clean out the stocking on Christmas Eve, but warns us about a commoner danger that we might make the Grinch’s mistake of thinking Christmas is in the trappings. It’s the same thing we here from pulpits and tell to children. The importance is not in the message, which is old, but in the particular telling, which is new and effective.

Or so I thought until I read the story of American POWs who played the people of who-ville to the North Vietnamese “Grinch”. There was an attempt to steal their “Christmas”, even though it consisted only of carols written on toilet paper, and presents made of camp scraps. But that theft, like the Grinch’s, failed, because Christmas is not really a thing of packages and presents, but of spirit. Dr. Suess’ fable, as good fables sometimes do, turned out to possess a measure of literal truth.

The story of POWs who found strength from the Grinch fable does more than confirm the central truth of the tale. It suggests another dimension. The real point is not the observance of Christmas, but the original gift the observance celebrates. It is a gift of hope, a hope that gives men strength to endure, and even celebrate.

But that’s merely an intellectual explanation of a very physical and emotional reality. As such it’s inadequate, but about as close as those of use who haven’t had to live on hope alone can get to the matter. I might as well try to describe what it feels like to freeze, or starve or die.

A better look at it, however, can be had through the words of a man who did learn to endure on hope and faith alone. Listen to what German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison to his parents at Christmas, 1943. At that time, some 16 months before his execution for complicity in anti-Hitler plots, he had been in a Berlin Prison for some eight months:

“… I long to be released and to see you all again. But for years you have given us such perfectly lovely Christmases that our grateful recollection of them is strong enough to put a darker one into the background.

“It is not till such times as these that we realize what it means to possess the past and a spiritual inheritance independent of changes of time and circumstance. The consciousness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that goes back for centuries gives one a feeling of confidence and security in the face of all passing strains and stresses.

“I believe that anyone who is a aware of such reserves of strength need not be ashamed of more tender feelings evoked by the memory of a rich and noble past, for in my opinion they belong to the better and nobler part of mankind. They will not overwhelm those who held fast to values that no one can take from them.”

Bonhoeffer, above all, was a proudly self-disciplined German. That’s why he worried in a way most of us probably wouldn’t, about wallowing in sentimental memories. But what I find important is that even this sternly disciplined man found strength and sustenance from Christmas. He found it in the whole of Christmas, which includes the gift of the first Christmas and the centuries of faith and tradition that grew from it.

What Bonhoeffer grasps is not just Christmas as one day of joy, but the faith that grows from the day and its gift and makes possible a lifetime of hope. That’s what the Grinch, or the Nazis, or anyone else, can’t steal.

Dr. Suess, in his inimitable and fanciful way, told a true story. Not just about the un-stealable-ness of Christmas, but about the warmth of it — the hands held, the carols sung, the thanks given, the beast carved at the family table; the family and societal tradition that intertwines with faith to give men sustenance and hope even in the darkest circumstances.

The Charlotte News, Christmas 1974.

This is from my father’s regular “The Ivory Tower” column.

Happy Christmas!

Statisticians Examine the Mitchell Report’s Findings

Earlier this week, I posted a link to a study published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that looked at the changes in performance by players discussed in the Mitchell Report. Frank Stephenson took the study to task for not properly interpreting the data.

In today’s New York Times, two professors with strong backgrounds in statistics, Jonathan Cole (sociologist, Columbia) and Stephen Stigler (statistician, University of Chicago), report their analysis of players mentioned in the Mitchell Report.

For pitchers identified by the report, we looked at the annual earned run average for their major league careers. For hitters we examined batting averages, home runs and slugging percentages. We then compared each player’s yearly performance before and after he is accused of having started using performance-enhancing drugs. After excluding those with insufficient information for a comparison, we were left with 48 batters and 23 pitchers.

For pitchers there was no net gain in performance and, indeed, some loss. Of the 23, seven showed improvement after they supposedly began taking drugs (lower E.R.A.’s), but 16 showed deterioration (higher E.R.A.’s). Over all, the E.R.A.’s rose by 0.5 earned runs per game. Roger Clemens is a case in point: a great pitcher before 1998, a great (if increasingly fragile) pitcher after he is supposed to have received treatment. But when we compared Clemens’s E.R.A. through 1997 with his E.R.A. from 1998 on, it was worse by 0.32 in the later period.

Hitters didn’t fare much better. For the 48 batters we studied, the average change in home runs per year “before” and “after” was a decrease of 0.246. The average batting average decreased by 0.004. The average slugging percentage increased by 0.019 — only a marginal difference. So while some batters increased their totals, an equal number had falloffs. Most showed no consistent improvement, several showed variable performance and some may have extended the years they played at a high level, although that is a difficult question to answer.

This confirms Stephenson’s simple analysis. I’m sure it will be easy to find quibbles and possible alternate explanations for these results; but please, keep in mind that the authors are limited by what they can say in 800 words.

Aside: Stephen Stigler is the son of Nobel Prize winning economist George Stigler.

Thanks to Repoz for the pointer.

Why We Should Be Wary of Leaks

From The New York Times.

The judge who unsealed the Grimsley affidavit had harsh words for The Los Angeles Times, which printed a report in October 2006 headlined “Clemens Is Named in Drug Affidavit.” Clemens was not named in the affidavit, although he was named last week by Mitchell.

The newspaper had been challenged on the accuracy of its story by the United States attorney in 2006. It had said its report was based on two sources and that its reporter, Lance Pugmire, had seen the affidavit, and the newspaper stood by the report. In fact, the Los Angeles Times got four of the five people it named wrong.

Edward C. Voss, a United States magistrate judge, wrote in the unsealing order signed Thursday: “A review of the disclosed affidavit proves that the Times never saw the unredacted affidavit. Roger Clemens is not named in the affidavit and Grimsley makes no reference to Roger Clemens in any context. At best, the article is an example of irresponsible reporting. At worst, the ‘facts’ reported were simply manufactured.”

Voss wrote he was “compelled to point out what appears to be an example of abusive reporting.”

The Los Angeles Times said it planned to run a correction Friday. “We acknowledge the inaccuracies of the report and deeply regret the mistake,” Stephan Pechdimaldji, a spokesman for The Times, wrote in an e-mail message.

Clemens’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, seized on the error as an indication of Clemens’s veracity, since he has denied accusations in the Mitchell report.

“When this grossly inaccurate story broke in 2006, Roger said it was untrue and the Los Angeles Times chose not to believe him,” Hardin wrote in a statement. “As the record now proves, Roger was telling the truth then just as he continues to tell the truth today.”

The Los Angeles Times report listed five names it said a reporter had seen when shown the unredacted affidavit by “a source with authorized access” to the affidavit. Of those five, it got four wrong: Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons were not named in the affidavit.

The newspaper correctly identified Tejada.

Ouch! Here is the correction by the LA Times; though, the tone is hardly apologetic. While I understand the the newspaper wanted clarification of claimed inaccuracies, the point is that the newspaper wrongly believed its personnel had seen the actual affidavit, which it had not.

This is one of the issues that scares me about Game of Shadows. It’s an interesting read, and I will not be surprised if it turns out to be 100% correct in its reporting of grand jury testimony—after all, the guy who leaked it is in jail. I believe it is highly irresponsible for media organizations to leak documents from legal proceedings when the legal process is still ongoing. There is a reason these proceedings are sealed. How are the accused supposed to respond to these accusations? They can deny it, but both the guilty and innocent have incentives to deny; therefore, it is hard to believe such claims.

Valuing Carlos Silva

It has been hard to think about anything but performance-enhancing drugs for the past week, but I’ll take a break to talk about Carlos Sliva’s new deal. Yesterday, the Seattle Mariners signed Silva to a four-year, $48 million deal ($12 million/year, see comments). The size of the contract surprised some, as The Seattle Times described him as “a league-average sinker-ball pitcher who wins about as many games as he loses.”

Silva had a bad year in 2006—the 38 bombs he allowed was a big part of the problem—but he rebounded in 2007. Taking a three-year average of his worth and projecting it out over the course of his contract—adjusting for aging and salary growth—my model projects that he will generate $45 million ($11.25 million/year) over the next four years. This is close to what he got. It’s not that Carlos Silva is a fantastic pitcher, but what he does on the field is still quite valuable. As baseball revenues rise, so do player salaries.

I’m not a big fan of the M’s use of the free agent market—I think they rely on it too much—but at least they are not overspending. Dave Cameron provides an in-depth look at Silva’s skill set, and I think he’s not all that happy with the signing.

My Solution to Rid MLB of HGH: Legalize It

Over the past year, I have written several blog posts about the lack of performance-enhancing properties of human growth hormone. I have not participated in any research on the subject, nor am I even remotely qualified to conduct such studies. Instead, I have relied upon experts in the field, who are in near-unanimous agreement that human growth hormone has little to no impact on athletic performance. Despite the academic consensus, the media has reported on the use of growth hormone by athletes in many sports without investigating the science. I have scolded the media enough—this is not the main point of this post—now, I wish to suggest a policy change to help rid baseball of this product.

The Mitchell Report identifies several players who allegedly purchased and used growth hormone, and it notes that players are moving to the drug from steroids because of the difficulty in detecting its use. Currently, there exists no urine test capable of detecting growth hormone. The popularity of the drug despite its benign performance effects is a paradox. Why do players spend large sums of money, while risking their health and player eligibility, to use a substance that does nothing? This is like sneaking near-beer into a high school prom, without the comedy.

Consider the story of Larry Bigbie, a marginal major league player who reports that he began using steroids during his 2001 rookie season. To Bigbie, it was easy to find a justification to use: it was a “make or break” year, he needed recover from injury to “finish the season strong,” he wanted to “jump-start” his off-season training. I’m sure he has no problem identifying with Michael Corleone—“Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in.” When random drug testing began in 2004, Bigbie was worried. He was on the hard stuff, and there was a good chance he would fail a test if he kept up his current regimen. Though he originally rejected using growth hormone out of the fear of potential side effects, his desire to remain in the big leagues forced him to switch over to the undetectable substance.

According to the Mitchell Report, “Bigbie did not believe that he was seeing a benefit from using human growth hormone that was comparable to the effects he had seen with steroids” (p. 157). Yet, Bigbie reports buying “five or six kits” from Kirk Rodamski in 2004 and 2005. After being traded to the Cardinals prior to the 2006 season, he contacted Radomski to order more growth hormone “to prepare for spring training.” At this point, the Rodomski was already working with the feds, so Bigbie never got his drugs and also ended up cooperating with the government. This tale is so sad, because we have a player who is using a substance that he thinks is dangerous, and he doesn’t even think it works! We only know about Bigbie because he got caught, but I’m sure that his story is similar to many other players’ experiences.

The point is that players have a strong incentive to gain an edge on each other. This road will inevitably lead many of them to seek out illicit solutions in an area where the experts are the guys who sell the stuff. And when they investigate further, they find prominent sports reporters declaring that HGH is just as effective as steroids. Do you think players are going to search through the scientific literature on PubMed? Heck, if I didn’t share an office suite with exercise physiologists, I probably wouldn’t know any better.

At the end of the day, players are going to take a long hard look at the list of prohibited substances. The fact that these drugs are banned will be sufficient to convince most players that the performance-enhancing benefits are real. The desperation felt by players may cause them to behave like the citizens of Springfield when they were beseiged by the Osaka flu.

Crowd: We need a cure! We need a cure!
Hibbert: Ho ho ho. Why, the only cure is bedrest. Anything I give you would be a placebo.
Woman: [frantic] Where can we get these placebos?

The crowd overturn a truck in search of placebos, but alas the only thing inside is a crate of killer bees.

But human growth hormone isn’t benign. It’s side effects are real and dangerous. The problem is that now that everyone thinks it works, players are driven to take it only to experience the harmful effects. Baseball has a responsibility to get the drug out of the game for the sake of the players.

In order to reduce the use of human growth hormone in baseball, I suggest a two-part plan.

First, the league must educate players about the scientific evidence regarding human growth hormone. Bring in doctors and medical researchers—not league or team officials—to talk to trainers and players. Make up simple pamphlets that show a scorecard of the number of studies showing the performance benefits versus the ones that don’t—it will be an obvious blowout. Explain to these guys that they have been duped. Give players a chance to discuss this with the doctors in confidence, as well as holding public sessions to which the media are invited. Union officials need to be involved, too.

The second and most important step is to pull human growth hormone off its list of banned substances. This sends a credible signal about the efficacy of growth hormone in improving athletic performance. Education alone won’t do it. As a public school student during the “Just Say No!” era, I am well aware that propaganda serves only as comedy to the target audience. As long as human growth hormone remains on the banned list, players are going to assume there is a reason. It is a waste of resources to search for a urine test to remove it from the game. Instead, tell players, “This stuff doesn’t work. If you want to use it, go right ahead and be an idiot. But, don’t complain when you experience pain and swelling and that you have to buy new hats, shoes, and gloves.”

While my libertarian sympathies make it easy for me to suggest legalizing many things, I believe athletic leagues have a strong interest in prohibiting certain performance-enhancing drugs. My desire to legalize human growth hormone has nothing to do with concerns for individual liberty. This is a league safety concern. I feel that legalizing human growth hormone, while publicly explaining the reason for doing so, is simplest and most effective way to discourage players from taking it.

Stat Abuse

I’ve had a few people e-mail me about a mini-study in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that examines changes in performance by players named in the Mitchell Report. The authors interpret the results as evidence that the performance-enhancing drugs mentioned in the report “boosted” player performances.

This one is a real head-scratcher, because as I read the study it seems indicate the drugs had no effect on performance. This is without even taking into account other methodological problems with the study. Luckily, my buddy Frank Stephenson (economics prof. at Berry College) properly criticizes the study and crunches the numbers at Division of Labour.

The Mitchell Report named 86 players so finding 46 (a mere 54%) that improved might well nothing more than random chance. Indeed, 46 is less than one standard deviation (4.6) away from 43 for a binomial distribution with n=86 and p=.5. Could it be that the Freakonomics guys have been, ahem, fooled by randomness?

Responses to My Steroids Proposal

If you are interested, there are a few responses posted to my proposal for removing performance-enhancing drugs from baseball published in Saturday’s New York Times. I further explain my proposal here.

The main complaint is that players will not be willing to rat out one another. I agree that there may be few instances of players selling out specific teammates—though, it seemed to be enough for Judas. My comment that players would have an incentive to police each other was more about players identifying new drugs and methods deception employed by users, which clean players could pass along to the union in order to strengthen enforcement, than squealing. I did not explicitly state this, and I accept the criticism

My proposal is merely a proposal. Though I am nearly certain that what I have suggested will not be a part of a new system, I hope that planners will pay careful attention to the incentives I discuss when they design a new program.

Bud’s Mistake

Senator Mitchell gave Bud Selig an excellent opportunity to further baseball’s understanding of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

I urge the Commissioner to forgo imposting discipline on players for past violations of baseball’s rules on performance enhancing substances, including the players named in this report, except in those cases where he determines that the conduct is so serious that discipline is necessary to maintain the integrity of the game.

I think it is unfortunate that Selig has ignored Senator Mitchell’s recommendation, and I think he is going to regret his decision.

The one area the commissioner indicated he would split with the report was Mitchell’s suggestion that no players named be disciplined. “I will deal with the active players identified by Sen. Mitchell,” he said. “Discipline of players and others identified in this report will be on a case-by-case basis.”

Why is amnesty important? One interesting development since the release of the report is the admissions of guilt by the players listed in the report. I suspect their responses were motivated by desires to improve public image and to avoid disciplinary proceedings. Nearly all players who have confessed insist that is was a single mistake that occurred during a moment of weakness. This is a response that limits the damage to only those instances where they have been pinned by hard evidence. I believe that amnesty would change the responses we are witnessing to more explicit and detailed accounts of drug use. This would have provided greater understanding of the scope of the problem, and possibly provided information about which potential remedies will work to rid the game of steroids.

Any player who chooses to use this stuff must not do so lightly. Steroids are not magic pills that automatically bulk up a player. It’s not like Popeye eating spinach. In order to achieve the ergogenic benefits, use must be combined with rigorous athletic training and a commitment to cycles of doses. I would like to know a little bit more about the regimens that players employed and for how long. Amnesty would have provided the cover athletes need to completely clear their consciences. This is very much a legal issue. As any good lawyer will tell you, you should never admit to wrong-doing if you can avoid it. Players have responded to Selig, by giving up the minimum.

The game of shadows continues, thanks to Bud Selig.