Archive for February, 2010

Channeling Robin Hanson on Growth Hormone Policy

As I’ve stated before, I think the illegality of growth hormone actually promotes its use in sports. Yes, outlawing such a product with testing may raise the price and thus reduce the quantity used; however, I don’t know that this is the best way to solve the problem of growth hormone use. And let me be clear about this, growth hormone is dangerous, and no one should ever try to use it to enhance performance even if it had ergogenic effects. If it was shown to be a performance-enhancer, I would support its ban.

What we have is a situation with asymmetric information. Medical researchers understand that growth hormone has no ergogenic benefits, players do not. Players who are seeking an edge need to acquire information as to what works, and they don’t get their information by searching PubMed. They may look to pushers, Google searches, or members of the media for information. These places are not ideal, and may be enough to provide some doubts about the drug’s efficacy as a performance enhancer; however, in my mind, the banning of a drug by anti-doping authorities sends a loud and incorrect signal that it works.

Last night, I was thinking about this and realized this argument fits with one that Robin Hanson made over a decade ago. Hanson came to George Mason just as I was finishing up my coursework, but I still remember his job-talk paper: Warning Labels as Cheap Talk: Why Regulators Ban Products. Here is the abstract.

The most frequently mentioned explanation for product bans is that regulators know more about product quality than consumers. A problem with this explanation, however, is that such regulators should prefer to just communicate the information implicit in their ban, perhaps via a “would have banned” label. We show, however, that since product labeling is cheap talk, any small market failure, such as a use-externality, will tempt regulators to lie about quality. If consumers suspect such lies, regulators can not communicate their ban information, and so will ban instead. We also show that when regulators expect market failures to lead to underconsumption of a product, and so would not ban it for informed consumers, regulators should want to commit to not banning this product for uninformed consumers.

The underlying focus of the paper looks at the opposite of what I’m discussing, but the underlying rationale for lifting a ban on a product is the same. Hanson is focusing on informed regulators choosing to ban unsafe products, because it is a signal to buyers about its safety. The ban allows experts to signal danger to the uninformed. In the case of growth hormone, the signal that consumers are receiving isn’t about safety. Users are well aware that growth hormone, anabolic steroids, and amphetamines are not safe, it’s just that athletes feel the safety sacrifice acceptable in light of the performance-enhancing gains. These substances are illegal under the law, the safety signal has been sent.

When it comes to anti-doping rules, banning a drug may signal that it is not safe, but it also sends the signal that it works. Players who are willing to make the health-for-income (or fame) tradeoff look to these lists for evidence of efficacy. Being undetectable is a huge plus. We need to stop the Larry Bigbie‘s of the world who just want to play baseball and will do anything to do it. Bigbie told George Mitchell that he didn’t even notice it working, but continued to use. Why? Because it was undetectable, and deep down he must have thought it helped. This undoubtedly is reinforced by the placebo effect, which has far more support as an ergogenic aid than growth hormone.

Therefore, I believe that legalizing growth hormone is needed to send the signal that it doesn’t work, largely to undo the widespread common belief that growth hormone does improve performance. Will some people try it because it’s legal? Absolutely, just like ballplayers who wear legal but benign magnetic necklaces. But think of the powerful effect it would have if MLB pulled growth hormone off its banned list. I can’t imagine a more powerful signal of a drug’s lack of potency as a performance enhancer. If we are going to be paternalists, let’s be effective paternalists. I know this is a radical solution, but I believe it is the best solution.

What A Waste

NY Times:

Major League Baseball, which had long been skeptical about a viable test for human growth hormone, now plans to implement blood testing for the substance in the minor leagues later this year, according to an official in baseball with direct knowledge of the matter.

Money down the toilet

This is a PR move.

Here is my solution, which I think will get growth hormone out of baseball and discourage people from using the drug by sending a credible signal that it doesn’t work: legalize it!.

How Has Winter Olympics Performance Changed Over Time?

My latest Olympinomics post is now up at Olympics Reference Blog.

Today’s topic is how performance has changed over time. In particular, one Olympic sport (alpine skiing) has not behaved like the others.

Letter to the Editor of the Gwinnett Daily Post

Mr. Todd Cline
Gwinnett Daily Post
P.O. Box 603
Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603

Dear Mr. Cline,

In your weekend editorial G-Braves hit a homer with Coolray Field (February 20), you praised the naming rights deal for the County’s minor-league baseball stadium.

At a time when the economy is pitching shutouts, the G-Braves came up with a big hit in the form of a sponsor to purchase naming rights for the stadium. …

Chairman Charles Bannister said “we’re in good shape” financially with the stadium, but this week’s announcement will only help ensure that. Plus, it’s a neat name, a nice double play for the team and the county.

The season doesn’t start until April 8 at Coolray Field, but both entities can already chalk up a victory.

When the financial plans were first presented to the public, the County claimed that a naming rights deal would cover $500,000 per year of the annual debt service. This deal, if correctly reported by County officials, will give the County an average of $265,000 annually for its first 17 years of operation (recall that the first year netted no naming rights payment).

This amount is about half of what County officials claimed they would be receiving from naming rights. How can you fail to report this detail and then declare this deal to be a victory? Would your sports editor declare the season a victory if the Braves won only half the games they planned to win? Would your circulation manager declare victory if only half of paid subscribers received their papers?


J.C. Bradbury

Update: The Gwinnett Daily Post published the letter.

More Testing of the Verducci Effect

After doing my analysis of the Verducci Effect yesterday, I became aware of Jeremy Greenhouse’s analysis on the subject. He uses a different method, but also finds little support for the Verducci Effect. His analysis pointed me to Josh Hermsmeyer’s Free Player Injury Database, which is valuable new resource. The database contains injury information dating back to the 2002 season. Because the Verducci Effect is largely about predicting injuries I wanted to see how player workloads predicted time on the Disabled List (DL). If significantly increasing pitcher workloads raises the incidence of future injuries, then pitchers who meet Verducci’s criteria should be more likely to get injured.

The table below lists the estimates for the impact of the Verducci Effect on DL stints. I estimated several models (including continuous estimates of pitcher workload), but I report only four specifications below because the results are consistent with the unreported estimates. I looked at the number of days on the DL (continuous) and whether or not a player ended up on the DL (discrete) using random-effects estimation models, least-squares for the former and logit for the latter. I also included the number of days on the DL in the preceding seasons in two specifications to control for the natural injury propensity of players.

		DL Days		DL Days		On DL		On DL
Verducci	4.27		-1.89		0.28		0.06
		[0.76]		[0.59]		[0.66]		[0.12]
Mean IP		-0.19		-0.16		-0.006		-0.003
		[9.33]**	[12.75]**	[4.69]**	[2.01]*
DL Days (t-1)			0.64		0.10
				[54.16]**	[14.06]**
Constant	37.67		29.48		-0.50		-1.68
		[14.77]**	[18.60]**	[3.23]**	[8.69]**
Observations	1428		1428		1428		1428
Overall R2	0.04		0.63		--		--
Absolute value of z statistics in brackets				
* significant at 5%; ** significant at 1%

Again, the results do not support the existence of the Verducci Effect. The estimates are small and not statistically significant. A change in workload by more than 30 innings for pitchers under 26 is not associated with more days on or trips to the DL. I would like to reiterate that there needs to be further testing of Verducci Effect, but so far there doesn’t appear to be much empirical support for the hypothesis.

Testing the Verducci Effect

For some reason, the Verducci Effect seems to be getting a lot of attention right now. I recall it being mentioned in the past, but I haven’t paid much attention to it. The effect is named for Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, who came up with the concept but didn’t pick the name. Verducci uses a set of criteria to identify pitchers who are at risk for injury due to a significant increase in workload. He describes the criteria for selection and rationale in an article published this week.

More than a decade ago, with the help of then-Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson, I began tracking one element of overuse which seemed entirely avoidable: working young pitchers too much too soon. Pitchers not yet fully conditioned and physically matured were at risk if clubs asked them to pitch far more innings than they did the previous season — like asking a 10K runner to crank out a marathon. The task wasn’t impossible, but the after-effects were debilitating. I defined an at-risk pitcher as any 25-and-under pitcher who increased his innings log by more than 30 in a year in which he pitched in the big leagues. Each year the breakdown rate of such red-flagged pitchers — either by injury or drop in performance — was staggering.

I figured now would be as good a time as any to put off the other important things I should be doing in order to find out if the Verducci Effect is real. I used a sample of major-league pitchers from 1998–2007 to estimate the impact of ratcheting up pitching loads on performance on innings pitched and era, using both their recent major-league and minor-league workloads to predict performance. In some specifications I included the average between the present and past seasons’ performances (Mean IP or mean ERA) to peg a typical performance level for each pitcher. The Verducci Effect was considered to be in force if a pitcher was under 26 had increased his workload by more than 30 innings in the previous year. I also measured the Verducci Effect continuously using the actual number of innings pitched increased before the preceding season. I only looked at performance in the majors, but minor-league workload totals counted toward the Verducci Effect. I estimated the impact using a random-effects estimation technique that controlled for detected serial correlation. The regression estimates are below, but if you’re not familiar with reading such tables you can skip over them and read my write-up that follows.

	 		IP Change	 IP Change	IP Change	 IP Change
Verducci		19.07		22.17		
			[3.18]**	[3.73]**		
IP Change * Under 26					0.23		0.21
							[3.37]**	[3.15]**
IP Change						-0.25		-0.17
							[10.41]**	[7.22]**
Under 26						14.89	17.04
							[4.46]**	[5.29]**
Mean IP			0.06				0.13	
			[3.96]**			[6.98]**	
Constant		-12.23		-4.83		-21.97		-6.61
			[5.78]**	[4.90]**	[8.83]**	[5.98]**
Observations		2383		2383		2316		2316
Overall R2		0.0122		0.0058		0.0379		0.0257
Absolute value of z statistics in brackets				
* significant at 5%; ** significant at 1%				
			ERA Change	ERA Change	ERA Change	ERA Change
Verducci		-0.09600	-0.10295		
			[0.21]		[0.22]		
IP Change * Under 26					-0.00391	-0.00386
							[0.78]		[0.77]
IP Change						0.00611		0.00609
							[3.71]**	[3.74]**
Under 26						-0.24738	-0.25085
							[0.93]		[0.95]
Mean IP			0.47554				0.00684	
			[13.67]**			[0.17]	
Constant		-1.90261	0.49064		0.36013		0.39538
			[8.05]**	[2.98]**	[1.50]		[2.86]**
Observations		2380		2380		2313		2313
Overall R2	0.0707	0.0000	0.0034	0.0038
Absolute value of z statistics in brackets				
* significant at 5%; ** significant at 1%		

The first row of each table measures the straight-up Verducci effect. If you increased your workload by more than 30 innings in the preceding season and are under the age of 26, then we should expect to see a decline in innings pitched and ERA. However, it turns out that this is not the case. In terms of workload, Verducci Effect pitchers actually increased their innings pitched between 19 to 22 innings. In terms of performance quality, pitcher ERAs declined by an average of 0.1 runs; however, the effect was not statistically significant, which means it’s probably best to say there is no effect.

The last two columns of the tables represent attempts to quantify the Verducci effect as a continuous phenomenon; that is, the more your workload increases the stronger the effect ought to be. To do this I used three variables: the change in workload (measured by innings pitched), an indicator of whether or not the player was under 26, and an interaction term that multiplies the change in workload times the under 26 indicator. The interaction term (listed on the second row of each table) captures any difference in performance from workload by Verducci Effect pitchers. For innings pitched, Verducci Effect pitchers increased the number of innings pitched by about 7 innings for every 30 innings pitched. In addition, being under 26 increased expected innings by 15 innings, while the change in workload tended to lower innings pitched for all pitchers by about 8 innings. Thus, the net result for an under 26 pitcher increasing his workload by 30 innings is an increase of about 7 innings pitched. Note these results are all statistically significant, but this was not the case for ERA.

So, where are we? The results do not bode well for the Verducci Effect. Pitchers who were predicted to decline actually improved. One potential problem with this study is that pitchers who pitched no innings at all in a season were not included; however, I think this bias is slight since this number is small, as even injured pitchers normally get in a few innings every season. Frankly, this is about as quick and dirty as you can get with a test; but, it’s a starting point, and I’d like to see others examine the effect further. While appreciate the intuition behind the Verducci Effect, I don’t see much evidence for it.

Update: More Testing of the Verducci Effect

Naming Rights Fail

After going a year without a naming rights deal in place, which forced the county to turn over the job of finding the rights to the Braves, it was announced yesterday that the Gwinnett Braves’ stadium will be known at Coolray Field for the next 16 years. Exact financial details were not released, but even if County officials are to be believed, the deal supposedly nets the County $4.5 million over the life of the deal.

If we just do a simple breakdown of the dollars by year ($4.5 million/16 years) that comes to $281,000 per year. And if we break out out by 17 years—because we need to count the lack of revenue captured in the first year—the County has reached a deal to generate an average of $265,000 per year. How does this stack up with their initial revenue projections?

“This will represent about $4.5 million to the county over the length of the deal,” Gwinnett Convention and Visitor Bureau executive director Preston Williams said. “It falls in pretty closely to the financial model we were working on for the stadium. This is a significant deal and a good one in tough economic times like these.”

Pretty close? The County anticipated $500,000 in annual revenue from a naming rights deal. How can getting half of what you expected get be considered pretty close?

And then government officials once again roll out the canard that the stadium is somehow in the black because a car rental tax is generating revenue for the stadium (not to mention the GCVB kick-in that is funded by revenue from Gwinnett Arena which was funded by a hotel tax).

The county was able to cover the lack of naming rights revenue during the stadium’s first season because of higher than anticipated revenue from a 3 percent tax on rental vehicles that was passed to help pay for construction.

“We’re in good shape,” Bannister said. “Financially, it is working out just fine and I’m excited about the future.”

You see, if you take the revenue from a totally unrelated item and apply it to the stadium, it’s breaking even. Unbelievable. By this rationale, every government project has a balanced budget. It’s so good to see those hard-nosed fiscal conservatives on the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners demonstrating responsible financial management.

Which ism Killed Scandinavian Figure Skating?

My latest Olympinomics post is up at Olympics-Reference Blog. Today, I take a look at possible political and economics reasons why figure skating lost popularity in Scandinavia in the mid-twentieth century.

Where Are the Good Scandinavian Figure Skaters?

Today’s Olympinomics post was inspired by Keith Law, who asked “why are there no good figure skaters from Scandinavia?”

Scandinavian countries tend to be quite good at most winter sports, which is no surprise given their climate; however, no Scandinavian athlete has won a figure skating medal since 1936.

Why is this? Read more at Olympics-Reference Blog.

When Gender Matters and When It Doesn’t

My latest Olympinomics post is up at the Olympics-Reference Blog.

One of the consistent findings in the academic literature on aging and athletic performance is that women tend to reach their athletic peak earlier than men. This difference is stronger in strength and speed events which tend to peak younger than endurance events for both genders. In this post, I compare the average age of medal winners by gender to see their differences across sports.