Baseball and the economy

Baseball is a great game, but it’s a terrible metaphor for economic principles.

American Public Media’s Marketplace recently made a giant leap in an attempt to show how people adjust to certain conditions. Without much proof last Friday, it said that the reason baseball scoring has dropped is because a crackdown on steroids has forced teams to concentrate more on defense than pitching and offense.

Here’s how Stephen Dubner, co-author of “Freakonomics” sees it:


Well it’s a good lesson, something that economists can teach us. Whenever you change a rule, whether it’s in baseball or banking, people are going to change their behavior in response to it. Some of the rules that have changed in baseball, especially having to do with steroids, have produced a lot more good gloves, defense. I have a feeling that with the banking regs that have changed in the past year or so, that I’m going to be hearing a lot from you in the next year, stories about how bankers’ behaviors have changed. Bankers hiding their home runs, bankers bulking up on whatever kind of performance-enhancing drug they can find.

Dubner notes that scoring in baseball is back to what it was in 1990, and says defense now plays a bigger part in baseball.

Steroids are all about power, however, not necessarily runs scoring. When a player is juiced, his homer totals usually take a sudden turn north. And good defense can’t stop a homerun. In the American League , homers haven’t dropped off dramatically.

The statistics don’t necessarily support Dubner’s thesis. Over the last eight years, AL teams have scored an average of 10,929 runs. There was a big drop in that this year, but last year was exactly average.

Are fielders getting better? No. In this decade, the average number of balls in play converted to outs in the American League is 68%. In the just-concluded season, it was 69%.

So there’s no real evidence that baseball has made a conscious decision to change its behavior by favoring the Nick Puntos of the world over the Justin Morneaus (and, no, I’m not suggesting Morneau used steroids, only that he’s a power hitter and Marketplace suggested baseball is avoiding power hitters now). The entire phenomenon may just be the natural ebb and flow of baseball from one year to the next.

Kind of like the economy.

  • Josh

    One could just as easily argue that the increase in power hitting of the late 90′s early 00′s caused a demand for pitchers who had better command of the lower part of the stike zone. Not sure it the facts bear that out, but of course that would lead the market to demand slap hitters who can control their swings, which leads to demand for power pitchers who can blow it by them, which leads to demand for hitters with quicker swings, and thus we’re back to power hitters etc.

  • Josh

    The point in relationship to steroids being that the natural strategy has led to favor players who don’t need the juice to enhance their competitive advantage, regardless of the rule changes.