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An Interview with J.C. Bradbury

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I've mentioned his work before on here, but in case you hadn't gotten the word J.C. Bradbury is one of the better sports economics writers around and is the author of The Baseball Economist as well his daily work on To my delight he agreed to answer a few questions ranging from the Rays, to Scott Boras, and even to his students.

The interview is after the jump.

R.J.Explain how The Baseball Economist came about, what inspired you to write it? How did the buzz get out about it? Did the publishing company contact you?

J.C.Well, the book and were born about the same time. I had recently started reading up on the economics of baseball, and I just wasn't satisfied with what was out there. It was not so much that the existing literature was bad, but I thought many issues were not well explored. For example, it is the norm to start from the premise that MLB is a monopoly, but the only real reason to think that it might be is that it is the only top-level professional baseball league. That is a necessary condition, but it is not sufficient. And it's not to say that MLB isn't a monopoly, but I don't think economists have properly examined the issue. So, I offered a few basic counter arguments.  I wanted to use the book to explore such issues further. As I began to write, I got knew ideas, and several unplanned chapters made it into the book.

The blog produced some "buzz", but that was unintentional. I started Sabernomics as an outlet for ideas that I was thinking about that might make it into a book. It was more helpful than I anticipated.

I shopped the book to a few publishers after I had finished about three-fourths of the manuscript. The book market is a strange place, and I still don't fully understand it. I decided against getting an agent, simply because it seemed just as difficult to catch the eye of an agent as it is an editor. So, I targeted a few editors that I thought might like the book, and I received interest from every company that I contacted. I was surprised, but happy to learn others wanted to read what I had written.

R.J.Were there any chapters that didn't make the cut due to printing reasons or interest concerns?

J.C.There are a few, but I think I'll hold them back right now. I may write on them in the future. :-)

R.J.Are there any projects that you're currently working on, a sequel to TBE perhaps?

J.C.I'm always writing and thinking about baseball. In fact, this has actually slowed down my blogging lately. When I started Sabernomics, I had a lot of material bottled up that I was ready to get out. Now, I do a lot of thinking about new projects, which takes up quite a bit of my time. But, there is definitely going to be a sequel. Writing a book was too much fun not to do again.

Right now, I'm finishing up a study of aging in baseball. Peak age is 29 for both hitters and pitchers.

R.J.Let's assume that you take Andrew Friedman's place as "general manager" of the Rays for a year, what moves do you make?

J.C.I'll be honest with you. I don't know that much about the D-Rays system other than everyone seems to be really high on what is going on down below.  The good thing is that the team has started over.
R.J.How long should it take for the Rays to dump Jim Hickey and his recent DUI arrest for Leo Mazzone?

J.C.Well, Leo has said he wants to go to a team that is rebuilding.  He has to be itching to rid himself of the Orioles disaster.  Mazzone's situation is similar to the one Steve Spurrier faced after leaving the Redskins. What Spurrier has done at South Carolina is what Leo wants to do with his next job. And another thing is that people get the impression that Leo can't work with young pitchers.  He was in the Braves minor league system for years and worked with all of their talented prospects. The negative feelings that follow former Braves as they leave town is an embarrassment to the organization. You can just see the talking points in articles. The "Leo can't work with young guys" idea was part of the smear campaign.  

R.J.Last year, prior to the trade deadline, the Rays and Julio Lugo were negotiating on a new contract and in the end the difference between Lugo re-signing to a multi year deal worth 10 million per season and him being dealt and becoming a free agent was a no-trade clause; the Rays don't do those apparently. Basically I'm asking would the fiscal cost of Lugo staying but declining in performances had been worth the cosmetic appearance of a star choosing to remain in Tampa?

J.C.Dumping Lugo was a good idea. As for no-trade clauses, I understand why teams don't like them, but it's a cheap concession to make. If I were a team I'd say, "you can have the clause, but you're going to have to give us something in return." How often is one of these clauses a problem in moving a player? All it means is that you have to get the player's permission, and players who aren't wanted normally grant permission to be traded.

R.J.A lot of Rays fans feel the team tries to make Yankee / Red Sox fans feel more comfortable than their own during match-ups between the two teams, going to the lengths of offering ice cream in your choice of Rays or either Northeastern opponent; perhaps it's smart business dealing, but shouldn't the loyalty factor play a role?

J.C.Going to baseball games today is a lot more about the experience of the ballpark than the game. The Yankees/Red Sox fans are going to come to town, spend a lot of money, and leave.  I doubt too many Rays fans are turned off by the out-of-town fans, but I understand how you feel. It's annoying to go to a Braves-Cubs game and, but the good news is that when the outsiders buy seats that the locals are not buying there is more revenue going to the team that may be used to help develop the team.

Once the Rays start winning the fans will come, and the outsiders won't be so obvious. Just look at the Braves in the 1980s. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was virtually empty. But, once the team started winning the fans showed up. I think that the Rays are concentrating on the long run (or they should be) to energize the fan base.

R.J.Another risk/reward question, are any of the following FAs worth signing with that same thought in mind; possible loss on money / statistics for gain in PR and positive attention from free agents and agents alike? Posada, Schilling, Bonds, Rivera?

J.C.The Rays tried the PR signings before, and they didn't work. It might be worth signing a big name or two if the front office really believes the player can help the team win. I think the first three players on the list could help the Rays win. I'd stay away from Rivera. Not because he is a bad player, but I think its a bad idea to put money into a reliever unless you know that you are close to being a contender. And even then, I prefer the potpourri approach to finding relief.

R.J.Am I crazy that I want Scott Boras working on the national deficit in the near future? I feel like the guy can negotiate his way into and out of anything.

J.C.Scott Boras has better things to be working on than the national deficit. I'd prefer him to work on third world poverty issues. Boras does his job well, but is loud and flamboyant about it. I think most of the criticism he gets in undeserved. But, it's not like shies away from it.

R.J.Is Alex Rodriguez really worth 500 million to the Yankees or is it a typical Boras' hyperbole?

J.C.No, Alex Rodriguez is not worth $500 million.  I'm pretty sure Boras knows this, but the first rule of negotiation is to start high. Boras is a real salesman, and he's trying to point out the channels through which A-Rod can help a team. I won't be surprised if A-Rod signs a seven-year deal nearing $250 million.  I also will not be surprised if A-Rod signs in with a mid or small-market team if he opts out of his contract. I hope he opts out, because it will be fun to watch.

R.J.Do you agree with this statement from Ken Rosenthal: Markets don't fail baseball, baseball fails markets?

J.C.Markets in any professional sports leagues are going to be unequal; that's just the way the world works. Big-market advantage exists, but the effect is overstated. The Mets and Yankees have an advantage over other markets, but its not so big that other teams are doomed. Baseball is still fun and competitive. And small-market teams make lots of money. I agree with the spirit of Rosenthal's statement, and the teams that complain the most about the inequity are normally the ones that could use a change in management. If you took the Yankees and pre-Dayton Moore Royals front offices and switched them, I have little doubt that the Royals would produce  a much better team and the Yankees would be worse.  (And I'm not saying that the current Royals management is any better than the previous group, we just haven't had time to judge.)

R.J.With Schuerholz stepping aside from the GM position recently I've reflected and perhaps the only bad move I can remember off the top of my head would be Chuck LaMar's best, trading cash for Fred McGriff. Your thoughts on Schuerholz?

J.C.No matter how much money you have to spend, it's difficult to win in baseball. So, there is not doubt that Schuerholz was good at what he did. Now, in saying this, Schuerholz had it easier than a lot of other GMs. People forget that Bobby Cox stocked the farm system before he returned to the dugout, and that made Schuerholz's job easier. Also, Schuerholz operated with with a large budget for most of his career. Again, money doesn't guarantee wins, but it sure helps. I've said that Schuerholz was good, not great, and I've caught some criticism for that. But, I don't think "good" is something to be ashamed of. I would hope he would be flattered.

R.J.Which baseball sites do you consider must read outside of Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America?

J.C.I like the news aggregator sites. I check out Baseball Think Factory's newsblog and Ballbug and then I jump all over the web. Whenever a deal or issue crops up with a particular team, I like to go to blogs where fans of that team gather (like DRays Bay). Blogs I visit regularly include Baseball Musings, Braves Journal, Wages of Wins, The Sports Economist, Marginal Revolution, and Freakonomics. There are plenty of others that I visit depending on my mood.  

R.J.Have any major league teams approached you about a consultant position?

J.C.I don't do any consulting for MLB teams. I occasionally have someone contact me to ask a question, but it's never about anything more than a curiosity. I'm not sure there is much of a market for outside consultants for baseball teams. If someone is doing good work and you need them, you just hire them. But this is just a guess because, I've never shopped myself.

R.J.Any anecdotes about a student of yours and the book or site?

J.C.In terms of students, I've learned that the world is a small place. I have taught many students with connections to MLB players coaches, and they will often pass along information to me.  It's interesting to learn the personalities of some of these guys, and it colors the way I view situations involving these players.

In terms of the blog, I have learned that people are not afraid to say anything to you over e-mail.

In terms of the book, my four-year-old daughter  has had a ball with it. When it first came out there was a big display of it at a nearby Barnes & Noble. She ran up to it and said "Daddy, they have your book!" Then she opened one up to the back flap and said, "See, it's you!" I have to admit, it's a good memory.

R.J.For all of those aspiring authors / accountants, myself included,  who write a lot about sports economics is there any advice you'd give them?

J.C.Start a blog. Don't be afraid to just throw ideas out there. It's hard to know what is interesting when you first start thinking about issues. As for sports economics, it's a wide open field but small.  The good news is that I think that we don't understand as much as we think we do. If you get interested in an topic, look into what others have written and you will probably find an avenue to contribute further.

R.J.Any chance you can explain on the process of figuring out a player's dollar value?

J.C.Here's the quick version. The entire method is in the book, but I won't go into the details.
Step 1: Calculate what a win is worth. I have used the Forbes estimates of team revenues, but other numbers could be used.

Step 2: Calculate what players contribute to wins. In the book I use OBP and SLG for batters and strikeouts, walks, and homers for pitchers.

Step 3: Put a dollar value on player contributions from Step 2 with the values from Step 1.
The framework was developed by economist Gerald Scully in the 1970s.

R.J.Thanks J.C., your book actually inspired the process of thought that lead to me writing a column on whether trading a replacement level player for a product (Gatorade in this case) would be a smart move, no joke.
J.C.Thanks R.J. I appreciate your kind words. This has been fun.

[editor's note, by R.J. Anderson] Another huge thanks to J.C., and make sure to check out his site as well as get a copy of his book, it's worth the money, believe me.