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Aaron Schatz' "Off Base"

Aaron Schatz' column at TNR has stimulated a fair amount of discussion in the baseball blog world, particularly at sites I read such as Baseball Primer, Baseball Musings, and the economically minded Old Fishing Hat.

It’s a good piece, with good points. Schatz' bottom line is that widespread recognition of the usefulness of statistical analysis will help the rich get richer. His conclusion: “thanks to the mainstreaming of sabermetric techniques … the future of Major League Baseball probably looks a lot more like today's AL East” where the same five teams have “finished in the exact same order for six years in a row. “

Schatz attacks the view that sabremetrics the ideal weapon for cash-strapped teams. This view is that the big teams have money to burn, and acquire the best talent that everyone knows about. Not-so-big teams need to find an edge by some other means. But Schatz is correct that statistical analysis will be much less productive once it is commonplace. Everyone doing it cancels out everyone’s effort. In econospeak, this is a common feature of a Nash equilibrium.

I have criticisms of two points. First, if we accept that widespread use makes the tool less powerful, how can it be such a strong factor in reinforcing inequality? That’s a non sequitir.

Second, Schatz’ use of the AL East as the demonstration of “fundamental inequalities that plague the sport” effectively dismisses contrary evidence. Specifically, the consecutive championships won by the Diamondbacks, Angels, and Marlins. The low-budget A’s have been consistent contenders in each of these seasons. The A’s performance did prove “that poor teams, with a little managerial ingenuity, could lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.” While Schatz states that this “was true -- at least for a while,” I’m more optimistic. I think it remains the case, but that none of us knows what the next bit of ingenuity is likely to be. If we did, we should be working for the Detroit Tigers.