Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago. There’s nothing he likes more than using the tools of economics to catch cheaters. School teachers, sumo wrestlers, realtors. He’d catch his own kids cheating if he had a chance. But what he really wants to do is get out from behind the desk, and instead of just catching cheaters, do a little cheating himself. Big league cheating. As in, major league baseball big league.
Steven D. LEVITT: So I was talking with the Chicago White Sox about a number of different ways in which we could use data to better their baseball operations. The thing that was most interesting to me was stealing signs and I told them that I was certain that I could do a great job stealing signs and they could use that to their benefit.
DUBNER: Now why was that so interesting to you?
LEVITT: I like to catch cheaters but it’s just kind of sometimes fun to cheat too, it’s fun to know that you can cheat, it would be fun for me to be sitting at home watching a baseball game and be able to watch what the catcher is doing and say to my kids, “Hey look, that next pitch is going to be a curve ball,” or even better to get on the phone to the dugout and say, “Hey, I just wanted to let you guys know they’re using signal version C today and so if you get a guy on base that will tell you…”
DUBNER: So you wanted to steal signs for the White Sox; you didn’t want to catch other teams stealing their signs?
LEVITT: I wanted to engage in intellectual activity of understanding how to steal signs. Now whether anyone actually stole any signs or not didn’t really matter. I just thought it would be fun to figure out how to steal signs, like code breaking, World War II kind of stuff.
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This year, the number of runs scored in major league baseball was at an 18-year low, 1105 fewer runs than last year. That’s 1105 guys who instead of crossing the plate and scoring one more run to tell their grandkids about instead had to jog back to the dugout chin down. On the other hand, that means there were 1105 times when the pitcher didn’t kick in the Gatorade cooler.
In the early part of the season there was a flurry of no hitters and even two perfect games, what should have been a third but got erased by a bad call. Some people are already calling it “The Year of the Pitcher.”
The old timers said not to get too excited, that scoring would heat up in the summertime as it always does but now it’s October, the regular season is over and the run totals never caught up so here’s a simple question for you: Where did all those runs go?
There’s a surprising truth buried deep in the numbers where only guys like Mitchel Lichtman can find them.
Mitchel LICHTMAN: Okay, so we have a zone rating, uh, that, uh, came into fruition about 20 years ago and zone rating is basically the number of balls that a fielder fields successfully …
The thing about baseball, about all sports really but baseball particularly, is that it comes with its own crop of fans turned scientists, people who analyze a game as if they were decoding the human genome. Mitchell Lichtman is a proud member of the stat geek squad. Like a lot of them, he spent some time working for a major league baseball club; in his case the St. Louis Cardinals.
LICHTMAN: … basically what I do is I look at how hard a ball is hit, exactly what area on the field a ball is hit, go through 5 or 6 years worth of data and I figure out how often for every type of batted ball the average fielder at each position fields that ball successfully and then we compare that to how often a particular player at that position fields each of those balls successfully and then we come up with a number which represents how good of a fielder that particular player is at that particular position.
Think about what Lichtman is saying: Five or six years worth of data for every outcome on every type of batted ball. That’s what people are willing to go through to gain the slightest advantage in a high-stakes enterprise like baseball. They measure every input, every output, every action on the diamond that can possibly be expressed in numbers, numbers that tell you who wins and why, that tell you which players are worth how much and which ones are a bad bet. They look at baseball very much the way an economist like Steve Levitt looks at the rest of the world.
So let’s think about this baseball mystery on our hands, the case of the missing runs. Where’s the first place you’d look for them? I know the first place I’d look is cheating or more specifically the lack of cheating, that is, the end of the steroids of era.
In just a minute we’ll hear what Steve Levitt has to say about steroids plus straight from the San Diego Padres dugout, manager Bud Black, a former pitcher, explains why pitchers aren’t necessarily the most exciting guys on the field.
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So this theory is simple. Steroids helped turn great baseball players into even greater ones, hitting previously unthinkable numbers of home runs. Then came the scandals, the grand jury indictments, busted reputations and new rules that ban performance enhancing drugs and increased testing. So, it would make sense that players are backing away from steroids, becoming smaller, more human, and that is leading to less super-human statistics right? Steve Levitt isn’t so sure.
LEVITT: So twice in the past decade I have really tried to find evidence that say steroids matter in baseball and both times I invested a lot of effort and ended up finding no evidence that steroids mattered.
It sounds hard to believe but Levitt just isn’t convinced that steroids helped all that much — which doesn’t mean the players didn’t have an incentive to use them.
LEVITT: The stakes are high. In a world in which being a big home run hitter is worth millions and millions of dollars and performance enhancing drugs are cheap and you think you’re unlikely to be detected, even if you’re not sure whether they work or not, you’d probably use them anyway. It makes sense, it makes sense to try to do it.
Here’s a strange fact: The year steroids testing began, run scoring actually went up. There are a couple more confounding clues. In the minor leagues this year, run scoring is higher even though they also have steroids testing. Also, in the majors the run decline has come almost exclusively in the American league even though testing there is the same as in the National league. So if all those runs didn’t evaporate along with the steroids, what else might be happening?
This brings us to the “year of the pitcher” theory. Let’s go back to Mitchel Lichtman. He does believe that steroids helped hitters a lot but, he points out, pitchers also use steroids, in fact, more than half the suspended players were pitchers. So maybe steroids were more valuable to hits than they were to pitchers and now that everyone’s on a level playing field, theoretically at least … could that be leading to pitcher domination?
But wait a minute: If pitchers are so dominant they should be striking out a lot more batters, right? The data tell a different story. The data tell us that pitchers aren’t striking out more batters than they used to; in fact, they’re not doing anything better than they used to. That leads us to our prime suspect: fielding.
Here’s Lichtman again:
LICHTMAN: There’s probably more of an emphasis, in the post-steroid era, of players that have speed and defense as primary attributes rather than hitting, slugging, hitting home runs, that sort of thing.
Statisticians like Lichtman have invented a bunch of new metrics that help isolate what the pitcher does and what the fields do. Stats like defensive efficiency, fielding independent pitching, or FIP if you’re a Seam Head. An ultimate zone rating, or UZR. And if you look at those numbers, the answer is pretty clear: It’s the fielders who have stolen all those runs.
LICHTMAN: One of the reasons that some teams are focusing on defense and defense evaluation using these advance metrics is because it’s overall, it’s an undervalued commodity in baseball.
An undervalued commodity. Anyone who’s ever read Moneyball knows that a batter’s on base percentage used to be undervalued. Used to be. Then the market caught up. Today, with fewer runs being scored and winning margins smaller, keeping runs off the scoreboard has become a bigger priority. That’s great news if you’re a good fielder who doesn’t happen to hit so well. Here’s a guy who is such a good fielder that he ended his career with 293 straight game appearances without an error. Too bad he’s not playing today.
Doug GLANVILLE: I’m currently an analyst, a baseball analyst with ESPN. I also have a book out called The Game From Where I Stand, after playing nine years at the major league level, Philadelphia Philly’s, Texas Rangers, and Chicago Cubs.
DUBER: Now, you majored in systems engineerings at Penn I read. Is that correct?
GLANVILLE: Yes, majored in system science engineering, specialized in transportation systems.
DUBNER: Alright, so you’re maybe a tad more analytic than the average ball player, maybe. Let me ask you this: Home runs are way down, scoring is way down, why do you think that’s true, what do you think are the causes?
GLANVILLE: Well, I do think it’s sort of a natural phenomenon in the game of baseball. It’s a very cyclical sport. You go through times of different points of emphasis, the way offense is played, where defense is played, and so you’ll see a cycle where some years you got a lot of stolen bases as a priority, speed and defense, obviously the steroid era brought to light a lot of the emphasis on power numbers and I think part of the cycle is the adjustment coming off of this power game is now people are trying to pitch, they call it “pitching to contact,” trying to make sure that you use your defenders behind you and also catch the ball. So um, especially now, with the power numbers down, it’s even more important to win ball games to play defense.
DUBNER: So, is the line of thought essentially with power numbers down, scoring will inevitably follow, therefore the margins are smaller, therefore defense is more important: Is that the idea?
GLANVILLE: Well, I think there’s definitely that following of sequence. I think it’s also the fact that once pitchers recognize that you’re not going to beat me with the three-run home run quite as frequently, it’s a different approach and even your offense approaches things differently. It’s like, well we can’t hit the three-run home run so now we have to manufacture runs, you steal bases, you move the runner over so once again, that goes back … the defense’s reaction to that is now to strengthen their defense up the middle, make sure they make the pitches, and maybe you’re trying to induce a double play because there’s more runners on base vs guys circling the bases so to speak. So I think it all connects but certainly when power is taken out of the equation, these are sort of the adjustments the game makes.
DUBNER: Right. Now, you were a very good defensive player, center field and a spine of the defense and you had a very nice major league baseball career, nine seasons. Seeing the value that’s placed on defense these days, how does that make you feel?
GLANVILLE: Well, I’m certainly proud and happy to hear that the defense is getting recognized at this time. Certainly, maybe I would have had a different kind of career if I was playing now, but even within my career, which was nine major league seasons, I saw about three different cycles of the game. I saw this period before the explosion in ’98, the home runs and the steroids and so on, but I also saw periods where the game was expanding and pitching staffs were watered down. And so the game is constantly dealing with so many factors of ebbs and flows of things that are changing in the culture of the game, and I think some of the beauty of baseball is there’s a continuity even despite these adjustments. But certainly from my standpoint, I was a defensive player, there was a period where that was celebrated more and as long as I got on base or got my hits I was fine. Then all of a sudden, even if I got my hits, because I wasn’t a home run hitter, I became the guy you put in in the ninth inning for defensive replacement. So they would take the offense and say, “Well look, we don’t care who’s out there, we’re going to throw anybody in centerfield for seven innings and then when we need defense we’ll just put a guy like Glanville in there.”
DUBNER: And if you were the same player you were then today, how do you think that would look?
GLANVILLE: Well, I think I would probably be in a pretty good position. I would certainly be at least a fourth outfielder rotating around. Now if I was to go to back to 1999 where I hit 325 or something like that, well then I’m sure I’d be in the lineup, but I think the way I play defense would have been celebrated a lot more because there’s a lot more statistics to support it, but there’s also the emphasis of how coaches and managers and organizations are trying to build their ball club.
DUBNER: Every time you had a contract to negotiate, how big a part of that negotiation was your defense?
GLANVILLE: Well, it was sort of a bonus point, it certainly wasn’t something to say, “Hey, Glanville had this errorless streak, let’s pay him 20 million a year.” That was not going to happen, but I think people appreciated it, the way they appreciated it in the context of how the game was trending was in my later years was much more geared towards coming in and playing defense in key situations late in the game. It wasn’t as important certainly in ’04, ’03, etc. that I played defense from inning one to inning nine; it was more inning seven to inning nine.
DUBNER: Let us get in your mind right there because the late inning defensive replacement is something that I think a lot of people don’t think about but if you’re someone who has played ball at any level you see that guy come in and even watching at home your knees start to shake because you haven’t been playing, you’re not sweating, all of a sudden you’re standing there in left field or center field and it’s night and there’s 50 thousand people and the lights are on and the ball is hit to you and it starts to bend: What is that like coming in late in the game?
GLANVILLE: It’s not for the faint of heart I’ll tell you. I mean, and I had a very specific situation where a teammate of mine, Eric Milton, scoring a no-hitter into the ninth inning, and I went in for defense in the ninth and sure enough, the ball finds you. So one of the first balls hit was a blooper that I kinda misread a little bit, and I paused, and by the time I reacted the ball dropped in so the no-hitter was broken up, and of course you look at the videotape in super-, super- slow-mo, and it looked like I didn’t know what I was doing out there.
DUBNER: What did Eric Milton say to you after the game?
GLANVILLE: He didn’t say much.
Watching a guy built like Paul Bunyan mash the ball 450 feet is exciting but great defense has grit and elegance; it’s larcenous, you get to steal something, a hit that a second ago belonged to someone else.
Listen to Bud Black, the manager of the San Diego Padres. Last off-season his club bulked up on strong defensive players and the Padres went from a next-to-last place finish to within one game of making the playoffs.
Bud BLACK: You know, I think fans enjoy a tremendous defensive play. I think a diving catch by an outfielder, a great play by an infielder diving for a ball, getting to his feet and throwing somebody out is great entertainment. I think fans, you know, love to see offense, they love to see the ball hit far, they love to see the ball go over the wall. But also I think fans love to see a home run being robbed by an outfielder, a ball being brought back from a home run and pulled back over the fence for an out. I do think, uh, I think there’s exciting plays in defense on the baseball side, I really do and I think fans get a kick out of that as much as they do a home run.
Let’s stop for minute and say this: Yes, run scoring is down but it’s hard to say exactly why. Some combination maybe of fewer steroids, good pitching, better fielding, some people think the ball itself has changed, that’s an argument baseball fans have every decade or so. Also, stadiums change. There’s the brand-new Target Field where the Minnesota Twins play and where home runs have been much less plentiful than in the Twins’ old home, The Metrodome. But whatever the reason, runs are scarcer than they used to be. Five years from now, who knows; the game has cycles, circumstances change, incentives change, and in response people change their behavior. I can’t predict how, all I can tell you is that baseball players will continue to play baseball and generate mountains of data for people like Michel Lichtman and Steve Levitt to sift through. You never know what they’ll do with all those data of course. You remember Levitt’s scheme to break the code for this hometown Chicago White Sox?
LEVITT: So, a few years later I happened to be playing golf with a former major league baseball player, probably a future Hall of Fame-er and I told him about the various analysis I’ve done of baseball. And I found that pitchers don’t randomize properly and what not and I must say, this guy could not have been much less interested in any of the things that I had done. And then I just kind of threw in an offhand manner that I thought that I might be able to steal signs and he said, “Steal signs, that’s something more interesting,” so I told him the story about the White Sox. And he said, “Oh, well I know why the White Sox weren’t interested in stealing signs, because Ozzie Guillen, the manager, he’s the best sign stealer in the entire world, he doesn’t need your help, nobody steals signs better than Ozzie Guillen does it.” But I will say that this gentleman was very interested in listing my services to try to steal signs for another club and so hopefully coming soon to a ballpark near you will be the Steve Levitt Sign Stealing show.