A Data-Centric View on Why the Phillies May Want to Avoid Losing

On Sunday, I wrote about the Phillies offseason and how their seemingly wishy-washy approach to rebuilding may, possibly, potentially, could be perfectly rational. Buried within the article was a throwaway comment. I said:

The fans in Philadelphia simply don’t have patience for losers.

Commenters rightly pointed out that this is true of all teams. Instead of letting it go, I argued that Philly fans seem to respond more elastically than fans of other cities.

Perhaps this is a good time to share my credentials. I grew up 20 minutes from the Philadelphia sports complex. I had full season tickets at the Vet during those years when announced attendance was around 13,000 and actual attendance appeared closer to 3,000. The section security guard would sit down and watch part of the game with us because there was nothing to guard. He would go in the dugout between innings and come back with bazooka gum and sunflower seeds, sometimes with autographs. Those were my favorite years of baseball – between 1995 and 2001 – and my hometown Phillies were godawfulterrible.

I understand that there are many types of fans in Philadelphia, as there are many types of fans everywhere. There are fair weather fans, die hard fans, and plenty who fit somewhere in between. I recognize that it’s disingenuous to say “I grew up a Phillies fan, so I can say what I want about them.” I admit, it smells a little bit like “I have a black friend so it’s okay that I’m about to say something racist.” But I’ve also lived in four major league cities and Philadelphia is quite noticeably different in its fandom.

In the previously referenced article, commenter TeddyWestside said:

Sure some people will “run away” until we have a contender, but those aren’t real fans. Those are the people that go to games because it’s the “thing to do.” EVERY franchise has fans like that, so don’t you act like we are the only ones…Sure, when the team underperforms I am not going to 20 games a year. I’ll still go to a handful, but I’ll watch EVERY other game at home. Same goes for the other fans. We won’t spend our hard earned money to go watch a team lose, but bet your ass we support from our couches and bars. So don’t act like we are frontrunners, because you are way off base.

No, I’m not Jimmy Rollins and I’m not accusing you of being a front runner. This is a perfectly rational thing to do. When I attended those games at the Vet, my parents were able to buy excellent seats for $12 apiece. Similar seats now cost over $100 apiece. It’s not financially practical to attend ballgames unless you derive a lot of utility (happiness) from attending. Winning and playoff contention are an important element of that utility for most people.

TeddyWestside’s comment does strike at the heart of the matter. From the team’s perspective, the only thing that matters is that fans are spending less of their discretionary income on the team. Teddy has identified himself as the common man’s fan. Assuming this is true, he has also identified that his spending on the Phillies has/will decline due to the team’s poor play. I assume he would agree that the more the team loses, the less he would spend. TW’s still spending some money on the team, but there are actual bandwagon fans who stop spending altogether. This hurts the team’s bottom line, and it’s part of the reason why I consider it plausible that their current offseason strategy is the best one available for their unique circumstances.

I wanted to test this a little more vigorously using attendance data. Unfortunately, the computer I have with me doesn’t have anything more advanced than OpenOffice Calc, so we’ll have to keep things basic. I gathered attendance data from Baseball Reference on every National League team dating back to 1996. I restricted it to NL teams because I had to do a fair amount of manual data entry, and I included the Astros but dropped the Expos/Nationals. I then limited the list to seasons where attendance dropped by at least 10 percent. That left me with 33 seasons. The Cubs and Cardinals did not have any seasons where attendance declined by 10 percent.

Before reviewing the results, let’s make the shortcomings clear. This is a very simplistic analysis that ignores many factors. Since the data is not prepared properly, we can’t use it to draw meaningful conclusions. What we can do is take the information and form hypotheses to be tested later. Another shortcoming is that I’ve used attendance as a proxy for revenue. And keep in mind, my arbitrary cutoff was 10 percent, which is a large drop in attendance. Some teams saw long term trends that didn’t eclipse the 10 percent threshold. Lastly, no effort was spent in examining how quickly teams recover from bad seasons. In short, there are a lot of ways to slice and dice this data, but for the purpose of today, we’ll stick to a narrow focus.

As for the table headings, year is the year, team is the team, W’s Yr X is that year’s win total, W’s Yr X-1 is the previous season’s win total, and Atnd/gm is the attendance per game. I used per game attendance because the Phillies had one 84 home game season in the sample.

Year Team W’s Yr X-1 W’s Yr X Change in Wins Atnd/gm Yr Pct Change in Atnd Note
1997 Philadelphia Phillies 67 68 1 18403 -0.173
2000 Philadelphia Phillies 77 65 -12 19911 -0.116
2005 Philadelphia Phillies 86 88 2 32905 -0.180 New Park 2004
2013 Philadelphia Phillies 81 73 -8 37190 -0.155
2001 Atlanta Braves 95 88 -7 34858 -0.127
1998 Florida Marlins 92 54 -38 21363 -0.268
1999 Florida Marlins 54 64 10 17118 -0.199
2000 Florida Marlins 64 79 15 15041 -0.121
2013 Miami Marlins 69 62 -7 19584 -0.285 New Park 2012
2003 New York Mets 75 66 -9 26757 -0.227
2009 New York Mets 89 70 -19 39118 -0.216 New Park 2009
2010 New York Mets 70 79 9 31602 -0.192 New Park 2009
2002 Houston Astros 93 84 -9 31078 -0.133 New Park 2002
2009 Houston Astros 86 74 -12 31124 -0.104
2011 Houston Astros 76 56 -20 25519 -0.113
2012 Houston Astros 56 55 -1 19849 -0.222
2001 Cincinnati Reds 85 66 -19 23207 -0.262
2005 Cincinnati Reds 76 73 -3 23696 -0.161
2009 Cincinnati Reds 74 78 4 21579 -0.151
2002 Milwaukee Brewers 68 56 -12 24311 -0.299
2013 Milwaukee Brewers 83 74 -9 31248 -0.106
2002 Pittsburgh Pirates 62 72 10 22312 -0.267 New Park 2001
1999 Arizona Diamondbacks 65 100 35 37280 -0.164 2nd Yr of Franchise
2003 Arizona Diamondbacks 98 84 -14 34636 -0.123
2004 Arizona Diamondbacks 84 51 -33 31106 -0.102
2005 Arizona Diamondbacks 51 77 26 25425 -0.183
2009 Arizona Diamondbacks 81 70 -11 26281 -0.152
2002 Colorado Rockies 73 73 33800 -0.135
2005 Colorado Rockies 68 67 -1 23634 -0.181
2011 Los Angeles Dodgers 80 82 2 36236 -0.176
2008 San Diego Padres 89 63 -26 29970 -0.130
2009 San Diego Padres 63 75 12 23699 -0.209
2008 San Francisco Giants 71 72 1 35356 -0.112

The table is sortable, I left it sorted by team by year as the default. From this view, I’m mainly interested in the teams with multi-season drops in attendance, namely the Marlins, Mets, Astros, Padres, and Diamondbacks. Their experiences share some common characteristics.

After winning the World Series in 1997, the Marlins held a fire sale and lost over 100 games in 1998. Attendance fell precipitately that season. The team then improved it’s record by 10 games but saw a further drop in attendance. They only won 64 games, so that’s understandable. The next season, they won 79 games, yet still hemorrhaged fans. Our research on win curves and the link between winning and revenue suggests that they should have seen increased revenue as they moved from 54 to 79 wins over two seasons. With what we actually observed, they probably actually earned less revenue season to season.

Despite our assumptions about win curves and dollars per win, this isn’t a counter intuitive finding. The Marlins telegraphed their bad hand by conducting a fire sale, but most teams try to decline more quietly, thus milking a few extra dollars out of the fan base. It can take time for the common fan to realize that Ryan Howard isn’t a franchise cornerstone. Around here, we’ve known that for years, but there are still a ton of fans who are only just beginning to suspect.

The Mets are a weird one because they really screwed up with their new park. They opened their doors in teeth of the housing crisis, overpriced their seats, and were embroiled in the Bernie Madoff fiasco. The team did see a sharp performance decline, but the drop in attendance began due to other factors.

The Astros of the late 2000’s had a lot in common with today’s Phillies. They’re both formerly strong rosters who hung onto their core too long and began to decline. The Astros finally bit the bullet and went for the full rebuild. Attendance plummeted the first two seasons of the rebuild as the team dropped from 76 to 56 to 55 wins. Attendance between 2012 and 2013 was stable, indicating that the team has hit a trough. The Phillies already saw a sharp decline in attendance when dropping from 81 to 73 wins. A full rebuild could probably bring them to wherever their trough is within a couple seasons. Getting back out could be a problem.

The Diamondbacks story looks similar to the Marlins. Attendance dropped after winning the World Series. The team was actually decent in that first season, but then fell apart to win only 51 games. The following season, they won 26 more games but still lost droves of fans.

The Padres are another weird one. Ownership issues coincided with the team’s collapse which likely exacerbated the decline in attendance. Their attendance did jump about 3,000 fans per game with their 90 win season in 2010 and hasn’t moved since then despite three straight losing efforts.

Keeping in mind that a firm conclusion should not be reached with this data, there is some evidence that the decision to engage in a full rebuild could affect team finances for many seasons. Since the Phillies are locked into most of their core through the 2016 and 2017 seasons, it might be financially premature to begin a rebuild. If attendance declined to around 19,000 per game, like with the Astros, the Phillies could have trouble meeting payroll.

Some might suggest that they trade their pricey contracts, but that might not be an option. Cole Hamels may return a decent prospect from a rich team like the Dodgers, but what other expensive player could return an asset in trade? To trade Howard, Papelbon, or even Lee, the Phillies would need to take on extra salary. We can probably assume that attendance would take a nose dive if the Phillies waved the white flag by trading away their aging stars. If they have to take on extra salary in the process, they may end up fielding an Astros-style roster of minimum salary players, but with three times that cost in payments to other teams.

Businesses will often attempt to maximize revenue in the short run and worry about profit later. A full rebuild effectively minimizes revenue. For that reason alone, the Phillies might find it more financially prudent to rebuild the slow way. A few first overall picks might help speed up the rebuild process, but Philadelphia has experienced first hand that it’s no guarantee. After this analysis, I’m still inclined to say that the Phillies might be doing the right thing. Who knows. I am fairly confident in saying that rebuilding is not a one-size-fits-all activity, and we should stop assuming otherwise.

We hoped you liked reading A Data-Centric View on Why the Phillies May Want to Avoid Losing by Brad Johnson!

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Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

All of this, haha. They’ve got another couple of years before they can truly rebuild, so they need to stay semi-competitive until then if they don’t want to lose all of their attendance.

ankle explosion hr celebration
Guest
ankle explosion hr celebration

right, except that they’re not semi-competitive this year.

That’s why I think this article misses the mark. The Phillies are going to seriously suck for the next few years, whatever strategy they pursue. If they sold their few remaining good players for prospects, they might end up on the other side of that suckitude ready to be contenders.

yojiveself
Guest
yojiveself

if semi-competitive means .450 – .500, I think they will be.

ankle explosion hr celebration
Guest
ankle explosion hr celebration

I guess therein lies the dilemma–defining semi-competitive. It also depends on the fans, and their probability of spending money as a function of the expected record.

Personally, I think the best-case scenario for them is ~.500; of course, YMMV. I don’t consider that mark competitive, as such a team is highly unlikely to make the playoffs or perform well there even if they did.

If I were a fan of the Phillies, and I’m not, I’d prefer to see the next wave of prospects and young players get called up, in the hopes that some of them may one day be the next championship core like Rollins/Utley/Hamels/etc. Maybe I’m weird that way; I’d prefer to see a crappy baseball team developing intriguing young players than Ryan Howard flail at lefties or Chase Utley wasting his last bit of HoF talent on a non-contender.

Simon
Guest
Simon

If their true talent is in the high 70s of wins, there is enough random variation in baseball that they could easily win 85 or so, which would make them semi-competitive.

Frank
Guest
Frank

There is no definitive cut-off line, the worse you do, the less people want to see you. It doesn’t even matter what arbitrary level you want to set semi-competitive at. And the fact is, though few baseball trade fans seem completely aware of this, few great teams have been created thanks to the selling off of old stars. To think that this strategy has anything but a Pick 4 lottery ticket chance is vastly overrating the value of both prospects and the trade market for old players.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Yeah. Herschel Walker trades don’t really exist in baseball.

Tim
Guest
Tim

You’re right, Lester, nobody ever got Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore for… wait.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Did that trade change the Indians’ franchise? As far as I can see, it netted them 2 seasons above .500.

KDL
Guest
KDL

That Colon trade was also spurred on by the fact the Expos were facing contraction. There was a very real possibility that Montreal would have no future to prepare for. What good are prospects when you have no future seasons.
So other than the very VERY unique circumstances, and what Cool Lester Smooth points regarding the Indians success…you’re right, Herschel walker trades happen ALL the time in baseball. Good point.

Kris
Guest
Kris

Brad, I didn’t really like the article. It kind of got bogged down with caveats and explanations about the data. What I do like is your assertion that something is six standard deviations away from the mean. That made me chuckle.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

I think they can be a little better than they were last year. That’s semi-competitive.