Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Could Gambling Permeate Baseball? (Effectively Wild's Answer)

I haven't posted an Effectively Wild question in a few weeks, but my inquiry made the Listener E-mail Podcast this week. Grantland's Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus discussed an inquiry that I sent them after my post about gambling in baseball. I've said it before and I'll say it again: If a topic's interesting enough for those guys to talk about, it's good enough to rehash on my blog. Here's the e-mail, followed by a summary of their responses:

Hey guys,

Tennis mas been marred by various match-fixing accusations recently (including the Malchanov-Velotti one discussed on a recent episode of
Hang Up and Listen), which got me wondering about the likelihood of a baseball gambling scandal. I tried to imagine scenarios in which games could be fixed and wrote a few of them down.

I think that umpires are the most likely culprits for involvement in such a scandal. In the post linked above, I wrote: "So even though the days of many umps having trademark strike zones seem to be numbered, an umpire still has the power to alter key moments in the game in order to affect the outcome for bettors. And just like Molchanov doesn't throw every match, if umps were strategic about spreading out their favoritism across MLB's long season, they could potentially get away with it."

However, I concluded, "Players probably make too much money, managers have too little control, and umpires face too much accountability for any of those groups to fix the outcome of games."

What do you guys think? Are umps the most likely culprits? Could you ever imagine a player throwing a game? Am I missing any potential scenarios?

The Bronx, NY

In my e-mail, I referenced Hang Up and Listen, the weekly Slate sports podcast, on which recent guest Ben Rothenberg talked about match-fixing in tennis. After listening, I wanted to know if baseball was susceptible to a similar scandal. To my delight, my questions contributed to the title of this week's Effectively Wild podcast: "Episode 642: The Gambling, Brackets, and Bonds Edition."

Ben Lindbergh read my question then remarked that it's relevant because of Pete Rose's recent appeal for reinstatement. Yeah, again. The Rose news (olds?) has people asking whether the ban on gambling is even needed as a deterrent when players make so much money. (This post was written before I even knew about Jared Cosart's gambling investigation.) Present-day players have little reason to throw a game. Whereas back in the day, Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra had to work as waiters in the offseason, modern players only sometimes act poor.

Lindbergh wondered, however, whether there could be sums of money involved that would be so exorbitant that a player could still be tempted. ("Instant-retirement-and-buy-your-own-island money," he called it.) Still, Lindbergh said that umpires would be the most likely candidates for a scandal even though it's difficult to predict when an ump might have the opportunity to determine the outcome of a game.

At that point, Sam Miller referenced a 2007 Nate Silver article about the possibility of a Donaghy-like scandal in baseball. Although his study predated framing data and other advancements in statistics, Silver concluded: "To put it bluntly, even if the mobster were hellbent on fixing a sporting contest, he would be better off picking another sport."

Still, Miller continued that the umpire might have more power to fix a game than anyone besides the pitcher. Umps' earnings make them pretty likely, but they make a six-figure salary for life, possibly making a scrub player more likely. Who would we not suspect? Miller asked, before opining that fans would not become suspicious about most baseball players.

Miller concluded that he would expect an ump scandal in his lifetime before wondering whether anyone bets on minor league or college baseball, two sports that would be roughly equivalent to gambling-prone low-level tennis.

At the end of the discussion, Sam Miller dropped a huge compliment on me, presumably five minutes after he forgot my name. Miller said, "It's a good question. This is a better question than I have an answer for." Lindbergh then joked, "We can take a crack at it again next week." Miller closed by saying that maybe my question will be included in next year's bracket of the podcast's running jokes. If you were wondering, that 30-second banter was one of the high points of my week. The other five minutes of the discussion was another high point. And if you made it this far in this post, you're probably almost as much of a baseball nerd as I am.

In the post linked in the first paragraph, I've already written my thoughts on this topic. I'm hoping for an update from Lindbergh and Miller on a future podcast. You might even say that I'd bet on it.

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