Union Reps Make Bad SABR Members

added 9/7/2009 by Bob Hulsey

I was fretting that I had little left to say this baseball season when I was bailed out by a rather odd e-mail I received. Two spokesmen for the Workers United Union (part of the SEIU) sent what I presume to be a mass e-mailing with the curious title:

"Is Ballpark Concessionaire Aramark bad for Baseball teams?" (sic)

The basic premise is that teams serviced by Aramark, including the Astros, have suffered some bad luck this year and the union hopes that somehow blame can be attached to the company who employs the peanut vendors.

If that sounds ridiculous, it gets worse.

The wise guys have apparently found the esteemed research website Baseball Reference.com and are attempting to use the "Pythagorean won-loss" formula to argue that Aramark-served teams are unlucky. For those not into these fancy SABR theorems, the formula takes the number of runs a team scores and gives up then uses it to compute how many games a team should have won if all runs were created equal.

To illustrate, the 2008 Astros finished with an actual won-loss record of 86-75, but when taking their 712 runs scored and their 743 runs allowed, the Pythagorean formula says they "should" have finished with a record of 77-84, meaning the Astros were "lucky" by a plus factor of nine games. In 2000, the Astros had an actual record of 72-90 but the Pythagorean formula said they "should" have finished at 81-81, so they were unlucky. Got it?

While some people point to this differential as "luck", some argue it represents some managerial skill since the skipper got his team to overachieve by more games than the run differential implies.

I'll let the union speak for the rest of their theory:

"In a comparison between teams with home stadiums that use Aramark and teams with home stadiums that do not, Workers United found that non-Aramark teams' average luck is .40 and Aramark teams' average luck is -1.93.

The teams whose ballparks use Aramark are: the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics,Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, and Minnesota Twins."

Now, you may have noticed that the last two World Champions are on this list of the luckless which should tell you that either the union, the Pythagorean model or both are full of crap. Nonetheless, the union argues that Aramark, which the union apparently has some sort of beef with, is bad luck - much like Hunter Pence's hitting this season with the bases loaded (0-for-11).

I've been around for over 50 years and have had my brushes with labor unions at various career stops. I've learned two things about them: 1) They lie. 2) They don't care if you know that they lie because they don't use reason or logic as tools or persuasion; they use intimidation and threats of violence.

They also have a different meaning for "luck" than most of us common folks, such as the way it is used in the following: "It would sure be bad luck for you if you don't vote the way we want. You might have something unlucky happen to you like a broken leg or a burned down home. We would sure hate to see that happen."

So, if I were Aramark, I'd watch my back in case Guido or Vinny might be paying a visit.

But let's return for a moment to the Pythagorean formula. As previously mentioned, the 2008 Astros were a +9 in the luck department. This year, the Astros are currently a +6 which means they've been +15 while Cecil Cooper has been their manager. Feeling lucky, Astros fans?

If you believe in Pythagoras, Cooper's the luckiest manager in baseball so why is everyone around Houston in such a hurry to dump him? How has Aramark made the Astros unlucky if they are +15 over the past two years? If that's unlucky, we should all lift a cup of lukewarm $9.50 beer to salute them on our misfortune.

If you'd like a better indicator of "unlucky", check out the rosters of MLB players who took part in the World Baseball Classic last spring. With a few exceptions, many of the MLB players who participated are having down years (Roy Oswalt, David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Jake Peavy, Johnny Cueto, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Brian McCann, J.J. Putz, Geovany Soto) and if you scan the top candidates for MVP and Cy Young Awards, you'll notice they all skipped the WBC.

I don't really have much love for Aramark but I do despise attempts to malign anyone using faulty logic or bad math and the Workers United Union seems intent on doing both. Maybe they should just go back to roaming the aisles selling us obscenely-priced beer and nachos rather than trying to blame their bosses for our won-loss record unless, that is, Ed Wade happens to also run Aramark.

For the rest of you, have a wonderful Labor Day.