Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Policy Changes in Major League Baseball: Improved Agent Behavior and Ancillary Productivity Outcomes

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Policy Changes in Major League Baseball: Improved Agent Behavior and Ancillary Productivity Outcomes

Article excerpt

If they did get a machine to replace us, you know what would happen to it? Why, the players would bust it to pieces every time it ruled against them. They'd clobber it with a bat.

Hunter Wendelstedt (1)


In any firm or organization, policies undertaken to improve productivity or performance of specific agents or employees should be considered carefully, as induced changes in behavior for agents holding considerable sway over certain outcomes could also affect performance of peer employees. This issue can become particularly relevant in the context of unionized labor forces subject to policies implemented at the managerial level, outside the scope of collective bargaining. For example, a unionized labor force could be adversely affected by the way that their supervisors are observed. As evaluation and monitoring improve the effort or performance of managers in certain ways, changes to labor force behavior in adjusting to these incentives could negatively affect overall firm productivity. But evaluating the direct effects of induced productivity changes can be difficult in many firms due to insufficient access to data on productivity outcomes.

However, as noted in Kahn (2000), the professional sports context allows direct evaluation of various labor productivity inquiries due to wide availability of rich data. This article takes this approach using Major League Baseball (MLB) as a context to evaluate the impact of these types of changes on overall productivity. Specifically, while the MLB players union negotiates with the league on rule and policy changes at the league level, implementation of monitoring and evaluation of umpires is decided with a separate umpires' union. If players do not have a say in the way umpires (or outside of sports, supervisors or managers) are evaluated, then the union and its members face the possibility of negative impacts--even without an official rule change normally negotiated in collective bargaining--through changes in the behavior of umpires and the way they judge the game. In this context, umpires can be seen as supervisors--in which they judge outcomes through making calls on the field, such as balls and strikes--while players drive the direct team and league productivity through their athletic performance.

Further, and more specific to baseball outcomes, there has been a well-documented decrease in MLB offense in the twenty-first century, often attributed to increased crackdowns on performance enhancing drug (PED) use. However, while PED policy may have been a contributor to the offensive decline, there were other less noticeable changes taking place during this time that may have deleterious effects on any evaluation of the success of PED policy implementation. This article therefore investigates league-level gameplay effects arising from technological innovations in monitoring and evaluation in MLB that improved the performance (strike zone accuracy) of its umpires, originally noted in Mills (2015).

Based on these known changes specific to balls and strikes, I find that plate umpires' improvement has come largely at the expense of batters and league offensive output, with the bottom of the called strike zone extending downward an additional 3 inches between 2008 and 2014. Regression estimates reveal that between 29% and 43% of the drop in scoring can be attributed to this increased size of the strike zone which now more closely matches the existing rulebook specified zone.

Given that past research has found positive demand implications for increased offense, expansion of the strike zone and reduction of PED use could also pose a productive efficiency problem for the league. This net decrease in offensive productivity may have been an unintended consequence of policy changes, highlighting the need for understanding these alternative agent-based outcomes resulting from supervisory-level monitoring and evaluation. …

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