Utility of a Baseball Condition

June 19, 2015Baseball, Standard

(via Wikimedia Commons)

In economics, there’s a term called utility. It measures your happiness via consumption of a product (the product can be anything, from fire hydrants to, well, ballplayers on a roster). Marginal utility means that if you add at least 1 unit of the product to your utility, the happier you are. There’s also the law of diminishing marginal utility, which means that the more you have of the product, the more likely you could get sick of it because you’ve had the product every day.

Both can be applied to baseball here. Baseball is your product and your utility is based on your team’s wins and losses. The more good baseball you see your team play, the happier you are, of course. There’s no question about that and that’s your marginal utility.

The law of diminishing marginal utility is in play here when you see more bad baseball. You see too much of it, your utility drops because awful baseball never made anyone happy unless your thing is bad baseball.

Baseball is a sport, a pastime, and a business.

Almost any economic term can be applied to baseball. As a baseball fan who leans more toward sabermetrics and also an economics student, I find value in numbers and opportunity cost (which, as described in my economics text book, is “the value of the best alternative use of an economic good”).

It’s trade season and every team is looking to give something up in return for something that will better their team. Part of the principle of the opportunity cost is to pick one of two options, because the product in this case is another name on the 25-man roster and the product can be scarce, especially in a good condition.

Baseball teams have utility, too. For them, it’s the same concept as applied for fans. However, general managers have the power to evaluate the efficiency of the team and the opportunity cost. They can make the trades to add marginal utility and also get rid of the law of diminishing marginal utility. That’s what teams want. The more marginal utility, the more wins they can get, the better chance they get into the postseason.

Like I said, baseball is a business as much as it is a sport and a pastime. There’s a numbers side, but there’s also a human element. No, not umpires; that’s not the human element I’m thinking of.

It’s the connection between fans and the players. Of course fans root for their team, bad or good. That’s just the nature of the fan. Sometimes, there’s a player or two who is just so dang likable, you can’t help but get attached. It’s normal, it’s human, and there is never anything wrong with it.

Fans will be sad if their favorite gets traded or release. Every year, it’s the same case. Doesn’t matter if they’ve been through it before, but the pain can still cut like a knife through the soul. For some, it’s why they watch the game.

The numbers game isn’t universal. Everyone sees the world in a different lens, so it’s also applied to baseball. Some see the game as a nine inning escape from reality, others delve deep into the game — your milage may vary.

But a fan’s utility in this situation is that they have no control over the marginal utility or the diminishing marginal utility.

When you have control over your own happiness, you could at least decide if you’ve had one too many sandwiches or if you want more.

You have a favorite and your team gets rid of him. You never have a say in that and it digs into you, because you’re human. You have feelings and emotions and some can tell you to get over it, but it’s more than a game of numbers.

I’m the last person in the world who would unironically say, “WATCH THE GAME, NERDS.” I spend hours looking at spreadsheets, calculating wOBA and FIP. I can understand a general manager’s decision to find the opportunity cost for a team to add marginal utility.

But I’m also an economics student who is learning the logic behind these decisions and why it happens — baseball and beyond. But as a baseball fan, I’ve always known that the sport is bigger than what it is. It’s more than the numbers and the narratives.

It’s a human condition.

You have your athletes and spectators who love the sport, the everyman who has the pastime, the statisticians and the economists and the businessmen and the lawyers who go for the business.

But it’s an intersection. You intersect every aspect of baseball together, and the marginal utility goes up because there’s a lot of facets to the game.

A lot of people lose sight of this during tense moments, and in this case, that’s the trade deadline. Pressure starts building for the fans and the teams who are still in contention. Some just want to see their team actually win a game.

But it’s always there, regardless if you’re in it for the xFIP or the dingers, 162 games a year.

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