Big cities, big problems

It is a rare occasion that a player hits .290 with 35 home runs and 121 RBIs, and that is labeled a down year. But I suppose that if you’re trying to become the greatest of all-time, that criticism may be legitimate. What is, however, inexplicable is the voraciousness and ferocity of denigration aimed at Alex Rodriguez last year.

New York tabloids attacked him daily, deriding A-Rod for being unclutch, a wimp, not a true Yankee. What was a slight down year for Rodriguez, whose 140 OPS+ was only a few ticks below his career mark of 147, became a national story and for the New York media, a season below the standards of even Neifi Perez.

You could even argue that A-Rod’s down year was brought on by the unrelenting New York press; as someone who has a reputation for caring too much about how he is viewed, Rodriguez might have fretted about every negative story, and there were a lot of those. He wouldn’t be the first player seen as too weak to mentally withstand the pressures of playing in New York.

I live in Boston, which means that all my local media is focused on the Red Sox 24/7. Every time the Sox are rumored to be after a free agent or looking to make a trade, the press always asks: “Is this guy tough enough to survive, well, us?” Edgar Renteria apparently couldn’t, and he was sent away just one year into his $40 million deal. Curt Schilling, on the other hand, has passed with flying colors.

But while the mainstream media is free to believe whatever it would like to, I have never been one to accept conclusions without evidence. Did Renteria truly tank because he couldn’t take the constant media criticism, or did he simply have a down year? How do you explain A-Rod’s inability to handle the New York spotlight in light of his historic onslaught this year?

Is this big city pressure an actual occurrence, or is it another case of the media overrating its importance? I want to know. As you might guess, I designed a study to try and answer whether or not big cities truly have an adverse impact on some players.

First, I had to decide which cities to include in my study. I settled on the three which have a reputation for eating players alive: Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. I looked at all hitters that had gone to from a team not in one of those cities to a team in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia since 1980 (which is around the time when media coverage really gets wild with George Steinbrenner’s nutty decisions, USA Today, and the advent of cable television), and singled out those whose park-and-league adjusted OPS decreased at least 10% in their first year playing under the glaring spotlight.

These players are those who were potentially adversely affected by playing in these towns, and who might not have been able to withstand the demanding fans and press corps. On the other hand, they could have just been players who had a bad season, but were not somehow intimidated by the stifling coverage. What we really need to know is how they performed in next season: Did they bounce back or is there really something about those cities that kills certain players?

Of course, I only looked at players who remained in one of those cities for a second year, which does introduce a potential source of bias as management may ship out players it considers psychologically unfit to play in the big city, like Renteria. But I doubt all those “head cases” get traded, so I think it’s safe to soldier on.

I also needed a control group to compare the results to, so I looked players who switched teams but did not go to one of those three big media towns, who also stayed at least two seasons with their new team and who also experienced at least a 10% decline in park-and-league adjusted OPS in their first season. Essentially, the same criteria as for the big city group but instead looking at players outside of Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

How do the results look? Without further ado, here are the median OPSs for our two groups in each year:

Group	             N-1      N        N+1
Big City Signings    0.785    0.602    0.686
Small Town Guys	     0.780    0.620    0.692

Here’s how to read the table: In the year before moving on to another team, the guys who go to one of the big media centers posted a .785 OPS, while the guys who end up somewhere else posted a .780 OPS. In their first year, the big city players drop to a .602 OPS (remember, we’re only looking at guys who struggled that year), while the small town hitters post a .620 OPS. The year after, both groups bounce back, with the big city players posting a .686 OPS and the small towners doing a little bit better, .692.

As you can see, there is virtually no difference between the two groups to start, and there isn’t much of a difference two years later. The small town hitters drop 88 points between those years; the big city players lose 99 points. That’s not much of a difference, and it is not really significant.

There are some potential complications in this study. It could be that the real head cases never see a second season in the boiling pot that is one of these towns’ media. It could be that they adjust to it, and that we wouldn’t be able to observe any effect in their second season in a press-hungry environment. It could be that among the players who experience that large drop in performance, only a few do because of their issues with the media coverage, and that the median is not sensitive enough to the performance of these outliers (though this theory is unlikely, as using a straight average instead of the median gives almost identical results).

But most likely, the answer is that the pressure cooker that is Boston, New York, or Philadelphia really doesn’t compare with the pressure cooker that is constantly having to succeed in high school, college, and the minor leagues to even get a shot at playing in the majors. Guys that make it to the MLB can’t be all that emotionally fragile, simply because this is a sport in which even the best players are unsuccessful more often than not.

Is it possible that some players just can’t make it in a city obsessed with baseball, but can in a place that is a bit more low-key? I can’t discount it. But I can’t find evidence that those players do exist either. And if they do, is it possible for us to identify these players? Alex Rodriguez’s torrid start tells us that the answer is, probably not.

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