Looking at Attendance after Aces are Dealt

As baseball season and the summer months heat up, so too do the trade rumors. Almost every year, baseball media and fans postulate and prognosticate who might be traded before the annual trading deadline.

This year, the big fish on the market is Rays left-hander David Price. With only one year left on his contract, it is unlikely the Rays can afford to keep the former Cy Young Award Winner. But with the team winning eight in a row and 19 of their last 24, trading their ace doesn’t seem like a sure deal anymore. Most recent reports say the Rays management will wait until the absolute last minute to make a decision on if, where, and for whom the popular lefty will be traded.

With the Rays’ status with regards to popularity and market, some of the talk in regards to trading David Price has wound into the realm of attendance. The Rays are currently last in the Major Leagues in attendance, and some are concerned attendance could drop even lower if they traded their best pitcher. There are those who think Rays fans would consider the trade a message from ownership to wait until next year. And if that’s the message, why not wait until next year to buy a ticket?

To estimate how Rays attendance might react to a possible trade of David Price, I looked at 12 prior trades of ace pitchers over the last 37 years. Via Baseball-Reference.com, I looked at attendance before and after each trade. I also looked at winning percentage before and after.

My goal is to see if two maxims hold true:

  1. Attendance goes up when teams win and goes down when teams lose.
  2. A team that trades its best pitcher will have a worse record after the trade.

Hence, if attendance is attached to winning and ace pitchers are attached to winning, attendance should drop after ace pitchers are traded.

Is this really the case? Or is attendance in some cities more sensitive to major trades than others?

Let’s begin by looking at the granddaddy of superstar pitcher trades: the Tom Seaver trade. On June 15, 1977, after a slight tiff with ownership, the Mets shipped the franchise’s first ace to the Reds for Steve Henderson, Pete Flynn, Pat Zachary, and Dan Norman. The Mets were bad before but worse after and attendance followed suit.

Twelve years later, in 1989, two aces were traded during the season. On May 25th, the Mariners moved ace Mark Langston to the Expos for a bevy of prospects headlined by future ace Randy Johnson. Mariners fans reduced their attendance by nearly the same amount Mets fans did in 1977. Although playing .500 baseball prior to the trade, the Mariners winning percentage dropped significantly after the trade.

Two months after the Langston trade, the Minnesota Twins traded 1988 Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola to the Mets for Rick Aguilera, Kevin Tapani, and three other pitchers. The Twins were two games under .500 at the time of the trade, and then played .500 after the trade. Despite their slight improvement, attendance dropped 12.95% after the Viola trade.

We fast-forward to 1998 and another Mariners trade. During the 1998 season, the Mariners dealt the aforementioned Johnson to the Astros for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and John Halama. While Johnson immediately did well in Houston, the Mariners played better after his departure, going 28-25 after the trade. Like the 1988 Twins, however, the positive play did not lead to an increase in attendance, as the average per game attendance went down after the trade.

Our next trade is the Bartolo Colon trade in 2002. On June 27, 2002, the Indians shipped Colon and Tim Drew to the Expos for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Lee Stevens. The Indians played .467 baseball before the trade and a lesser .447 clip following the deal. Attendance, however, jumped after the trade, up 10.04% over the team’s final 45 games.

We look at Cleveland again in 2008, when the Indians moved CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta, and three other players. After trading Sabathia, the Brewers vastly improved their record, finishing the season 44-30. Attendance also went up after the Sabathia trade, from 25,964 to 27,766 per game, an increase of 6.94%.

The 2009 season saw the trade of three high profile pitchers. Two were legitimate aces, and the other a former ace that might give us insight to a Rays attendance prediction.

The first major pitcher trade in 2009 again involved the Indians. On July 29th, the Tribe shipped Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco to Philadelphia for Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson. Unlike the Colon or Sabathia trades, following the Lee trade, the Indians winning percentage and attendance per game both decreased.

Two days after the Indians traded Lee, the San Diego Padres moved right-hander Jake Peavy to the Chicago White Sox for Clayton Richard and three other players. Like the Twins in 1989 and the Mariners in 1998, the Padres played better after moving their ace, finishing the remaining 59 games with a 34-25 record. Unfortunately, also like the ’89 Twins and ’98 Mariners, less fans came out to see their now-winning team.

Our final pitcher trade of 2009 occurred on August 29th, when the Rays moved former ace Scott Kazmir to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez, Alex Torres, and Matthew Sweeney. Kazmir was no longer the Rays ace in 2009, handling over the title to James Shields and the up-and-coming David Price. But Kazmir still had name value in the Tampa Bay area, despite his decreased effectiveness.

After trading Kazmir, the Rays stumbled to a 15-20 finish. They went from being 4.5 games out of the wildcard to finishing 11 games out of the playoffs. Per game attendance following the Kazmir trade also dropped considerably, from 24,169 per game to 19,574 per game. This attendance decrease of 19.01% is the biggest drop of any of our surveyed trades.

The next year, two of our most frequent subjects collided when the Mariners traded Cliff Lee. After signing with Seattle in the offseason, Lee was sent to the Rangers for the stretch run. After the trade, the Mariners, who had played .400 baseball prior to trading Lee, finished the season with a .350 winning percentage and saw attendance drop 4.99% over the last 39 home games.

In 2012, the Brewers were on the dealing side when they sent Zack Grienke to the Angels for Jean Segura and two other players. While the Brewers were 10 games under .500 before the trade, they reversed fortune after the deal, going 39-25, a .609 clip. Attendance also increased after moving Grienke, albeit by 124 fans per game, or only 0.3%.

In our final trade, we look at the Chicago Cubs. Prior to trading Matt Garza on July 22, 2013, the Cubs were 10 games under .500 and averaging exactly 33,000 fans per game. After trading Garza, the Cubs dropped to 30 games under .500 and lost 919 fans per game in the seats, a 2.78% decrease.

There are many other trades and fanbases I could have looked at (the Ubaldo Jimmenez trade in 2011 comes to mind), but this small sample set gives a wide spectrum of possible outcomes resulting from trading an ace pitcher. From what we looked at, we found:

  • 50% of the data set decreased in both record and attendance
  • 25% increased in record and decreased in attendance
  • 16% increased in both record and attendance after trading their ace
  • 8% decreased in record but increased in attendance

The Indians are particularly interesting, seeing a different outcomes each time they traded an ace. The Mariners saw an attendance drop after both the Langston and Johnson trades but played better after trading Johnson and worse after moving Langston. Perhaps Langston had a bigger effect on the team in 1989 than Johnson did in 1998.

So what would happen if the Rays traded David Price? Given their current winning streak and the attendance sensitivity seen after the Kazmir trade, my initial estimate would have them in the same category as the 1989 Twins, 2009 Padres, and 1998 Mariners – an improved winning percentages but lower attendance. An better record post-trade might not be difficult considering the beginning of the Rays season was a disaster marred by injured players who are slowly returning (Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, David DeJesus, and possibly Wil Myers).

But with the Rays struggling to fill seats, moving fan favorite David Price might be a bad public relations move. From the studies I have done, games David Price has pitched in have drawn 6% more than average. That could be because Joe Maddon sometimes aligns the rotation so Price faces prime opponents such as the Yankees and Red Sox, teams that traditionally draw well at Tropicana Field. But some of Price’s “bump” could be the allure of seeing one of the best pitchers in the American League.

My estimate is the Rays would suffer an initial attendance drop if they traded David Price. Games against the Red Sox and Yankees (especially Jeter’s last series in Tampa Bay) will continue to do well. Bobbleheads and other promotions will also do well (expect a good turnout for the Don Zimmer sno-globe). And if the team plays well enough to contend, attendance may recover, but even then, the Rays won’t average over 20,000 per game.

Then again, doubtful they would draw 20K on average even with David Price in the rotation.

Michael Lortz is a consultant in the Tampa Bay area. He wrote about the business of Tampa Bay baseball on his site: TampaBayBaseballMarket.com . He can be reached at @tbbaseballmkt . His first novel, Curveball at the Crossroads, is now available.

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9 years ago

Leaving aside the question of whether the Rays have a chance this year, this article is valuable for cutting against a basic assumption of most sabermetrics: that a team does best for itself by strategically working toward winning seasons some time in the future. Keeping fan favorite players is essentially to maintaining a fan base, and when fans are confused about losing favorite players, they don’t stay around. Over many years this depresses attendance.

The truly valuable research, for which the data would be extremely complicated to assemble (if it is even possible to assemble), would be to try to watch this phenomenon over half a decade or longer. When teams such as the Oakland A’s of 2005-2010 make a bunch of trades that are “rational” in rebuilding, money saving, or other sabermetric terms, but which confuse and piss off their fan base, what kind of hit occurs to the long term size of the fan base, and how long does it take to rebuild it?

Yes, I know I’ve articulated a thesis in the form of a question. But since the thesis is, essentially, don’t be pennywise and pound foolish, it seems like one someone might investigate.

9 years ago

Looking at the A’s pitcher trades, Mulder and Hudson were not during the season – which is interesting. Might be something to that. Might reduce the immediate shock of losing a player if fans have months of the offseason to “digest” it.

This was definitely a introductory study. I think the “casual fan” would be more affected. But what about season ticket holders? They are hardcore fans who purchased tickets, but do they not go to games after a firesale? That would be tough to measure.

I would like to see more people break down city and fanbase attendance trends. Then we can look at each fanbase and compare behavior. As you said, it would be extremely complicated to assemble.

9 years ago

Mike – very interesting article, but one possible condition left out is the weather. Two of the three times a team saw a bump in attendance following trading of an ace were the in Cleveland, a northern city with an outdoor stadium. The other team (2012 Brewers) also play in the north but in a retractable roof stadium. It seems logical that both Milwaukee and Cleveland would draw more fans in July, August and September than April, May and June. It’s nice outside! Maybe there are better things to do in Seattle in the summer…

Also, Kazmir doesn’t belong in the article. He was nowhere near an ace when he was traded and the “haul” the Rays got from the Angels pales in comparison to what the other pitchers got their teams in return.

9 years ago

It would be interesting to establish a ‘control group’ for contrast, looking at attendance of teams with similar records, or even specifically teams with similar records that didn’t trade an ace. Because it would seem that even if a team didn’t trade their ace, but kept on losing, attendance might suffer as the season continued. I’m thrilled to watch the M’s every April, and…not thrilled most years by June. Specifically in teams with indoor stadiums could the effect of bad performance be measured with less other variables affecting attendance.