Monday was a lovely night for baseball in Hagerstown, Md.: clear skies and 76 degrees for three innings of Stephen Strasburg. That might explain how a team in the Class A South Atlantic League drew a crowd of 1,652 fans. But this was Stephen Strasburg! Of course 1,652 people would come to watch him. And yet, what makes Strasburg's minor league stints even more remarkable is that this sort of fuss almost never happens.
In fact, it's exactly what doesn't happen.
Ask economists Seth Gitter and Thomas Rhoads, who coauthored a recent Journal of Sports Economics paper after taking a look at the way top prospects impact minor league attendance. Gitter and Rhoads pored over 18 years of data and determined even the finest future big leaguers accounted for only a minimal spike in spectators at the ballpark. In other words, Strasburg is as much of an exception in academic research as he is on the mound.
About four years ago, when Strasburg was still a freshman at San Diego State, Gitter and Rhoads were bouncing around ideas for their next research paper on baseball. "Most of the low-hanging fruit had been taken," Gitter said. They settled on a regression analysis with attendance data for Double-A and Triple-A from 1992 to 2009, provided by baseball-reference.com, and Baseball America's annual list of the top 100 prospects, which they grouped in five tiers. Then they factored in variables like new stadiums, minor league winning percentages, strike years, success of major league affiliates, attendance trends, and an area's taste for baseball. They found:
some evidence that top 5 prospects can increase attendance by a couple percentage points but only at the AAA level. Beyond the top 5, there appears to be no significant impact on attendance from top prospects."
But their data set ended before the Washington Nationals used the first overall pick to draft Strasburg, who blew fastballs by big leaguers, froze them with his hellacious curve, and, of course, eventually needed Tommy John surgery. It also ended before Strasburg became the minor league's biggest promotion since Fireworks Night. Each of his 2010 starts, from Double-A Harrisburg to Triple-A Syracuse, brought a surge in attendance. (There was no official figure for his fourth start, a makeup game of a rainout. This is still the minors, after all.) In his four appearances this month, Strasburg drew big crowds, at least by minor league standards. More people showed up for his one outing in Potomac than the other three games of that series combined.
"People go to the minor leagues to drink a beer and watch baseball — not to see their home team win," said Gitter, who is now studying the optimal size of a minor league ballpark. "He's been the one player who's just really affected attendance completely different from everybody else."
Gitter admits he came to this conclusion without crunching any numbers. In a way, though, he didn't need them. Gitter teaches at Towson University in Maryland and lives in the greater Washington area. Last summer, he stopped by Nationals Park and saw Strasburg in person.
So what is it that makes Strasburg such a draw? This is like asking why thousands of teenage girls shrieked away a summer night in 1965 at Shea Stadium. But for one thing, Strasburg is a pitcher. Bryce Harper, who played in Hagerstown and Harrisburg this summer, took the field every night. Strasburg takes the mound about once a week. And then there's that inevitable magnetism of someone like Strasburg, who struck out 14 batters in his MLB debut and has hamburgers and hot dogs named after him.
"He is different, for some reason," Gitter said earlier this week, before Strasburg's latest outing. "I don't know how to quite quantify that."
Eds note: This post has been updated to correct an editing error.
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