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Can a hot reliever boost attendance?

9/9/2010

Even more from the mailbag:

    Rob, you responded to the question about Aroldis Chapman closing by asking if any major league reliever ever boosted attendance.

I'm sure the answer is "no" ... However, as a Dodgers fan, I know that during Eric Gagne's reign, fans would leave early if it was not a save situation and stay until the end if Gagne was going to appear.

I doubt if the Reds would make Chapman a closer just so people stay around and buy more food and beers. But I can vouch for the fact that Dodgers fans stayed later and bought more concessions (including Gagne merchandise). So there could be a financial advantage to making Chapman a closer (though I suppose there is also an advantage to boosting attendance by having him pitch every fifth day).

- Joe (Los Angeles, Cal.)Whatever the financial difference between Chapman starting and Chapman relieving, I have to think it's dwarfed by the performance difference ... however extreme, and whichever way is more favorable to the club.

I will agree that Gagne's star power, for a few years, exceeded anything that I've seen from another relief pitcher. And I'll agree that his star power did add a small-but-measurable (somehow) oomph to the Dodgers' coffers.

And here's another possibility:

    Has any relief pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball boosted attendance?

Dick Radatz, 1962-1964 Boston Red Sox.

It is impossible to exaggerate the excitement he generated in Boston. I know, I was there.

- Tom (Berea, Ky.)I wasn't there, but I did write this when anointing 1962-1966 "The Dick Radatz Era" in Boston: "But the 1960s were all about power, and nobody in Boston personified power more than Dick 'The Monster' Radatz. In his first three seasons, Radatz -- pitching solely in relief -- averaged 13 wins and 138 innings per season, and struck out nearly 11 hitters per nine innings. Nobody had ever seen anyone remotely like him."

Did Radatz boost attendance, though? Like most attendance analysis, this one's tricky.

In 1962, Radatz's first season, Red Sox attendance actually dropped 14 percent, to 733,080 (which was still good for seventh best in the 10-team American League; my, how things have changed).

But maybe it just took some time for the fans to figure out how much they loved Radatz, because in '63 attendance jumped nearly 29 percent. And this doesn't seem to have had anything to do with performance; the Red Sox won 76 games in both seasons.

Or maybe it did. In '63 the Red Sox were within a couple of games of first place in late June, which might have translated into enough fan interest to keep the turnstiles humming throughout the summer. That's what I mean when say this stuff is tricky. We always start by trying to connect attendance with wins and losses, but the timing of the wins and losses can play a big role, too. I'm fairly confident that if you have two 81-81 teams -- all else being equal -- the team with the better record on Memorial Day will sell more tickets the rest of the way.

I digress. Attendance was down 14 percent in Radatz's first season, up 29 percent in his second season, down six percent in his third season, and down 26 percent more in his fourth season (a subpar season for Radatz and a lousy season for the Red Sox).

In 1966, Radatz got off to a lousy start and was traded in early June; the Red Sox, bouncing back to respectability (though not contention), saw a 24-percent attendance bump.

For three seasons, Radatz was a sensation. If you went to a Red Sox game, you had (roughly) a 43 percent chance of seeing him pitch. And if he pitched, it was often for two or three innings at a time.

I don't doubt that Dick Radatz helped the Red Sox sell tickets. As for how many, you'll have to ask someone a lot smarter than I.

Yes, there probably are relief pitchers who fans will pay to see. But their impact on attendance must be small, compared to all the other things that affect attendance. Especially wins and losses. Which is why Chapman should be used in whatever role will result in the maximum number of wins for the Cincinnati Reds.