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Commissioner Steve Novick

Official Website for Commissioner Steve Novick

Phone: 503-823-4682

fax: 503-823-4019

1221 SW 4th Ave. Suite 210, Portland, OR 97204

Parallels between baseball and crime

As a good baseball fan, I tend to believe that baseball explains everything. For example, I think the decline in American living standards that began in 1973 is in part directly attributable to the adoption of the designated hitter rule in the American League. Whatever supernatural forces exist in the world clearly want pitchers to hit. They decry extreme specialization and enjoy the double shift.

But you don't have to be a dues-paying member of what Susan Sarandon called the Church of Baseball to notice some really interesting parallels between baseball and crime.

Over the past twenty years, there has been a dramatic drop in crime throughout the United States (Canada too, actually). There is now a pretty compelling chemical explanation for that phenomenon: the elimination of lead from gasoline. Lead damages aspects of the brain that are highly relevant to criminal behavior - like impulse control. As Kevin Drum pointed out in a February 2013 Mother Jones article, the lead theory is the one theory that explains both the increase in crime in the '60s through '80s and the subsequent decrease: there was an explosion of automobile traffic in the decades after World War II, exposing more and more children to lead; then, in the '70's, we started to phase out lead in gasoline, and twenty years later, crime started to drop.

Meanwhile, in the '90s, there was an explosion of offense in baseball, and there is, as you may know, a chemical explanation for that, too. A large number of players started taking steroids.

In the past few years, baseball has finally taken steps to get steroids out of the game, and offensive production has gone down. Just like getting lead out of the air caused crime to go down.

But this year, offensive production in baseball has gone down even further, to levels not seen since the early '70s. One compelling explanation is that baseball teams have dramatically increased their use of an old, but traditionally seldom-used strategy: Shifting the infield around based on the tendency of a particular hitter to hit the ball to certain areas.

As David Waldstein explains in a May 2014 New York Times article, this strategy has been used for decades - but very sparingly. In the past few years, however, more and more teams have realized that pretty much every hitter has his own tendencies - so why not place your fielders to anticipate those tendencies? The turn-of-the (19th / 20th) century Baltimore Oriole Wee Willie Keeler used to say that the key to success as a hitter was to, "Hit 'em where they ain't." Today's managers are turning that on its head. They have decided to "play 'em where they hit."

Why is this relevant to crime? Because, as researcher Cody Telep told the Portland City Council last year, crime tends to be very concentrated in particular locations. Innovative police forces have realized that the best way to deploy officers is to have them spend time in those particular locations. The Portland Police Bureau has now taken some steps toward adopting that strategy.

Based on this year's batting averages, the Portland Police Bureau should double down on that strategy. After all, it appears that once you've dealt with the dangerous chemicals in both baseball and crime, an old saying from another industry is equally relevant: It's all location, location, location.

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