If Only Richard Sherman Played Baseball: The Economics of Trash Talk

Reading one of Andrew Sharp’s whimsical #HotSportsTakes yesterday on Grantland (which I still agreed with in parts), I discovered this tweet from Detroit Tiger’s ace/2011’s American League Cy Young winner/Kate Upton’s “on-again” boyfriend Justin Verlander1:

Just a quick aside: Verlander’s current profile-description-about-me thing on Twitter reads: “My house smells of rich mahagony and I have many leather bound books! -Anchorman”. Hold on, I have to go follow Justin Verlander on Twitter. Back. Wait, I have to tell Justin Verlander that he’s misspelling mahogany.

Okay, back. Hang on, that’s not even the quote, Ron Burgandy mentions the leather-bound books first… one sec.

Okay, all set. Remember this?

It’s David Ortiz, at home in the playoffs, hitting a game-tying grand slam off Tigers’ closer Joaquin Benoit with two outs in the eighth inning. What if after circling the bases, Ortiz had screamed this into the cameras:

I’M THE BEST HITTER IN THE GAME! WHEN YOU TRY ME WITH A SORRY PITCHER LIKE BENOIT, THAT’S THE RESULT YOU GON’ GET! DON’T YOU EVER TALK ABOUT ME! DON’T YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH ABOUT THE BEST!

Questions to consider: Would baseball be better or worse? How quickly would Ortiz be forced to apologize (if at all)? Would people like to see him suspended? Would people be concerned he was taking performance enhancing drugs that also affected his behavior? (And wouldn’t people find this outburst just f#!%ing bizarre?)

Setting aside those questions, one thing is clear: if Ortiz had said that, Verlander, and presumably other Tigers pitchers, would throw 95+ mile-per-hour fastballs at Ortiz’s head.2 Baseball has a built-in corrective mechanism for such antics. There is a league office to fine players, the risk of ejection, and rarely a beaning will start a full-scale brawl, but players learn to keep their showboating to a minimum, lest they spend the rest of their at bats fearfully ducking for cover.

This got me thinking about other sports. As a fan, my general perception is that the NFL and NBA have more rude, childish behavior than the NHL and MLB. Perhaps this has more to do with the physical consequences–both their magnitude and their ease of execution–players can inflict on one another.

Such physical dangers are relative to the baseline for the sport. Football is quite physical already. The little catfights NFL players get into, while perhaps drawing a 15 yard penalty, do not pose any additional pains. Basketball has a lot of contact, although less forceful. Shoving matches and the occasional punch are more or less on par with the physicality in the game itself.

Baseball and hockey are different. In MLB, physical contact is very rare, while pitchers can easily brush off opponent hitters. Hockey has a lot of hitting, though it’s often more fluid than in other sports. A hockey player is a scarred player, but longer-term tears and breaks are less common.

Like baseball, hockey has a built-in mechanism for players who show off, taunt, and are generally just dicks. Enforcers and fighting are ingrained in hockey, and the two-minute penalties that come with them are frequently off-setting. NHL fighting penalties are usually not worse than any other penalty, and the players who receive them are usually less skilled. The NHL and MLB have milder deterrents for hitting back.

Is there actually less needless, immature, look-at-me, plain obnoxious behavior in MLB and the NHL than in the NFL and NBA? It’s hard to say. An exhaustive study would take a lot of thought and work. Googling a few things and drawing sketchy conclusions, however, is not too hard.

The table below shows the number of Google hits for some particular search terms, as of earlier this afternoon, January 23rd, 2013. The search terms are on the left; for example, the NFL search terms were “nfl”, “nfl football”, “nfl playoffs”, “nfl taunting”, “nfl taunts”, “nfl trash talk”, and “nfl insults”.

Trash Talk by Sport, Google Hits, 1/23/2014

[league] + “…” NFL NBA NHL MLB
[league only] 118,000,000 186,000,000 52,300,000 105,000,000
[league + sport] 553,000,000 360,000,000 189,000,000 136,000,000
Playoffs 126,000,000 98,000,000 61,400,000 87,700,000
~([league + sport] – Playoffs)~ 427,000,000 262,000,000 127,600,000 48,300,000
Taunting 515,000 241,000 147,000 132,000
Taunts 533,000 295,000 162,000 189,000
Trash Talk 13,800,000 11,600,000 956,000 1,050,000
Insults 2,710,000 1,900,000 392,000 296,000

Neat-O! While “taunting” and “taunts” did not yield much difference, there are many times as many hits for “trash talk” and “insults” in the NFL and NBA than in the NHL and MLB. Might that be conflated by the fact that some leagues are more or less popular than others? That is why I have included baseline numbers for each league. How about the fact that MLB is in the off-season currently, while the NBA and NHL are in full swing, and the NFL’s popularity is likely peaking as Super Bowl XLVIII nears?

Those are valid concerns, also this is not a scientific study in any way. To maybe-sorta-kinda get an idea, here are the Google hits for each sport’s “trash talk”, as a percentage of the playoffs-adjusted number of Google hits for [league + sport].3

Trash Talk by Sport, Google Hits Percentage, 1/23/2014

[league] + “…” NFL NBA NHL MLB
Trash Talk 3.23% 4.43% 0.75% 2.17%

There you have it! Football and basketball have to put up with more of this nonsense than hockey and baseball because it is easier for hockey and baseball players to punch back, with more bite, and fewer punishments from their leagues’ offices. From an individual (or microeconomic) perspective, running your mouth is more costly in the NHL and MLB than in the NFL and NBA.

As much as I might respect Sherman as a football player, and loath his (un)professional conduct, I have got to hand it to the Stanford communications major. He is really good at what he does. In the span of just a few hours he gave us this:

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle SeahawksAnd this:

Screenshot (89)The adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is there, if you want it. But in this case, I choose another old favorite: hate the game, not the player.


  1. Tagline for this already-extensively-titled post: “the intersection of Andrew Sharp, Cy Young, Kate Upton, and Justin Verlander”. Catchy, right? 
  2. If not immediately, in the midst of a tight playoff game, then later in the series during a game that was in hand, or certainly in a game this coming season. 
  3. Ie, the number of hits for “nfl football” minus the number of hits for “nfl playoffs”. Why this number? It scales better than other figures to the number of hits for “trash talk” and “insults” across all four sports, and more importantly, WHY NOT
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2 comments
  1. Victor said:

    Great article!

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