Step aside, ads for daily fantasy and erectile dysfunction: The 2016 baseball season has added another marketing campaign to the pantheon of pervasive (and widely loathed) sports promotions.
Major League Baseball has rebranded grand slams1 as “Papa Slams” across all of its properties,2 issuing ad infinitum the accompanying promise that every grand slam will yield a 40 percent Papa John’s pizza discount the next day. And thanks to an increased leaguewide home run rate, 28 grand slams have been hit through about 25 percent of the schedule, putting us on pace for 114 grand slams this season3 — the most since 2010.4 To watch baseball in 2016 is to live in a constant state of Papa Slam saturation. (To paraphrase another baseball-themed ad you’ve probably watched too many times: well played, Papa John’s.)
Baseball is so in bed with Big Pizza that the promotions don’t even stop at a national Papa John’s partnership. They also apply at the local level, thanks to the company’s status as the “official pizza” of 22 big league clubs. Although Papa John’s is far from the first company to sponsor sports promotions of this sort,5 an MLB PR official confirmed to us that theirs is the only existing arrangement on the local level that extends to the majority of teams. Basically, it’s Papa John’s discounts all the way down — much to the chagrin of pizza snobs, internet commenters and the petitioning public at large.
But there’s an interesting statistical question lurking within the waves of pizza plugs: Which local market is most likely to get a cheap pie?
Although every local deal involves some variation on the theme of a 50 percent discount on online orders, the discount conditions in each market are different, ranging from simple offers that activate when the local team wins to more complicated triggers based on the number of runs the team scores, or even the day of the week. According to Papa John’s Senior Director of Public Relations Peter Collins, “local promotion is determined by the local markets and depends on the market dynamics and tolerance to discounting.” In addition, he told us that “team performance is also taken into account.” As Collins pointed out, the Rangers (who scored the third-most runs in the majors last year and play in a hitter’s park) have a seven-run trigger, while the Marlins (who scored the second-fewest runs in the majors last year in a neutral park) have a five-run trigger.
Using the specific offers for each market and FanGraphs’ projected rest-of-season standings, we calculated the odds that a pizza discount would be triggered on any given game day.6 And we discovered a huge spread in results: Certain markets have discount probabilities in the single digits, while others have better-than-even odds.
|St Louis Cardinals||Win||52.9%|
|Seattle Mariners||4 runs||44.7|
|Baltimore Orioles||Win and 5 runs||43.6|
|LA Dodgers||Win and 5 runs||36.7|
|Kansas City Royals||Win and 5 runs||33.5|
|Chicago White Sox||5 runs||28.3|
|Cleveland Indians||5 runs||28.2|
|Miami Marlins||5 runs||24.4|
|San Diego Padres||5 runs||18.3|
|New York Yankees||6 runs||14.4|
|Washington Nationals||Win and 7 runs||13.8|
|Tampa Bay Rays||6 runs||12.1|
|Texas Rangers||7 runs||9.2|
|Houston Astros||Win on Tuesday||8.0|
|Atlanta Braves||6 runs||7.7|
As if Cardinals fans haven’t had enough perks, the St. Louis promotion — which takes effect when the home team merely wins — is the deal most likely to pay off, with a 53 percent likelihood. (Wisely, perhaps, Papa John’s has no Cubs-based discount.) In other markets with winning teams, though, Papa John’s sometimes adds difficulty by tacking on victory conditions. In order to secure the D.C. discount, for instance, the Nationals need not only to win but also to score at least seven runs, a 14 percent proposition.
Some cities’ chances are even more remote. In a just world, Braves fans would be able to ease the pain of watching their team rebuild by buying affordable food. But to add the insult of full-price pizza to the injury of bad baseball, the Braves are the team least likely to trigger the local discount, with odds under 8 percent. To feed Atlantans, baseball’s worst offense has to score six or more runs, a feat it’s achieved in only six of its 39 games. That makes their chances slightly lower than those of the Astros, who have to win on Tuesdays.7
Surprisingly, Papa John’s doesn’t seem to have gamed the discounts much, if at all, and that means there are major inefficiencies in the pizza-promotion marketplace. (Paging Michael Lewis.) Although there’s nothing preventing the company from adjusting on the fly, as of now Papa John’s hasn’t limited its win-based discounts to teams that are more likely to lose, nor has it tailored the runs per game-based discounts to team quality in any statistically significant way. When we randomly scrambled the discount conditions between teams, we found almost no difference in the probability of getting discounted pizza compared to how the discounts are actually assigned.
So with great power to exploit local pizza promotions comes … slightly cheaper pizza, potentially. Armed with a spreadsheet, a list of discount codes, and an unquenchable appetite for Papa John’s, a sabermetric pizza handicapper could save some serious meal money in the right market.
Much as we might want to, there’s no writing this redshirt out of this season’s script. So the only question left is whether we’re willing to move to St. Louis in search of a discounted slice.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.