Skip to main content
Menu
A Definitive Guide To Baseball’s Pizza Discounts

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.

TEAM CONDITIONS PROBABILITY
St Louis Cardinals Win 52.9%
Pittsburgh Pirates Win 52.0
Colorado Rockies Win 48.6
Arizona Diamondbacks Win 46.8
Seattle Mariners 4 runs 44.7
Philadelphia Phillies Win 44.5
Milwaukee Brewers Win 43.7
Baltimore Orioles Win and 5 runs 43.6
Minnesota Twins Win 42.9
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
Odds of getting that pizza discount by team

Source: FanGraphs

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.

Footnotes

  1. Or in press-release parlance, made “Grand Slams even better.”

  2. Including MLB Network, MLB.TV and MLB.com.

  3. Not counting the kind only the Reds bullpen allows.

  4. That’s even ignoring the fact that the ball flies farther when the weather warms up.

  5. And baseball isn’t the first sport Papa John’s has sponsored.

  6. The gory details: For wins-based discounts, we used FanGraphs’ projected rest-of-season win probabilities, as of May 16. For runs-based discounts, we assumed that the number of team runs per game follows a Poisson distribution, with a mean equal to FanGraphs’ projected rest-of-season runs per game. (Poisson isn’t the best distribution for runs scored, but it was the only distribution we could fit with only projected runs scored figures on hand.) For discounts with multiple criteria, we calculated the probability that a team would score the specified number of runs, then multiplied that by the winning percentage of teams scoring that many runs (or more) in a game during the 2015 season.

  7. To calculate the Astros’ discount, we multiplied the probability that Houston would win a game by the fraction of their games that take place on Tuesdays (16 percent of their schedule).

Ben Lindbergh is a former staff writer at FiveThirtyEight.

Rob Arthur is FiveThirtyEight’s baseball columnist and also writes about crime.

Comments