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March 14, 2002

Comparing Balance

Are the Yankees Unbeatable?

by Derek Zumsteg

I recently wrote a column in which I explained about how boring I found payroll caps, and how I felt that they forced everything in their leagues to become about the cap. I got a ton of e-mail, much of which read (and I'm omitting some colorful language here) "What about competitive balance? That's what the cap gives fans, you Yankee-loving..."

There is no competitive balance problem in baseball, even in the latest period of Yankee pennants. Supposedly, the Yankees play an entirely different game than other teams. If this is true, we should see this in almost any metric we choose, but it's not there.

I'm going to set out some real simple standards for measuring competitive balance in baseball, and look at what we get out of them. I've decided to use seasons following the 1994 strike as an arbitrary start point, but this coincides nicely with the Yankees' perceived dominance.

So for the seven-year stretch of 1995-2001, let's check out some cumulative records of franchises (expansion teams ommitted, which means the cumulative record here is 14,597 - 14,399).


Team                    W    L    Pct.

Atlanta Braves         679  437  .608
New York Yankees       661  452  .594
Cleveland Indians      652  462  .585
Seattle Mariners       616  499  .552
Houston Astros         606  510  .543
Boston Red Sox         602  513  .540
New York Mets          589  528  .527
Los Angeles Dodgers    588  528  .527
San Francisco Giants   587  530  .526
St. Louis Cardinals    569  545  .511
Texas Rangers          568  548  .509
Chicago White Sox      566  548  .508
Cincinnati Reds        566  550  .507
Oakland Athletics      564  551  .506
San Diego Padres       564  552  .505
Baltimore Orioles      551  564  .494
Anaheim Angels         544  572  .487
Toronto Blue Jays      541  575  .485
Chicago Cubs           527  590  .472
Milwaukee Brewers      512  602  .460
Philadelphia Phillies  507  609  .454
Montreal Expos         500  616  .448
Kansas City Royals     490  622  .441
Minnesota Twins        489  625  .439
Pittsburgh Pirates     488  627  .438
Detroit Tigers         471  644  .422

The top five on this list includes two franchises that would have been contracted when I was going to games early in my life, ones that were used then as examples of how unbalanced baseball was.

The Yankees are not playing a different ballgame than other teams are: they're not winning more games, much less a standard deviation from the top. It's not even much of a bell curve in the first place. There's no domination there, no single team way out in front. When we recently had a season where every team finished between .600 and .400, there were people who thought that was great. Looking a longer time frame, we can see that even as there are franchises at the bottom that aren't getting any better and some that don't even try, the top teams are still in the same pack.

What about playoff berths? In terms of raw "how many teams get to the playoffs," baseball looks bad compared to basketball, football, and hockey, where everyone gets to make the playoffs. In all three of those sports, teams that are barely over and sometimes under .500 win playoff berths. Baseball is far more selective: the playoffs are shorter, and even with the wild-card berth, a much smaller percentage of teams participate. Still...

  • World Series Winners: 4 (13% of all teams)
  • World Series Participants: 7 (23%)
  • Played in League Championships: 12 (40%)
  • Entered Playoffs: 18 (60%)

Just for fun, I thought I'd take a quick look at what the two other big payroll-capped, wider playoff leagues managed to get in their Big Game/Series:

NFL: 6 Super Bowl Winners, 14 participants (19%, 30%)
NBA: 4 Finals winners, 10 participants (14%, 34%)

Both leagues see more teams get into the finals, but considering that baseball lets only 20% of teams into the playoffs, while the NBA allows more than 50% and the NFL 32%, that baseball sees a comparable percentage of its teams reach the World Series is a testament to the competitive balance baseball continues to enjoy.

The Yankees spend a lot of money, and they spend it well, but to suggest that the Yankees are somehow a super team on a run that has destroyed balance in baseball is lunacy. The Yankees have played extremely well and had more than their fair share of luck in the post-season. No payroll cap or other clumsy mechanism is required to make baseball more competitive, and considering the high state of balance now, it seems clear that tampering with the current system couldn't do much to increase competitiveness and would likely have unintended effects that would have the opposite effect.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Balance

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