March 14, 2002
Comparing Balance: Are the Yankees Unbeatable?
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...
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%)
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.