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April 29, 2004

Prospectus Today

Short Season

by Joe Sheehan

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Dayn Perry did some great work last week. His Can 'O Corn column pointed out how much of the difference between MLB and NFL "competitive balance" is really a function of the shorter schedule. Sixteen is a very small number of games, and serves to increase the amount of turnover in the playoffs each year. There's just not enough time to recover from slumps, while luck and injuries are much greater determinants of success and failure.

I want to look at that issue from a slightly different perspective. Consider, if you will, the MLB standings as they would have looked through everyone's 13th game this year:


                 W-L
Red Sox          8-5
Orioles          8-5
Devil Rays       6-7
Yankees          6-7
Blue Jays       3-10

Twins            9-4
White Sox        8-5
Tigers           8-5
Indians          5-8
Royals           5-8

A's              8-5
Angels           7-6
Rangers          6-7
Mariners         5-8

Marlins          9-4
Braves           7-6
Mets             6-7
Phillies         5-8
Expos           2-11

Astros           9-4
Reds             8-5
Pirates          7-6
Cubs             7-6
Brewers          6-7
Cardinals        6-7

Dodgers          9-4
Padres           6-7
Giants           6-7
Rockies          6-7
Diamondbacks     4-9

An NFL team that's won 46 percent of its games through 81 percent of its season is in the playoff mix. At 6-7, they can hope to run the table, which in many years will mean a playoff spot at 9-7. Even if they lose their next game to fall to 6-8, there's a good chance that they will not have been eliminated, as the cluster of teams around .500 in the league usually means that 8-8 has a mathematical shot at the playoffs. A 5-8 team, a team not even playing .400 ball, still has hopes of winning its last three games and catching a tiebreaker the right way to advance.

An MLB team that's won 46 percent of its games through 81 percent of its season is done. If an MLB team is 60-80, they're not only more done, but they're likely to be shaking their heads and wondering what went so horribly wrong, maybe firing some people and certainly playing mostly meaningless games in front of sparse crowds. A 50-80 team, a team not even playing .400 ball, is just hoping to finish the season before anyone notices.

You just can't get enough separation in 16 games to keep from having two-thirds or more of your teams harbor playoff hopes deep into the season. That has nothing to do with revenue sharing or payroll caps; it has everything to do with 12 playoff teams and small numbers. Were MLB to adopt the same structure, as you can see above, just three teams would be hopelessly out of the playoff race with three "weeks" left in the season. That would help attendance and, more importantly, drive a perception that any team can go from nowhere to a championship. The NFL thrives on that, and the co-opted media sells it for them.

This factor also affects the few teams not in the playoff race, because with so many teams still alive, even teams spending more time with their draft board than their chalkboard have relevant games left to play. Consider the Arizona Cardinals, who were their usual lousy selves but ended their season by scoring two touchdowns in the last two minutes of Week 17 to eliminate the Minnesota Vikings from the postseason. There's no real "playing out the string" in the NFL the way we know it in MLB, no time for endless nights in cold weather in front of empty seats. Without digging it up, I would imagine that most NFL teams in most years don't play more than two home games after being realistically eliminated from playoff contention.

And besides, they list point-spreads for even the bad teams.

As Dayn wrote, this isn't earth-shattering research. I just wanted to reinforce his central point, that the NFL's vaunted parity has more to do with a schedule 10% as long and a postseason 50% (and now 75%) larger than any superiority of structure.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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