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July 9, 2004

Prospectus Today

Competitively Balanced

by Joe Sheehan

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I can't recall exactly where I heard or read it--probably in multiple places--but the catchphrase for the week is that X number of teams, where X is in the low-20s, are within Y games, where Y is six or fewer, of a playoff spot.

As of this morning, those figures are 20 and six. Twenty teams are within six games of a playoff spot as of July 9.

Now, I shouldn't complain too much about this. It's positive press for baseball, the kind of accurate reporting of the game's competitive balance that shows that baseball isn't a wasteland in which four teams have a chance to succeed and 26 act as a Greek chorus for them. Baseball provides great races, the kind of thing that the NBA and NHL don't have, and that the NFL has largely because its season is 1/10th the length.

Still, I can't help but have a problem with the sudden discovery that baseball is competitive. After all, for years now I and others like me have been trying to make the point, standing on soapboxes and street corners to argue against the prevailing notion that MLB was hopelessly broken. Now, as if everyone received the same talking points memo, lines that could easily have been written by me or Derek Zumsteg are finding their way into beat writers' columns and color mens' commentary.

But this is nothing new. This is what baseball is, and has been for some time. Take last year, for example. On the morning of July 9, 2003, 19 teams were within six games of a playoff spot, the list of 11 that weren't included some of the game's highest payrolls: the Mets, the Orioles, the Rangers.

Go back to 2002, the last year under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement that supposedly laid the groundwork for the death of 22 or 23 franchises, and you can see what the argument might have taken root. That year, just 13 teams met the standard for competitiveness we're using here, the second straight year baseball had been so anti-competitive. The thing is, that two-year stretch was--to use someone's favorite word--an aberration. 2001 and 2002 were, like 1987 for home runs or 1988 for balks, a fluke year, a trough that didn't require massive rules changes to correct, but patience.

The following chart displays just how fluky (data courtesy Retrosheet and baseball-reference.com):


Year     Teams     Competitive Teams

2004        30          20
2003        30          19
2002        30          13
2001        30          13
2000        30          19
1999        30          17
1998        30          11
1997        28          17
1996        28          15
1995*       28          19
1994        28          11

*not representative, as the season started three weeks late

Since instituting the lower standards for competitiveness in 1994, going to three divisions and a back door, generally 55-65% of the league's teams have some reasonable hope of reaching the playoffs at the season's halfway point. The years that don't meet this criterion tend to be the ones, like 1998 and 2001, in which one team buries a league early on. There does seem to be a trend towards non-competitiveness in CBA-negotiation years, which may reflect certain franchises' hope that a change in the system will relieve them of the burden of actually competing for fans, money and wins.

Just as a sanity check, I went back and did the same research for the 1980s, which are often cited as the pinnacle of baseball competitive balance. Throwing out 1981--when no games were played on July 8, or on any July day--an average of 12 teams a year met the criteria, ranging from 17 (!) in 1983 to a mere eight in 1986 and 1988. The extremes are greater than in the 1994-2004 period, but the shape of the data is basically the same, with a slightly lower average. In other words, baseball seasons aren't much less competitive today than they were in the 1980s.

Take this with a grain of salt, but in doing this, the one trend I did notice is that the second tier of teams in MLB seems to have worse records now that they did in the 2001-02 period. The top teams were around the same record, but in '01 and '02 the next group down was playing .610 ball, now they're playing .540 ball. That, as much as anything the best teams in baseball aren't doing, is why the standings look so different today.

I don't think that's something that can be credited to the rules changes, as they largely targeted high-revenue, high-payroll teams. I suppose the old CBA's disincentives for competing, with revenue-sharing payments disbursed in inverse proportion to payroll, would naturally have led to the kind of spread we saw in the last years of it, as many teams turned to the system rather than to the field for revenue. Fixing that, however, wouldn't have required the kinds of changes implemented, but merely repairing the fractured incentives.

Baseball's competitive balance is the same today as it was before the latest rules changes went into effect. The effect of the confiscatory revenue sharing and payroll taxes isn't to cause change on the field, but to shift money from players and the industry's highest-revenue teams to those in the third quartile of revenue. The line being drawn from the current CBA to the baseball we see today is a shaky one.

Remember this week in two years, because if history is any guide, MLB and its players will again be gearing up for war, and no number of competitive teams will be able to affect the outcome.

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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