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July 26, 2007

Prospectus Today

Back to Parity

by Joe Sheehan

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I don't have much of analytical point to make, but just to put the idea out there, here are the National League standings as if the league were one large entity:


Team            W   L     GB
Mets           57  43      --
Brewers        56  45     1.5
Dodgers        56  46     2.0
Padres         54  46     3.0
Diamondbacks   55  48     3.5
Cubs           53  46     3.5
Braves         54  48     4.0
Phillies       52  48     5.0
Rockies        51  50     6.5

Whether you buy into the idea that the AL is much superior to the AL or not, it's clear that in both leagues, parity reigns. We've entered a period of time much like the 1980s, when there simply wasn't that much separation between the 26 teams around back then, and division titles were often handed around from year to year as if teams were taking turns. The smaller divisions and expanded playoffs create the impression that the same teams make the playoffs each season, but that has more to do with numbers than the presence of any true dynasties.

Just as a point of reference, 47.5 million people attended MLB games in 1986. In 2006, that number was 75.9 million. I'm thinking the four expansion teams can't account for that. Many, many factors go into those numbers, but I don't think there's much of an argument that the level of parity in the league is any kind of factor in attendance.

If the season ended today…well, that's a meaningless concept, because these standings can and will flip on a moment's notice. The Cubs have not only closed to within two games of the Brewers-who look more and more like a slightly better version of the 2003 Royals, a great April buoying a .470 team's record-but they're within a half-game of the wild-card slot. Six teams are separated by three-and-a-half games for that honor, and while I don't think the Rockies are really a contender, you simply can't dismiss a team that's over .500 and that close with 60 games to play. Taking two of three from the Padres this week didn't hurt their case.

The Mets may actually be the best team in the NL, but it's been a long time since they've looked it. Their offense is being hampered by injuries and age, two things that often go hand-in-hand. Integrating younger players, like Ruben Gotay and Lastings Milledge, by necessity could make them better accidentally. Walking into the decline phases of Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado, and Shawn Green could be fatal to their chances, however. Along with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, the Mets are best-positioned to make a for-now trade, but on the basis of their available talent, I think the Mets are a reasonable pick as the circuit's best team. The problem is that the designation just doesn't mean all that much in the 2007 version of the National League.

Of course, all that really matters is finishing in the the top two. It's become de rigueur to look at the NBA and NHL (that's the hockey people, folks) standings this way from about the midway point of the season, because the divisions mean less than the league does. The wild card takes away the drama of great teams battling for a division title, but it does guarantee that the second-best team in the league makes the postseason. I'm on record as not liking the tradeoffs, in part because the escape hatch has powerful repercussions on team building. It is my opinion that the wild card and smaller divisions have encouraged NL teams to emphasize short-term goals and chase quick turnarounds, which is how you end up with a league that doesn't have any team playing better than .570 baseball.

This will make for an interesting stretch drive. The PECOTA-Adjusted Playoff Odds Report sifts through the nine teams, evaluating their true performances to date and their likely finish based on their personnel and their schedule. It ranks the nine teams as follows:

Mets           88.6%
Brewers        69.9%
Dodgers        65.6%
Cubs           57.4%
Padres         44.5%
Braves         31.5%
Phillies       21.4%
Diamondbacks   12.4%
Rockies         7.3%

I have to say that I don't understand why the Mets look so good in this system. They haven't underplayed their runs scored and runs allowed, and they have two good teams chasing them. The Brewers' odds seem high as well, given that they've been a mediocre team for nearly three months. The Braves and Cubs are both undervalued, in my opinion, although I don't actually expect the Braves to finish ahead of the Mets.

What's clear is that we're going to see most of these teams hang around the race deep into the season. There's no team good enough to create separation at the top, and only the Rockies are likely to fade from the bottom. We could have another September with three, four, maybe even five meaningful NL games every single night, and if the wild card hasn't necessarily boosted attendance for teams on the margins, it has made for some exciting late-summer nights for seamheads. The purist in me would prefer two divisions, no wild-card, and races like 1993, but I have to say that I would enjoy eight or nine teams separated by a handful of games, fighting for four spots.

I feel so dirty.

--

I was in my favorite bookstore the other night, the four-story B&N on the Upper West Side, and came across Pro Football Prospectus 2007. I hadn't received my copy yet-god knows what address it's being sent to-so I picked it up. There aren't very many preseason football books available, and due to its later deadlines, PFP is a much better product than the many preseason magazines on the market. The caliber of writing and analysis, the statistics, and the structure make it a great book for fans of the game and fantasy players alike, just like the BP annuals. You can blame the late arrival of today's column on a Wednesday night lost to PFP2K7.

Speaking of books, I finally had a chance to read Jayson Stark's first one, The Stark Truth. Like Stark's columns, the book is absolutely loaded with interesting information, conveyed in a conversational, at-the-ballpark tone. The book is centered on the notions of "overrated" and "underrated," and as you may remember from the very public debate over Andruw Jones' coverage in the book, it is designed to start arguments as much as settle them. It was a fun weekend read, the kind of book that makes a great gift for any baseball fan-especially one who likes to debate.

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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