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September 9, 2007

The New Parity

One Indicator of a Healthy Game

by Brandon Isleib

Last Tuesday, the Devil Rays were the first team in the majors to be guaranteed a sub-.500 record in 2007 when they lost to the Orioles 8-4. Had they won, it would have been only the ninth time in history that the majors made it through September 4 without a guaranteed sub-.500 team.

Here are the other years it happened, along with how long it took into the season for it to happen and what team(s) were the first to go under (for the earliest teams, to compensate for schedule irregularities, I took the number of games from the team with the most left to play and applied it to the last place team, so the estimates are slightly generous):

2000        September 6        Phillies
1992        September 7        Mariners/Dodgers
1990        September 9        Yankees/Braves
1986        September 10       Pirates
1958        September 7        Senators
1900        September 24       Reds/Giants
1888        September 5        KC Cowboys
1881        September 8        Worcester Ruby Legs

Generally speaking, standings for the next season were not radically affected by this parity; in whatever league it occurred, the first division and second division stayed the same. Of course, there are some exceptions, notably the 1959 Dodgers, the 1991 Braves and Twins, and the 2001 Phillies. (In 1901, the Reds and Giants contended through June, but crashed into the bottom two spots not long after that.)

In theory, it's a lot easier to come out of nowhere if your nowhere isn't too far away, but I wouldn't interpret this to mean that we're going to be debating the merits of Carl Crawford vs. Jason Bay, or Erik Bedard vs. Aaron Harang, come next October.

What is interesting is how a lot of these years came right before a major realignment within the various leagues: the American Association went major in 1882, the American League raided the National League in 1901, expansion occurred in 1993. The parity of 1958 carried baseball to the threatened Continental League and the first modern expansion years. Looking at the information, I strongly suspect that the reason a lot of those shakeups wound up succeeding is because there was an equal talent pool from which to draw for the new teams. The American Association had a fairly successful run in its decade of major-league status; the American League worked out all right; the Angels haven't always won a lot, but they haven't had an entirely embarrassing run, either; the Mets figured things out by the end of the '60s; and the Marlins and Rockies have had some ups and downs, but they each tasted some early successes and haven't endured, say, early Padres-style frustration in fielding a winning team.

When things haven't been quite so balanced, the chaos of new teams didn't pan out. The Players League and Federal League did fine jobs of upsetting the existing balances of power, the latter contributing significantly to the demise of Connie Mack's Athletics and making the NL a free-for-all, but they themselves died in it. Clearly, nobody waits for parity to occur before planning new teams or leagues (although Ban Johnson's timing in 1901 was in part due to the 1899 contraction that featured parity as a side effect), but resources are more easily stretched when they're fairly evenly distributed in the first place.

The successes of post-parity movements is also probably helped by all the existing front offices being competent enough not only to run their own ships in the face of ensuing chaos, but to spare some people for the new front offices and the opportunities they created. This may explain a lot of the current overall stability in the general manager job these days, Tim Purpura and Dave Littlefield notwithstanding. Not too many teams have turned in performances so embarrassing that ownership has to do something to save face. It's easy for an owner to dream that one or two good breaks from the free-agent market or the farm can push his team over the top; it's impossible to dream that you'll get 25 of them.

This is a pretty easy conclusion to draw, but the vitality of a league is shown resplendently when Labor Day passes and everyone could still theoretically have a winning record. When hope and faith isn't totally irrational for any team's fan base in the offseason, and where there's not a general manager in the majors who's casting his team into utter darkness, a lot more exciting things can happen for baseball in general. There are other ways of demonstrating parity, but the fact that the Devil Rays took this long to guarantee a losing record this year is evidence that something's right within the game.

Brandon Isleib is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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