December 14, 2000
The Impact of the 1995 Realignment
One of the drumbeat arguments put forth by Bud Selig is that competitive balance has been shattered since the 1994 players' strike. We all know how the argument goes: unless you have a high payroll, you have no chance to compete. Doom and gloom to follow any time now. Really. We mean it this time.
And a cursory glance at things might lead you to believe the riff. After all, the Yankees have blown through every payroll standard in the game, and they've won three of the last four World Series. The Braves have a high payroll and are in the playoffs every year. The Expos and Twins spend about as much money on salary as some people do on a really nice dinner, and of course, they have no hope. They're profitable, though.
But why? Why did this argument suddenly become the major dark cloud it has in the last few years? After all, there have been payroll discrepancies as far back in baseball that anyone can remember. Why is it suddenly the end of the world now?
Here's an idea: because only in the last few years has baseball had three divisions and a wild card in each league.
I went back to 1995 and, for each season, re-jiggered the standings as they would have been under the old two-division-per-league setup. For 1998-2000, I still moved the Brewers to the NL (playing in the Eastern Division) and put Tampa Bay in the AL East and Arizona in the NL West.
The balanced schedule helps us out here, because the teams would have played the same schedules no matter what the divisional format was. The things we can't account for are roster and managerial moves that would be different based on the different type of competition. The teams that have been in the wild-card race wouldn't have made the same trades if the wild card didn't exist. But this gives us a ballpark set of results to play with.
The results were drastically different than what we have seen with the three-division setup. Most notably, the Yankees only made the playoffs twice during that span.
The division champs, going from 2000 back to 1995:
NL East: STL, NYM, CHC, FLA, MON/STL (tie), CHC
That's 13 different teams that would have made the playoffs out of 28/30. You could bump this number up to 15 if the Angels and Expos had won their respective one-game playoffs.
How does this compare to recent history? Breaking down the recent past into six-year chunks (excluding the strike years of 1994 and 1981) gives us the following results:
1995-2000: 13 (or 15) different teams made the fictional playoffs
That's about as similar as things can get, taking into account the significant parity of the early-to-mid 1980s.
What the three-division format does is allow good teams more margin for error. Winning 87 to 92 games in the past meant you went home for the winter wondering how to make your team better. Winning 87 to 92 games now means you can sneak into the playoffs and still win the World Series.
MLB has moved the bar of intense competitiveness down; now you have great races and competition for the fourth spot in each league, at the expense of letting the usual suspects get a free ride year after year. And since once a team becomes an upper echelon team, they tend to stay there for a few years, there's no reason for them to rebuild or tear down their rosters. Result? Instead of the Red Sox finishing in third place year after year before finally deciding to re-tool, they keep adding large contract after large contract to their payroll, chasing the wild card.
Would Montreal have had more money with which to retain players had they made the playoffs--and possibly the World Series--in 1996? Would the entire NL East be comprised of high-payroll teams now, because each of them would have a legitimate shot to win every year? Would the Yankees payroll be as high as it is today if they had finished out of the playoffs four of the last six years?
Obviously, we can't answer these questions. It's clear, however, that the changing of the divisional alignment, expansion of the playoffs and the lowered cover charge to Club October have served to mask just how much competitiveness there is in baseball. Which makes me believe that it's a powerful overlooked dynamic.
Brian Troxell is a software consultant living in Atlanta, and merely a shell of the happy lifelong Orioles fan he once was. He can be reached at email@example.com.