August 17, 2010
A Rose is a Rose is a... Rozelle?
If by fiat we stopped regular-season play on Sunday, we'd get just two repeat entries in the playoff picture: the ubiquitous Yankees, and the Twins. We could get a third repeater in the Phillies, but they'd have to settle for slipping in as a wild card, not the division champ, and then only after a one-game playoff with the Giants, who would certainly qualify as newbies if they trounced the two-time defending pennant winners. Even that understates the potential for turnover: Change the point in time at which we might arbitrarily end the season by a few days this way or that, and you could wind up with seven new playoff teams instead of five.
This isn't a recent development, of course. Turn to the same point of the season last year, and you'd be making much the same proposition as far as 2009 versus 2008. Once again, you'd have two new teams in the AL (with the Rangers or the Red Sox replacing the Rays, and the Tigers replacing the White Sox), and you'd “just” have two new teams in the NL, with the Cardinals unseating the Cubs and the Rockies replacing the Brewers for the wild card, and with three more clubs besides in the running for the wild card slot at the least.
To some extent, this sounds a lot more revolutionary than it really is. The American League's shorter field also boasts fewer plausible contenders, for all of the pre-season enthusiasm for exotic longshots like the Mariners or Indians, or the Tigers' eventual decision to give the leftovers of their 2006 pennant winner one last shot. The National League has turnover, but generally within a slightly broader field of usual suspects. In a way, this isn't unlike the phenomenon of the sheer number of teams and players contributing to a sense that there is that much more player movement—whether we're talking about the numbers of contenders or transactions, the raw numbers get to be bigger, contributing to a sense that there's more. More contenders, more movement, more action, and more parity.
Consider the fields from the last three years at this time of year, as well as the year before:
Setting aside the National League for a moment, consider the situation in the AL. The slow changing of the guard in the West from the Angels to the Rangers is something many analysts have been anticipating; maybe losing Kendry Morales for the year or the total implosion of Scott Kazmir helped abbreviate this switch, but the Angels' previous, historic capacity to reliably exceed their projected records the last three seasons simultaneously suggested their ultimate vincibility as soon as the going got tough.* The Twins are riding high at present in the Central, but you could say the same of the White Sox two weeks ago. Plot twists seem to be the division's destiny as a matter of course, and between them, the two teams have have four of the last five AL Central titles. This year, that will become five out of six. What's going on in both divisions isn't especially dynamic or ephemeral.
Which leaves us with yet another three-way duel in the AL East for the title and the wild card slot. As races go, it's a lot more exciting in the abstract than the actual—our third-order projected standings suggest we ought to have a three-way death race with a barely-there two-game separation between glory and being no better off than the Blue Jays. Reality's a tougher proposition, but the Red Sox' injury-marred bid to keep up with the Yankees and Rays might mask their ability to catch up more effectively than the tough proposition of a one-in-four shot from our Playoff Odds Report calculates. This year's probability that we wind up with the Yankees and Rays just means we'll get the third of the three potential slates for the two slots. It's exciting and interesting, but it's parity for some, not all.
Instead, as ever, it's the National League where broader possibilities for death or glory reside. You'll notice a couple of obvious missing teams from the 2008 side of things: those are Mets- and Snakes-sized holes. Both clubs subsequently blew it down the stretch in '08, and haven't been really seen since. Similarly, the Cubs and Brewers were at the end of the line by 2008, so the 2009 season wound up with a smaller slate as a result, and it's into that growing vacuum that you could argue the Padres and Reds have stepped in. It's interesting to notice that a big difference in the NL East at this stage of the season is that this time around the Braves aren't underperforming this year, while the Phillies aren't overperforming, creating a tighter race that the underlying fundamental performance of the two teams over time suggests has been there all along.
This year's NL field is especially entertaining because, as we went in Monday night's action, you have six teams within four games, spread evenly two per division. That real-world pack finds its analog in the interpretive data—the Braves with a grouping that tight, I'd suggest that nobody is an easy favorite for survival. The Giants may have just lost a series to the Padres, for example, but they've got seven more bites at that particular apple, plenty of head-to-head play within which to alter the current state of affairs. And best we count out the Rockies and Dodgers altogether, recent history provides plenty of epic in-season comebacks, like the Rockies' run in 2007 or the Tigers' swoon in '09, stupendous enough to squelch any effort to say it's over before it's over.
A couple of questions come from these observations. If the American League's field seems somewhat static or slowly changing over time, the National League's more dynamic spread reflects the real opportunities that exist. The Padres' brass saw what they did down the stretch last season, and decided to take their 2010 chances seriously, a decision justified by the league-relative decline of some of the other entries in the field. The Reds' opportunity was even more narrowly focused: The Cardinals aren't a 100-win team, the Cubs and Brewers had issues, so why not the Reds? Parity in the National League is simultaneously the product and the symptom of viable short-term exercises in hope and faith, because there is no extreme imbalance the way there is in the AL East: You can get to the dance and have a real shot at a pennant, not just the right to lose to the AL East in October.
This slow development during the latter stages of the age of Czar Bud the Only has certainly been brag-worthy in its way, to the point that the man himself touted it to the Fourth Estate at the All-Star break, and for good cause, even dignifying the recommendations of that domesticated dog-and-pony show, the tenuously independent Blue Ribbon Panel of a decade ago, with some credit for the happier present. Obviously, a Rozelle by any other name smells just as sweet. To borrow a term from Keith Woolner, does this really mean that the competitive ecology of baseball changed for the better? Yes and no, but for the most part, I'd argue that it has been and remains mostly a National League phenomenon, because at least there, you have some turnover. Teams like the Tigers or Astros, or the Mets and the Cubs, have tried to patch up veteran contenders of mid-Aughties vintage, and generally failed, but that doesn't mean they were wrong to try.
In the abstract, more teams with realistic late-season bids are supposed to make for better late-season attendance in more venues; if even a by-blow yields up a more plausible pitch for season ticket sales and local-market revenues, then the industry-wide benefit of more teams profiting from playing relevant ballgames (or nearly so) seems fairly obvious. More local revenues equals more money to kick into the revenue-sharing kitty. They say that victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. I suppose opening matters up to a wider field of aspiring sires creates enough action and puts so much cash in the till that you can see baseball as Babylon or Mammon, or both, or just keep things American by combining the two and calling it Mae West.
As ever, there's the element of geographic determinism, but it's relatively minor, in that it's a problem for two teams, and two teams alone. The Blue Jays remain the best fourth-place team in baseball, and the Orioles remain the industry's baby in a well, where the most help you can offer is to toss a shovel in after them. But that problem of geography is essentially unique to those two teams; teams like the Pirates, Royals, or even the Mariners and Indians have no such excuses, and the opportunity is there for them if they land on better combinations of investment and retention than they have so far.
The other question that deserves at least a nod is asking why twice over: Why the distinction between the leagues, and why parity at all? To address the first question, my own argument would be the parity-perverting impact of the AL East's clash of titans. In the AL West and Central, a lower standard for contention retards the need for taking on the more ambitious target of taking on the power division's big three. Or, if a team is going to make that challenge, it's a product of planning and work over time and good fortune. The Rangers aren't building up to win just this year alone, but picking up Cliff Lee was exactly what they ought to have done to make the most of their opportunity.
Why parity at all, though? My thought here is that its the product of a better-run industry overall, where the distinctions between whatever "smart" clubs are in vogue and whatever "dumb" clubs have become relatively small over time. We can kick clubs like the family-run Orioles or the family-run Pirates or the deliberately disinterested Marlins for their failures, but their brands of hope and faith involve bucks as much as ballgames. At least the Orioles seem motivated to create a long-term plan, to follow where the Rays have already gone, proving that it's possible. And being smart doesn't necessarily mean you always come up smelling like roses. We get examples like the Mariners investing too much meaning in the descriptive power of defensive metrics, or the Rockies' great changeup experiment; being too clever by half carries a heavier penalty in a more competitive environment.
*: Indeed, the phenomenon of the Angels' overperformance relative to their expected record is living a longer life than they are themselves, as they lead the AL by being more than five wins above their expected record.