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The following is a junk column. Please indulge me…

The competitive-balance wailing–once as persistent, irksome and difficult to mollify as an incontinent toddler riding coach on a transatlantic red eye–has waned in recent times, thanks mostly to the Marlins and Angels and the more salacious media distractions found within the steroids issue. Still, once the music starts swelling on the current collective bargaining agreement, you can expect Selig and his charges to solemnly drone on about how more must be done to ensure that everyone gets to hang out with the cool kids of the AL East.

One tiresome and mundane quip columnists and pundits often trot out when this issue is foregrounded every couple of years is that Major League Baseball needs to be more like the NFL. I take this to mean crappier uniforms, roughly 12 minutes of action per game, a less meaningful regular season and inscrutable financial schema. But what the talking heads really mean is more competitive balance. Smarter people than I have cut this argument to ribbons, but I would like to point out that what passes for noble egalitarianism in the NFL is really just structural distinction. By that I mean, the NFL has a players union that’s weaker than sun-toasted Bud Light, and they play 16-game schedule, from which they award 12 playoff spots. MLB, of course, plays a 162-game slate, which much more ruthlessly divides wheat and chaff, and doles out only eight playoff spots.

With those differences in mind, let’s see how the MLB would’ve fared over the last five seasons–the reputed dark age of competitive balance–had they been playing by the NFL’s rules. For each season, I’ll note the division winners with an asterisk and list the six “NFL-style” playoff teams for each league. Since MLB has only three divisions in each league, I’ll pass out three Wild Cards instead of two, with all tiebreakers being decided by run differential.

The key is that, with the help of the inestimable Retrosheet, I’ve pulled the standings from the 16-game (or as close as I could get to it for the majority of the teams) point in each season. That way, we better approximate the NFL’s setup. For 2004, we’re not quite to the 16-game line of demarcation just yet, but, well, whatever. Let’s see what comes out of the wash…


2004
AL               NL
Red Sox 9-5*     Marlins 11-4*
Twins 10-5*      Astros 9-6*
A's 9-6*         Dodgers 10-4*
Orioles 8-5      Cubs 9-6
White Sox 8-6    Braves 8-6
Tigers 9-7       Reds 8-6

2003
AL                NL
Yankees 13-3*     Expos 9-7*
Royals 12-3*      Cubs 11-6*
Mariners 10-7*    Giants 14-2*
Red Sox 11-5      Cardinals 9-6
White Sox 10-6    Rockies 10-7
Twins 9-7         Astros 9-7

2002
AL                NL
Red Sox 10-4*     Mets 10-7*
Indians 11-5*     Pirates 10-5*
Mariners 13-4*    Giants 11-5*
Twins 11-6        Dodgers 10-7
White Sox 10-6    Diamondbacks 10-7
Yankees 11-7      Expos 9-8

2001
AL                NL
Red Sox 12-5*     Phillies 9-6*
Twins 12-3*       Cubs 11-5* 
Mariners 13-4*    Giants 10-6
Blue Jays 12-5    Astros 9-6
Indians 9-6       Rockies 9-7
Yankees 10-7      Reds 9-7

2000      
AL                 NL
Yankees 11-4*      Braves 10-6*
White Sox 10-6*    Cardinals 11-6*
Mariners 9-6*      Diamondbacks 12-5*
Orioles 10-5       Dodgers 9-6
Red Sox 9-6        Expos 9-7
Indians 9-6        Mets 9-7

Some ruminations, bullet-pointed because I care:

  • Over these five seasons, every team in the league made the playoffs at least once except for five: the Devil Rays, Rangers, Angels, Brewers and Padres. In other words, under an NFL playoff and scheduling arrangement, 83.3% of the league would’ve made at least one playoff appearance over the last five seasons. I’m told they call that “balance.”
  • So how far back must we go before the aforementioned five make an appearance in the post-season? Well, the Rangers win the down-cycled division in 1999 with an 8-8 record, and the D-Rays at 10-7 garner a Wild Card berth that same season. In ’98, the Padres at 14-3 and the Brewers at 11-5 both win their divisions. The Angels, meanwhile, would’ve passed Wild Card muster with a 9-8 record in 1996. In the NFL, by way of comparison, the Chargers haven’t made the playoffs since 1995, and the Bengals have been skunked since 1990.
  • Most playoff appearances: the Red Sox with five. The White Sox, Yankees, Mariners and Twins all logged four apiece. No team in the NL had more than three. And I’m sure that all of Jonah’s woes for his blighted hometown nine will vaporize once he learns that the Expos are one of those teams. They’re joined by the Giants, Astros, Dodgers and Cubs.

Obviously, this isn’t an ideal comparison across leagues (for one, NFL teams probably average 12 or so different opponents over 16 games, whereas the MLB teams above play between four and six different opponents over that same span), but it isn’t meant to be. It is meant to demonstrate that comparing the NFL’s competitive balance to that of MLB is odious. It’s not just apples and oranges; it’s apples and solenoids. Or something like that.