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By now we’ve all heard the predictions of doom for Major League Baseball.
Many sportswriters have solemnly declared that the player compensation
structure of the game is fundamentally broken and that only a few teams can
compete these days.

The 1998 season was declared to be a model of what we would see in the
future, with high-spending teams like the Yankees perpetually threatening
to set records for most wins in a season while small spenders like the
Marlins–members of the big-spending-menace society just the year
before–would be condemned to a miserable existence, finishing 40 games or
more out of first place every year.

However, a funny thing has happened along the way to Armageddon. The 1998
season has turned out to be a fluke instead of a trend.

After Monday’s games, the Chicago White Sox held the majors’ best record
with a winning percentage of .601, while the Phillies and Cubs were at the
low end of the scale with a .413 winning percentage. At first glance it
certainly looks like a very small spread between first and worst; barring a
phenomenal September run, no team is going to win 100 games, and no one is
even close to a 100-loss pace. That alone suggests that this is a somewhat
unusual season, but a little research shows that it actually is a notably
competitive year.

If the current pace holds, the .188 spread between best and worst teams’
winning percentage would be the second smallest ever. Keith Woolner has
done some sorting on the records and the 16 smallest spreads are shown here.

Year    Teams   High    Low   Diff

1900 8 .603 .435 .168 1958 16 .597 .396 .201 1959 16 .610 .409 .201 1982 26 .586 .370 .216 1992 26 .605 .389 .216 1997 28 .623 .401 .222 1987 26 .605 .377 .228 1968 20 .636 .404 .232 1984 26 .642 .407 .235 1990 26 .636 .401 .235 1983 26 .611 .370 .241 1966 20 .606 .364 .242 1999 30 .636 .394 .242 1947 16 .630 .383 .247 1989 26 .611 .364 .247 1994 28 .649 .402 .247

What this in fact shows is that this could be the most competitive year
since the American League was formed. There has never been a season with no
teams above the .600 level and no teams below the .400 level, but there is
a very reasonable chance it could happen this year.

The other thing that jumps out of this table is that something clearly has
changed in recent years. Ten of the most competitive seasons have occurred
since 1983. As the table shows, one factor that has changed is the number
of teams in the majors. However, with everything else being equal,
increasing the number of teams would actually increase the expected spread
between the best and the worst. (Thanks to reader Tom Love for confirming
this particular fact.) So the narrowing of the gap that we have seen in
recent years is actually more significant than it would seem at first glance.

If expansion is not responsible for increase in competitiveness, then what
is? As much as it might irritate the Chicken Littles of the world, the
biggest change in baseball in the recent past is the development of the
free-agency system, and the results certainly would indicate that the
system has actually helped the competitive balance in the majors. In fact
it appears to have helped greatly. The teams that are always in the
playoffs (the Braves, Yankees and Indians) are there because they have
figured out how to properly use the system to their advantage. That should
be applauded, not regarded as a sign of disaster.

Jeff Hildebrand can be reached at jhildebrand@baseballprospectus.com.

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