Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Baseball and Competitive Balance
By Zach

As I was perusing ESPN.com's Page 2 (a somewhat guilty pleasure, I admit), a piece by David Schoenfield caught my eye. His contention: that despite most claims to the contrary, competitive balance in baseball wasn't a problem, or at least wasn't moreso than in the other two major sports.

Now, since this is something I completely disagree with, I thought I'd take a look. As usual, Schoenfield advances several faulty lines of logic to support his position. First, he attacks a claim that "only 10 of the 30 teams" can win a championship this year. He suggests that each of the eight playoff teams from last year easily could. I'll grant you the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, Angels, Cardinals, and Braves. The Astros don't strike me as a particularly strong team, but they were in the World Series a year ago. The Padres barely made the playoffs, and clearly didn't belong there. I wouldn't consider them at all likely to win the Series.

So there's seven teams. Let's add the Mets, Athletics, Blue Jays, and Indians. We're up to 11. Schoenfield suggests the Dodgers (marginal) Twins (marginal), the Phillies (marginal), the Giants (not happening), and Cubs (same). Oh, and he says the Marlins, Mariners, and Diamondbacks, because they've "been quite successful in recent years." Umm...the Marlins sold off all their talent, and the Mariners and Diamondbacks were both below .500 last year. Being exceedingly generous, there are 14-15 teams who could concievably dream of a World Series title. Which means half the league has been eliminated before the season begins.

Now that, in and of itself, isn't much different than the other sports. After all, it's not like NBA and NFL champs come out of nowhere (well, at least not often). But there are two key differences. The first is that it's harder to reverse a franchise's fortunes in baseball than it is in football or basketball. NBA teams are one superstar in the draft away from being a marquee franchise (see the Cavaliers), while NFL teams can always lure players with the promise of free agent dollars. Since teams share revenue, and are limited in how much they spend, the wealthiest owners can't push around the rest of the league like they do in baseball.

Schoenfield points out that certain teams in the NFL and NBA have been bad just as long as the Tigers, or Royals, or Rockies. And he's right, the Bengals (before this year), the Cardinals, and the Clippers (again, before this year) have been pathetic. But here's the major difference. They were pathetic for more acceptable reasons (poor drafting, poor player development, bad decisions in free agency, bad luck) than because the playing field wasn't level. No other major sport would even dream of one team spending 6-8 times as much as another, yet that's the reality in baseball.

Take the Expos/Nationals. They've developed as much, if not more, talent over the last 10-15 years as any organization in baseball. Yet, because there's no revenue sharing (at least not meaningful revenue sharing), and no salary cap, they saw all their top players (Larry Walker, John Wettland, Pedro Martinez, Vlad Guerrero, Javy Vazquez, etc.) chase the free agent bucks elsewhere. Then, baseball has the nerve to blame the fans in Montreal for not supporting the team.

Or take the more successful Oakland Athletics. They should be the model franchise in the league. Their innovative approach to player development and acquisition should have given them a leg up on more conventional teams. Instead, their inability to compete financially for their top players (Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, etc.) has forced them to either trade those players, or let them walk via free agency. Their superior skills in player acquisition have merely allowed them to stay competitive, instead of winning them rings.

No matter what the sport, and no matter what the salary cap status, teams will always be bad, and good. Some will have reigns of dominance, and some will have eras of incompetance. That's the way sports work. The problem with baseball is that the reasons behind a team's sucess or failure often have little to do with the team itself. Baseball's biggest problem isn't steroids, it's that fans in Colorado, Arizona, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Washington, Florida, Philadelphia, Seattle, Texas, Kansas City, Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Baltimore might as well start talking about the offseason. And it's not even Opening Day.

3 Comments:

Blogger Matt Brown said...

Zach, in a way I agree with you and in a way I don't. I think that, given baseball's recent history, you are signifcantly overestimating the number of teams truly out of it before the season starts. MLB has had five different champions since the Yankees won in 2000, and three of those five (the '02 Angels, '03 Marlins and '05 White Sox) were certainly not listed among the favorites before the season they won it all.

Some teams have better chances than others, of course, but the only clubs I'd tag as TRULY out of it before Opening Day this year are the Royals, Reds, Pirates, Devil Rays, Marlins, and maybe the Orioles. Among the other teams there are longshots to be sure, but nobody I'd say is exactly out of the running before they play. The entire NL West is so weak that any of the clubs could conceivably win the division, and once you reach the postseason anything can happen in a short series with a hot pitcher or two.

The facts above alone demonstrate how MLB is a vastly superior product to the NBA (I won't argue it's superior to the NFL, because it's not). The 16-team, seemingly four-month-long NBA playoffs are a farce. I cannot remember in my lifetime when a true cinderella team won the NBA title. This year's champion will be the Spurs, Mavs, Suns or Pistons. Case closed, end of story.

On the other hand, you do have a point in that baseball has a system which still needs fixing. Because the 30 teams can play by different rules as far as their strategies for assembling teams. Steinbrenner's money ensures the Yankees WILL contend each year. Another handful of teams are rich enough that they are highly probable contenders each season unless they blatantly screw something up or run into terrible luck. Then you've got franchises like the A's and Nats, who keep losing their talent, and the Marlins, who spend several years building up a young contender which they can then rip apart.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

But the reason that teams in the NBA are good isn't just because they can spend more money (ie the Knicks). It's because they either luck into a franchise player (Spurs, though they did a great job in getting guys like Parker and Ginobili), or have a shrewd eye for talent (the rest of that group, basically). In baseball, your farm system can suck (Yankees), and you can still win because you go buy players. Not every big market team wins, and not every small market team loses...but just look at the NBA...San Antonio (the city) is tiny, and they won the title last year. Even the "surprise" WS champs came from three of the biggest cities in the country (LA, Miami, and Chicago).

And I'd rather have a league where you might know who the top few teams are, but where those teams are on top because they do better within the rules than the system baseball has.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Zach a couple of things:

First off, I'd hesitate to compare baseball to the NFL for this specific reason; I'd argue the 16 game schedule is the true reason for parity in that league. If the baseball regular season was only sixteen games then you would see teams like KC or Pittsburgh do well every five years or so because anyone can get hot for nine or ten games.

Of course there is certainly truth to the argument teams can't keep talent. But outside of the extreme example of the Expos (and part of that was a deliberate strip mine attempt by MLB), there are few teams who can't keep any of their stars. Most of baseball's garbage piles are that because they are ineptly run; just look what the KC Royals have done in the last few years. One dumb move after another. The Marlins were unfortunately strip mined ala Montreal, but they have won two WS in the past ten years. That isn't bad.

The NBA on the other hand, as you said, is as much luck as it is skill. Sure, Joe Dumars is a great GM for constructing the Pistons, but does Greg Popovich deserve credit for lucking into Tim Duncan? Or the Cavs in a few years for falling into LeBron James?

Bottom line, competative balance in MLB isn't as bad as people think. If they played sixteen games or let half the teams in the league make the postseason, it would look a lot like the NBA or NFL.

11:15 PM  

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