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Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Baseball's problem isn't balance

By David Schoenfield
Page 2

A year ago, ESPN.com ran a poll asking fans, "Which is a bigger problem for the future of Major League Baseball?" The voting options were "competitive balance" and "steroids."

The poll results:

50.1% Competitive balance
49.8% Steroids

The ignorance is not bliss.

It's making me cranky.

And don't get me started on the ranting and raging sports talk radio hosts, working themselves into hysterics about baseball's big market/small market/competitive balance problem that is destroying the sport.

And please -- please! -- don't bring up these words from an unnamed prominent national columnist, published a couple weeks ago:

"Thanks to owners with the financial acumen of Mike Tyson, baseball has no salary cap, which means only about 10 teams out of 30 have a chance to win a championship. They know it. We know it. Tibetan monks know it."

Really, Mr. Unnamed Prominent National Columnist? Only 10 teams have a chance to win a championship? Because I'd like to know those 10 teams. The eight teams which made the playoffs last season, right? They must have a chance … and … the Mets and A's? The Blue Jays and Twins? Indians and Giants? Phillies? Cubs? What about the Dodgers? They don't exactly play in a small market or have an uncompetitive payroll, if that's what you're alluding too. And they were just in the playoffs two seasons ago.

I'm up to 17 teams, and I'm not even counting the Marlins, Mariners or Diamondbacks, who have been quite successful in recent years. (The Marlins won the World Series two years ago, with the 25th-highest payroll in the game, or did you forget that?)

The White Sox
Did anyone think the White Sox had a chance to win the championship before last season?
In fact, in looking at the last five World Series champions, I wonder how many of them entered the season with no chance at a championship?

• White Sox: Had made the playoffs just once in the past 10 years.

• Red Sox: Hadn't won a World Series in 86 years.

• Marlins: Had finished below .500 the previous five seasons.

• Angels: Hadn't made the playoffs in 16 seasons and were coming off a 77-85 season.

• Diamondbacks: Expansion team in only its fourth year of existence.

The point, I think, is that Mr. Unnamed Prominent National Columnist doesn't actually believe only 10 teams have a chance to win a championship (he probably just got a little lazy and didn't bother researching the statement). His real point, of course, is that Major League Baseball doesn't offer the same competitive balance as the NFL or the NBA -- you know, leagues with salary caps.

And, as shown by the ESPN.com users who thought competitive balance was a bigger problem than steroids, it's an easy conclusion to make. Baseball has no salary cap, the other two leagues do, the Yankees spend more money on their mop-up relievers than some teams do on their entire payroll … aha! Baseball has an enormous problem that football and basketball don't.

But is that really the case? Do the results actually back up the perception?

Consider these facts:

• Baseball has had five different World Series champs the past five seasons.

• The NFL has had one team win three of the past five Super Bowls.

• Baseball has had six different teams win the World Series the past 10 seasons, and 13 different teams reach the World Series.

• The NFL has had seven different teams win the Super Bowl the past 10 seasons, and 14 different teams reach the Super Bowl.

• The NBA has had four different teams win the NBA Finals the past 10 seasons, and 10 different teams reach the NBA Finals.

• The National League has had eight different champions the past eight seasons.

Hmm, no competitive balance "edge" for the NFL there. The NBA has had far less diversity in its champions and Finals participants than the other sports.

Maybe the perception is that the NFL playoffs are less predictable; after all, didn't the sixth-seeded Steelers just win the Super Bowl?

Consider this, looking at where the win-loss record over the past 10 seasons of each sport's champion (and runner-up) ranked on average among all teams in the sport:

Average World Series winner's record among all teams: 4.2
Average World Series loser's record among all teams: 4.1
Average Super Bowl winner's record among all teams: 2.6
Average Super Bowl loser's record among all teams: 2.9
Average NBA Finals winner's record among all teams: 1.8
Average NBA Finals loser's record among all teams: 4.6

Tim Duncan
More than in the other leagues, the same few teams -- like the Spurs -- seem to dominate the NBA from year to year.
Hmm … the Major League Baseball playoffs are actually far less predictable than the other sports. While the NFL has had just three Super Bowl winners that didn't have the best or second-best record in the league (the '05 Steelers were tied for fifth, the '01 Patriots sixth, and the '97 Broncos fourth) and the NBA has had just one champ that didn't have one of the two best records (the '04 Pistons were sixth), baseball has had just two World Series champs which did have the best or second-best record ('05 White Sox and '98 Yankees).

Maybe the argument is that baseball has less competitive balance because the same teams make the playoffs every year -- fewer teams "have a chance" to make the playoffs?

I checked the past 10 seasons to see how many playoff teams had also made the playoffs the previous season:

MLB: 46 of 80, 57.5 percent
NFL: 61 of 120, 50.8 percent
NBA: 121 of 160, 75.6

A slight edge goes to the NFL here, although it's not as drastic as you probably expected; the NBA has the highest percentage of repeat playoff teams.

Of course, the leagues have different numbers of teams that make the playoffs, so let's make a more direct comparison by adding four more MLB "playoff" teams per season (the next two best records in each league) and subtract four NBA teams per season (the worst two playoff records in each conference):

MLB: 76 of 120, 63.3 percent
NFL: 61 of 120, 50.8 percent
NBA: 83 of 120, 69.2 percent

The NFL fares better here; it does have a higher turnover rate of playoff teams from season to season.

The implication here might be that baseball is loaded down at the bottom with "no chance" teams, those held back by baseball's lack of a salary cap -- the Pirates, Royals, Devil Rays, Brewers and so on; and, in fact, none of those teams have made the playoffs the past 10 seasons.

But here are some other facts:

• Six NFL teams have made zero or one playoff appearance the past 10 seasons: the Texans (who, to be fair, have only been around for four years), Bengals, Saints, Cardinals, Browns and Chargers.

• Ten MLB teams have made zero or one playoff appearances the past 10 seasons -- the Reds, Devil Rays, Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, Phillies, Expos/Nationals, Pirates, Brewers and Rockies. (All have actually made zero appearances, although the Reds tied for the wild card in 1999 and lost the tiebreaker game.)

Again, however, more teams make the NFL playoffs than the MLB playoffs. If we adjust to give MLB 12 playoff spots per year like the NFL, we end up with eight teams that that would have made the playoffs zero times (Devil Rays, Tigers, Royals, Pirates and Brewers) or once (Expos/Nationals, Rockies and Reds).

One more thing: If we make a list of teams with two or fewer playoff seasons, the NFL adds the Lions, Chiefs, Redskins and Bears -- a total of 10 "crummy franchises." In MLB, under the mythical 12-playoff-teams scenario, the Orioles and Phillies would be added to the list of two or fewer playoff seasons -- for a total of 10 "crummy franchises." In the NBA, there would be eight teams with two or fewer playoff appearances (Bucks, Raptors, Cavs, Wizards, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Clippers and Warriors).

The bottom line: The crummy teams in the NFL and the NBA are just as crummy as those in Major League Baseball.

In baseball, of course, the conventional excuse is that teams like the Pirates and Royals don't win because there is no salary cap. But …

• A salary cap hasn't helped the Bengals, who finally made the playoffs last season after 14 consecutive years without a winning record.

Kurt Warner
The salary cap hasn't helped the Arizona Cardinals much, that's for sure.
• A salary cap hasn't done much to help the Arizona Cardinals, who have had one winning season in 21 years.

• A salary cap hasn't done much for the Lions, who have five straight seasons of 10 or more losses and not a single 10-win season since 1995.

• A salary cap hasn't helped the Saints, who have made the playoffs once in the past 13 seasons.

• A salary cap hasn't done much for the Chargers, who have won more than nine games a grand total of one time since they made the Super Bowl in 1994.

• And a salary cap hasn't done much for the plethora of NBA teams that haven't come close to sniffing an NBA title since before LeBron James was born.

Look, I'm not arguing the Royals are competing on the same playground as the Yankees. Of course they're not.

But that's a different argument than saying baseball lacks competitive balance compared to football or basketball. That simply isn't true.

The Oakland A's are proof that baseball's lack of a salary cap shouldn't be used as an excuse; and teams like the Cardinals, Saints, Lions, Warriors and Clippers are proof that a salary cap doesn't ensure increased competitive balance.

Baseball's biggest story? It's not that most teams have "no chance." It's that this season is wide, wide open.

David Schoenfield is the lead editor of Page 2.