Is This Age of Competitive Balance Sustainable?

Geography is a powerful force. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, for instance, Jared Diamond argues that geography is the most powerful force to have shaped civilization. Societies that have benefited from favorable geography and access to resources have enjoyed more prosperity than those that have not.

In baseball, geography has mattered quite a bit, too.

Generally, teams residing along the coasts are located in larger markets and enjoy more fans — which means they enjoy more paying customers, more advertising dollars and corporate sponsors, and greater TV deals, too. The Yankees, residing in the game’s largest market, own 27 World Series titles. Teams based in the fly-over country cities of St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Milwaukee, have combined for 32 World Series titles, with the Cardinals alone accounting for 11 of those.

So perhaps the lasting legacy, the top achievement of Bud Selig, was ushering in an era of greater competitive balance that made geography and market size less deterministic. The small-market Royals won the World Series in 2015, and small-market Cleveland was one more timely hit away from doing so last fall. Twenty-one of the sports’ 30 franchises have advanced to the postseason since 2013, and every team has reached the postseason in the 21st century.

In the 1990s, competitive balance, the divide between the large- and small-market clubs, was a frequent talking point. In the latest round of collective-bargaining talks, it was not often the subject of discussion outside caps placed on international spending. For The Hardball Times last month, Gerald Schifman demonstrated objectively that “hope and faith” are at record levels in baseball. The majority of teams enter the season with a plausible path to at least the No. 2 Wild Card. I wrote in 2015, about how fly-over country was no longer irrelevant.

Under Selig, the three-division arrangement in each league separates some of the larger markets from the smaller ones, and the Wild Card — and now expanded Wild Card format — keeps many clubs, even some mediocre ones, in the postseason chase. Over the last 20 years, the sport has added revenue sharing, a luxury tax, created MLB Advanced Media — whose revenues are shared equally — and attempted to ensure the top amateur talent goes to the most needy teams.

The spending gap, while still significant, has shrunk. In 1996, the top-five payroll clubs spent $3.65 for every dollar committed to Opening Day payroll by the bottom five spenders. In 2006, that divide declined to $3.22, and last season to $2.76.

And there have been other parity-driving forces at work, too. MLB has become a younger man’s game. The average age of players has declined since PED testing tied to penalties began in 2004. The average age of a position player last season was 28.4, down from 29.2 in 2002. The average age of a pitcher last season was 28.3, compared to 28.5 in 2002. Thirty-something players account for a lower percentage of the league’s population, which means there are fewer free-agent seasons to buy.

While baseball has implemented parity-promoting mechanisms, the sport, by the nature of its rules and structure, also has some natural competitive-balance shaping elements. As Jayson Stark has noted in recent springs, baseball has more parity than the NFL, which prides itself in part on parity. But unlike football, baseball is, of course, not dominated by one position like the NFL:

“Did you know that Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have been your AFC QB in 12 of the past 13 Super Bowls? And 13 of the past 15? Meanwhile, 143 other distinguished quarterbacks, from Drew Brees to Cleo Lemon, started a game in the AFC over those 15 years. And exactly two of them reached a Super Bowl (Joe Flacco and Rich Gannon).”

(Update: Manning, Brady and Roethlisberger have now appeared in 14 of the last 16 Super Bowls.)

The Patriots’ ability to start Tom Brady at quarterback every game is something equivalent to Clayton Kershaw pitching in 162 games. In the NBA, a star can touch the ball nearly every possession; peak Barry Bonds, meanwhile, was still only recording four or five plate appearances in most games. Only seven major-league players have been worth 10 wins or more in a season since 2001, according to this site’s version of WAR. Thirteen NBA players were worth 10 wins or more last season alone — in a sport that plays half as many games.

So when you combine the inherent nature of the game with some of the other mechanisms put in place under Selig, it might seem that this Golden Age of Competitive Balance could be sustainable. But is it? The rise of the Cubs and Dodgers, along with the impending rise of the Yankees, perhaps suggests there could be a shift in competitive balance, a growing gap between large- and mid- and small-market clubs.

To assess the landscape, I spoke with Baseball America editor John Manuel, who has not only a considerable grasp of prospects and farm systems but also of the game’s history. Manuel believes the game has always operated in cycles with regard to competitive balance. The advent of the draft in 1965 coincided with the end of the great Yankees dynasties of the 1950s and 1960s. Manuel said the early era of free agency, from 1977 to -93, was strewn with parity, featuring no repeat championship clubs until the 1992-93 Blue Jays. But after the strike, the Yankees in the AL – and Braves in the NL (at least in the regular season) – emerged as dominant powers. Manuel suspects there might be another change in cycle.

“What we saw in the NLCS last year, with those two teams, that could be the start of something, a Cubs-Dodgers rivalry that could be very significant for the rest of this decade,” Manuel said “The Cubs are going to be a dynasty. If they don’t win multiple championships, we are going to look back at the Cubs like they’re the ‘86 Mets. Like ‘How did that happen? How did they not win more.’… Who knows what the Yankees are going to do, financially, but I think they are trying to follow the Cubs’ model. A lot of young, talent. They are a top-five farm system for us.

“I do think we are headed [toward less parity].”

One issue threatening parity, Manuel believes, is, ironically, a feature that was created to promote it.

“The biggest thing is the bonus caps,” Manuel said. “In the old system, it could be so advantageous [to practice an over-slotting strategy]. The Pirates and the Royals and those teams that spent, they didn’t just spend on their first-round pick, you could spend $5 million on [second-round pick] Josh Bell. If you have cost control of Josh Bell for five years, and he’s a productive player, that’s just so efficient. I thought the old system was more advantageous for small-market teams. If you decided to spend more on research and development, you could. It was easier to compete at the big-league level and have a good farm system… You win now and the smaller your bonus pool is in the draft and internationally.

“I think, in the history of player development and scouting, every time Major League Baseball has tried to hold down bonuses there are always unintended consequences, like driving up the price of Cuban players… Teams are going to spend money somewhere.”

While the Royals built an excellent system that fueled their back-to-back World Series runs, and included over-slot signings like Wil Myers, they’ve been unable to replenish it.

“They sign Ian Kennedy to try and maintain their ability to contend but in the 2016 draft they don’t have a first-round pick,” Manuel said. “Their system needs it. If they miss on high draft picks it’s harder to rebuild.”

Another issue potentially creates a divide between the financial haves and have nots is that the best practices of forward-thinking, small-market teams like the Indians, Rays, A’s and Pirates have been copied and approximated by other clubs. Rich teams have become more efficient and creative. The largest-of-market clubs, the Yankees, were ahead of the industry on pitch framing. Manuel notes the Cubs have been active in Mexico, a country that is perhaps under-scouted and one in which they can stretch their international dollars after facing penalties and restrictions for exceeding their international spending pool. In Mexico, many players are signed from Mexican League clubs, and the club keeps a significant share of the bonus. Only the percentage of bonus that goes to the player counts against a club’s bonus pool.

If you examine FanGraphs’ projected standings for 2017, of the top 13 win totals, 12 are tied to large-market clubs, with Cleveland representing the lone exception. The six projected divisions winners? The Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, Indians, Nationals, and Red Sox. The Cubs and Dodgers appear to be built for sustained success. The large-market Yankees, Astros, Braves, and Phillies could all be viewed as rising powers.

While most teams have made a recent appearance in the postseason, the longer droughts more often belong to small-market clubs. Will droughts become longer for small- and mid-market clubs? The following table includes all postseason droughts of three-plus seasons, courtesy of someone who was kind enough to carry out the research for Wikipedia:

Longest Postseason Droughts
Team Last appearance Seasons
Seattle Mariners 2001 ALCS 15
Miami Marlins 2003 World Series 13
San Diego Padres 2006 NLDS 10
Chicago White Sox 2008 ALDS 8
Colorado Rockies 2009 NLDS 7
Minnesota Twins 2010 ALDS 6
Arizona Diamondbacks 2011 NLDS 5
Philadelphia Phillies 2011 NLDS 5
Milwaukee Brewers 2011 NLCS 5
Cincinnati Reds 2013 NL Wild Card 3
Atlanta Braves 2013 NLDS 3
Tampa Bay Rays 2013 ALDS 3
SOURCE: Wikipedia

One thing I’ll be watching in 2017 and beyond is if success becomes more strong correlated with market size — and, by extension, with geography. We don’t yet understand all the ramifications of bonus pools and caps, especially as characterized under the new CBA.

We don’t know whether the game will continue to trend younger or if players like Jose Bautista and Mark Melancon are right, and that motivated and health-conscious players will more often beat age curves, and thereby enjoy more free-agent contracts.

We don’t know if teams will continue to have the success they’ve had at locking up young stars to contracts that buy out arbitration and some free agency years. Buying power in the sport has been reduced due to aging trends and club-friendly extensions, but it’s likely that during 2018-19 offseason — when Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Andrew Miller all become free agents — that buying power will become a major story line.

Last summer, Craig Edwards wrote that money is buying wins again in 2016.

While Selig deserves some — perhaps much — credit for restoring hope and faith, Manuel notes that Rob Manfred’s focus appears to be elsewhere. Manfred seems interested in pace of play, on One Baseball, in growing the sport’s popularity and talent base. He seems less concerned with competitive balance. While there’s perhaps little reason to be concerned with competitive balance at the moment, perhaps today’s level of hope and faith is a fragile thing.

While the Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty might have marked a new era of parity, perhaps we’re on the eve of the next dynasty — whether it be of the Cubs, Dodgers, or Yankees. Perhaps we’re approaching an era of super teams after one part of the cycle that was parity-driven.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

newest oldest most voted
srpst23
Member
srpst23

I’m probably looking at the wrong category for the NBA WAR, but after following the link, the category titled “Value over Replacement Player” has no one above 10 wins and only Steph Curry close at 9.8. What category should I be looking at?

srpst23
Member
srpst23

I do see that the “Win Shares” category has 13 people above ten, but wouldn’t the VORP category be a better related to fWAR?

Mattabattacola
Member
Member
Mattabattacola

Even if you use the VORP, the #10 guy Draymond, has a VORP of 5.5, in basically half as many games if you are comparing to baseball. So the 10th guy would *technically* be ahead of Trout if you expanded it to 160 games. And of course Steph would be basically doubling Trouts WAR total.

srpst23
Member
srpst23

Yeah but why would you double it? I’m assuming both stats are calibrated to a league’s season. Arbitrarily doubling the NBA players stat just because their season is shorter doesn’t make much sense to me.

Monsignor Martinez
Member
Monsignor Martinez

And not to mention that a basketball team only has 5 players on the court at a given time, and there are only approximately half the number of players that a MLB team has on a roster.

SubtleSlight
Member
SubtleSlight

Because the length of the season is shorter, each individual game is worth more (and thus each WAR). For instance, if you had only 5 games in a season, a WAR of 2 is massive.

scooter262
Member
scooter262

WAR is a counting stat. 10 wins is 10 wins. To compare between MLB and NBA, you need to double NBA since season is half as long.