MLB, NFL Parity: Tell Your Kids To Play Baseball

On Tuesday, we took a quick look at the competitive balance in the MLB, and I made the claim that baseball may have more parity than most leagues, but it also has want of greater balance. During the course of the piece, I made this statement:

The NFL has decided it wants payroll to have essentially no impact on winning, so teams basically trot out the same amount of money every Sunday and hope their money was better-spent. Is that what the MLB wants?

Aft’wards, Paul Swydan pointed out to me that indeed NFL salaries are not flat. Despite their hard cap, their hefty revenue sharing, and their tight spandex pants, the NFL still exhibits nearly a $77M gap between the biggest and lowest payroll — impressive, but still nothing compared to the MLB:

The highest-spending NFL team this year (the Cowboys) have a payroll 2.3 times larger than the lowest-spending (the Buccaneers) franchise. The highest-spending MLB team this year and every year (the New York Yankees) had a payroll a whopping 5.6 times larger than the lowest-spending (the Kansas City Royals) team.

Moreover, whereas the MLB’s payrolls pretty much follow the expectations of the market size, the NFL has much greater payroll flexibility: Three of the top five NFL payrolls are large markets (New York twice and then Dallas), but smaller markets like Green Bay and Indianapolis are still among the biggest spenders — and two of the richest NFL franchises (Washington and Philadelphia) check in at the middle and bottom of the pack. (Interestingly, Tampa Bay is one of the lowest spenders — in both leagues.)

With the MLB, we saw that payroll explained 17% of the variation in wins over the 12 seasons of 2000 through 2012. Unfortunately, too few nerds watch football, so it appears reliable payroll data (like what we have in Cot’s) is harder to find for the NFL. I did, however, manage to acquire 2009 payroll data in addition to the 2011 data shown above (obviously, because the NFL season is still in progress, I don’t want to use 2011 data).

Comparing NFL winning percentage to payroll shows a less steep and more loose relationship than we saw with the MLB:

Naturally, this study would improve with expansive and reliable salary data for the NFL, but given what is available, the results seem intuitive and correct. The NFL has a much narrower gap between its spenders, and the market for player talent in the NFL is much more… complicated.

The MLB is able to slot any player from any team into the same position on their field and Spagett! they’ve got a new asset. In the NFL, the most cookie-cutter non-kicking positions — something between running backs and offensive lineman — can still have vastly different roles depending on the coach’s schemes. So what’s valuable to one team is not necessarily valuable to another.

Anyway, all this leads towards greater inefficiency in the market for NFL players — so I theorize. Tack that onto their league-wide payroll manipulation and you have a league with much great parity than the MLB.

As I noted in my original piece, comparative justice is not really what anyone should strive for. Just because the MLB may seem to have more parity than the NFL (which, of course, the above data does not suggest) does not mean the MLB should be happy with its situation. Fewer poor people die of curable diseases now more than ever in history. Hooray?

I tend to agree with what mike wants win noted in the comments of Tuesday’s piece: “Parity is about hope.”

The odd, quasi-geographical division alignment in the MLB allows for sometimes less-than-great teams to slip into the playoffs, which allows Jayson Stark and defenders of MLB parity (a crowd from which I move further and further away) to suggest small market teams are doing quite well, when in fact, really only ~1 of them (the Rays and sometimes another one, depending on the year) is displaying sustained success.

For most fans of small market teams, they must wait through several seasons of a rebuilding cycle, while New York, Boston, and Chicago fans routinely expect — and probably should expect — playoff potential for each season.

Of course, one of the major takeaways from this, however, should most certainly be this simple fact:

Don’t let your kids play football. Tell your son (or daughter) to play baseball instead.

Why? Well, first and foremost by far: Health reasons. I played football for 11 years, never played a snap in college, but yet have the grindy old knees of a man twice my age. Severe injuries in baseball really, really hurt and can end your playing career, but even common injuries in football can change your life forever or end it prematurely. I love football, but boy, it needs a lot of work on the health front.

Secondly: Money. Holy molly, Carlos Zambrano would be the second-highest paid NFL athlete, behind only Peyton Manning. Of course, I imagine NFL players get many more endorsements, but that doesn’t change the fact that 52% of the contracts on this list went to baseball players.

The comments in Tuesday’s piece were largely productive and mostly excellent. I attempted to address several of them in this piece, but there are a few more I’d like to highlight and open for further discussion.


another interesting question is also whether or not winning is sustainable at lower payrolls. the model for sucking–>garnering draft picks–>winning–>selling off can only last so long, and fleeting success can’t be relied on to fill seats and build a winning team.


I’d advise people to not dig too deeply into the 17% number. The exact number isn’t what linear regression is for. All it really says is what conventional wisdom already thinks – teams with more money will tend to win more often. That’s what I’m taking away from the article. No more, no less.

Exactly, Mac. That’s all I took out of it.

Mac again:

A statistical critique:

Z-scores should only be used on normally distributed data. I started poking around the data set and since 2000 there has definitely been a trend of right-skewed (non-normal) distribution in MLB payroll numbers.

A most excellent observation. I clearly fell prey to a trap I most hate. Honestly, though, during reflection, I could not think of a better alternative to using z-scores. I asked the other writers, and they answered with all these big scary statistical terms.

I’ll be sitting down with a dictionary later today to see if I can’t unravel some of their suggestions.

John Thacker:

…[Linear regression] is also a *terrible* choice as well when the data consists of an enormous clump around a central value plus a small number of outliers far away in the independent variable (salaries).

Essentially the entire result will be determined by whatever the Yankees do. To give a physical analogy, the Yankees are far from the center of mass, so they exert more torque.

Your graph is a textbook example of “when linear regression isn’t that useful a tool.”

I’d like to see the numbers with the Yankees removed.

I will admit, I had the same suspicions as John Thacker — which sounds like an abolitionist’s name. I am a touch surprised to see the coefficient get steeper, though the drop in R-squared does not shock me.


The problem with NFL-style fairness is that baseball ratings and revenues are stronger with good big-market teams, especially the Yankees (1965-75 were awful years for MLB and especially the American League, the NFL zoomed past it). So they want big-market teams to do well, on the other hand, if it gets out of hand with revenue disparity and you have the 1949-64 AL where the Yankees win all but two pennants, the other teams in the league suffer.

Very interesting. I had not though of it this way before. My only contention is that the geographical demographics of America have gone through an immense upheaval since that time, making California a much bigger alternative than it have been previously. If the Yankees go through a cold spell and the three four five, whutevz, Cali teams heat up, it might be a net wash.

Let’s end on that one.

Because I have a legit chance at breaking FanGraphs’ all-time word count record, here’s the data I used for the first chart:

NFL Dallas  $   136.60 New York Yankees  $   202.69
NFL Green Bay  $   129.80 Philadelphia Phillies  $   172.98
NFL New York Jets  $   128.50 Boston Red Sox  $   161.76
NFL New York Giants  $   126.30 Los Angeles Angels  $   138.54
NFL Denver  $   125.00 Chicago White Sox  $   127.79
NFL Houston  $   118.40 Chicago Cubs  $   125.05
NFL Pittsburgh  $   116.00 New York Mets  $   118.85
NFL Indianapolis  $   115.50 San Francisco Giants  $   118.20
NFL Washington  $   115.20 Minnesota Twins  $   112.74
NFL Detroit  $   113.80 Detroit Tigers  $   105.70
NFL Minnesota  $   108.40 St. Louis Cardinals  $   105.43
NFL Tennessee  $   107.40 Los Angeles Dodgers  $   104.19
NFL New Orleans  $   105.20 Texas Rangers  $      92.30
NFL Chicago  $   104.90 Colorado Rockies  $      88.15
NFL Miami  $   103.10 Atlanta Braves  $      87.00
NFL St. Louis  $   102.40 Seattle Mariners  $      86.52
NFL New England  $   102.30 Milwaukee Brewers  $      85.50
NFL Atlanta  $   102.10 Baltimore Orioles  $      85.30
NFL Baltimore  $   101.30 Cincinnati Reds  $      75.95
NFL San Francisco  $   100.90 Houston Astros  $      70.69
NFL Cleveland  $      99.20 Oakland Athletics  $      66.54
NFL Buffalo  $      96.40 Washington Nationals  $      63.86
NFL Cincinnati  $      90.70 Toronto Blue Jays  $      62.57
NFL Oakland  $      85.80 Florida Marlins  $      56.94
NFL San Diego  $      85.80 Arizona Diamondbacks  $      53.64
NFL Arizona  $      83.00 Cleveland Indians  $      49.19
NFL Seattle  $      81.10 San Diego Padres  $      45.87
NFL Philadelphia  $      80.80 Pittsburgh Pirates  $      45.05
NFL Jacksonville  $      78.10 Tampa Bay Rays  $      41.05
NFL Kansas City  $      74.70 Kansas City Royals  $      36.13
NFL Carolina  $      73.00
NFL Tampa Bay  $      59.70

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12 years ago

An interesting counterargument is the guarantee of ANY money, however. In baseball, you need to work your way through the minor leagues first before getting a chance for that big paycheck. Meanwhile, football only has a practice squad, and very few players ever make it on there. Once you’re drafted, you get a fairly decent contract, at least for simpletons like us. So you’re stuck deciding between two things… work harder but with more risk of getting the larger paycheck, or work less for a smaller paycheck but with less risk as well.

12 years ago
Reply to  Bryz

Granted, since NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed, one could argue that their contracts carry more risk than MLB contracts as well.

12 years ago
Reply to  Bryz

Wouldn’t basketball be the hardest due to the lesser number of players per team (15 compared to 25/40)?

12 years ago
Reply to  Bryz

Baseball players tend to get higher bonuses than NFL players, and there is also a much larger amount of baseball players drafted and signed each year. If you want to see some really interesting data, look at NFL bonus spending in total…then look at everyone past the first ten picks. In baseball, players have leverage. If they’re high schoolers, they can take a scholarship to go to college. If they’re college guys, they can typically go back for the senior year, or they have a diploma they can use. Note: while the NCAA has mandates on how often football players are allowed to practice, I talked to many trainers when I was a school, and the actual time for team activities is much more.
Finally, average career of an NFL player? Less than three years.

12 years ago

“or they have a diploma they can use”

That’s a good one.

12 years ago
Reply to  Bryz

It is also worth noting the average span of a players career in every sport. A football player will propably receive pay for far less years in comparison to a baseball player.