There’s room for debate over whether the present mix of super teams and tanking teams is good for baseball.
On the one hand, the Astros-Dodgers World Series last fall — as well as many of the matchups that preceded it — made for compelling theatre. The Astros featured one of the best offenses in MLB history. The Indians’ rotation was the definitely the best by some measures. There’s something to be said for appreciating rare performances in real time. And the field of elite clubs likely to participate in this coming October’s postseason — especially in the American League — promises more of the same.
Meanwhile, teams at the other end of the spectrum are operating rationally. Clubs are best positioned to win by acquiring premium long-term, cost-controlled assets. The best way to do that is by loading up on early draft picks and bonus-pool dollars. Even with the addition of the second Wild Card, few clubs seem interested in sustaining mediocrity.
Still, there can be consequences if too many teams are simply not competitive and the best teams are dominant.
While a frigid April had something to do with attendance woes, gate receipts are still down nearly two million fans, or roughly 5%, from last April 15 through July 23 compared to the same period last season.
Of course, it is difficult to isolate how much effect tanking clubs are having on attendance, as the gate is threatened by other factors, as well: an improved at-home TV experience and the rising cost of tickets, for example — the latter of which has been influenced by the secondary market, which clubs like the Blue Jays have tried to better control.
This contributor is not here to opine on whether the growing void between the best and worst teams is ultimately good or bad for the sport. I will note, however, that we have not often seen such a gap between the best and worst teams.
The standings reveal that, as of Tuesday, the Astros possessed a run differential of +188, the best mark in baseball. The Royals, meanwhile, owned a -188 figure, representing the worst. That felt, to this author, like a sizable gap after just 100 games. Turns out, it is pretty sizable.
The 376-run difference would represent the largest since at least 2003. The 331-run canyon between the Red Sox (No. 2) and the Orioles (No. 29) would qualify as the second-largest gap over that same timeframe. The season is not yet finished, so I suppose it’s possible those gaps close, but that seems improbable. More likely, they keep growing. Since 2003, the only other time the best and worst teams in the majors were separated by 300 runs was in 2003, when the Braves and Tigers finished 311 runs apart.
To think about this another way, for the Royals and Astros to play a game with 50-50 odds on an outcome, the Royals need to be spotted about 3.7 runs to begin the game. That’s staggering.
When expanding this out to include the top five and bottom five teams, the projected run differential of 1,980 runs this season would be the greatest mark of the decade. Some teams have been constructed really well. They’ve made shrewd draft picks and trades. Others have not. The competition gap is stretched as wide as its ever been in the 21st century.
Last October, this contributor wondered if the era of the super team had arrived. All eight teams in the division round of the playoffs had run differentials of plus-100 or better. Now, as Jeff Sullivan noted back in February, not all super teams succeed (see: Nationals, Washington). But what might be even more troubling in team-building philosophy is to consider that not all of these tanking models will lead to success stories. What becomes of the tankers that fail? Perhaps a decade or more of terrible baseball. There’s no guarantee that the Marlins or Padres or White Sox become the next Astros or Cubs. Extreme team-building philosophies are logical and rational in a vacuum. Whether they are more healthy or destructive for the sport is another question.
It’s not clear whether the gap between the best and worst will continue to grow. Maybe the last couple of years represent an outlier, though teams are more and more attempting to operate as efficiently and rationally as possible. No one team is valuing moving from, say, 74 to 77 wins. The gap between the best and worst, at least in the short term, is growing.