Reply All: MLB vs. NBA parity

Every now and again, we’ll steal post an email from a noted sports philosopher. This week, it’s King Kaufman from Salon.com, writing about parity and its discontents.

Re: On parity, sent by King

Baseball doesn’t have parity. There’s obviously a correlation — though hardly 1:1  – between payroll and winning. As you would expect. There’s a correlation between salaries and success in most business, I would gather. Look at the top newspapers, for example. The NY Times pays a lot more than the Oakland Tribune. The problem in baseball is the differing ability of different teams to afford a high payroll over an extended period. That’s an issue that needs to be addressed, but the problem it contributes to — competitive imbalance — is vastly overstated. And it was way, way overstated during the labor wars of the late ’90s early ’00s, when Bud Selig would talk about little else but how unfair baseball’s system was, and the steno pool known as the baseball press dutifully wrote it all down and repeated it. I’m guessing the height of this, around the turn of the century, is roughly when you turned away from baseball because it’s so unfair.

As I showed in this piece, baseball’s competitive balance is roughly on par with the other major sports. Part of that is that the other sports seem more balanced than they are because of the big playoffs. Your team gets a reward fairly often, even if, especially in the NBA, it has virtually no chance of a championship. And what’s funny is the NBA NEVER gets heat about this, the fact that only a small handful of teams, maybe five at the most, have a shot at the championship on opening day, and that pool of teams rarely changes.

Look at the last 10 years in the NBA: Five teams have won the championship. In the last 20 years, only seven teams have. The Lakers, Spurs and Bulls have won 15 of the last 20 titles.

In baseball, eight teams have won the World Series in the last 10 years, and 13 teams have in the last 20. The Yankees have 5 titles, and nobody else has more than 2. Whenever people are arguing for a salary cap, or railing against baseball’s competitive imbalance generally, they run out Selig’s turn of the century line about how fans can *no longer* have any hope of seeing their team win the World Series. The argument was/is that baseball is in some kind of crisis because some teams have no chance. This implies, even when it’s not stated outright, that there was some earlier time when this was not true. But in earlier times, it was way worse. You know the Yankees won 29 pennants in 44 years from 1921-64? They won 14 in 16 years in 1949-64. I could go on at some length about this. The Giants, Cardinals and Dodgers, serially, ruled the NL in similar fashion from 1905-1966, each winning about half the pennants in their two-decade period of dominance. It’s better than it’s ever been to be a fan of everybody that’s not this handful of teams, and still pretty good to be a fan of those four.

The tweet conversation (that sparked this email exchange) started with my friend Patrick saying there was no point rooting for his Cleveland Indians because of the unfair system. The Indians are in a rough period. They’ve only been to the playoffs once in the last nine years. But before their mid’90s run — coinciding with the period when “competitive balance” supposedly became a problem — they hadn’t been to the playoffs in 41 years. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers went 33 years without winning their division, though they went to the playoffs 15 of those years so everything seemed OK. Before the LeBron improvement kicked in, they went 12 years never finishing higher than third, usually lower. But they made the playoffs four times so it didn’t seem so bad till the seven years when they sank to the very bottom. And yet this guy’s talking about how baseball’s too screwed up to follow in Cleveland.

So why don’t the rich teams just rig it? Well, poor management comes into play at times, witness the current Mets and Orioles and, until the last few years, the Phillies. And good management by some teams that are less rich, such as the Twins and even the middle-class Cardinals, who for a long time managed themselves into looking like a rich team. Also, it’s much harder to project performance in baseball. Players in the NBA/NFL drafts are ready to go, and there’s a lot of correlation between the top of the draft and professional success, though even that’s imperfect. In baseball, these guys are years away. Even Buster Posey, a polished college player, took two years to get to the bigs, and everyone’s surprised at how quickly he’s succeeded once there. The top of the baseball draft is littered with failures. There’s a Sam Bowie/Michael Jordan story every year. Several of them. Buster Posey was the 5th overall pick. The top guy that year is stuck in A ball. That’s not at all uncommon. Add in injuries and off years and fluke years and the relative similarity of good and bad teams in the majors — .400 and .600 winning percentages are the rough boundaries, much closer than in the other sports — and there’s a lot of variance. It’s why a team like the Padres can make a run like they did this year. A lot of fun.

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