We all know The Dilemma has an elastic relationship with the truth. This is especially true when it comes to his beloved New York Yankees. So when I saw his post defending the current MLB economic system, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes before I even began reading.
However, except for his misreading a graph that showed a massive disparity between MLB and the NFL as “every sport looks about the same”, I didn’t have enough facts at my disposal to dispute his point. Also, I honestly didn’t know whether or not he was wrong. Given that his team is $50 million above the next highest team in payroll and $120 million above the median for all teams, The Dilemma obviously has a vested interest in the status quo. At the same time, I’m a Cubs fan, so I’m sadly aware that money and success are not synonymous.
The Dilemma is fond of citing the stat that baseball has had eight champions in the past decade as proof that there’s no problem. However, that’s too fluky to be compelling, and says nothing about size of their markets anyway. I also failed to be sold by his stat regarding teams finishing in the top third of regular season standings…each of the sports is too different, in number of games and importance of the regular season, to be compared in that way with any precision. Besides, we are a playoff culture…as much as baseball purists might bemoan it, all most fans care about is their team’s tournament performance. Every sport ends up the same way…with four teams, then two teams, then one team. And, while each sport has different percentages of teams making the playoffs, they all have similar division setups. So, that’s where I focused.
It seems self-evident to me that a salary cap is healthy for a sport. I’m on Team Labor, and I think it helps players get their fair piece of the pie, as long as there is a prescribed minimum percentage of revenues earmarked (as there always is), without endangering the future health of the sport. I also think it’s important that as many teams of possible go into each season with a chance at some measurable success; and, on the flip side, that as few teams as possible are repeatedly hopeless. As a casual fan, it certainly seems to me that is less the case in baseball than basketball or football. But I wanted to see if that’s actually true.
So, I tried to find a way to judge the MLB, NFL and NBA on success by market size. First, I divided each sport into thirds, in order of the size of their metro areas (football has thirty-two teams, so the second two groups have an extra member). Then I looked at the playoff histories over the past decade, to see how big, middle and small market teams fared. Note: these definitions are based on the other teams in the league. One thing that may skew the numbers is that baseball has more double-team markets than any other sport. Also, they compete in larger average markets. For example, the smallest market team in MLB in Milwaukee (39th in the U.S.), while in the NBA it’s Salt Lake (48th) and in the NFL it’s Buffalo (50th – unless you counted Green Bay at 152nd…but Milwaukee is more of their true market). These differences lead to cities being in different categories in different sports. Miami is 11th in MLB, but 6th in the NFL and 10th in the NBA; Boston is 10th in the NFL, but 13th in the NBA and 14th in MLB. Obviously, the Red Sox spend like a big market team…however, their metro size is middle of the road for baseball. What do you want…life is imperfect and I’m not Nate Silver (plus, putting the Red Sox in the middle category actually made baseball’s numbers seem more even).
Getting to the Dance:
There’s nothing worse than rooting for a team that consistently has no chance of making the playoffs. There are many factors that can contribute to this, from Milton Bradley to Jay Cutler. Baseball is the only sport where the size of your market is also a significant factor.
Basketball obviously isn’t part of this category…their ridiculously expansive system means the only team to not make the playoffs over the past decade was the Charlotte Bobcats, an expansion team that made it this year. In football, one team per category didn’t make the playoffs this decade…the smallest market Bills, the mid-range Lions and the big market Texans (an ’02 expansion team, so maybe they get a bit of a pass).
Because fewer teams make the playoffs, more teams have had a decade of futility in MLB. But there’s a noticeable disparity based on market size. Two big market teams have sucked consistently (the Rangers and the Blue Jays), as has one mid-market team (the Nationals, although their nightmarish ownership/move situation might give them a bit of an excuse). Four teams, 57% of the hopeless teams, 40% of the bottom third in market size, haven’t made the playoffs in the past decade (Orioles, Pirates, Reds, Royals). That seems to me a noteworthy number.
Showing Up Strong:
That twice as many teams make the post-season in the NBA than in MLB means playoff participation is hard to compare. However, all the sports have similar division setups: 3 in MLB, 3 in the NBA since 2005, 4 in the NFL since 2002. Winning a division can mean you’re awesome (see AL East) or the best of mediocre teams (see NL Central). However, I’d argue that over the course of a decade in a sport, division wins give a good sense of which teams headed into the playoffs as a legitimate threat, and gives a way to account for regular season performance.
In both the NFL and the NBA, division winners are spread evenly: 29.7%, 34.4%, 35.9% big-to-small in the NFL (since ’02); 32%, 34%, 34% in the NBA. In MLB, 45% of the division winners were big-market teams, 36.7% mid-market teams…and only 18.3% were small-market teams. Again, being in a small market seems significantly detrimental in a measure of success in baseball in a way it isn’t in other sports.
Let’s Get Serious:
Making the playoffs is nice (nicer in baseball where it actually means something). But, regardless of how many rounds come before, the time to get really excited is the Final Four, be it League Championship or Conference Finals. Unlike looking at one championship team a year, this gives some leeway as far as statistical anomaly goes. In this category, MLB doesn’t look quite so bad…but it still loses handily. Again, basketball and football are almost evenly distributed, while only 20% of LCS participants were small-market teams, versus 45% for large-market teams.
Conference/League champs is one of the few measurables where baseball didn’t have the largest percentage of big-market teams involved…50% to 55% for basketball (40% for football). However, it had the smallest proportion of small-market teams make the final playoff series…20% to 30% for the other two.
And, while eight different teams may have won the World Series in the past decade, only one (St. Louis) came from the bottom third in market size. This compared to four champions in football and three champions in basketball.
The Real Problem
The Dilemma might look at the previous sentence and say, “All three of those small-market NBA championships were won by the Spurs, only because they were lucky enough to draft Tim Duncan.” To which I’d say, yes…and that they were able to keep Tim Duncan, which they never would have had they been a baseball team.
My partner, and other baseball apologists, love to point to the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, who made the World Series in 2008, as proof that the system is fine. However, two years later, the team and its fans know that this is the last year they’ll have a chance to win a World Series in the forseeable future. Win or lose, the nucleus of young players they’ve built will be cannabalized by the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, etc. This isn’t necessarily what these players want to do…even if they wish to stay with the community that’s nurtured them, they’d be foolish to leave so much money on the table.
Because of the salary cap, this isn’t a concern in the NFL or NBA…the Spurs can build around Tim Duncan knowing that nobody else can pay him more. If LeBron James leaves the Cavs, it will be because he’s sick of Cleveland or thinks the management sucks, not because another team makes him an offer he can’t refuse. The Colts have been able to build their evil dynasty because they could depend on keeping Peyton Manning…if this were baseball, they would have had a window of a few years before the Giants or Jets broke Indy’s heart (maybe there is an upside to this baseball thing).
60% of large-market baseball teams had multiple division championships over the past decade…only 30% of small-market teams can say the same. Both football and basketball actually had more small-market teams with multiple division wins than any other group.
Only one small-market baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals, had multiple LCS appearances in the last decade, 10% of the baseball teams that can say that. Six teams, 60%, were from big markets. Compare that to 44% small-market/33% large-market in football and 30%/40% in basketball for Conference Finals.
Why is this important? Because the odds are stacked against small-market teams being successful in baseball, as opposed to market size being almost no factor in football and basketball. And the odds are huuugely stacked against a small-market baseball team doing it more than once in a generation. Any team can have a fluky year or build with some good draft picks…but when fans of those teams know that even if they’re lucky the carcass will be picked clean within a couple of years, they have no incentive to care.
Baseball has a huge problem that could be solved with a salary cap. Anybody who tells you different is wearing a Yankees cap.