I wanted to let this rest. I really did. I argued that baseball doesn’t need a salary cap. David Simon Cowell argued that it does. I should let my original data and arguments speak for themselves. But I can’t do that.
You see, the burden of proof is on me. Most people think that baseball needs a salary cap. They think that would be more fair. If you look at the issue on the surface, the idea appeals to common sense. If every team had the same spending limit, every team’s chances would be the same, right? Similarly, Mr. Cowell’s argument makes a lot of sense – as long you don’t peek beneath the surface and try to apply logic to his data points.
So I guess now that we’re going back to the well on this, we have to slap it with the ol’ 2 Idiots Debate tag.
Understand this about David Simon Cowell: he’s not much of a baseball fan. He vastly, vastly prefers the NFL and NBA (and maybe cricket) to baseball. We’ve had many long, pointless arguments about baseball vs. the NFL and baseball vs. the NBA. So if I, as a Yankees fan, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, DSC has a vested interest in making Major League Baseball look bad, especially in contrast to his beloved pro football and basketball leagues. But really, David, shouldn’t you be making a snarky comment on the Free Darko message boards rather than trying to tussle with the big boys regarding a sport about which you proudly profess ignorance?
There are two real issues at stake here:
1. There is no real problem for a salary cap to solve. Competitive balance in baseball is just fine, both for what baseball is and in comparison to other sports.
2. A salary cap wouldn’t address competitive balance in any meaningful way, even if you believe a problem does exist.
Which Data Matters: Playoffs or Regular Season?
There’s a lot to dissect here, but let’s start with the basics. David Simon Cowell presented a set of data, which is perfectly fine, albeit cherry-picked. But he did absolutely nothing to disprove or discredit my original data in any meaningful way.
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.
So judging teams on their regular season is somehow invalid, but judging them on playoff appearances and playoff success is OK? Each of the sports have different playoff structures too, and allows a different number of teams in, so how can those then be compared with any precision?
That argument is specifically biased against baseball, the sport with the longest, most important regular season, and the sport where playoff success tends to be the flukiest. Regular season success is by far the truest indicator of a team’s quality and the most fair way to judge team success across sports. Finishing with a record in the top third of your league over the long haul is as fair an indicator of any as success, as it disregards the randomness of the playoff selection process. If the Red Sox win 95 games this year, but finish behind the Yankees and Rays, that’s still a very successful season, but they will have missed a playoff spot by an arbitrary division setup. It’s the same way in the NFL when an 8-8 team can win a division, while a 10-6 team might miss out on a Wild Card spot. Playoff selection is too inherently biased to judge anything upon. Give me the 162-game regular season over 15 playoff games, or the 16-game regular season over 3 playoff games. To truly discern how good a team is, you can’t judge them on small sample size when a hot or cold streak takes on far too much importance.
What else, David?
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.
Well, we could just account for regular season performance by regular season performance. Too simple?
Plus, being a division winner doesn’t have a direct correlation to being a threat in the playoffs, at all. Ask the winner of the A.L. Central the last few years, or see how the winners of the NBA Eastern Conference did in the Finals in the first half of the last decade. That’s why the past decade saw three MLB Wild Card teams win the World Series, even though only two of eight teams that make the baseball playoffs get in as Wild Cards.
DSC also claims that I misread the chart that provided key evidence supporting my argument. Considering I made the chart, and considering it’s the first chart I made since 5th grade, so I put extra special care into it, I’m reasonably confident I understand my own research. But to be sure, I’ve taken a couple quick chart-reading classes at the University of Phoenix. And we’re all good.
DSC is most likely confused by the outlier that the NFL had 7 teams finish with a top-ten record thrice in the last decade. All that means is that the NFL had a slightly larger group of teams finish with a good record a few times, while the other sports had slightly larger groups finish with good records a little more often. That’s not exactly a “massive disparity” between the NFL and MLB. The chart shows that each major sport, even while small variations exist between sports, has a small upper class of teams that win all the time, and larger middle and lower classes of teams that don’t win nearly as often.
And Cowell treats it as a throwaway point when presenting his playoff data, but the fact that fewer teams make the playoffs in baseball makes a big difference in a given team’s chances of making the playoffs, rendering statistical playoff comparisons between baseball and those other sports meaningless. It’s supposed to be hard to get to the playoffs in baseball. That’s the whole point of the 162-game season, and that’s part of baseball’s allure to those who truly appreciate the sport. So if 40% of baseball’s smaller market teams haven’t made the playoffs in a decade, that’s not as big a number as it seems, since only 26% of baseball teams even make the playoffs per season. And remember, this is a sport that only sent two teams total to the playoffs until 1969, so baseball fans of today see their teams in the playoffs a hell of a lot more than did generations past.
As Joe Sheehan explains in Sports Illustrated,
For 17 years, the words “competitive balance” have been held over baseball like the hammer of Thor. From Selig’s injection of the term into collective bargaining to the cries of media who have never grasped the economics of sports to the relentless praise of the NFL by its partners, competitive balance has been cited as one of pro football’s biggest advantages over baseball. Every team has a chance to win in football, every season allows more teams to contend, no teams start the season without “hope and faith,” and rarely are teams locked into postseason berths when camps break.
That balance, however, is merely an illusion created by the structure of the two leagues. The NFL never has baseball’s September, never sees half the league playing out the string over the final sixth of the schedule, because when you play 16 games, you simply cannot get that kind of separation. By having just 16 games, the chance to recover from a bad start or a critical injury is limited; witness the Patriots, who had a perfect regular season in 2007, but missed the playoffs the next year after quarterback Tom Brady was injured in the season opener. On the flip side, winning a few close games has a disproportionate effect on your record when you play just 16 times. Last year the Cincinnati Bengals outscored their opponents by just 14 points in total, but by winning three early games by a field goal each, two of them road games over divisional rivals, they set the stage for a 10-6 campaign and a division title.
Market Size Vs. Payroll
But Cowell’s data isn’t just flawed in terms of his misguided use of playoff success vs. regular season success, he also makes a mistake categorizing all teams by market size.
First of all, I can’t trust any argument that claims the Boston Red Sox are a mid-market team and the Toronto Blue Jays are a large market team in baseball. That right there shows that we’re not dealing with the correct set of data. Toronto may be a big city, but it’s not a big baseball market. There’s a huge difference. Even if mis-categorizing them as such helps my initial argument by giving mid-level teams more wins, it’s just not accurate. Baseball teams can’t be categorized strictly by the size of their metro areas, because population size isn’t the sole factor in a team’s payroll. For example, the Cubs have massive revenues and have had big payrolls to match the last few seasons. The White Sox, even though they’re in the same exact city, don’t operate like a big-market club. Their revenues and payrolls are much smaller.
How much teams can spend depends on various revenue streams. Market size is a factor, sure, but just one factor. (Moreover, you can’t even judge market size by metro area population, as DSC did; what matters to the teams is size of the TV market, and that’s a whole different animal.) It also matters if teams own their own TV networks, if their owners have a legitimate desire to win, if they play in a baseball-first city like St. Louis or a who-gives-a-fuck-about-baseball city like Dallas. That’s why the entirety of DSC’s statistical argument is invalid: market size is not the proper indicator to use when judging success.
According to Baseball by the Numbers (and I trust the research abilities of the BBTN guys about ten thousand times more than I trust my own or DSC’s), there’s only a .11 correlation factor between market size and playoff appearances (meaning market size accounts for .11 of the cause of a team making the playoffs ; the data is from 1995-2005, a different ten-year data set than what we’ve covered here, but no less valid for occurring five years sooner. There was still no salary cap in place in the ‘90s.) In the words of Neil de Mause, “anyone who’s tempted to place bets on division winners based solely on TV market size is kidding himself.”
The Salary Cap As Snake Oil
But where David Simon Cowell really goes off the rails is in his argument about how the lack of a salary cap handicaps small payroll teams.
Cowell claims that the small-market Spurs were only able to keep Tim Duncan because of the salary cap, and that such a thing could never happen in baseball. (And for the moment, we’ll ignore the fact that one player is much, much, much more important to a basketball team than a baseball team.) In the last five years, there’s been a growing trend in baseball of small payroll teams locking up their superstars to long-term deals while they’re young. Tampa Bay locked up Evan Longoria. Washington locked up Ryan Zimmerman. Even the Marlins locked up Hanley Ramirez. The only reason that didn’t happen sooner is because most baseball front offices were filled with morons (the exceptions being the mid-‘90s Indians teams and Billy Beane’s A’s). Nothing was preventing it other than a little forward thinking. Even teams like the Yankees would benefit from buying out their young stars’ arbitration years and early free agency. Also, um, didn’t the small-market Twins just sign Joe Mauer to a $180 million deal?
DSC also betrays his lack of baseball knowledge when he claims that Tampa Bay’s window of opportunity is about to close. That couldn’t be further from the truth (And really, it was this claim that compelled me to write this entire response after more than a week of avoiding it, not wanting to belabor a point and spend too much time on one topic. I can deal with a difference of opinions on the fairness of salary caps and market size, but I can’t let it slide when those opinions are backed by evidence that is nakedly wrong). The only key players the Rays will lose after this year are Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford (and there’s a chance they’ll keep him), and they happen to have a Carl Crawford clone named Desmond Jennings waiting at AAA. They’ll still have Longoria, BJ Upton, Ben Zobrist (one of the most valuable players in baseball last year, and a player who Tampa just locked up through 2016), Jason Bartlett, David Price, Wade Davis, James Shields, and several more five-star prospects ready to make an impact. They’ll also have money to spend if Pena and Crawford leave (not to mention high draft picks to re-stock for the future), especially considering Pat Burrell’s bad contract is also coming off the books.
Cowell uses Tampa as proof that baseball has a competitive balance problem, when in fact they’re proof of the exact opposite. Tampa will be in contention for years to come, assuming health and continues good decision-making. If a team in Tampa, less than 20 years since their inception, playing in a relic of a dome in front of few fans, can succeed, literally any team can succeed.
Teams like Tampa and Minnesota are proving that small payroll teams can compete year in and year out, as long as intelligent people are in charge. Oakland competed for the better part of a decade, and when they faltered, it was because of bad trades, not money.
Do high payroll teams have an advantage in baseball? Of course. Baseball’s system isn’t perfect. None of the sports has a perfect system. But my initial point was that a salary cap won’t make the system perfect; all it will do is help out miserly owners by limiting salaries.
Every single sport has haves and have-nots. Baseball’s classes might correlate more closely to market size than the other sports. But in every single sport, there’s a correlation between payroll and success.
Last year’s Top 10 NBA payrolls, with winning percentage: Knicks (.390), Cavs (.805), Mavericks (.610), Trailblazers (.659), Celtics (.756), Lakers (.793), Suns (.561), Rockets (.646), Bulls (.500), Pistons (.476). That’s two losing teams out of 10.
Same deal with baseball: Yankees (.636), Mets (.432), Cubs (.516), Red Sox (.586), Tigers (.528), Angels (.599), Phillies (.574), Astros (.457), Dodgers (.586), Mariners (.525). Two losing teams out of 10.
And the NFL: Giants, Dolphins (.438), Texans (.563), Saints (.813), Bears (.438), Jets (.563), Steelers (.563), Cardinals (.625), Chargers (.813), Packers (.688). You guessed it – two losing teams out of 10.
Teams that spend money win. That’s true across all sports. Even with salary caps, teams with smaller revenues or cheap owners are not going to spend to the cap’s ceiling. Ask the Clippers. Ask the Grizzlies. Ask the Browns. The fact that there’s a stronger correlation between market size and payroll in baseball is utterly irrelevant. All that does is change a few of who the “haves” are. If anything, it’s a plus for baseball. Teams that win in big markets means more money for the entire sport, not to mention more happy fans. Check out the ratings when the Yankees play the Red Sox on ESPN, vs. when the Twins play the Rays. Is it better to have 10 million happy fans in Chicago or 2 million in Kansas City? I’ll take the 10 million.
Furthermore, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg element to spending and winning, as Baseball Between the Numbers also points out. Winning begets more ticket and merch sales, which begets more winning. It’s one of the reasons the Red Sox are so flush with cash: they wouldn’t be selling out Fenway Park 500+ straight games without that ’04 World Series win. There’s a link between money and winning, and a smaller link between market size and winning, but we can only prove a correlation, not a causal relationship.
Instituting a cap wouldn’t change a damn thing. Let’s say you made the cap $105 million/year. The Yankees, Red Sox and about 8 other teams would spend exactly that much. Some teams, like Florida and Kansas City, would still spend tens of millions less than that. If you put a floor in, they’d spend the lowest they possibly could. And the Yankees wouldn’t be paying millions into the luxury tax anymore, making the small-payroll teams even more unwilling to spend.
Even worse than that, Shawn Hoffman at Baseball Prospectus argues that a cap/floor combination would be lethal to the long-term success of small payroll teams, forcing them to spend when they’re not ready and sabotaging future plans. Hoffman posits that baseball’s best possible system is the one it currently employs. Smart man.
But why stop with fixing the non-existent problems of baseball, a sport that continues to enjoy record attendance growth? Why not institute a rule that all NCAA basketball teams have to spend the exact same amount on their programs: recruitment, arena maintenance, player travel, everything. That’s the only way to make that sport truly fair, right? It’s inequitable that Duke gets to make the NCAA tournament every year (except that one time Coach K had a bad back), but teams like Holy Cross are at a disadvantage. And why stop with just a salary cap in baseball? Every dollar any team earns on anything (tickets, merchandise, Web, concessions) should go in a big pot that gets split 30 ways. Let the Jeffrey Lorias of the world benefit from the success of others while he does nothing to help his own team. (Yes, I realize the irony that I’m making an argument against welfare, socialism, etc. But this is a sport run by 30 billionaires, some of whom have a few more billions than others, not a country with truly needy people and truly wide class divisions.)
No really, a salary cup will be an elixir for all of baseball’s ills. I can’t wait until teams have to cut beloved veterans before they would have to pay them a roster bonus by a designated date. I can’t wait until the trade market is all but destroyed. I can’t wait until personnel moves are made as much by “capologists” as they are by general managers and scouts. I can’t wait until one bad injury can submarine a whole season (or seasons) because teams can’t afford replacements under the cap. I can’t wait until a struggling economy forces the cap to be lowered, screwing with teams’ long-term plans. I can’t wait until all labor problems are solved, and there will be no lockouts in sight. Oh, wait…