Making Baseball (Quasi-) Competitive
By Erik Schulwolf '10, Senior Writer
It’s no secret that the financial parity that leagues like the NFL, NBA and NHL enforce has entirely eluded Major League Baseball. MLB has no salary cap, and its luxury tax-based revenue sharing system has been unable to prevent rich teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox from spending five or six times as much money on players than do the sport’s least profligate teams — the San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates (CBS Sports). Additionally, as much of the league has adopted the quantitative “sabermetric” approach to evaluating players pioneered by the Oakland Athletics (and featured in Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball”), the overall market for players has arguably grown more efficient, making it harder for poor teams (like the A’s) to game the system by utilizing more accurate measures of player worth than their wealthier counterparts. In short, the trend has been in favor of the domination of teams with means, and little competitive hope for those without. Of the 10 World Series champions since 2000, all but two (Arizona Diamondbacks and Florida Marlins) have hailed from baseball’s financial upper crust.

Where the problem becomes especially acute is in the American League East, home of the two northeastern behemoths, the Sox and Yanks (in this article, Sox will denote the Red Sox). According to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, the two franchises have accounted for 38 percent of the American League’s playoff bids since the beginning of the wild card era. Both teams have made the playoffs in more than half of the past 15 years. Their division-mates — the Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays — have combined for a mere three playoff bids since 1996. It doesn’t take rocket science to see why. The Yankees and Red Sox have routinely spent well over $100 million per year over the past decade, while the payrolls of the division’s other three teams have rarely even approached the $100 million mark. In 2010, the Yankees will spend roughly $206 million on players, the Sox will spend $163 million, the O’s $82 million, the Rays $72 million and the Jays $62 million. Unless one team has a glut of cheap young stars (as the Rays do now), it is a fundamentally anti-competitive situation.

MLB’s commissioner, Bud Selig, has commissioned a “special committee for on-field matters,” in part to discuss the glaring lack of parity. According to Verducci, one idea discussed by this panel has been the notion of a “floating re-alignment” of baseball’s divisions. Under this plan, small and mid-market teams could rotate between divisions — even between leagues — in order to maximize either revenue or playoff potential. This seems to me to be an unnecessarily disruptive fix. The constancy of baseball’s divisions creates the rivalries that make the game exciting. It would be silly to, for example, place the Twins in the AL East for a season or two, taking meaning out of their regional rivalry battles with the White Sox, Tigers and Indians. Allowing teams to float between leagues removes the last vestiges of the separation between the AL and NL that once made the World Series such a special occasion.

How, then, to improve competitiveness? The salary cap has proven effective in creating parity in leagues like the NFL. For reasons pertaining to labor difficulties, however, this idea is a non-starter in baseball. Personally, I am inclined to favor an expansion of the playoffs to 12 teams. The format would be much the same as in the NFL; division champions would get the first three seeds, and the best three wild card teams would also qualify. Series would be 5-7-7-7.

How would such a format have affected the American League East over the past 15 seasons? The Blue Jays, instead of being exiled from spitting distance of the AL playoffs for the past decade and a half, would have made two six-team AL playoffs, played in a one-game playoff for the last hypothetical wild card spot in another, and been within three games of qualifying for three more. In short, that’s the difference between an exciting franchise and a permanent also-ran. Last year’s Rays, instead of finishing 11 games behind the wild-card Red Sox, would have been in a tough four-way race for the last three spots with the Texas Rangers, Twins, Tigers and Seattle Mariners. If you combined this sort of playoff structure with a slight decrease in the number of division games played by each team (say, from 19 per season against each other team in the division to 16), the disadvantage of being stuck in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox would be mitigated to a considerable degree. On a macro level, in an expanded playoff system every major league franchise but the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals would have made the playoffs at least once in the years since 1996.

The potential pitfalls of such an expanded playoff appear to be greatly exaggerated. Some might argue that it would extend the season to an undue degree. First of all, adding an additional round to the playoffs forces the two World Series teams to play, at most, seven additional games. An additional playoff round might tack an additional two weeks at most on to the season. Personally, I don’t think it would be devastating if Opening Day was pushed back a week and a half into late March, and as last year demonstrated, hell does not freeze over if the final pitch of the World Series happens around Election Day.

There might be a legitimate concern that an expanded playoff system would mitigate the importance of winning the division. To an extent, adding two additional wild card teams might have that effect. However, it would be easy to arrange the playoff structure to increase the importance of the division championship. In the first round three vs. six series, the division winner could play four games at home to the wild card team’s one. Likewise, baseball could restore a meaningful benefit to the team winning the regular season league pennant, by allowing that team to host five out of the seven games in a second round series against the worst-seeded wild card to come out of the first round. Also, it isn’t as though the current playoff system has meaningfully incentivized winning the division over the wild card. Wild Card teams have won four World Series’ since the 1996 season.

In September of any given year, a good half of the ballparks in baseball are deserted, as their residents play out the string of a long-since meaningless season. Destroying division rivalries and giving the Yanks and Sox a division of patsies year after year will not solve the problem. Adding a couple of weeks to the season will make for more meaningful baseball, for more teams and for a longer time.

Issue 22, Submitted 2010-04-14 05:00:29