Thursday, April 30, 2009

On "Parity" in Baseball

Darren Everson has an intriguing piece in the Wall Street Journal about how, in an age of quantification and statistical projection, most baseball teams rely on "sleepers" to push them over the top. He bases his theory on this:

Even franchises with a financial edge like Boston and the New York Yankees and Mets are having trouble building dominant teams. In fact, this is shaping up as potentially the greatest stretch of parity in baseball history. In the past three seasons, just one team has reached 100 wins -- last year's Los Angeles Angels. Since the 162-game schedule was universally adopted in 1962, the average is roughly one 100-win team per season.

I will admit this: I have not looked at the baseball standings all season (I try not do so until at least early June; otherwise, it feels as if I am looking at the Top 25 after Week One of the college football season, and Ohio State is ranked No. 1, based on its 73-9 defeat of Southern Toledo). However, I just looked at the standings now, and I do not see anything particularly surprising. Perhaps there are fewer dominant teams, but if this is baseball's idea of parity, I don't find it particularly compelling. Because I imagine it will shake out the same way it always does.

Like most casual (and disillusioned) modern fans of the sport, I believe baseball's reality is largely predestined before the season even begins. For instance, I do not imagine that the Pirates or Royals will be able to win their division, probably ever (and I assume their own fans don't believe it, either, no matter how good a story Zack Greinke might be). I imagine that, of the Yankees and the Mets and the Red Sox, at least two of those franchises will be among the eight to make the playoffs, despite the tabloid-fueled hand-wringing*. I imagine that those three teams will spend the most money chasing after the "sleepers" Everson is referring to in August and September, and therefore, doesn't that mean those teams still have greater odds of succeeding in finding a "sleeper" who can carry them over the top? I imagine that teams like Tampa Bay (2008) will remain statistical anomalies rather than some larger indicator that baseball is finally close achieving true parity through SABRmetrics and number-crunching, and not even a battalion of Nate Silver-esque geniuses can convince me otherwise. I believe that baseball will continue on the path toward becoming a niche sport, two steps above the NHL, until it realizes that a salary cap and revenue-sharing are the only ways to achieve true parity, and to embrace modernity. And I don't believe that one team's pickup of Mark Bellhorn will be enough to tip the balance.

*When was the last time the Yankees got off to a good start, for that matter? I'm sure this has been covered elsewhere, but in in 2008, they started 9-10 and won 89 games; in 2007, they started 9-14 and won 94 games; in 2006, they started 8-8 and won 97 games; in 2005, they started 11-19 and won 95 games. Certainly, you can argue that the Yankees are a crumbling dynasty, that they do not evoke the same fear they have in the past, but you cannot argue that, because they have started the season at 10-10, that they are no longer a relevant factor in the American League East.

(Photo: Associated Press/WSJ)

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