It’s become nearly axiomatic that the NFL is a league of parity and that MLB is a league dominated by a perpetual battle between the haves and have-nots. Back of the envelope evidence for this usually includes a list of Super Bowl champions and the high variance in playoff teams in the NFL and the continued existence of the New York Yankees and lack of a salary cap in baseball. And yet, in a quite lovely turn of events, baseball may be poised to temporarily silence its critics once October rolls around this season. Yes, Virginia, there is parity in baseball this year.
The National League is the parity advocate’s dream. In 2009, the Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers and Rockies went to the playoffs. This year, the picture is different. In the NL East, the Phillies look likely to repeat as division champions, but behind them are the Atlanta Braves. Despite dealing 2009 Cy Young contender Javier Vazquez to the Yankees, losing Chipper Jones to injury, dropping their payroll $13M and employing the services of one Melky Cabrera, the Braves have the best run differential in the National League and currently sit 3 games back of the Phillies and have a 2.5 game lead in the Wild Card.
Over in the In the NL West, there are three teams fighting for contention. In first place are the San Francisco Giants who last made the playoffs in 2003. Right behind them are the San Diego Padres. The Padres last saw playoff action in 2006 and opened the season with an astoundingly low payroll of $37M. Indeed, from the way you heard some tell it, the entire telos of the 2010 San Diego Padres was to scout the farm system of the Boston Red Sox in preparation for when sending Boston their star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. No one expected that San Diego would be in a better playoff position than Boston for much of the year. No one expected that the Padres should have been bigger buyers at the trade deadline than Boston. Yet, despite spending some $130M less on payroll than the Red Sox this year, the Padres are right in contention for a playoff spot. To get there, they have to fight off the Colorado Rockies, who seem to make a sport out of making late season runs at the playoffs. The Rockies are attempting to return to the playoffs for the second consecutive year, and the third out of four years.
Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Reds top the NL Central. The Reds aren’t exactly the cause célèbre of the media this year, even though Joey Votto has gotten his fair share of attention, but their story is compelling nonetheless. This will be the Reds’ first trip to the playoffs since 1995 and they’ve gotten there by knocking off a Cardinals team with some of the best players in baseball in Wainwright, Carpenter and Pujols. They’ve done it with homegrown stars of their own and with a little help from their big-money international free agent signing, Aroldis Chapman.
In the American League things are different too. Like the Phillies, the Yankees will return to the playoffs in 2010. However, either ahead of them or right behind them will be the Rays, everyone’s favorite SABR-friendly, low-budget, annoyingly-good well-oiled machine. The Rays have been to the playoffs a grand total of one time, in 2008, and just missed out last season to the Red Sox. In the Central the Twins look to return to the playoffs for the second year in a row and the 6th time in the past 10 years. They’re doing so after leveraging the future revenue of their new stadium into a big-time contract for Joe Mauer and despite substantial injuries to their roster this year. Finally, the Rangers continue to throttle the AL West and have ended the Angels’ run of dominance. The Rangers have been to the playoffs three times in franchise history but have won only one game total, never advancing past the first round.
So it goes. Baseball’s regular season comes to an end soon, and as it competes with the NFL for viewership and ratings it won’t be a surprise to hear someone laud the way the NFL’s salary cap system produces “parity” (even in the absence of an NFL salary cap this year). Yet, assuming the Braves take the Wild Card and the Padres or Giants win the West, 5 out of the 8 teams making the playoffs this year will be teams that were not in the playoffs in 2009. 4 of those teams (Reds, Padres, Rays, Rangers) will do so with an opening day payroll below ~$75M.
Parity isn’t an unqualified good. Over the long haul, yes, it’s better for the sport that different teams are able to conquer past mediocrity and achieve success. Ideally the goal is to see the best teams, the most skilled and smartly-managed teams, be able to succeed, not to simply see different teams make the playoffs every year. Some teams are going to continue to do poorly because they’re poorly managed; their continued futility isn’t a black mark upon the sport as much as it is on their own ownership and management. To be sure, though, the Yankees have advantages that the Reds do not. Their revenue base and the willingness of ownership to spend money grant them a higher margin of error than other clubs. Yet, given what we know about revenue sharing and the fact that the Yankees have subsidized the profit margins of teams like the Pirates and the Marlins, given the likelihood that the Yankees will face a team in the playoffs that they’ve subsidized with revenue-sharing money, and given the rise of teams like the Reds, the Rangers, the Padres and the Rays, maybe Yankee fans won’t have to listen to cries of unfairness this October should they repeat as champions. Maybe, just maybe, this October can be about the beauty of the game and not the unfairness of “the system, man, the system”.
Hey, if the Reds can dream then so can I.
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